First semester is finally in the bag

As I type this, my kids are wrapping up the absolute last of the very last semester finals for online school.

Me? I’ve made an appointment to go see the local Chinese doctor.

The two may very well be related. Decide for yourself.

We decided at the end of last academic year that, upon moving to Abu Dhabi, we would do something drastically different this year. Neither of us has homeschooling experience, so we opted for as much hand-holding as possible, and I researched a few online school options. I ended up choosing K12 International Academy.

A few things came into play in my decision-making. My kids were coming off a not-very-rigorous academic year, and I liked the idea of mastery-based progress. I knew we had remediation ahead, and while I felt prepared to face it, I also felt like I needed a system built to support (or at least tolerate) us in it. I liked the focus on math and literacy, and the choices of foreign languages. The school was happy to customize our learning plans to ensure both kids are adequately challenged while able to achieve some success.

One semester in, I am happy with both students’ progress in math. The programming, texts and video lessons seem to jibe well with both kids’ learning styles. Noah rarely needs my help to understand the concepts or work through exercises. He likes the text, so much that he actually said just today, “I really like my reference book.” Do eleven-year-olds say that about textbooks?

Grammar has been an area of growth for both kids, too. Granted, this is a strength for me, but Noah was in the dark at the start of the year. He has made great strides since the start of the year, when he had trouble distinguishing the most basic parts of speech.

Both kids have been enjoying history, and they seem to be paying a lot of attention to the coursework. Noah’s doing US History, and Meryem’s studying world history around the Renaissance. We do a lot with our maps, putting history into geographical context, and we appreciate that we’re not focused solely on European or Western history, but other parts of the world, too.

Science seems to be hit-and-miss in Grade 3, very general and oddly sequenced, but Noah’s doing an Advanced Earth Science course. It is definitely advanced, and he has to work hard in it, as he does in Composition.

Both kids are busting hump in French.

And that already sounds like enough, doesn’t it? But that’s not all. There is spelling for Meryem, vocabulary for both kids, literature, art, and a few other things going on–besides our daily exercise (PE is not a requirement), and the Arabic language classes we take with a tutor.

It is, in no uncertain terms, a lot of material. We could easily drop a subject and still be busy enough. I’m learning when to require them to do all the exercises (in math or grammar, usually) and when it crosses into busywork. I’m also learning to ignore things that pop up on the schedule (which is online and dynamic) if they conflict with current work. For example, Noah has a Composition research paper he’s working on, and his History schedule shows a research paper assignment. I’m letting him put off history until the first paper is done. Besides the obvious (overwhelming the kid with work), I’d like him to get more comfortable with method on the first paper, which will make the second go a lot more smoothly. If I were homeschooling, like, for real, I would probably have him do one research paper this year, and take a little more time on one subject. Even so, just yesterday he “got” note-taking and note cards. Next week, we’ll work on the detailed outline, and with his improvements in grammar, writing should be a lot smoother than it would have been five months ago.

There is the short and the long of how all this is working for us. For the most part, I am happy with their learning, their progress, their growing competence and developing study skills. But as I said, it is a lot of material. That means it is a lot of work. For me, too. Of course, I want them to succeed, so I might put more into some of the study support than I really need to. And then there’s that perfectionist thing, which might be encoded in my DNA, and on which I swear I am trying to loosen my grip. I promise, I am.

So, I am putting together some goals for second semester, based on our experiences these past few months:

– Let both kids continue to plow through math. The ease and success are a bolster for them.

– Instruct more actively in French and engage more closely in Arabic. I can use the practice in both.

– Remember that they are 9 and 11, and expect appropriate work–not perfect work.

– Balance the “basics” of school with all the unique opportunities we have for learning. This weekend, it’s a cool kayaking-and-art workshop. Next month, it’s a two-week visit from my parents.

I think those are enough goals. All things considered, I would say this first semester is a success. There have been a few bumps in the road as we all learn to handle a different way of “doing school,” but so many of the concerns people have are non-issues. We’ve found friends, we socialize, we get exercise, and we’re certainly covering the material.

Now, that’s not to say I think it’s a perfect match. And I am already looking at changes we could make in the future to get the best out of homeschooling time. But those are thoughts for another post, on an afternoon that doesn’t follow a morning of semester exams. Or precede my first visit to an acupuncturist. I’ll let you know how that goes, too.

 

 

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To Stephanie, on the Occasion of My Second “Therapeutic Relaxation Massage”

There are so many things I want you to know.

First, thank you. Thank you for offering the disposable underwear. I am sure there are women, let’s just call them fancy-pants women, who appreciate this option, as it saves their precious fancy-panties from massage oil. But for me, disposable underpants call to mind such delights as episiotomies and swollen feet. My granny pants wash up just fine, believe me.

Also, thank you for offering the plastic shower cap to protect my hair from your use of copious oil, and then applying it to my head when I opted to skip it. You’ll note, neither is my hair coiffed, nor did I arrive in public clothing; that is my nightgown hanging from the wall peg, and I plan to throw my hoodie over it and dash to the elevator and into bed when this is through. Still, I deeply appreciate the gesture. I feel like my hair must look OK, if you deem that it deserves such protection.

I don’t think I much resemble your typical Therapeutic Relaxation Massage client, or even any regular clients of this salon/spa. I don’t have the caviar manicure, or the new-for-winter velvet manicure (that can’t be washed with soap and water!), though I admit I’m intrigued by that cool magnetic polish. Anyway I hope the departure from the norm is welcome and pleasant, rather than disturbing. I am not here to treat a case of the fainting vapors, or some other delicate feminine condition–or, if that is what I have, I have an advanced case and you’re my best hope. I am aware that your colleagues could do most excellent things with the cuticles and callouses on my hands and feet. I know that I have a significant quantity of white hair, and that I might look nearly a decade younger if I colored over that white (and lost twenty pounds. Or maybe gained ten to fill in what now sags). I wonder whether it’s all you can do to resist recommending I have these eyebrows threaded right off and painted back on in a nice, angular, squared-off shape.

Mostly, I want to thank you for not mentioning any of this. And for working on my hands and forearms with great vigor, and applying the deepest pressure you could muster to those knotty things all over my shoulder blades and up my neck. I could sense your alarm as you tried to smooth them out, and I wish we could have got my spine to crack, too. You tried, you really tried. I could hear by your breathing that you made a good effort.

You clearly recognized the places where my muscles tighten with tension and pull the joints and bones out of alignment, and you leaned in on these places. I liked that thing that felt like you were walking on my back. I know you weren’t actually walking on my back, and I don’t know how you managed to create that much pressure, all 85 pounds of you, but it was good. Thanks for re-balancing that whole mess.

You kneaded the heck out of my calf muscles, and I appreciate that you took care to avoid those painful pressure points above my ankles while really digging in. I don’t wear heels like most of the women here seem to, but I do walk a lot, and this place is pretty solidly paved, so anyway, thanks.

I’m grateful for your not offering to massage my stomach. For me, that’s weird and reminds me of stuff I used to do when my babies were gassy, and I appreciate that you can respect that I am not a gassy baby. I’ll bet you get gassy baby types from time to time, and I’ll be you offer them tummy massage.

I apologize that I had to mindfully resist holding your hand when you worked my palms and fingers. Thanks for cracking the knuckles of my fingers and toes. I especially like the toe-cracking, and the manner in which you delivered that part of the service makes me think everyone likes a good toe-cracking, and that maybe I am not weird. I hope you took a look at my manicure-free hands and decided to go the extra mile with the cracking and pulling. The wrist-pulling was especially good. The shoulder-pulling, too. So it seems like you recognized working hands, and you did unto my hands as you’d have done unto yours.

Thanks, too, for loading me up with all that oil. I don’t give myself much attention when it comes to lotions, creams and such, and it was kind of nice to go to bed smelling like a butterscotch bonbon. Nice in a weird way, but not bad.

Mostly, though, I hope you were pleased with the tip. I know you are grossly underpaid. I assume you are supporting family in your home country. I am certain you work every single day. I want you to someday, if not today, feel like you are exercising a choice.

I’ll be back, in another month or so. I’ll try to keep a calm mind, try to keep up with my own yoga and relaxation practices, try to prevent things from winding so tightly that you can hear the joints and springs squeak when the muscles and tendons finally start to give. I’ll try not to make it so much work next time.

Anyway, thanks again. I really, really appreciate it, and I’m pretty sure my kids do, too.


As good a place to write as any

The kids are taking an art class this afternoon at Manarat Saadiyat. I could stay and hover, and admittedly, I did for a while, just to help them begin setting up their hula-hoop looms for a recycled rug project.
But it turns out there are some excellent spaces for thinking and writing in an art museum. Go figure, right?
So glad I brought my note cards.
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In case you’ve been wondering

Things have been going incredibly well for our family, in many facets of our life here.

Perhaps I’ve been loathe to post about it out of fear of coming off as boastful or not grateful enough, or perhaps the superstitious part of me is afraid of a jinx. Or the wrong eyes. Or something. Anyway, it has been good–really good–since we moved into our tiny (compared to the Dubai villa) apartment in Abu Dhabi.

First, the weather. I would say it has been magically not too hot since we arrived, but truly the temperatures have been a function of the purest timing; we arrived the final week of what they call “pretty warm” here, and we’re already well into the period when seasoned expats here declare the Gulf water too cold for swimming. I am a total baby about water temp, so I rather agree, but that doesn’t keep us indoors. The temperatures hover daily in the high 70s to low 80s F, perfect weather for walking, cycling the bike path, beachcombing, and playing in the various parks and gardens along the  Corniche. There has also been fishing, checking out restaurant options in the neighborhood, and just hanging out on the stoop of our apartment building with the stray cat who lives here.

We have more or less caught up on schoolwork–Meryem more, Noah less, of course–and so our studies have slowed from the frantic, catch-up pace to a more leisurely half-the-day lifestyle. We do lessons upon waking, which leaves the fine afternoon for outdoors and exercise. We’re getting our vitamin D.

Another wonder is that we’re finally beginning to approach the vision I’d hoped for when we first left the farm. On the farm, of course we enjoyed raising our own livestock, growing gardens, and doing all the good things that went with that. We froze and canned and pickled and dehydrated. We made yogurt and cheese, baked breads and cooked big stews. We killed and cut our own meat. Our chickens laid and hatched eggs. It was close to the land and its creatures and goodness and hardship. We shoveled snow and raked an acre of leaves and delivered lambs in the middle of the night and tried to rescue goat kids that sometimes couldn’t be saved. I’d successfully set bones on days-old babies and handed over a ewe with tetanus for a neighbor to mercy-kill her. Yep, done that.

That kind of living felt like a distillation of a dream of my deepest-held identity, and I miss it every day and many nights. I still have weeping dreams of beloved Nubians, running toward me and wailing their goat-songs. I see photos of honeybees and stroke the silky little winged teddy bears with a wistful finger.

When we moved off the farm, I’d wanted to try living with a smaller footprint than the typical Western expat in UAE. But we weren’t ready for a small apartment, after five years on ten acres. And I don’t think the rest of the family was ready to embrace the vision as a mission for our lifestyle. The kids were enrolled in the American school, because they had been in school and we are American, after all. A car was bought, and almost two, but I did manage to wave off that suggestion (over and over). The three-bedroom villa had so much space, we didn’t own enough to make it appear lived-in–to the point where handymen would comment on how “neat” it looked, unlike other villas, which apparently had more furniture than a dining table and a couch.

But Dubai, for all its entertainment opportunities, didn’t have what it takes to sustain a smaller-footprint life that’s still big on experience. First off, the prices attached to everything nickel-and-dimed us. We lived next to a free beach, but the price we paid was to walk back home (or two miles down the beach) to use a bathroom. The beach park was next door, for a price. Another big park was a kilometer from the house, also for a price. The Metro offered cheap access to points across town, but getting to the Metro station cost nearly as much as the day pass itself.

Our villa’s garden had been paved by a previous owner, and since we knew as soon as we moved in that we’d not be staying more than the year of the lease, we couldn’t see spending the thousands it would cost to tear up paving block and replace with greenery–not to mention the price of watering and maintaining such greenery in the desert. The kids’ ride to school was an hour each way, which meant their school day cost, in terms of time, 9 hours plus homework. And those two hours on the bus were enough to bring both kids to tears of frustration and anger over bullying and disrespect toward adults (built on a foundation of bigotry and ethnicity-based entitlement). I won’t say the cost of tuition, uniforms and transportation for the year were a complete waste. The kids did learn some things–some very big lessons that I pray will never leave them–and their eyes were peeled wide open in a hundred ways.

So by the end of that first year, I’d been laid low. I was overwhelmed at the thought of battling heat and blowing sand just to hail a cab to go somewhere, that I rarely went anywhere but the free beach. Just thinking about the way drivers treat each other in the parking lot of the co-op was enough to keep me from grocery shopping, sometimes for days past the need. Everything smelled like cat pee to me. I didn’t want to return in the fall, afraid that for us, within the limitations of budget and work requirements and school-aged kids, this was all there was for us. And I suppose if that were true, I would not have returned–or I’d be back home again by now.

So we changed everything. It started by moving to Abu Dhabi, which is the capital of the UAE. Her character is a bit different from Dubai–she’s certainly more conservative. It’s seen in clothing, in behavior, in the older-school presence of the shisha cafes and smoking sections in the malls. At the same time, there’s the government here, and the older hotels, the embassies, the art museums. UAE traffic is UAE traffic, but there is something nice about not having to navigate (and pay to use) Shaykh Zayed Road to go…well, just about anywhere past the grocery store. Abu Dhabi has bustle, but there are pockets of smallness within.

We chose a small apartment–too small, but only because we’re not quite outfitted for it, and I’m sure the folks at apartment therapy could do wonders with it. I mean, the rooms are big, the layout makes it feel sort of like a house, and there’s a Gulf-facing balcony with views of water. I can watch giant sailboats from where I hang my laundry.

So, we have this smaller space for living. We have actual bike access to some of the places we go, and we use our bicycles at least three or four times a week, as a family. We share one car, though truthfully the husband uses it daily for work and the kids and I mostly do without it, and mostly don’t mind. We use parks that don’t charge entry. We have access to a free beach with showers and toilets. We feed the building’s cat. We meet up with friends, who have pointed our way to even more low-cost opportunities for learning and doing.

And there’s a lot more that I am not doing. I am not cooking nearly as much as I used to, nor am I grocery shopping as much. That’s not to say we’re indulging in a lot more restaurant food; no, we’re just eating simpler, and as the kids get older, they are learning to fashion their own breakfasts and lunches of salads or sandwiches or small meals of eggs or leftovers. Since I spend five to six hours a day working on lessons with them, this is only fair, and it’s good for them to learn a little self-sufficiency anyway.

So, I cook dinner daily. No school uniforms means no ironing. A smaller apartment means less sweeping, vacuuming, and mopping. A bath and a half means one less toilet and bidet to clean. No gardens means no cat poop to sift out of sand, no turf to dissatisfyingly water, and less dust and sand making its way into our rooms.

Walking to the grocery store means (for me) buying only what I can carry. It feels a little like being a bird in a nest, carrying our food back to the house. But I am fairly certain this way of cooking and shopping for food is good for the budget. I decide what I will cook, usually based on the type of meat I pull from the chest freezer (because we buy whole animals direct from butchers at the port, saving major money and getting better meat). I assess the produce on hand and trot down to the grocery around the corner for whatever’s missing. It takes a little time, but it adds up to a little movement and a lot less waste.

The kids and I sometimes take a cab to get around town, if we need to be somewhere while the car is at work with the husband. I feel okay about this for a few reasons: first, these men are making their livings and usually supporting families back home in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, etc. (you can ask, and most drivers are happy to share their stories); second, we are almost always three to a cab; and third, these cabs are smaller than the SUV we would likely be driving (and parking and insuring and filling), had we fallen into the typical choices. Not terrible.

There are other things we do to live smaller. We walk to the mosque on Fridays. We talk leisure walks for fun. We spend enough time on labs, literature, artwork for school and enjoying the process of cooking, that we aren’t constantly looking to fill our downtime with entertainment. There isn’t a definite line between work/learning time and “fun” time. We borrow digital books using the Kindle. We’ve begun Arabic lessons–and I am learning the value of academically challenging the kids. Last year, boredom led to   a “need” for costly extracurriculars, as well as extra spending on “stuff” to pass the time–DVDs, more toys, whatever. Now that school is at home (or wherever we are), we’re cobbling together science labs and art projects from found and household items. There is always French or Arabic waiting to be studied.

An amazing switch has been flipped and the kids are transforming from passive to active learners. From learning during designated periods to being driven by their own curiosity. More questions can be fatiguing for me, so I am looking for ways to institute and enforce a daily Quiet Period, especially for Meryem. Writing this post alone has taken hours, trying to recapture my line of thinking and catch up in between questions–about Albrecht Duerer, states of matter, Balboa and the Isthmus of Panama. We’re sketching a rhinoceros, boiling water, tracing paths on maps. Noah’s calculating taxes and tips (especially funny, living in the UAE, where people don’t pay taxes and are generally negligent in tipping).

Anyway, here we are. It’s good. It’s not home and could never be, but for what it is, it is good.


Morning cup of coffee

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There is a coffee shop on the ground floor of my apartment building. There is another coffee shop/fancy-pants grocery in an adjacent building. There is a Starbucks across the street. Walk a block–less, really–and there is a Second Cup. A few more steps, and you’re at Special Cafe (nestled in the trees featured in this photo, actually).

This morning, I woke Noah so he could log on and do a video/IM chat check-in with his science teacher as prep for a test. I brewed my own cup of coffee and stepped out for a minute to “check the weather,” as I like to call it.

Perfect. Once the kids are through the writing and testing parts of the day, we’ll pack up the novels and head downstairs to the beach. Lit class, PE, environment, health. Vitamin D infusions surely qualify, right?

We’re everyday beach-goers. And I do mean every day. A day without beach time is incomplete for me. The beach was my comfort in Dubai. It was the place I could go and pace, unobstructed, for miles as I sifted and sorted through my thoughts. I could zoom out to the crash and roll of waves, zoom in to the breaking down of minute seashells into microscopic grains of sand. I observed life–seabirds, crabs, fish, jellies, locals, tourists and expats–in shades of white, purple, black, tan and blistery sunburned-magenta.

The Abu Dhabi beach on the Corniche side is different from our beach back in Dubai. It’s better-developed, with almost any amenity I could come up with (except wi-fi, which would be awesome but also probably terrible). I can get coffee, lunch, or ice cream. I can rent a lounger, an umbrella, or a cabana. Jet-skis. I can buy floaty toys. Lifeguards patrol–as in both sitting and walking!–the stretch. So does security. Potential creeps are warned by signs, and other signs very clearly outline expectations for dress, behavior, and safe use of the beach.

The sands here are sharper, not so soft as in Dubai. I have not yet seen a jelly, but fish zip in and out of the swimming areas (which are clearly demarcated with buoys, and lined by a no-use buffer zone for jet-ski safety). Seabirds also wheel above, and pigeons pace along the lapping waves. Thousands of tiny crabs serve as citizens of my children’s invented city-states built of sand and watery canals.

We made some sacrifices in order to have this daily contact with the beach, and I am thankful to my husband that he appreciates and values my wellbeing enough to prioritize sand and saltwater over a shorter commute or larger living space. We live in a small apartment now, not cramped by anyone’s standards, but far smaller than the Dubai villa was, and without (if I am honest) enough storage space to prevent my feeling a little like I live in a train station (piles of suitcases!). We can no longer use our gas grill, which was our primary means of cooking last year. Laundry is a bit of an issue.

But this is where we are now, and we’ll work out the management of small daily details as our stay advances. In the meantime, my old dearest here, Persian Arabian Gulf beckons every day, and the kids work to finish their daily lessons with time to spare, so that we can all head out for wondrous and relaxing visits with her.


Back to school.

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Back on our feet

Hi, friends.

So, after a summer that truly did begin to feel endless, especially once October came around and we were still in the US, we made our way haltingly back to the UAE, via Morocco. We arrived here a week ago, and now we are working feverishly to catch up on schoolwork while we settle into the new digs and our new city, Abu Dhabi.

What a wonderful experience it was to be back among our dearest family and friends for the summer. The kids fell right back in with their cousins and friends, and all the time in the world would never be enough for me to spend with my family and friends. We had a lovely Ramadan together with Joanna and her family, and then spent what was left of summer preparing for a new way of school.

We decided–after our experience with a “good” brick-and-mortar school in the UAE; after  an extended conversation that went too many directions to follow; after research on our options and how to get started–to enroll the kids with K12 International Academy. I have family and friends who have used online schools and who were pleased with the results, and I was drawn to the rigor of the curricula, especially in core academics. There’s enough flexibility that a student can work in various grade levels at one time, and the International Academy also enables us to fiddle with the schedule as needed to accommodate family travel, international holiday schedules, and whatever else comes up.

We got a pretty good start on school before we left the US, but I have to admit that one’s own space is pretty important when it comes to study. There are books and materials, and there are hours and hours every day when the kids need quiet, concentration, and space around them. This was especially hard in a small hotel room, but I suppose we could always see those few weeks as preparation for this apartment, which is perhaps two-thirds the size of our Dubai villa.

Then, after the usual (and yet always emotional) goodbyes, we were on our way to Morocco, where we spent the Eid al Adha holiday with family, and then took a few days’ road trip through a couple of mountain ranges, up the coast, in to Marrakech, back up to the Middle Atlas, and then Casablanca and on to Abu Dhabi.

Here are a few highlights from the two weeks:

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I am thinking it will take us a good week or so to catch up on classes, especially for Noah. He’s about the slowest worker I have possibly ever seen in my life, and I don’t think he has an urgency chip installed. So I’m trying not to pull out my hair. Yes, I’d rather be on the beach (every single day), and I am sure we will get back to the point where that’s part of our schedule. But I have a middle schooler who is now a week behind in school. We have plans today to meet up with the local homeschooler group at the beach. The kids have been informed that our participation depends on their performance. Right now, I am not banking on it.


Back from hiatus

So, I took this long break from posting.

I had my reasons. Usually, there’s some vague excuse about getting really busy, or some sort of cataclysmic life event that interrupts writing; it was not this. Rather, a decision that the thoughts and feelings I was processing were better processed internally. So I kept things to myself a while, while we made some big decisions and big changes for the second installment of this life off the farm.

And here we go.

I withdrew the kids from an overpriced and overcrowded private academy in May, and we headed stateside for the summer. We’ve been spending a quiet season here, and now we’re in the middle of the fasting month, so things are indeed quiet, but below the still surface is the low rumble of a busy second expat year.

Plans are in the works for husband to make it stateside for a spell in a few weeks, before we all pack our bags and head back to the UAE. A flat has been rented, thankfully once again with close and easy access to the Persian Arabian Gulf. Just today, I finalized plans for enrolling both students in online school, and I am excited to have already reached out to the homeschoolers’ organization in Abu Dhabi. There’s already a plan to read with a book club (note to self: buy books before leaving), and the kids are looking forward to continuing their Tae Kwon Do instruction overseas. Somewhere in there is a family visit to Morocco, and if we get lucky, we can con some friend or family member into couch-surfing in our flat for a visit during Wisconsin’s cold season.

But it’s starting to sneak up again, the leaving. The part we really don’t like.

Once Ramadan is over and we’ve celebrated Eid al Fitr, the kids and I will be pushing hard to balance the start of the school year with spending every possible free moment with family and friends. We’ll be lucky to get a taste of fall, and the yellow light of September in our eyes before heading back to the heat and sandstorms of a UAE winter.

I’ll try to check in with highlights here and there.

The first year abroad was all about getting to know the challenge. We know the lay of the land now. We know who’s out there, what we’ve come to care about, and what we hope to get from all this. This second year is about setting our course and taking it forward, watching my kids discover who they are and who they’re meant to be. And as bummed as I am that I won’t have daily access to my sisters and best friends for a laugh or a hug, I am pretty excited to go chasing these next adventures.

Cheers.


From Babylon to the Holy Land

After a year of second-guessing our decisions, I can definitively say we recently got one very right: our trip to Jordan over the Christmas and New Year holidays was really, really good.

Winter break is a long one at my kids’ school, with a few extra days’ padding for long-distance travel on either end; on top of this long period, many families take students out early and return them late, basically taking nearly a month off school to go home. Even if we had the funds for airfare to the US, I would probably not take this option. It would fatigue everyone, us and our hosts, at a demanding time of year. We spent the first week “staycationing” around Dubai, and the second week in Jordan.

Our original plan was a week in Turkey; but since we’re in the habit of second-guessing, we did just that and changed our tickets. We flew into Amman, rented a car and stayed at a resort on the Dead Sea. Of course, the chilly weather of the mountains came as a bit of a shock, but we’d stocked up on long sleeves and packed cold-weather clothes, and beside the Dead Sea, it was much milder.

The landscapes were lovely, and everyone was much more relaxed than our day-to-day experience in Dubai. Traffic moved at an easy pace with very little honking and no discernible aggression. Cops at the (many, many) traffic checkpoints were pleasant and polite.

We’re not really the type of family to hole up for a week at a resort, but it served as a cozy home base, where we could relax every night and fuel up with breakfast every morning before heading out on our adventures.

Two awesome kids check out the view of the Promised Land

Our first full day took us to the top of Mount Nebo, where tradition holds that the Maker showed Moses* the promised land, and where some believe Moses may have died and been buried. There is no grave. No bones. But you can stand atop the mountain and look out over the Dead Sea and see all the way to Jerusalem. And it’s incredibly peaceful. There’s a church there, and it’s currently under construction, so the looks weren’t perfect. Until you stepped out to the platform to look over the land as Moses might have.

That afternoon, we visited the Jordan River and the site of Jesus’* baptism by John the Baptist*. This area is politically sensitive, and so visitors are only allowed in guided groups, which are advised to stick close together. Our guide, Ghazi, was outstanding. First, his knowledge of the history of the area, the traditions and collaborated history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was amazing. Second, based on his presentation of the information, you would be hard-pressed to guess his own faith. Incredibly respectful, and an earnest believer. He helped me understand what John’s baptisms were all about. The whole thing was…spine-tingling.

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There were a few dips in the Dead Sea waters, some mud-slathering, a ride on a camel, and some visits with people my husband needed to see. One such visit included an outing to Umm Qais, the ancient city of Gadara. This, after climbing the heights with a view to Syria, the Golan Heights and Lebanon–including the last checkpoint, where they kept my husband’s passport while we visited the village. Just in case, I suppose.

Noah could have spent days wandering the ruins of Gadara.

The ruins offered more spectacular views of the heights and Lake Tiberias, formerly known as the Sea of Galilee. The whole visit, the wandering up and down the hills, relying on the hospitality of so many local people, felt apt for the season. The sprinkling of churches throughout the area, the visiting Maronite priests at the resort, the cool weather and the heavy presence of so many holy bones was just what our souls needed as an antidote to the hustle-bustle and material focus that is life in Dubai.

Another thought-provoking stop for us was the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, which lies on the outskirts of Amman. For something so revered in Islamic tradition (Surat Al Kahf is a constant reference), it was not made easy to find, and this was further complicated by ongoing road construction and detours, as well as Jordanians’ tendency to give directions by telling you to “keep going straight.” But we found it (after finally asking a woman, after having asked two men for directions), just in time to catch a presentation before the keeper locked up for midday break. The Cave is under supervision, as relic-thieves have in the past stolen things from it.

Taking a few moments with the bones of the Sleepers

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to visit several families in the country, and of course each household presented the national meal, mansaf. The visits were friendly and relaxed, and it was apparent by these examples that in Jordan, family is incredibly important.

Our last day took us up along the borders back to the area of Wadi Shu’aib to the tomb of Prophet Shu’aib*. There is a lovely mosque with a courtyard and gardens, and the tomb is in an adjacent room. A busload of visitors from Syria and Turkey was getting ready to leave as we arrived. We spent a bit of time contemplating the story of this prophet and his people.

It is said in Islamic tradition that it is best not to visit the Dead Sea unless one is weeping or at least remembering the life of Lot* and the demise of the people who refused to listen to the prophets. To me, between the constant visual reminders of not only the prophets but the One who sends them, and the contrast between the peace of those places and steady streams of conflict all around, I could not help but vacillate between the weeping and the remembering.

*Peace and blessings be upon them all.


There have been drafts

I don’t expect you, dear readers, have felt my absence as I have. It has been a while, as so many would-be bloggers like to say when they come back to the blog after a couple months’ silence. Yes, it has, and I have approached you a few times, saved drafts and decided not to post them. So much has happened, and so much has not.

We have completed seven months in Dubai. Just days ago, we passed this milestone, putting us well over the hump. Our first chapter here, thirteen months in length, is now on its wane. As we say in Arabic, alhamdulillah.

This week is the first of a nearly three-week winter school break. I’ll understate things and say that it’s nice to let the kids sleep in and relax all day. No 6:35 A.M. bus to keep waiting, no 3:35 P.M. return. It’s been hard on the two, and emotionally tough on me, to put them through what nearly amounts to a yearlong stint on an industrial first-shift schedule. They’re good little soldiers, and they don’t complain much, carry their lunches and drag their rolling backpacks dutifully along, hit their homework on their return, usually make their bedtime (although too often begging me to read an extra chapter in our nighttime read-aloud), and don’t take it too personally that they have not found close friends at school.

The weather has shifted and is now, I suppose, exactly the kind of weather that many people of means pay money to enjoy. We can have our breakfast out on our choice of three patios–front garden, side patio, back garden. We can choose between the compound pool or the beach. Beach is more active, but (if you can believe it) it’s breezy, and light cloud cover makes it feel chilly for swimming. The pool is enclosed, mostly protected from a breeze, and reliably warm. We can ride our bikes through quieter neighborhoods, but the streets are composed in ways to prevent through-traffic, which means we can get a little lost and ride a little longer than we mean to. I’m working up to taking the kids on the bike paths of the Beach Road, but Dubai traffic doesn’t change with the season, so that remains a downright scary thing to do with/to the most precious little souls in my world.

We can now enjoy the park with its greenery, and so can everyone else, so a trip to Safa Park reminds me of vaguely of the Seurat painting. It has water features, a small pond where electric boats can be rented, and a waterfall, some hills that the kids can roll down until they’re too dizzy to walk. But there is an entrance fee, so a visit to the park is a planned event that requires the carrying of ID and extra cash to lay down for the deposit fees for rental bikes (you can’t bring your own bike into, or even on the path around, the park).

I’ve taken to walking the two-mile stretch of beach across the road from our place. It’s a long walk, and the sand is a challenge to all the muscles of the feet and legs. The waves, water, smell of sea air and flocks of sea birds are truly the only connection available to any sort of wildness, nature, life beyond human. We have, of course, the hordes of street cats that we’ve befriended, and the three we’ve given safe haven in our home and garden, but in truth the result of that is a garden that needs constant cleaning. I am also shooing stray cats out of the house, as they freely wander into the kitchen looking for breakfast or dinner, knowing we’re among the reliably kind folk, and also those who eat fish.

We’re looking forward to a little trip next week, finally taking geographical advantage of this move to explore a chunk of Holy Land along the Dead Sea. The temperatures there will be much cooler, and I am assessing our clothing, looking for things like sleeves and long pants, socks and shoes (not sandals). We brought a few things, and luckily I did have the foresight to pack things that were big on the kids when we left. They have grown, each a full size, since we came here.

Apparently the winter break brings with it winter break-ins, and we have been warned by the watchman that several villas have been robbed. Already this week. So it is up to us to lock doors and windows, pull curtains and put away electronics. Fortunately, we don’t own valuables like jewelry, art or luxury goods, and I can only hope that will help reduce the likelihood of anyone coming to take what little we do own these days.

After the holiday break, we are looking forward to the start of the Season of Visits. Already, we have two scheduled, back to back, first my parents and then a beloved friend, and I am hoping/lobbying/planning for a visit from another dearest friend before the weather begins to turn again to fire and brimstone. That will carry us, the kids and me, to spring break, when I hope we can take another short trip somewhere on this side of the globe, glean some learning and some joy from where we are. And then it will be a hectic slide toward summer break and a shift in how we do things for the second chapter here.

Right now, I am favoring pulling the kids from their current school environment and enrolling them online, for a couple of reasons. First, this would enable us to spend a longer period with friends and family in the U.S. We knew we’d miss them, but perhaps we didn’t know how very much, and more months together with cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents and best friends will make the (subsequently shorter) time back abroad much more bearable. Online school would eliminate the need to leave the house at 6:30 and the nine-hour day that results (plus an hour of homework). It would present the very real challenge (at least to me) of building structure, order and discipline into our days. P.E. would consist of long jogs on the beach, riding lessons if we like, ocean swimming, and improving our urban biking skills. We would be in the U.S. long enough to enjoy the colors of fall, the orchard season, the changing light and sudden shortness of days–and we’d be there again in spring for the smell of mud and worms, the mania of May. Ramadan falls mid-summer now, and while the fasting days are shorter in the UAE than they are up in Wisconsin, they are unbearably hot and lonely, spent locked inside, curtains drawn, AC blasting, sleeping until 1 P.M. and up until nearly fajr in an effort to stay hydrated and stave off the blubbering insanity that isolation brings. We’d spend Eid with friends and family, as holidays should be spent. We would begin and end our school year in America, and spend the middle months here in the UAE.

Not to say it would be a simple transition. It is one thing to spend two months among family and friends, bouncing from one home to another as houseguests and taking occasional road trips and mini-vacations; it is entirely another to be around for five months at a time. This would necessitate my owning a car, renting and furnishing an apartment (however small and spartan), and securing storage for the months we’d once again be abroad. Not without its inevitable snags. We will also need to look for a different housing scheme here, as our current place is (frankly) more house than we need, more than I care to clean, more dust than I wish to manage. Too many toilets.

For now, I am in a holding pattern, as we have not made a final decision either way. But I am expecting that, after some visits with family and friends, some long conversations from which I can tap the insight of people not enduring the psychotic psychological effects of culture shock and all, that I will know what to do, and will begin planning the steps toward it.

The work assignment is not one year; it is at least three, and possibly five or more years, and we need to take whatever steps necessary to build a positive life around it. This, I believe, is the plan that can get us through it, mostly intact, with an understanding and close connection to life back home, and fresh eyes every year, preventing the psychic callous I see on too many people who shrug–at the driving, the giant cars and conspicuous consumption, the overdone artifice, the mistreatment of laborers, the sudden inability to use a hammer or yard rake or mop or to carry a bag of refuse to the dustbin–and carry on as if it were normal to live in Babylon.

In the meantime, I spend at least an hour each day at the water’s edge, marveling at things so simple as the water cycle, the tides, and tiny pink clams that burrow into sand under lapping waves. If I raise my eyes from the sea-foam, I can see The World islands out there, Atlantis at the tip of the Palm, Burj Al Arab just down the coast on one side, the ever-busy loading docks of the port on my other side. I try to fix my focus on those tiny, pink clams.