Monday, October 30, 2017

The Lime Tree

The day after I missed the half-marathon, I woke up with every intention of making up for the lost miles, but didn't.

Running in Amman is lonely.

I usually go for my morning run at 5:30. I've always tried to be back before the kids wake up, but that has proven increasingly difficult. As Peter gets older, he is waking earlier rather than later. I imagine when he hits his teen years, he will simply not sleep at all.

Until the recent time change, it was dark as night at 5:30 in the morning with nary a soul stirring. I ran early in India, too. Mostly to beat the heat and the traffic. But Chennai was more like a village than a city, and like other villages, life began early.

When I run in the morning in Amman, the streets are completely deserted. The weather is cool, but I am by myself running from the halo of one street light to the next, a silent form fleeting through the night. There is no other sound except the rubber souls of my sneakers slapping the asphalt...

...until the morning call to prayer.

When I trained with a group of friends for triathlons in Florida, and they're seeing them kept me honest and got me out of bed. But the only thing getting me out of bed these days is me. Sometimes, I work against myself.

If we don't make plans for the weekend, things quickly tend to disintegrate into chaos. Elise says she now understands why her parents used to take them on long drives on the weekends. Our kids -- Peter especially -- hate to leave the house on the weekends. We have to have him forcibly removed. Once he is out and about, he is fine, but that initial push-off from the front door is like pulling a rabid wolverine from its burrow.

Last weekend, we played on the tennis court at work on Friday morning. Fortunately, I am pretty creative. You have to be to keep three kids entertained on a tennis court with no tennis net for two and a half hours.

We have a park near our house. It's a nice space and there's enough room to ride bikes there when it isn't too crowded with other kids, but it's not comparable to playgrounds as we know them in the States. Maybe closer to a playground I may have played on in the mid- to late 70's. Metal slides and chains on the swings.

If we don't leave the house, every couch cushion we own is on the floor acting as a wrestling mat. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if they're going to ride scooters, I'd prefer they rode them outside as opposed to doing laps on the marble floors in the dining room and kitchen.

The day after I missed the marathon, we had no plans, and things were spiraling downhill fast. In this situation, Elise and I ask ourselves what do we need to do? What is one thing that has been on our list for weeks that we can't seem to get to?

House plants.

Elise has wanted house plants since we've arrived, but house plants in town are priced for those unwilling to drive outside of town. Somehow (possibly through physical force), we convinced the kids to get in the car as we drove 30 minutes north of Amman to a row of nurseries on the side of the highway to shop for house plants.

After looking at a few different options, we settled on a hanging fern, a grape vine, and a lime tree.

Now, I don't know how much lime trees go for in the States, but this one was nine Jordanian Dinars, or about 15 dollars. I was sold.

The tree was about 10 feet tall, and I wasn't exactly sure how we were going to get it in the back of our car, but we did. We now had a lime tree.

Living overseas, I've been hesitant to invest in anything I can't take with me when I leave. Elise has always wanted to paint the walls of our overseas house or apartment, but I couldn't justify spending the money to paint a house or apartment we were only going to live in for two years. Likewise, I have always been hesitant to spend money on our outdoor spaces, such as a garden, because when we leave, we can't take the lawn or garden with us.

But for 15 dollars, I figure I can get that back in margaritas in two years. Plus, there is something to be said for paying it forward, leaving something behind for the people who will live in the apartment after we leave. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Olive Harvest

Yesterday, we went on a trip to the small town of Ba'un, north of Amman, to pick lives with a local family.

The harvest season is short, so we had to get right to work. 

A giant tarp is laid on the ground around the base of the olive tree and the olives are picked off the branches by hand or combed off the tree with a plastic rake, something like a child's beach toy. 

After an hour or so of work, it was tea time! Also, time for pita bread with olive oil (of course!) and za'ta. 

Sam had his first taste of caffeine and was soon in the tops of the trees, singing at the top of his lungs, "Tomato tornado!!"

 Another few hours later, it was time for lunch!

After lunch, we were shown how to properly prepare the olives for brining. It largely entails crushing the olives with a flat stone. No surprise, this was a task the kids took to with gusto!

Before heading back to Amman, we followed the olives to the local press to see them turned into olive oil. We also had the opportunity to fill our own bottle of freshly-pressed oil. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Half-Marathon That Wasn't

It may seem that living overseas is all rainbows and unicorns. (If you live in Pete's world, it is.) But the joys and wonders of living in another country also comes with the trials and tribulations of living in another culture.

It is Elise and I's nature to focus on the positives of living abroad. This is not easy for everyone, but we feel we gain much more by living in other cultures than we lose by not living in the States.

It goes without saying that things function differently in other countries. In some countries, things function as well--if not better--than they do in the States. But in most of the countries Elise and I have lived in, we have had to adjust our expectations as to how efficiently things can be done. In India, for example, grocery shopping was an all-day endeavor that required driving to five different markets, none of which had parking or air-conditioning. Of course, we miss India dearly, and wouldn't trade a minute of having lived there for the creature comforts of "home".

After living in Brazil, India, and now living in Jordan, we have gotten pretty good at being patient, being kind, and basically just going with the flow. These coping mechanisms sometimes break down, as it did the evening in India that found me standing in the middle of the road, fists clenched, screaming up to the heavens when the pizza delivery guy couldn't find our house after the guard outside our house gave him directions in Tamil no less than five times.

Things in Jordan run well. They have good burger joints, Uber, and Starbucks. Grocery stores are much like they are in the States, and you drive on the right-side of the road. That's why I didn't really think twice about signing up for a road race here.

The last time I had signed up for a half-marathon was in Chennai. I ran 11 miles before succumbing to the heat and humidity, but I called it a success at the time anyway.

The biggest problem with signing up for the half-marathon was I didn't have the mental bandwidth to properly prepare for the race. I hadn't trained, per se, but did find time to work up my mileage to a respectable distance (nine miles). No mean feat, in and of itself, if I do say so myself, considering how hilly Amman is. And all the miles were on concrete, a surface much less forgiving on the legs and knees than asphalt.

In short, as I was trying to figure out where to pick up my number, t-shirt, and timing chip--something I would have to do in the days leading up to the race--I was looking at the wrong website.

The entire week before the race, I was at an offsite class (Appropriations Law) at the Intercontinental Hotel at 4th Circle (most places in Amman are found in relation to one of eight traffic circles). The last day to pick-up packets was the Thursday before the race (the race was on a Friday. Weekends in Jordan are Friday and Saturday, instead of Saturday and Sunday) from 12:00-2:00 p.m. Fortunately, Thursday was the last day of class and we were done by 1:00 p.m.

I rushed out of the conference room where the class was being held and practically ran to the curb to hail an Uber on my phone. I had input my destination into the software: King Hussein Park.

The Uber driver picked me up five minutes later, and we were off.

We started driving....

And kept driving and driving and driving...

...until we were 20 minutes outside of Amman: minarets, camels, and men selling tea at the speed bumps where the traffic slows down out of giant metal kettles they wear on their backs that look like bagpipes.

When we finally arrived at King Hussein Park there was no race village to speak of. I checked the website again. Packet pick-up was at Al Hussein Park, not King Hussein Park. I told the Uber drive of my mistake and changed the destination in the app.

"This is King Hussein the First park. You want King Hussein the Second park."

Of course.

He was very accommodating, and soon we were on our way to Al Hussein Park (coincidentally where the Children's Museum is; I've been there twice now).

We pull up to the race village at 1:45 p.m. just as two men are loading placards and boxes into the back of a Toyota Corolla. I run up to them and ask them if they are still doing packet pick-up. They shake their heads. It has been moved to their office at 4th Circle....

Around the corner from the hotel I had just left an hour earlier.

Though I insist I have 15 more minutes, it's not going to make my race number magically materialize in my hand, so I slunk back to my waiting Uber defeated and just ask him to take me work. On the way there, I call the race office and state my case. They tell me I can pick up my race number at the starting line tomorrow morning. I won't get a packet or a race t-shirt, but I tell them fine. As long as I don't have to drive in rush hour back to 4th Circle, I'll take it.

The next morning, I get up early, make breakfast for the kids and slide on my sneaks. The race started at 7:30, so around 6:45, I summon an Uber to take me to the start line downtown. There's hardly ever any traffic on Friday mornings, the day of prayer, so figure I should have plenty of time to get to the race, find the start line, and pick up my number.

The Uber driver shows up in front of our house a few minutes later. He doesn't speak English. I don't speak (much) Arabic. But I've entered my destination into the Uber software, so we're on our way. About halfway there, we come to the race course, the roads closed to traffic. The driver looks at me forlorn, about to give up. Through a series of frenetic hand gestures, I try to suggest he go around. We take another route, only to come upon another road block. It's now 7:20. I ask the driver to take me home, "beitii".

Thoroughly disappointed and utterly defeated, I entered the house, out a race entry and a small fortune in Uber rides. Elise and the kids were playing Candyland. Alas, it was just not meant to be. Living life overseas.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

DJ Unicorn

By Peter. Coming soon to a t-shirt near you. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

No War

As part of International Peace Day a few weeks ago, Sam had the opportunity to define what peace meant to him.

This is Sam's sign from his morning meaning. One way to define a thing is to say what it is not. Peace has two direct antonyms that I can think of: war and unquiet (or the opposite of calm).

The children for the most part thought of peace in two theaters: the theater of the home (i.e. "What does peace mean to you?" "No screaming. No slamming doors.") or the global theater (i.e. "What does peace mean to you?" "No war.").

It doesn't surprise me that Sam had a more global perspective. I know he doesn't know what war is really like. He is really into the Percy Jackson series which involves the Greek Gods and most likely hints at combat, conflict, or "war" between gods--hurling lightning bolts as one another and summoning tidal waves telekinetically--but thankfully doesn't process what war really means the way your or I do.

One of the major debates currently raging in the States right now is whether or not it is disrespectful to not stand for the National Anthem (largely, in the context of at sporting events). Without revealing which camp Elise or I am in, I believe the debate largely misses the opportunity to discuss a much larger matter.

Those that believe not standing for the National Anthem is disrespecting our soldiers, take for granted the fact we have or need soldiers at all. Anyone who puts themselves in the line of fire to protect our country has my deepest and most profound respect, but I believe a better conversation is not how to show respect to soldiers, but how to eliminate the need to show respect, how to reduce the number of those putting themselves into a situation wherein they go to war then come back in need of rehabilitation and respect, remove them from the battlefield or get them off the carousel of placing them in harm's way.

It is so deeply inculcated into the American psyche, sub-conscious, or self-image, really, that there must be this standing military, this constant force. War is as American as Wal-mart, hamburgers, and the 4th of July that you can't turn on a baseball or football game without being reminded of war and the military's prominent position in American culture. I don't think you ever get too old to hope there can be no war or ever be too idealistic to think it is possible. I hope if someone asks the 45-year old what does peace mean to him, he still responds, "No war."

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Dead Sea

This past weekend, we drove 45 minutes to spend a day (and night) at the Dead Sea. We stayed at the Marriott resort, and from the moment we arrived, felt as though we had really arrived at a resort. 

When I was a kid, about Sam and Peter's age, my dad used to take us on week-long, all-inclusive vacations to Club Med, in the Bahamas, and skiing in Colorado. Obviously, I LOVED it! In the Bahamas, my brothers and I were sent off to the Kid's Club for the day where we snorkeled, learned to scuba-dive, and even practiced a circus act to be performed for the adult's at a circus show at the end of the week (I was part of a balancing bicycle act; a black and white photo from the event hung in my dad's office for a long time). 

I really want the kids to have the same experience, a day where pretty much all the rules go out the window, a day where there is no routine or boundaries. I couldn't afford to stay at the Marriott for a week, so we had to compress all that fun into one day. 

We couldn't check in right away, so we stowed a few of our bags at the concierge and headed down to the pool. There was a dance team leading a group in water aerobics and a poolside waiter zipping around the many pools on rollerblades, a trayful of frosty mugs in hand. 

We didn't even make it down to the Dead Sea on the first day, except to see it. At 400 meters below sea level, the Dead Sea is hot. Very hot. So, we didn't make it much beyond the pool that first afternoon, until later, when we walked to the Fishing Club, an open-air bar on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, then down to the edge of the water itself. 

The adults-only infinity pool overlooking the Dead Sea. 

That evening, we planned to have Happy Hour drinks as we watched the sun go down, but the kids were too hungry, so we had to head to the sports bar earlier than planned for burgers and American pub fare. 

The next morning, we hit the breakfast buffet shortly after it opened (Clementine literally woke up, rolled over, and exclaimed, "I love a buffet!"), then headed down to the Dead Sea before it go too hot.

After spending an hour or two floating in the Dead Sea and applying its healing muds to our skin and joints, we headed back up to the pool area where Elise did a little more relaxing, and Peter and Sam didn't hesitate to plunge themselves headlong into the poolside games like old pros. 

This is Peter, Sam, and Clementine doing water aerobics. 

Soon, it was time to go. But not before first stopping at the gift shop to take some of the healing mud with us. Pete's flip-flop broke on one of his walks down to the Dead Sea. He made do all right, though.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Nocturnal Animals Live Near Me

We are somewhere between two and three months in Amman, Jordan, and life is starting to assume a new, if syncopated, normal. The kids' existence is largely shaped by the demands of school. Mine is largely shaped by the demands of work. Elise's is perhaps the most without rigid form. This is the first time in nine years she has been without a child underfoot at home. She is in the midst of two large transitions: the transition from living in the U.S. to living in Jordan and the transition from having at least one child at home and to none. I would argue the second of the two is perhaps the more difficult. Unsurprisingly, she is busier than ever.

Though we have a car, gas is expensive and parking is scarce. It is still sometimes easier to take an Uber to where we want to go. Most days, I don't even have the motivation to want to try to maneuver our car out of our tiny parking space in our tiny parking garage. Most days, I come within a hair's-breadth of taking out at least two concrete columns. Elise takes Ubers to the fruit stand and grocery store. She tells me the Uber drivers are kind and forgiving of her rudimentary Arabic. Without fail, they ask where she is from. When she responds, "America", without fail they tell her, "You are welcome," and mean it. The response is one of many kindnesses bestowed upon us by the Jordanian people, but still gives us pauses, and makes us wonder if we just thanked them for something without remembering.

Elise says a common theme among Uber-drivers is their desire to make sure it is understood Islam is a peaceful religion. When you think about it from their perspective it is easy to understand. They are given a rare and unexpected opportunity to talk directly to an American, something that just fell in their lap by the providence that is Uber algorithms, literally being in the right place at the right time, perhaps never thinking they would ever meet or talk to a real-life American, perhaps talking to many Americans daily. Nevertheless, we think it is telling they take this one opportunity to ensure we understand Islam is peaceful.

On her last Uber ride, Elise told me the driver was especially earnest to communicate with her. Rather than keeping his eyes on the road or following directions in Google Maps, he was using his iPhone as a translator as he drove, eager to be understood. He would ask her a question in Arabic, then hand her his iPhone so she could read the translation.

He asked her several questions in this manner, a few about religion, a few about where she was from and what she was doing in Jordan.

Then, he handed her the iPhone. The words on the screen read, "Nocturnal animals live near me."

Elise paused and looked up, confused. She handed the phone back to the driver.

The driver took one look at the screen and burst into laughter. Elise couldn't help, but follow suit. They carried on like that for several minutes. I don't know if she ever figured out what he was trying to say; they soon arrived at their destination, eyes wet with tears of laughter.