10.25.2014

Brussels, Belgium: Moules Et Frites

The Grand Place, Brussels

I understand it now. 

People, some people anyway, talk about moules et frites, mussels and fries, as the pinnacle of simple, perfect, Belgian/French food. To be honest, I do not know many of these people.  But after eating steamy mussels on the streets of Brussels last month, cooked in tomatoes and fennel, I understand why these people, who I imagine to effortlessly sport silk scarves around their necks, would say such things. 

“If I ever opened a restaurant we would serve moules et frites.  Only moules et frites” my new friend and much more experienced eater says to me after we clean our plates on a small table in front of Mer du Nord.  The street corner in front of this walk up restaurant is packed with Belgians, nubby scarves and shrimp scampi on tiny plates.  I nod and say absolutely like I have always believed this to be the perfect meal.    

I feel less fondly about the escargot we slurp out of salty broth.  But I would eat them again with enough butter and garlic.  …but I would eat almost anything with enough butter and garlic.


Last month I went to a library conference in Brussels and I have to say that eating oodles of great food before, after and sometimes during talking about books makes for pretty much the best trip ever.  Before leaving muscat I pulled my trusty hunter green rain coat from the back of the closet (I literally had to brush dust from the lapels) and packed my favorite boots.  Winter clothes also make for pretty much the best trip ever.    

I made new traveling friends in Brussels and met up with a new/old friend who happened to be there for a conference as well.  We tromped through the night from creperie to fry shack, Grand Place to royal palace.  When I left her I hiked my black jeans back through town, churches lit up and bars spilling out into the street.  I got lost a few times, asked bar keeps for directions in passable French and flipped my collar up around my ears to keep out the cold. 

I’ll just say it – I felt cool.  I know, hard to imagine I don’t always feel cool when I’m puttering around the garden at home or soaking beans for the next day’s lunch - but there you have it.

Grand Place
Yes Please.  Oh wait, they cost 9 Euro each?  I'll just look. 
Would that this were on my way to work each day
Cool bistro where I had lunch with friends on our last day
Church by our flat
Tres Romantique!  The streets of Brussels

9.21.2014

Home

"I see my ancestral landscape. Perhaps to know so familiar a place better it must become strange again."
The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky: Ellen Meloy


It was a great American summer. Well, it was a great American 3 weeks. We ate hotdogs and corn, went fishing and night swimming, barbequed, met up with family, jammed with friends.  

But it never fails that when we go home I feel at once like we've never left and that everything has become foreign. It's not a bad feeling actually. In many ways I like it. To carve a sizable space for nostalgia while away and quench it every year or so. To fantasize about pork products and Target only to be confronted with the reality that it's just bacon and another place to buy stuff. To pack in a whole year of late nights and dinners out and breezy balcony talks before returning exhausted. Admittedly, we forgot the bit about "Rest & Relaxation" this year on our trip home. I imagine we'll get better at it over the years. 

There's a strange kind of loneliness to go back to everyone and everything you used to know, away from the community you've worked so hard to become a part of in your host country. There is an equally strange kind of loneliness to come back to post - which life was I taking a break from again? 
It's whiplash. Am I Brooke of the 2 AM Wendy's drive-through ordering or Brooke of the Omani fort exploring?  If you can weather the gear shifting, it's pretty awesome to be both.          

8.01.2014

Stockholm, Sweden: On Places and People

Journal    July 4, 2014
We Paid 200 krona and pulled our yellow pedal boat from under the
bridge.  Six of us steered into a deep harbor bobbing among speed boats, double deckered tourist barges and wakes from large cruise ships.   On one side the now mint green rusted roofs of  Gamla Stan bore down on us.  Karl made peanut butter and honey sandwiches that we ate in the sun.  Baby Thea stood on tip toe at the helm of the boat, looking out to sea.
 
You can’t believe what glacier water lakes feel like on skin parched by the Arabian sun.  Max climbed the 7.5 meter diving platform above the icey lake on lidingo island and paced, squatted, paused before he joined hands together above his head and dove into the blue below.  Opting for a much calmer arctic experience I was content to wade among the reeds with the naked babies holding bags to catch small fish.    

“The lakes were carved by glaciers” our friend and geologist tells us.  This makes complete sense as we gasp and force ourselves deeper into the impossibly blue water.  Not turquoise like the shores of Oman, but ultramarine, nearly navy in its darkest places.  

When I think of our few days in Stockholm last month my memories are flooded with four images:  green trees and fields, cold dark water, endless pale light and the sweet faces of our friends.  Sweden is 80% wilderness and in the summer months the sun shines on all of it for almost the entire 24 hour cycle.  After swimming in lakes and walking through forests and talking for hours it didn’t occur to us to make dinner until nearly 9 o’clock most days.  On our last night Max and I walked the green path to the grocery store and passed straight backed bike riders with straight white teeth.  A mother and son on an evening bike ride from one leafy treed neighborhood to another. 
We ate hot dogs with spicey mustard one afternoon and dangled our feet in a large fountain.   We had walked passed barn faced Scandinavian houses to the Vasa museum where an incredible 17th century blunder turned out to be the incredible 20th century discovery of a near perfectly preserved warship.  The Vasa, completed in 1628, was only 16 feet wide to its 172 foot long hull.  On its maiden voyage a faint gust of wind toppled the ship in the harbor and it quickly sank.  The warship, complete with 172 canons, was discovered late in the last century and has proved to be a unique relic of shipbuilding in the region.          
   
I once read an article written by a father who traveled extensively with his son.  He said that he traveled with his young son in order to increase the memories they had together, to have more shared experiences and more things to discuss as the child grew older.  These experiences proved to be foundational in their relationship.  Although we had kept in touch via email, it had been years since I had seen this dear friend living in Sweden.  We had created many memories in the past, but it’s hard to duplicate that kind of immediacy via letters, emails and phone calls.  It was such a joy to share new experiences in a place that was foreign to both of us – my memories of freezing Swedish lakes and cool sunlight fused with cooking and drawing side by side, the palm of her son in my hand as we walked to the bus stop.   

6.28.2014

My New Lizard Family

“I’ll just settle in to an all night vigil with my eyes open.” I yell to Max who is laughing at me from the shower. 

Above my bed, where my head would rest and mouth inevitably fall open as I sleep, there is a small, pink, blue-veined lizard.   I have seen an increasing number inside the house over the past few weeks – under dog food bowls,  scurrying up corners where walls meet.  Some are as small as pennies and others large enough to fit nicely inside an Altoids box, long tails hanging over tin sides.  The dog is quite confused with his new housemates and just yesterday accidently pulled the tail from one before backing away to let the critter waggle its way under a dresser.  I have seen a few shriveled and brown, petrified after being trapping under rugs or shoes. 

And I know why they are infiltrating our home.  I hardly blame them.   The heat outside is unbearable.  

I ran errands around town yesterday and I sweat all day.        

Water collected, pooled and dripped from behind my knees, the nape of my neck, my back, my upper lip.  At the same time my eyes are beachbone dry in response to constant air conditioning blasting me from shopping malls and car dashboards.  

As the lizards empty out of the streets and into my home (they are, right now, nestling in behind my laundry basket) there is a new kind of nightlife around the neighborhood.   Many families have left for the summer and only their house staff remain behind to care for plants and pets.  Despite suffocating heat, construction is at full throttle to tear down and rebuild before Omanis and expats return in September.  In Amman we saw SUVs roll in with foreign license plates in June and Jordanians identified Gulfies escaping the heat for a few months.

“In Jordan?”  I asked with a raised eyebrow.  It sounded ridiculous.  Why would you trade in one hot desert for another?  But at 75% humidity today in Muscat compared to 12% in Amman and a 10 to 15 Fahrenheit degree difference in temperature, I understand now. 

When I walk the dog at night it is like taking a bath standing up.   But I see Filipinas gathering at the ends of driveways, some wear pajamas and some walk dogs.  During the day these same women carry groceries in from Land Rovers wearing crisp uniforms but the hot nights bring with them a sense of easiness.  They meet together on street corners and I hear snippets of what could be gossip or longing for home. 

At night the construction sites turn into makeshift man camps and I shuttle quickly past with dog to avoid the midnight showers I can hear behind flimsy walls.  Buckets of warm soapy water are filled and dumped and excess runs out of the construction site and down the hot pavement.  I catch a glimpse of a thin frame in a lungi, waiting for his turn with the bucket; I look away to concentrate on missing the steaming soap puddles at my feet.
  

I’m mostly ok with the lizards in my house.  I don’t mind them on the ceiling, behind the toilet and underneath the couch.  But directly above my bed is where I draw the line.  I have waking nightmares of tiny lizards flinging themselves from the walls, lizard hands and lizard feet splayed wide, and landing in my mouth, my hair, my ears. 

Max shoos him around the ceiling of the room and I can fall asleep knowing he is resting above the air conditioning unit instead of a short free fall from my pillow.  I let the dog out one last time before bed and flames claw their way into my house.  But I leave the door open a bit longer to see if any of our lizard friends want to join the pack. 

I am not heartless. 

6.22.2014

Signs of Summer (For Me At Least)

1. I think about swimming all the time

2. But I hardly ever swim because it's too hot to swim.  That's right, too hot.  Salty bath water doesn't feel quite as refreshing as the imagined icey rivers and lakes of my Rocky Mountains. Or even as refreshing (and more realistically given my suburban upbringing) the city pools packed with children but still colder than anything in Muscat.

 3. On my last day of library class one tiny first grader stared up at me through thick bangs and said "I don't even care."  Out matched by a lime shirtdress on the last day.  I'm happy to say that I cared to the end, but I understand that classes in June are hard for a five year old.

4. All of my clothes are washed at "boiling" these days

5. Somehow, nestled amid shops selling thick Persian carpets, I found a used book store.  An honest to gosh used bookstore full of spine lined paperbacks.  It even has a buyback policy.  I bought six books today and told the women at the desk I'd be back in a week.  Aaahhh, summer reading.

6.  I am actually reading.  Librarians read, don't get me wrong, but a large chunck of our job is all about the gist.

"Oh yeah, I've read about that book. It's supposed to be a really interesting look at/take on/refute of___________.  I think you'll like it."

If we had professional mantras, this would be one of them.   I know a little about a lot of books and to just dive in, whole hog, to one book at a time for pleasure is well, really pleasurable.  So far this summer I've covered killer Bengal tigers and river dolphins, shifting sexual identities in the Middle East post Arab Spring, a trip through Jerusalem's old Mandelbaulm gate, and a spooky modern day fairy tale about time, stories, and childhood.  Bring it on summer.

7.  I spent an entire day, sun up to sun down, last week marbling paper in my very own kitchen.  Finally!  says I.  I've wanted to learn for almost four years and this week it all came together.

8.  My best intentioned plans of developing a new library curriculum over the summer have so far been thwarted by painting and new episodes of "Moone Boy".

9. I am packing to visit my family.  I love to be away and I love to come home.

As most of our moves and trips home have coincided with the hottest months over the years, home itself has come to be a sign of summer. 
    

5.30.2014

“Turn Around”



The big ear on the outside of our head should be closed.
It is so good at hearing that the inner ear goes deaf.
What if you had no hearing at all, no nose, no mind-stuff!
Then one could hear well the three syllables: “Turn Around.”
Our sounds, our work, our renown, these are our outer.
When we move inwardly, we move through inner space.
Our feet walk firmly, they experience sidewalks well.
There is one inside who walks like Jesus on the Sea
                                                         
                                                                         - Rumi
Sketches from my journal

 “Allah, Allah, Allah” they chanted together, swaying back and forth from their knees, eyes closed.  I had never seen anything like it before.  Muslims engaged in a kind of call and response liturgy where physical performance played such a large role in accessing the divine.  Sure there are the five daily prayers with rituals of washing and kneeling, but this chanting followed by endless twirling was something completely new to me.  

Sufism has been described as “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God” (1) – largely through mystical interpretations of scripture and seeking transcendent personal experiences.   It is often traced back to early Islamic practices but some claim it precedes Islam as a way of thinking about the world, the self and God.   There are brands of Sufism in North Africa where musically induced trances play a significant role in the process of turning away from all else but God, and in Turkey, Whirling Dervish Ceremonies or “Sema” allow practitioner to transcend death of self, the material world, and be reborn. 

The Sema ceremony was created by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, mystic and theologian who immigrated to Turkey where his influence can still be seen among practicing Sufi orders.   During the ceremony men wear black cloaks, symbols of worldly attachments that are removed toward the beginning to reveal flowing white robes.  They wear tall, tombstone shaped hats that symbolize death of the ego.  The ceremony includes a ritualized procession around a circle and culminates in whirling around and around on one foot.  The act of revolution allows practitioners to “turn towards the truth, grow through love, desert the ego and arrive to the ‘perfect.’”  (So says information our Turkish friends gave us.)

“But why is one hand lifted to the sky and the other facing the ground?”  I whisper to Max, who, for some reason, generally has answer to these kinds of questions.

“It is to receive blessings and enlightenment from God with the one hand and give to those in need with the other,” he says.      

The only picture I took - it seemed a bit indecent and I tucked my camera away
We watched, completely enraptured, as the dervishes spun around, their left foot planted like an axel, skirts spread out wide around them.  We visited a fairly progressive lodge where women were allowed to participate and watched as sweat trickled down the face of an elderly woman in front of us.   The ceremony, while spiritual in purpose, is intensely physical.  The young man in front of us, who couldn’t have been more than 18, tilted his head to heaven, eyes closed and never faltered in his perfect revolutions.  The look on his face was of completely serenity – and surrender for that matter. 

This experience proved the perfect counterpoint to what had for us, admittedly, been a form of worldly worship based on food and architecture and history and gave us a lot more to think about.  Which is what any good trip is about anyway.   

(1) Ahmed Zarruq, Zaineb Istrabadi, Hamza Yusuf Hanson. The Principles of Sufism. Amal Press. 2008.