Reflections on Paris, Friday the 13th

This is not a political blog, I am not a journalist. Generally, when I write here it is to share my beautiful adventures and to reflect on the things I am learning while exploring the world. Sometimes, however, things happen that aren’t beautiful and that make me question the things that I learn. So while it isn’t the normal tone, I’m going to take a page and talk about the terror attacks.

When I was in grad school, I studied religious terrorism. I nearly wrote a thesis paper on it, but events conspired and I ended up writing about a cult instead. I haven’t pursued a career in anti-terrorism or international relations, or any of the things I studied in school really, but I’m still completely fascinated with the field and keep up with a lot more international news than is probably healthy for me. So when I got in my car and turned on NPR and heard the BBC reporters explaining the unfolding events of Friday 13th in Paris, I was immediately aware of the depth of what I was hearing, even if I had not fully processed the information. I knew it was going to be big, like 9/11 had been for Americans big.

20150521_090755Then I watched the internet and saw the outpouring of emotions: support for Paris, hatred of Daesh (ISIS), fear of and for immigrants fleeing Syria, anger from Muslims around the Middle East at the West’s ability to ignore violence until it happened to white people, remonstrations and blame in many directions, and fortunately a good deal of “love the whole world” sentiments as well. I started trying to pick apart these views and feelings, as well as understand my own. I changed my Facebook pictures to shots I’d taken this spring when I was in Paris, but I couldn’t bring myself to use the flag filter after seeing so much pain from those in Lebanon.

I’m not proposing that I have any answers. In fact, one of the things that I learned in grad school was that research raises more questions than it provides answers. So I’m going to talk about some things, and share some ideas, and ask some questions. I hope you’ll think about it too.

The Silk Ring Theory

Shortly before this all happened, I ran across an article on my Facebook feed titled  “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing”. 
It explained this issue we have with our reactions to someone in pain, and how we can focus too much on our own pain and forget how to be supportive. The Silk Ring Theory introduces a set of concentric circles with the person most affected in the center ring, and each progressive ring containing the people less directly impacted.
In the case of the Paris attacks, then, those who were injured, or lost loved ones, or even were just at ground zero are in the center circle. Their friends, families, etc who were not there but are still closely connected in the next. Parisians, then French people and so on…As an American who once visited Paris, I’m pretty far out in the rings. The theory also instructs with the motto “care in, dump out” meaning that anything you say to someone in a smaller circle needs to be comforting, and you can only dump selfish or negative feelings outward. Hence the huge outpouring of comfort towards the French people who are ALL in a smaller circle than we Americans is totally appropriate.

But lets look at where we are dumping. Who do we see as being in a larger circle than us? Is it Muslims? Is it immigrants? Is it just anyone who has less historical or personal connection with France? So, if it’s your neighbor who has never been to France, or Australia because they didn’t trade freedom statues back in the day, it’s correct to say they are in a larger circle and you can dump some of your fear and uncomforty feelings their way. But, when it comes to the people of the Middle East, immigrant or not, we have to consider another circle: the circle of Daesh terrorism.

It’s clear that in the Paris attacks, Parisians are right at the center of that circle, however, the reign of Daesh terror is much larger than France and has been going on in the Middle East for arguably more than a decade. The people who have been killed, enslaved, raped, mutilated, murdered and displaced by Daesh are the center of this other circle of tragedy. And for them, the French people and the American people are equally far out in the rings. So, it’s also understandable that they should be frustrated when they see us offering so much “comfort in” toward France while they get ignored or worse, “dumped out” at.

So what do we do when we have two groups of people at the center of their own circles of tragedy who also exist as outer rings for each other? I don’t know. But, we can try to remember what the tragedy is, and who is at the center, and where the people we’re comforting or dumping on are in relation to us before we speak.

The Bandwagon

So, I learned the term Daesh  while I was living in Saudi Arabia. My friends and students taught it to me because it was important to them not to give the radical group any legitimate creedence. The first “S” in ISIS and ISIL stands for the English word “state” and, they argue, it gives too much legitimacy to a rouge group to call them a “state”. The Arabic “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham” could be argued to translate as “state” or “country” (I’m by no means fluent), but the acronym has also come to mean “a bigot who imposes his view on others” and the group themselves hate it to little bitty pieces. I mean, don’t you think Westboro or KKK would be upset if we started calling them “asshole bigots” instead of using the names they chose for themselves. Bring it.

But when I came back to the US and tried to use the term, or even to explain it to other people, I was pretty universally met with dismissal or curious amusement at best. I changed no one’s vocabulary. It became awkward for me to use the term because no one knew what it meant and I was seen as “showing off” my knowledge or linguistic skills or international travel. The French president and our own VP had both made statements in the news urging people to start using the term and they were ignored too, so at least I can’t take it too personally.

Now everyone is using it. It’s all over facebook and my co-workers are self correcting, “ISIS, wait no, now it’s Daesh” like it’s suddenly changed. I sound bitter, I know. I’m trying really hard to be grateful that more people are becoming aware of this issue and the importance of words giving or taking legitimacy, but I really wish that people could be persuaded to give a damn without first world tragedy being plastered all over every form of media. No one cared when it was Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, etc. But Paris, OMG. It’s like al-Qaeda again, no one cared until New York.

fb paris flag copy

So, there it is really. Use the bandwagon if it helps us make the world better, but ask yourself why you’re riding it now and where were you when John Kerry and I were trying to get you to say “Daesh” instead of “ISIS”, or why you’re changing your Facebook picture to a French flag right now. I’m not blaming, it’s not like I was on the front lines either. I don’t know if I would have learned about it before you if I hadn’t take the trip to Saudi, but I know the answer to these questions for myself. I needed a personal connection. I needed to see and meet the people who were most affected by these terrorists (it’s not New Yorkers, btw). Not everyone can take a trip to the Middle East, but I bet most of you know someone from there or at least see them around. Maybe take the time to listen to them, hear what they have to say and how they feel about Daesh and the situation in their homeland. Personal connections go a long way to making things real and important.

Why Is Paris More Important?

Which brings me to my next point. Why the heck we’re exploding about Paris after ignoring Iraq, Syria, and most recently Lebanon? My personal connection to the people of the Middle East made me more aware of the contrast. I got to see posts on my facebook from people still living there, connections I made and didn’t want to give up. It was really wrecking to see them so hurt and angry. Some people were simply gently reminding us not to forget about them, but others were angry at the media and at us for ignoring them, and a few even said that France got what it deserved for the way it had been acting. These people weren’t Daesh sympathizers, they hate Daesh, but they were angry at the West too for so many things that it was hard for them not to see the attacks as a kind of retribution or at very least a “now you know what it feels like”.

I wanted this to be more than just “white people” or “rich people” because while I know our culture does over focus on the rich/white, it was hard for me to think that this huge reaction was only from this. Then one of my former Professors from the UW, Zev Handel, put a post up on his wall explaining it in more detail. He starts off by saying what I think we all know and agree with, that all human life matters and should matter equally. The lives of Parisians are not worth more than the lives of Lebanese. But,

“The attack in France is different. Its implications for our lives are vast. First, unlike the attacks in Beirut, it signifies a very real and increased danger for those of us who live in major American cities. The desire and ability of ISIS (or whoever it turns out is behind the Paris attacks) to pursue its political agenda by instigating mass casualties outside of the Middle East means that what happened in Paris could quite easily happen in New York, or DC, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or Seattle. It’s not surprising that many Americans experienced a more visceral shock from Paris than from Beirut (or from South Sudan or from Iraq or from all the other places in the world that are constantly convulsed by violence).

Second, this event is going to reshape our lives in ways that the Beirut attack never could have. It will change the tenor and possibly the outcome of the presidential election. It will change our military posture and could quite conceivably mean that many more people we know and love will go off to fight wars on foreign soil. It will have immediate and palpable effects on our experiences at airports and public venues. And so on.”

This brings me back around to the idea of personal connections. In the case for compassion, it’s about meeting the people who are impacted, but in the case of taking action, responding to fear or danger, it’s about feeling that impact in our own lives. Most people don’t have a personal connection to the Middle East so it was hard for them to get excited or riled up about the violence that’s happening there. However, we are more familiar with Paris and even if we love making fun of the French, there’s a sort of “nobody picks on my sister but me” feeling to the American responses. And of course, we feel the personal impact on something as simple as increased airport security for our upcoming holiday travel plans.

Paris isn’t more important. But humans have a natural tendency to focus on what affects them most. Instead of focusing on why swathes of humanity only seem to care when it hits close to home (or worse, blaming them for not doing enough) perhaps we can look for ways to help show people how groups like Daesh affect them before they blow up another stadium full of people? How can we make more connections?

The Blame Game

So, in all of this there is tons of blame flying around (I may be guilty of some blamey thoughts myself, too). I mentioned before that some Arabs were blaming the French for their own attack, others blame the West at large for not doing more, plenty blame each other. For their part westerners are blaming all Muslims, the Quran, the refugees and each other, and of course both Bush and Obama.

Brené Brown has some neat insights on blame and why it sucks,  but generally I think most of you know that blame is hurtful and counterproductive. We get caught up in the gray area between trying to understand why something happened and absolving ourselves of responsibility. It’s useful to understand the history behind an event, what led up to it, what contributes to it. As Brené points out, it is our natural tendency to leap to blame as fast as possible.

I’m lucky in that I live in a place where people are generally liberal and tolerant, so I don’t really see a lot of backlash against Muslims or refugees where I am right now. But I see that there are people in my country signing petitions to keep them out, or send them away. I mostly see people expressing concern for immigrants and refugees, but I recognize that the concern stems from responses to threats made by those to are afraid and don’t understand. I’ve lost track of how many different memes I’ve seen trying to explain or metaphor the total lack of relationship between Daesh and the majority of Islam. I’m not sure what’s going to get through to the people who are too afraid to listen, but I recommend Reza Aslan’s work, especially the interview that has gone viral in the wake of the attacks explaining once again how there is no such thing as “Muslim countries” as a single identity.

 

Just as blame is a response to fear and anger, so can be the urge to retaliation. I’m seeing a lot of people out there calling for a fight. France itself initiated several strikes in the days following the Paris attacks. But the reality is that unstructured violence, fear, blame, anger, and misunderstanding are tools for Daesh just as much as AKs and bomb vests. Will the militaries of the world need to take action to eliminate this threat? Most certainly, for they don’t seem the types to give in to logic, compassion or diplomacy. But we should look at these military actions as necessary structured violence, not a triumphant act to be enjoyed or reveled in. And for those of us who are not in the active military service we should remember that our best tools to combat terror are understanding, compassion, and personal connection. If you really want to fight Daesh, do so. But if you don’t want to join the military to do it, try fighting a different way: befriend a Muslim, help a refugee, learn the truth instead of spreading the rumors, invite an Imam to speak at your Church.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think anyone does, which is why I go looking far and wide for ideas and insights. I hope that I’ve given you some things to think about, some questions to ask, some ideas to share and maybe even some constructive actions to take.

 

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“Queen” Sized: Finding Plus-sized clothing outside the US

This post isn’t really a story of adventure, so much as a hopeful resource for other women like me. Trying to find things online that actually are useful is really hard. If you are a plus (or queen) sized lady with overseas shopping experiences, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment here to help me and others out. If you want to tell me or others like me to go on a diet/exercise regimen, or otherwise insult our bodies, please fuck off.

Yes, I know, Americans are fat. And while some developing nations (not naming names here, you know who you are) are giving us a run for our money in the obesity race, we’re still a nation of large. I’m not here to fat shame, or blame the horrible processed food diet (I think I did that in another post), or soapbox in any way about it. I’m just acknowledging it’s there so I can move on to the rest of today’s blog.

The Plus Sized Shopping Experience

I’m “average” size in America (not by magazine/hollywood standards, but by actual statistics). This means I’m fat in most other countries in the world. And while the US has a growing plus sized fashion market, shopping abroad for many of us can seem like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Living in China (remember I’m not naming names?, well….) I read a lot about how it was quickly increasing in obesity, and I could find clothes that fit, but it was an ordeal, and often involved Wal-Mart. Saudi Arabia (another unnamed name) is full of full figured ladies, but because of the abaya requirement, the clothing options for plus sizes was somewhat limited. I tried to find a pair of jeans there, but everything cute was just about 1 size too small, or it was a huge elastic waisted tent.

Japan was not a place I expected to find anything, but after seeing quite a few larger (my size or bigger) Japanese ladies around town who happened to be dressed quite snappily, I gained some hope. There was a used clothing store across from my share house, and I love thrift store shopping, so I went to check it out. It’s so dang humid here that I really wanted some lighter weight tops that were a little more flattering. To my amazement, I found several in the bargain rack. I have no idea if they were actually intended for large women or if the Japanese tendency to wear clothes that make them look like children playing dress-up just worked in my favor.

Then, after my jeans from the US finally gave out, I realized I really needed to get new bottoms if I wanted to go exploring in the heat. I love my skirts, but, let’s face it, at 90% humidity, everyone gets some degree of chub-rub. I was fairly open to options: leggings, gym shorts, or real pants. But after a whole day of searching, I realized that even the men’s XL was still too tight a fit to be comfy. After more searching online for advice from other expats, I headed back out to a larger mall, to try again at the limited number of stores that *might* have something my size. Eventually, I found some things, but it meant exploring maternity and men’s departments because nothing in the women’s clothes came close.

How to Cope with Being Plus-sized Abroad?

So what’s a girl to do? I have some good news and some bad. There are some tricks that can make your clothing experience better (good news), but you’ll never be able to get exactly what you wear in the US (bad news). Here’s what I’ve learned after 2 years and 4 countries worth of clothes shopping overseas.

1) Adapt your style. In the US you may love wearing skinny jeans and printed t-shirts, or snappy pant-suits, or any number of other styles that you’ve made your own over time. But since you are unlikely to be able to find those exact things in your new country, be willing to change. In Saudi, I couldn’t find jeans for love nor money, but I found about a million beautiful skirts that fit me and looked great. I never wore skirts that often before, but it was there, pretty and cheap. In Japan, the shirts I found were all fluffy, billowy, lacy things, very feminine and “cute”. Again, not my previous style, but they fit well and flatter my shape while keeping me cooler in the Japanese summer.

2) Look around you and ask. Look for other ladies your size/shape, what are they wearing? Do you like it? Ask them where they got it. Make it a compliment. “Oh, what a great dress, where did you buy that?” Consider that another essential phrase to learn in your new country’s language along with “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Another beer please.” Locals often know of smaller hidden stores that cater to special / niche markets that might not show up on a Google search. Heck, if you’re a teacher like me, you can make it a class assignment option and get plenty of feedback.

4) Pack the essentials. Before you leave your home country, or any time you go home for vacation, know what you have the hardest time finding in your size and stock up. I brought extra brand-new bra’s that I knew I wouldn’t even need for 6 months, because I didn’t want to try to bra shop in Saudi. Other hard to find items include undies, panty hose/stockings, and jeans. People often stock up in their luggage on medications and toiletries, but really, unless it’s a weird prescription or super special local brand, you can find these things even more readily in pharmacies and convenience stores abroad than you can in the US, so ditch the things that are easy to replace and make some suitcase space for the clothes you know you’ll want.

5) Shop the local thrift stores. Also called used clothing or second hand shops, places where the local population has donated a wide variety of brands, styles and sizes. In both Prague and Japan, these shops yielded great finds. A pair of jeans in Prague (though too warm for the summer, I picked them up against the eventual fall weather), and several summer weight blouses in Japan. Yes, it takes time to sort through everything, but it can be fun, and if you do find something that fits, you can check the label and maybe find the local shop that sold it the first time.

6) Foreign brands are a reliable standby. I no longer shop at H&M despite their range of plus size clothing because I object to their unethical business practices of using overworked and under-payed women in unsafe conditions. Other places like the dreaded Wal-Mart (yeah, I hate them), or UK brand box stores like Tesco. I hate box stores, but unless you can afford a local tailor, they are your safest bet for clothes abroad. The regular sizes go up to US 12, but often times different styles fit differently, so you can generally find something up to about an 18. In China it was Wal-Mart, in Japan it was Uniqlo, and in Prague, it was Tesco that saved my wardrobe essentials. I love shopping local, but when you simply can’t find what you need, these places can be a good solid backup.

7) Don’t be afraid to stray to other departments. As I mentioned earlier, my pants success in Japan was attributed to maternity and men’s wear. It’s a little embarrassing at first to take some of these items to a fitting room, but not half as painful as my thighs after an afternoon of walking around in a skirt here, and definitely not worth missing out on the adventures. Sure, people may look at you a little funny, but chances are you’re already being looked at funny just for being a foreigner so don’t let it bug you. Find the clothes that fit no matter where the store has put them.

Where have you been? 2 months of blog silence

I realize that I haven’t really updated anyone in a couple of months. My life got a little crazy, but here’s some of what’s been going on.

I left Saudi in mid-May and went to Europe for three weeks with the expectation of a nice secure job awaiting me in Japan. Europe was great. I got to hang out with some friends I hadn’t seen in a long time and to see really cool stuff. It was a great vacation, even if it was accompanied by a cold. During my time of resocialization, I started to emerge from the fog of isolation that had covered my mind during my time in Saudi. To be clear, I don’t blame the country or culture for this, I think it could happen to me nearly anywhere. However, being cut off from friendly socialization for that long drove me more than a little bonkers, and although I knew when I made my decision to leave that it was a problem, it wasn’t until I was back among friends that I started to realize how big of a problem it had been. Take away lesson, make sure I’m in a social setting from now on.

20150521_150241France was epic, I managed to blog a little about that before radio silence kicked in. In 5 days and 3 towns I fell in love with it and am now looking at various options for how to live there for 6mo-1year in the reasonably near future.

Prague is also pretty kick ass. It was nice to be able to just hang out with one of my besties, the beer was amazingly cheap and the clubs were super fun. The weather was awesome and there were festivals just about every other day celebrating something. It was really tempting to just stay there, it would have been a little tricky to get all my visa paperwork done, but there appeared to be plenty of jobs and it was *cheap* to live there. The main thing that sent me moving on was the thought of this nice job waiting for me in Japan.

I’d really tried to do my research and be picky. I turned down jobs in rural areas because I knew I needed to be in urban (social) areas to be ok, and I turned down jobs at pre-schools because I didn’t want to work with tiny tots all day. (more on that later, but my hats off and all respect to early learner teachers). I asked loads of questions and discussed the conditions that were causing me to leave my position in Saudi. I really thought I’d landed at a happy place. I was excited to go and start a new job.

Things started going a little weird when I tried to get more detailed info about my arrival in Japan. Since the nearest airport to Yokohama is in Tokyo, it’s not a short cab ride away. Every other school I’ve worked for (and to be fair that’s only been 3 others) has sent someone to the airport to collect me. These folks tell me I have to get myself from the Tokyo airport to the train station that is nearest the residence. This turns out to involve a 2 hour bus ride and a transfer from the bus to the train line. Additionally, arriving with NO phone (still don’t have a Japanese SIM, btw) I had to call the house manager (not affiliated with the school) who would then meet me at the train station to show me to the house (and collect my rent money).

I’ve done enough travelling that I was able to sort it all out, including getting my luggage delivered to the school so that I didn’t have to try to haul 2 large suitcases and my carry on bags across all that public transportation. But it wasn’t a good omen. As it turns out I was not able to accept the job for a variety of reasons I won’t go into in public, but we are parting amicably.

20150709_145612Other than that, Japan is pretty cool. The weather is down right miserable this time of year, hot and humid. Stepping outside means you need a shower. So I haven’t done much exploring outside the neighborhood. I did make it down to Chinatown in Yokohama, the largest one in Asia, and although I got rained out after a few hours, the weather that day was pretty nice. Most of the rest of the time I think about going out until I open the door and feel the non-airconditioned air. So I’m really hoping that I can stick around through the fall at least and get a chance to see things without melting.

My house is a sweet set-up. It’s called a share house, so it’s like dorms for adults. We get bedrooms that are private, but the bathrooms, showers, kitchen and living room are all shared spaces. I hear that not all the share houses around here are so nice, but we 20150606_150634have a kitchen that looks like the set of a cooking show, and a cleaner that comes in and does a base coat cleaning 5x a week. I have to clean my own room and wash my own dishes, but the rest is taken care of. On top of that, the people who live here are really fun and friendly. I’ve stayed up having great conversations, parties, drinking and even gone out to karaoke a couple of times. Just for eg, last night I made some comment about a post from Facebook about the discussion of economy in the US Presidential race and ended up having a 2 hour conversation with a German, Norwegian, Canadian and Saudi.

I keep thinking that I should be more worried/depressed/anxious about things, after all, I’m about to leave my job without a new one. It’s too hot to do anything so I end up laying around at home binge watching netflix until it’s time to go down to the kitchen to cook and hang out with folks. I think I should feel bad for not taking advantage of being in Japan to go visit temples or beaches or hot springs. But I’m really not. I’m not tripping skipping euphoric happy or anything, but even when I lift up the carpet and peek behind the dresser in my head I can’t seem to find any heart stabbing sadness or spine freezing anxiety waiting to jump out at me. After the near crippling anxiety and depression I was going through the last few months in Saudi, it’s still a little hard to believe.

I’ll start job hunting again once the visa is in (my house is cheap so even part time work will be enough), and I’ll try to find some fun places to go that have AC until the weather turns cooler, but for the most part, I’m coming to terms with the fact that what I need right now may not be a whirlwind adventure, but instead it may be to have a slow lazy summer of watching too much TV, staying up too late, drinking too much and just hanging out with cool people in the kitchen. That being said, blog posts may be fewer and they’ll almost certainly be more about things I’m thinking or feeling rather than about things I’m doing. But that’s OK. Not every part of an adventure is external, trekking to new places and seeing new things outside of ourselves. Sometimes we need to trek inside and sometimes we need to visit the familiar.

To be sure, the tone of my adventure has changed in the last couple months, but that’s part of why my mission isn’t just “teacher & adventurer”, I’m also a learner and a seeker. Thanks for sharing it with me, and I hope you’ll stick around as the next chapters unfold.

🙂

Five Days in France: Pt. 1 – Metz & Reims

My original summer plans had actually involved finishing the school year in Tabuk and then spending two months wandering Europe before returning to the US. All of this turns out not to be true anymore. As much as I loved my students and appreciated the experience of Saudi, I didn’t even realize how unhealthy I had become. I lost physical tone because there was no place to excersice easily, my lunchtime yoga routine had died when the school slashed our lunch breaks, and my mood (ok depression) made it nearly impossible for me to get up the energy to do any exercise at home. I also became mentally unhealthy, depressed and moody, unable to deal with stressors properly and not at all balanced. Being out for just a week made me feel happier and more balanced. So in addition to the extra stress that happened in my last week in Saudi (like the fact that all the teachers got heat exhaustion and had to go to the nurse or hospital), the restoration of my neurotransmitter levels in these last few weeks has really affirmed my choice to leave early.

Between my new job in Japan and the cancellation of my backpacking buddy, I decided to cut my summer break short and will be heading back to work on June 8th. With only three weeks of holiday and feeling a strong need to get people back in my life, I decided my break would be less about seeing Europe and more about seeing friends. My friend in Prague was happy to have me, but had another guest for a few days so I went to meet up with another friend, Miss Vixen Valentine, who was travelling in France to do some research for her Master’s thesis and to do a performance in Paris. So it was that one day into my holiday, I embarked on a road trip across Germany.

I rented a little mini car for pretty cheap and I had GPS on my phone, so after a light breakfast in my hotel, I hit the open road. Germany is really beautiful to drive through. It’s GREEN. I missed green so much. I think I had actually forgotten there were so many shades of green. I made up poetry in my head about the color green as I drove. And I think I also formed a new appreciation for the canola fields that broke up the green rolling hills with swaths of bright sunny yellow. The farm fields would end abruptly in forests as the vallys turned upward then open back up to farmland in the next valley. The gas stations were also really neat. There were these huge rest areas with gas stations, restaurants, bathrooms, and nature areas. The bathrooms cost .70 Euro, but you got a voucher for .50 that you could use at the next stop or toward your purchase in the shop. The coffee machines actually had whole beans and would and brew your coffee fresh when you pushed the button. There were full delis with actual food and not just gas station junk. It was really nice. I tried to follow one of the brown signs to see a cool site, but I never did find it. I didn’t mind the detour however, since I got to see a tiny little town with windy roads and cool buildings before getting back onto the main highway.

The drivers were really polite and took the whole concept of a passing lane very seriously. I had a couple mishaps early on where I didn’t get out of someone’s way fast enough, but I soon figured it out and then really enjoyed the driving experience.   As I got closer to France, the crops changed from  canola to grapes. The only indication that I had left Germany was a tiny blue sign that said France and the language on the road signs changed. It felt just like driving across states in the US, only I think states make a bigger deal about letting you know you are leaving or entering.

Metz, Lorraine Region

After a long but leisurely drive, I finally arrived in Metz. To be honest, I wouldn’t have even noticed this town, let alone spent two days there if I was travelling just to sight see. My friend however had gone to see the river Moselle because it is her family name, and so I found myslf across from the Cathedral of St. Etienne in a tiny little studio apartment overlooking the Moselle river.

Part of me just wants to tell you how terrible this place is, oh awful, don’t go, just so I can keep this little jewel all to myself. But, really, I think it may have been my favorite place in France and I’m strongly looking at how to get an EU work visa for next year just so I can live close enough to visit Metz more often. After settling in with my “luggage” (a backpack), we set off in search of dinner. Restaurants in France don’t typically open for dinner until 7 or 730, and it was Sunday, so even fewer were open. Eventually we found a little Canadian themed restaurant and decided to eat there.

I have been thinking about how to talk about the food in France. I went through several stages of love, disbelief, infatuation, rapture and awe while eating in France and I’ve decided that I really need to write a separate post to do the food justice. So for the moment, I will just tell you the restaurant was ah-maze-ing and I’ll do the blow by blow (or bite-by-bite) later on for all the fantastic places we ate.

We lingered a really long time over the meal and didn’t get back to the room until after midnight, but the gentleman serving our food never once made us feel rushed. We probably didn’t get enough sleep, but we were both just happy to be in such a pretty little town that we got up fairly early. We got ready slowly though, drinking our coffee and researching things to do in Metz as well as trying to figure out where we would go next and where we would stay in Paris. When we set off for lunch, Vixen suggested we ask the local tourist office where a good place to eat was, which turned out for the best because once again we ended up spending more than two hours over an impossibly good meal. When we finally finished our last cup of post dessert coffee we set off for the cathedral.

I don’t have a lot of experience with cathedrals. There are a couple in the US, but of course they aren’t very old. This one dated back to the 5th century. I had been admiring the exterior architecture every time we walked past it, but somehow I had not really been expecting the inside to be as high. I guess I thought there would be floors? So when we walked in and the ceiling just didn’t quit going up, I was really amazed. The building looked like it might have undergone a fire at some point because the stone walls were blackened in places. The stained glass windows also looked like they might have been replaced at various points in history because there seemed to be medieval, renaissance and post modern styles in the window art. There were very few other people in the massive structure, so it was very easy to feel the scale of the building. We walked all around admiring the art in glass, stone and wood. There was a birdsnest organ as well as the main organ, and for a while I just had to sit down and reflect on the sheer number of centuries that this building had been standing and been used as an active place of worship. Seeing this cathedral made me even more excited at the thought of going to Notre Dame in Paris in a few days.

After that, Vixen needed to go to see the Centre Pompidou-Metz, which turned out to be a sort of gallery space that looked like a large white tent and seemed to have a rotation of 5-6 different gallery displays. We ended up sitting in the little outdoor cafe area because I was starting to feel pretty icky. At first I thought it was just some jet lag and maybe allergies, but it quickly became apparent I was getting very dehydrated and also developing a wicked sore throat from my sinuses. So we left the Centre and set off to find a pharmacie on our way back to the flat. The French speaking pharmacist tried to help me out with my bad French, but eventually had to go get her English speaking co worker. She was able to help me find some rehydration powder as well as some throat lozenges which helped a bit. We stopped in a Carrefour to get some water and ended up with delicious fresh strawberries as well.

We passed by the Rue Taison, which is supposed to be a kind of Taiwan town, but other than the large plaster dragon hanging over the street and a few dragonesque signs around, I wasn’t really sure why. The shops are more French than anything else, and I didn’t see a strong presence of Taiwanese food or goods. It was still nice to walk through the little streets and see all the different architecture. Some buildings as old as the cathedral had been re-purposed into shops or hotels next to “newer” buildings that were a mere 200-300 years old. We stopped at a street vendor selling soft serve ice cream, let me just say that nutella-pistachio swirl is a magical idea.

By this point in the day it was becoming apparent that I did not merely have some desert to temperate climate adjustment issues going on in my sinuses, but actually a full-blown travel flu. The downside to so many flights in a row is the enormous exposure to other people’s germs. So we headed back to the flat so I could get some rest while Vixen went to view the river of her family. Somewhat sadly, I slept firmly until the following morning and missed out on the river island and what I am sure was another amazing dinner. Travelling while sick is really no fun since it takes a lot of your get up and go right out. I was feeling a bit less insanely flu-like after a good shower, so determined to keep on with my adventures through France.

Reims, Champagne Region

After some breakfast pastry detours (which I will explore more fully in the post about the food), we made it back on the road heading to Reims. We weren’t originally planning to do anything between Metz and Paris. We’d stopped in Metz to see my friend’s family river and she had a show in Paris. It’s only about a 3 hour drive, but we looked up what was between them just for fun. It turns out that the Champagne region is between them. I sort of vaguely remember when France threw a giant naming fit and everything that had previously been called “champagne” in the US suddenly became “sparkling wine”. This basically meant that in my life, I had never had true champagne. Even my champagne brunch in Dubai was really served with sparkling wine because I was too cheap to go for the Moet upgrade. We decided that we couldn’t really justify driving through Champagne without drinking any, so I looked up several different options for tours and tastings. There was one particularly helpful BBC article that outlined four houses, so we tried to reach out and contact each of those to make an appointment, but we weren’t doing it far enough in advance, because they didn’t email us back until 2 days after we’d left Reims. So if you’re dead set on a particular house, I suggest planning well in advance.

We decided to drive up to them anyway and see if we could get in. The first one we went to was GH Mumm, and the description was a tour of the process of making champagne plus a tasting. They told us we could join the 4pm tour, so we booked our spot and went off to check into our hotel. Our tiny little hotel, Alhambra, was in an interesting part of town, since we were in sight of a sex shop and a tattoo parlor, and also just around the corner from a school. The rooms were small but clean, there was a bathroom on each floor and a shower on the main floor. We were only staying for one night, so it wasn’t really an issue. The manager there was a Berber from Algeria and was very proud of the languages he spoke (7) and very complimentary of my “beautiful” English. Some of our conversation was in English, some in French, and some in Italian (which Vixen speaks quite well), but eventually he helped us by calling one of the other houses we were interested in, and we found out they had an English speaking tour at 4pm also. Realizing that we were only going to make it to one champagne house, we then had to choose based entirely on online descriptions.

The house we decided on in the end was Tattinger. Tattinger started out as a chalk quarry in the 4th century under Roman occupation. Later, in the 13th century an abbey was built on the chalk pits and the monks used the temperature controled caves to keep their champagne at a constant temperature. The abbey itself was destroyed during the French revolution, but the caves and cellars were used during WWII to house women and children, so there are carvings in the soft chalk walls from the people who lived there during the war. Then shortly after the war, the Tattinger family began to use the site for their own champagne. Wise choice. It was really amazing to see all of that history just piled up on itself underground. There were stone stairs leftover from the abbey that had once lead from the abbey to the cellars and now led from the cellars simply into the ceiling. The carvings from those during WWII were alongside chisel marks from Roman tools. And the whole thing was filled with over 2 million bottles of champagne.

Our guide told us about the champagne process, how they use the natural yeast in the fruit for the first fermentation, but add yeast and sugar later on to create the champagne from the still wine. I learned that most champagnes are actually a mixture of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. Since the later two are black grapes, they must be picked gently by hand to make sure that none of the pigment leakes from the skins to change the color of the juice. The process takes a long time and involves several stages of fermentation, resting, turning and rebottling. I think the most fascinating stage to me was the removal of the sediment from the bubbly. The still wine is bottled with extra sugar and yeast, but it is corked to keep the gas that is released during fermentation in the bottle (making it sparkling).

However, as the yeast dies it forms a layer of sediment in the bottle that no one wants to drink. So there are these racks that gradually change the angle of the bottles over a period of 8 weeks. Two guys come in and turn the bottles and slowly change the angle from horizontal to pointing almost straight down. This process sends all of the sediment into the neck of the bottle. Then (this part is really cool) they freeze the neck of the bottle. This causes the sediment to freeze solid, so when they turn the bottle upright it stays in place, then they simply treat it like a cork and pull it out whole! leaving the clear sparkling champagne behind to be properly corked and placed in storage to age.

She showed us all the sizes of bottles that they distribute in, including a really giant one for extra special occasions. She talked about the different types of champagnes that Tattinger makes, and how they measured the quality of each year’s grapes, still wines and champagne blends to see if they deserved to be marked as vintage or not. I really just expected the structure and tasting to be the cool parts of this tour, but it turns out the whole process of champagne making is way more interesting than I thought it would be. Definitely a worthwhile stop over.

After the tour, we headed up to the tasting room. Vixen and I had bought the three glass tasting. Everyone got to try the Brut Reserve which is their most popular. I was pleasantly surprised at how light it was. I am so used to Brut sparkling wines in the US being very dry and kind of aggressive. This was far from sweet, but it was mellow and bright. Very enjoyable with a sort of amber warmth. The second glass was the Grand Crus, mixed from Chardonay and Pinot Noir in equal measure. It was just as mellow as the Brut, but I felt that it had more notes of fresh green. The third glass was extra special, the Blanc de Blancs which was made entirely from chardonnay grapes (unlike the others which are blended). It isn’t produced every year, but only when the grapes are deemed exceptional at the harvest. It’s only from the first press, and 5% of the wine used to make it are aged in oak barrels before they go into the champagne fermentation. The Tattinger website has a really lovely description of its flavor, and since I am not a sommelier, I defer to their adjectives, I’ll just say that I’m pretty sure it was the best champagne I’ve ever put in my mouth and when I am rich and famous, I’ll order it by the case for Christmas gifts.

We lingered a long time over our tastings and eventually the very nice folks there had to remind us that they closed up at 5:30. Half of our goal for the day was well and happily completed, so all that remained was to find a nice meal. I gotta say, in many ways Reims was a serious let down from Metz. I mean, I understand it’s a small town, but I would think with so many tourists coming through on wine tours that it might have been a little nicer. The traffic was prodigious, so once we made it back to our room, we didn’t want to move the car again until we left the next day, so we set out to find a restaurant we could walk to. Unlike Metz where walking seemed to be the main form of locomotion, Reims almost seemed designed for cars.

We walked to a small tapas place, but ended up not liking the diner menu so we kept going. Eventually we found a tiny fondue restaurant and decided to try it. More about all the wonderful food that was that place in the France food post, but it was amazing, keeping up with all our food experiences so far, and our waiter was a really cool guy who totally didn’t freak out at all when Vixen knocked the burner over and set the table on fire. We tried another new after dinner liquor and as I was complimenting our waiter on the amazing chocolate mousse that came with our desert, he decided to share another local wine with us! So it was that we found ourselves sitting in a tiny Swiss themed restaurant after hours finishing off a bottle of something local and delicious while chatting with our waiter as he ate his own dinner, meeting the owner (and his twin brother) and finding out about the local club/show/dj scenes in Reims. I. love. my. life.

The next morning I set out a little early to find us some pastry and coffee for the road. This is how I learned about the school nearby and passed the Reims cathedral. I stopped at a bakery and got chocolate croissants, but they didn’t have any coffee, so the man directed me 100 metres past the school to a shop that would have some. When I got there, I saw some folks enjoying an early morning glass of wine, giving me just one more reason to adore the food culture of France. Suitably armed, we hit the road for our last stop in France: Paris.

to be continued…

From Saudi to Czech

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve added anything here. Since leaving the Kingdom I’ve been having a lovely time travelling in several countries and hanging out with some friends who have also made the exodus from the US. I also caught a fun cold/flu thing which has had me moving a little slow and maybe not writing as much as I wanted. Tomorrow I’m heading off to Japan to start my new job and the next chapter of my adventures. It may take me some time to share all the amazing stories from the last 3 weeks, especially since I’ll be settling in to a new home/job/life soon, but I promise it will all get out there.


 

Leaving Saudi was a strange feeling. I didn’t feel any particular sense of relief or sadness, it just felt like walking out the door on a normal day. I had some last minute Saudi style adventures because my driver forgot about me (despite having been reminded only the day before) and the airport in Tabuk did not check my bags all the way through to my final destination. During my 5 hour layover in Jeddah, I managed to track down someone about the bags, because I did not have time to pick them up at Charles de Gaul and change planes. At first they tried to say there was nothing they could do, but I’d been in Saudi too long to accept that as an answer, and eventually got a manager who made someone go and find my luggage and reissue the stickers. And thank goodness, because I barely made it to my connecting flight in Paris.

After seeing several other ladies in the Jeddah airport dressed in non-Saudi clothes, including one Indian woman in a midriff revealing sari, I decided I could pack my abaya before boarding. It felt strange to be surrounded by people in a public place that way, but I noticed even more ladies had changed as soon as they boarded the airplane. Still surrounded by so many thobes and abayas, I felt oddly exposed in my modest western clothes. Once again I was asked to change seats to spare some man the trial of sitting next to a woman, and then had to explain to the French lady who I was seated next to what was going on. She had simply been catching a connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur and had no context for the Saudi airline custom.

When we arrived in Paris, she warned me about the poor organization of the CGD airport, and I said that after living in Saudi, nothing like that could really phase me anymore. A Saudi man turned to me and said that I sounded like I didn’t like Saudi, so I started to try to explain my mixed feelings and point out positive things, but as soon as I mentioned I had lived in Tabuk, his expression completely changed. Oh no wonder you didn’t like it, I’m sorry you had to live there, etc. We chatted a little about my week in Jeddah and how different it was, but even a native Saudi who was proud of his country expressed understanding for my frustrations when he found out where I’d lived.

My flight neighbor was right about the airport. Not only did the airline check all our passports as we disembarked, but we also had to go through passport control for the EU there in CDG regardless of our final destination. The security area seemed to be malfunctioning, so they asked me to take off my “jacket” so they could use the wand. This was really just a long sleeved shirt over my sleeveless shirt, and I was pretty upset about having to remove it, since I felt like they were asking me to take off my shirt while the ladies still wearing abayas were not asked to undress. After all the respect and privacy accorded to women in the Middle East airports (not just Saudi, but Jordan, Egypt and Dubai), this was a real wake up call that I was back in the West.

The line for customs was enourmous and I would not have made my flight if I’d waited patiently, but the people around me encouraged me to simply skip up and explain to others that I had only 15 minutes to make my connection, and this actually worked, no one got upset at all. I saw some other people try to walk up to one of the airport officials with the same plea and get turned back, so I’m glad I decided to rely on the patience of my fellow travellers to get up to the head of the line. I made it to the gate at final bording call! I didn’t actually realize this was passport control until much later because there was no bag searching and no declaration forms, they simply stamped a date in my passport and waved me through.

I had a big surprise arriving in Prague because I didn’t have to do any customs or passport control there at all. My friend explained to me that it was because I had done it in Paris, so that crazy wand search and little passport stamp were all the security I needed to be in the EU. We picked up my rental car and for the first time in over 8 months I was driving again. It’s so peculiar because the entire time I lived in China, I never even wanted to drive. To be fair, there was great cheap public transportation and prolific taxis, plus the driving was kinda scary. But somehow, being stuck in a place where I could not drive and could not move independently with public transport made the feeling of being back behind the wheel nearly euphoric.

My friend met me at the airport and guided me back to her apartment. She’s also a teacher and you can read about her adventures here. Some nice young men from her TESOL program showed up just as we did and helped move all the luggage up the three flights of stairs. Then we set off to find food, which turned out to be this amazing little restaurant called Martin’s Bistro wherein I had some really phenomenal food, the likes of which I really hadn’t had since the last time I was in Dubai.

On our way back we ran into a wine festival in a public park area and ended up getting happily buzzed on local Czech wines. I discovered Clarets and straw-wine, both of which I hope to cultivate a longer relationship with in the future. I also got a frozen yoghurt that was fresh made and mixed on the spot with frozen cherries for a fruity soft serve in a light and crispy waffle cone. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot, and the live music was fun. It felt like the entire world was trying to welcome me home. As if that weren’t enough, we went with some of her classmates to a traditional Czech pub for dinner where I ate the heavy but delicious local food and watched the Russians get way too excited about the hockey game on TV.

Because I’d really only slept for a few hours on the flight from Jeddah to Paris, the whole thing felt like one really long day in which I’d woken up in my apartment in Tabuk and somehow been warped into this quaint Eastern European utopia of wine and food where I finally fell asleep. Little could I have known what else the universe had in store for me as I continued my journey.

 

The Long Journey to Tabuk

Its been a while since I was able to make an entry, in no small part because my visa finally arrived and I had to scurry to pack and get on a plane. What follows may be a little long, but it is the story of how I have come to Tabuk, KSA from Seattle, USA.

Seattle to Frankfurt

The first leg of my journey involved a flight on Condor airlines to Frankfurt. Now, I admit, I haven’t flown into Europe as an adult before, so I was going from memories of flying in and out of China as to how much luggage I should be allowed, because I needed to start packing before I got the plane ticket from my company. After packing and repacking about 3 times, I got the reservations, and read the Condor luggage policy. This may be a great budget airline if you’re going on a short trip or vacation, but for moving overseas, the luggage restrictions and prices for breaking these make you think stereotypically negative things about Germans.

One 23kg checked bag, no more than 158cm (add height, width & length), and one carry on, no more than 6kg. !!!!! I had to buy new luggage two days before leaving because mine was a few cm over size. I had to repack 3 more times, stepping on and off my bathroom scale trying to make sure the suitcases didn’t go over weight.

Finally after 4 days of fighting with my luggage, and a roaring karaoke send off by my friends, I was on my way to the airport (thank you Magic Rob for the ride). The entertainment was also lacking. Although there were nice high-tech touch screen tvs in every seat, if you wanted to watch anything, it cost extra. During the Great Luggage Siege, my roommate had gone online and ordered gluten free meals for me on the flight (also cost extra). This turned out to be a really good call, since not only did I get to eat the food that was served, it was much better than the stuff everyone else got, and I stashed away my extra snacks for later, which turned out to be the best thing I could have done because…

Frankfurt Airport

This may be the worst airport in the developed world. Do not fly through here if you can avoid it. There were no eateries. The only shopping was the duty free shop, so unless you wanted chocolate, there was no food available anywhere in the concourse.IMG_0008 This is fine if you’re passing through quickly, but I had a seven hour layover after my ten+ hour flight from Seattle. No food, no coffee, and the ONLY bathroom was at the far end of the terminal on the third floor.

In fact the only nice thing about the airport were the cots that lined all the walls where travelers could enjoy a nap. We even had to go back through security even though we’d all just gotten off the plane. On the far side of security there was another duty free, a tiny expensive cafe, and (thankfully) another bathroom, but not much else. I was told by another weary traveler that Munich airport is much better, so if you have to do a layover in Germany, maybe best to try that one instead.

Frankfurt to Riyadh

Lufthansa, in case you were wondering, same basic service as Condor, but less extra costs. The special meal was free, and the tv was free. I realize these are small things, but when you’re traveling for days, it really starts to matter. Any further review of this leg of the journey would devolve into movie reviews, since I took the opportunity to see a couple summer films that I’d missed out on.

Riyadh Arrival

IMG_0012Approximately 24 hours after I left Seattle, we touched down in Riyadh. From the final approach, the city was a field of lights. It is very flat, uninterrupted by trees, or bodies of water, just miles and miles of lights. Before getting off the plane, I fished my abaya and hijab out of my carry on bag, like most of the other women on the flight, so that I could be appropriately dressed as soon as I set foot on Saudi soil.

The airport was clean and beautiful. Contrary to many other stories I had read, I had a very smooth trip through security and customs. First, at a sort of immigration area, all first time visitors to the country had to register finger prints and face photos. Rows of individual desks, the clerks behind glass were all dressed in the traditional Saudi men’s wear of the white Thobe and red and white checkered Shemagh. The line I joined was having some trouble with the fingerprint reader, and the man there was clearly frustrated, but still nice to me. When I finally was sent to the next kiosk over, that gentlman spoke some English, and we exchanged pleasantries, including the seemingly obligatory conversation when someone finds out I teach English, a joking request for tutoring and an unspoken fish for a compliment on their current level. Customs didn’t even have a declaration form, and all we had to do was run our bags through an x-ray one more time.

Then I was out, and my driver was waiting right outside the doors with a sign. He was a very friendly young man from the Philippines who had been working as a driver for three years. His family is still back in the Philippines. When he asked me which state in America I was from, and I told him Washington, he proudly announced that the capitol was Olympia and that the state was located in the northwest next to Canada. Honestly, it sounds silly, but I was impressed. I felt like this guy was really interested in the world, and trying to learn things even though he was stuck driving a van so far from his home and family for so long.

On the drive to the apartment where I would stay until my next flight, he pointed out many landmarks to me, inlcuding the Princess Nora University, which is the largest women’s university, and boy are they not kidding. He told me as we spent several minutes driving past the campus that students took a train to get across the campus because it was so large.

In Riyadh

IMG_0015I was put up in one of the teacher apartments. It was large, to be sure, but I have to say I’m pretty happy that I’m not living there. It bore some sad resemblances to my place in China: dirty, falling apart, and the shower was just a showerhead in the wall with a drain in the bathroom floor. The bed was pretty, but it became obvious quickly that this was an illusion, since it was just a sham cover over an old mattress. I actually got a fabric burn on my leg from sleeping on the rough material. There was no food awaiting me, and not even any toilet paper in the bathroom (fortunately, I always travel with some).

But, fine! I think to myself, I’m going to be out on a flight the next day to a luxurious western compound in Al Ahsa, I can handle this.

Yes, I said Al Ahsa, not Tabuk, just keep reading.

So, after a few fitful hours of sleep, I head downstairs to meet the driver to be taken to my medical exam. Sadly, the friendly Philipino was gone, and in his place a recalcitrant Indian. Not mean, just not really interested in making conversation. I tried to ask him if we would be coming back to the apartment before heading to the airport later that day, and he said my flight to Al Ahsa was canceled, and I was staying in Riyadh. !!!!

I rode to the medical exam in shock and silence. Not only was the apartment really shabby, but the neighborhood was bleak and barren. There were no nearby shops or markets, and the area seemed under a long term construction project. Was I really going to be stuck there?

I watched the city go by through the darkly tinted window of the company van. In the residential areas, once we got out of our shabby area, I could see the palace like homes of the wealthier Saudis hiding behind sand colored walls. In the more industrial areas, the city reminded me a lot of China. All the pictures I’d seen of Riyadh online made it look like a sleek metropolis, but in reality it seemed every building was under construction. Incomplete skyscrapers were adorned with scaffolding and cranes. Piles of dirt and rubble piled up in construction sites and huge concrete frames of buildings sat, seemingly abandoned in the middle of being built. In its advertising sense, everything was either sand colored or tremendously gaudy. Nearly everything was in English and Arabic, so I had very little trouble reading the ads and shop signs. Fast food and American brand restaurants were clustered together between clothing and furniture shops. Nearer the end of the ride, we passed through a small market area where men sold fruits and vegetables on carts in the street in front of smaller less Western looking shops. Nearly everyone I saw was male. Only a couple of black shrouded figures broke up the all male continuity of the area.

The medical exam went quickly, as all they needed was blood, urine and photos. On the way back, I asked the driver if we could pick up some food, since I hadn’t had a meal since the flight into Riyadh the day before. He seemed to soften up a little at this point, and began talking about the market options. He wasn’t sure if the supermarket was open at that time on a Friday, but he promised if it wasn’t, we would find a convenience store, then he would come back for me after Duhr prayer to try again.

Things Get Scary

The market turned out to be open, hooray. He dropped me off at the door, saying I should go on and do my shopping, and that he would park the car and find me inside. Still unsure of how long I would be in Riyadh, I didn’t want to buy too much and not be able to take it on the plane, so I got some chicken biryani, some yogurt, some fruit and some chocolate. I paid for my purchases and stepped back into the air conditioned space between shops, looking for my driver, but he was nowhere to be seen.

I am a good adventurer. I am usually well prepared, having the name, phone number and address of where I’m staying available on hand. A lot of hostels offer little cards at the check in desk so you can just show them to a taxi driver. I usually get myself from place to place, and tend to spiral outward from easy landmarks. None of this was any good in this situation. I had no phone, and the phone numbers I had for anyone in Riyadh were all in my email. Aside from this, I had no idea where I was staying, no landmark or point of reference, no name of a hotel, just an anonymous apartment complex somewhere in the sand colored city. And even if I knew, how could I, as a woman alone, possibly catch a taxi?

I didn’t panic, at first. I walked around the mall’s central area a few times, but to no avail. I’d like to think that low blood sugar and sleep deprivation were the primary cause of my emotionality, but this was one of the scarier situations I’d found myself in. I knew, logically, that the driver couldn’t possibly leave me. He was employed by my school, and I’m sure he would be in lots of trouble abandoning a teacher, so I knew this couldn’t be the case. But I had no control, no back up plan, no ability to be self reliant. Thoughts whirled around my head: could I maybe approach another foreigner for aid? would they let me use their phone to look up the number and call for help? What would happen if the mall closed for prayer while I was still alone?

I wanted nothing more than to find the ladies room and have a good cry, but I couldn’t risk being out of sight in case my driver turned up. So, I sat in what I hoped was a visually conspicuous place near the main entrance and waited. Suddenly the whole journey caught up with me. The luggage, the lack of sleep, the horrible Frankfurt airport, the lack of food, the shabby apartment and the massive uncertainty. Tired, hungry, lost and alone, feeling more helpless than I had in any other similar situation, I pressed a tissue into my eyes to keep from becoming a spectacle in public.

After an indeterminate amount of time, the driver finally descended the escalator. He had several shopping bags. I was so amazed that he would take his time shopping here without even letting me know!

On the way back, I think he might have sensed I was unhappy, because he tried to tell me some other helpful things about our neighborhood. He pointed out where there was a small market about two blocks away and drove slowly by it so I could see the streets and landmarks clearly. He also made sure I had the internet password before he dropped me off.

I managed to log in, and get to my email before finishing my meltdown. The school had decided, since I requested to work in Jeddah that they would move me to Tabuk instead… This makes no sense, and also means I don’t get to live in the super luxurious compound at Al Ahsa which had a pool, a gym, a jacuzzi and a resident masseuse. Some friends from Seattle spent a while talking me back to sanity, and the chicken biryani helped a great deal. I pretty much spent the rest of the day sleeping as the jet lag finally caught up with me.

Riyadh to Tabuk

The Riyadh airport that seemed so welcoming when I arrived at the international terminal became a daunting mass of conflicting instructions once I was in the domestic terminal. I knew that I would need to pay for my second bag, but what I did not know was that this would mean about 30 minutes of wandering all over the terminal looking for where to do this… at 430 am.

Security was also interesting. There was a ladies line for security which turned out to be a shorter line and a largely hassle free experience. After putting my carry on bags on the machine, I stepped into a separate area to go through the metal detector. When it beeped as I walked through, I realized I’d left a metal hair clip in my hair. I took it out, thinking I would need to walk through again, and indicated the offending metal object to the female security personnel there, and she simply waved me on!

My steel water bottle fell out of my bag on its way through x-ray and it took some pains to retrieve it. At first I simply tried to get someone’s attention to ask about it, but the one person who I got responded that he didn’t speak English. Unwilling to give up on my favorite canteen, I looked around the area for it, and finally spotted it under the conveyor belt. After a few more tries, I managed to get the security guys to look at me, whereupon I pointed to the bottle where it had rolled on the floor. I don’t think they were trying to be rude, it felt more like they simply couldn’t imagine that a woman would be trying to talk to them.

They seemed surprised when they finally realized I was addressing them, but once they spotted the bottle I was pointing to, they quickly retrieved it for me.

The terminal was interesting, full of kiosks selling coffee, ice cream, snacks and sweets. A crowd of young men were gathered near a sign that advised there was a 200 Riyal fine for smoking there, but that the smoking room was that way. They posed, in defiance or self-importance, or simply lack of caring, a variety of traditional thobes and modern jeans and t-shirts, smoking their Marlboros next to that sign. I managed to find a bottle of water, using the last of my US currency to purchase it, and receiving my change in Riyals.

When it was time to board, we huddled up around the gate. I didn’t expect neat lines, because I was warned, so I just pretended I was boarding a bus in China, and was fine. Once we got past the gate, we were led downstairs and outside into a bus… which then drove us for quite a ways to an airplane just hanging out on the tarmac with a staircase. I may never know why.

The flight attendants had the cutest little blue hijabs with a little built in hat. They also wore pants suits instead of abayas. It was interesting to see how professional women dressed and acted differently. The nurse at the medical exam place had been the same.

Tabuk

IMG_0026After collecting my luggage I headed out and found a friendly [redacted] named [redacted] holding a sign with my name. He turns out to be the [redacted] on the men’s side, but had taken it upon himself to come and greet me because the driver didn’t speak any English. We chatted on the short ride to the hotel, and I got some details about life in Tabuk. The hotel where we live is nice enough. Nothing compared to the compound I was expecting in Al Ahsa, but its walking distance from a good shopping market and several smaller shops and restaurants.

After helping me get my things to my room, we went down to the grocery store so I could pick up some things. I didn’t really know what to get, yet. Last time I did this kind of thing, I made oatmeal for breakfast and ate every other meal out. But its not far, so I can go back on my own when I figure out what I need.

We’re going to get dinner at the Schwarma place next door in a bit, and tomorrow I start work.