Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It's raining...it's pouring...but I ain't complaining...'cause I love the rain.

Back in the States. For some reason I expected it to be easy. In some ways it was. And in other ways, it wasn't. The easy things are no fun to talk about, so let's move right past them to those aspects that, well, let's say needed some tuning up.

First was driving. I think I mentioned that when we came home last summer suddenly I was the most aggressive driver on the freeway. This time I was determined to be a careful, courteous motorist. Which is a very nice thought.

Archway, Souk Madinat, Dubai
Pretty much the first thing I did was try to flatten a small dog. The idiot woman walking said dog had him on a very long leash and while she was safely on the sidewalk approaching an intersection, small pooch was nearly to the middle of the street. Screeching brakes, nasty look as bit of yelping fluff was dragged backward 8 feet to be gathered into the arms of the owner (of both the look and the dog).

Er, whoops.

But I'm getting ahead of my own story. Before attempting to shorten a canine's life by several scores of seven years, we needed a car. And, to make it easy, we bought the exact same type of car we had owned two years ago, a nice Honda SUV. Admittedly, it isn't half as sexy as the ones we had in the Middle East, but such is life.

To this end, Mike took out about $20,000 in cash and we went and bought the car we wanted. At least, we thought that's what we would do. But the bank didn't have that kind of cash to give us and had to order it. We could pick it up in a few days.

Huh. How odd.

Then the salespeople at the car dealership were giving us fisheye, weren't terribly pleased to have to call in two of their accounting folks to count the pile of dough, and, per law, reported us to the IRS. For having too much paper money.

Again, how very odd. Isn't having money good? Shouldn't they have been happy to have been paid in cash?
Waaaaait, now we remembered. Nobody in the US would carry that kind of money around! Nobody except maybe criminals. And clueless folks who had lived in the Middle East so long they forgot their native ways, adopting instead the ways of their new land.

If you wanted to buy a car in the UAE you would get the cash and, you know, buy it. Why make it complicated? The banks there allow you to withdraw stacks of money without so much as raising an eyebrow, checking only one piece of identification. It is your money after all. So we felt a little silly not remembering that financial transactions are performed differently in the States.

At least now I had the car, and I was determined not to run a stop sign. One does not stop for stop signs in the UAE. I mean, you could, but you'd get rear-ended for your trouble. Since everyone agrees they're superfluous, below notice, and there to indicate an intersection, it's not a problem. I have heard of more than one expat returning to US getting busted by local law enforcement for not giving the octagonal red signs their due.

Back to that fateful morning, I had stopped for the stop sign, a complete, perfect stop. And I had waited my turn, also perfectly. But I had forgotten that in the United States, drivers are responsible for not running down pedestrians, be they two or four-footed.

Now, I'm not saying that it's all right to mow down folks in the Middle East, but it is understood that cars are bigger than people, and if the two try to occupy the same space at the same time, the people would lose. Lose badly, generally, against something made of metal that goes faster and weighs lots more than you do.

Simple physics.

Physics apparently take back seat to the sort of bossiness and self-righteousness that I think stems from watching too much daytime television. There sure are a lot of people willing to tell me how to drive.
They are obviously confused, I don't even let me husband tell me how to drive. Not that that stops him from trying, but, again, different story.

To compensate, I often drive like a nervous old lady. Which probably isn't much better, but keeps me out of traffic court.

I'd also like to say it's not like I wanted to run over that dog. Owner, maybe, but not the dog.

Whoops. Sorry. I forgot that honesty isn't always a virtue.

Moving on: in another session of Returned Can-I-Still-Blame-Jetlag Expat Cultural Misunderstandings 101, I was yelled at for recycling.

No, really, I was. One of the places we stayed while waiting to move back into our house didn't have a place to recycle. So I drove my assiduously collected and sorted bags of cans and paper and glass to a local store, went around the back to the recycling containers and started to dump my stuff in, careful to put the correct items in the correct receptacle. An accusatory shriek cut through the air. "Ex-CUSE me! That's a PRIVATE recycling dumpster!!"

Cue me standing there like a rabbit in the headlights with a half-empty bag of aluminum cans held aloft, looking confused. I had forgotten that here in the enlightened everyone-recycles Pacific Northwest you do indeed pay to recycle. Sheesh.

In Dubai it's free. Encouraged. In fact, if I'd taken my recycling to the grocery store where there are bins the fellow sweeping the street would have stopped, rushed over, taken the bags from Madame and placed them in the containers FOR her, and most likely refused any coin or thanks.

Now home, I was completely taken aback to be dealing with a banshee who was getting high off self-righteously treating me like a thief. Which did not please Madame, especially after I apologised for my mistake, thanked her for helping me correct it, and even offered to pay for any additional cost my borrowing the container might have incurred, also asking if there was a local recycling center where I could take my detritus.

"How the hell would I know?" she spat, "it's not my employer's dumpster, and I'm not the Queen of Recycling, lady. Look it up in the phonebook."

Gritting my teeth, determined to remain nice, I went into the store she indicated, feeling a bit like a dog who's done something untoward on the carpet. The Chinese fellow who owned the store couldn't make heads or tails out of what I was saying, and I gave up. It was causing both of us more grief than it was worth. I bought something small to excuse my presence in his store and bowed my way out.

Then...in the dead of night...I sneaked that recycling into a neighbor's half-empty recycling container, ready to be picked up the next morning and ran like hell back to the house where Mike was grinning at my farcical attempt at ninja recycling. I tried to appear nonchalant. Which is hard to do when you're panting. He didn't buy the act, but I tried.

Maybe I had a reason to feel a little paranoid. After all, total strangers were watching and waiting for me to make a mistake. Putting their dog out in the street where I would be sure to run over it...OK, maybe that one is a stretch.

Hurdle #2 was food. Ah food. Never far from my mind. While the first weeks of our being back were filled (stuffed, actually, packing on the pounds on top of the European gorge-fest...but that's another blog) with the foods, and especially the restaurant food, we couldn't get in the Middle East. I have to say they were, without exception, fattening: burgers and microbrews and local confections in particular.

Once the novelty of getting those nostalgic foods wore off, suddenly we found ourselves nostalgic for foods we could get in the Middle East but not here. Like...inexpensive and ultra fresh juices.

Orange juice seller, Dubai Creek

When my sister came out to visit us in Dubai, she too became addicted to the juices, and she was only there for two weeks! I mean, even at McDonalds the juice comes fresh squeezed. And the varieties are endless. Pineapple and strawberry and guava and mint, lemon and cantaloupe, watermelon and mango, mangosteen and, and (sob) my beloved chickoo.

I was also missing the ease of Ready-Brek, a powdered oatmeal, just add warm water, stir, and you have a nutritious breakfast for the kids. This is genius, to my mind, and why we don't have it here is beyond me. I have bemoaned, with other expats back from there, the pancake mix that comes in a red box (oh, so tasty), and I had to find a substitute for Thomas' drink of choice, camel milk. With the adaptability of children, he quickly learned to love the drive-thru barista stands, flavored steamed milk with whipped cream in the cup and on the lid and straw an acceptable alternative. At $2.50 it better be.

Pitiably, I have to do my own ironing again and am kind of missing being called Madam.
Good thing I never has a full-time maid. More than one American woman has tried to come back home and realised she can't do a danged thing for herself any more. How embarrassing to admit that, but true. A simple, proven fact: it's not all that bad to be treated like royalty.

But it's also nice for the checker at the grocery store to feel free to have an opinion and to feel free to share it with you, and I can bag the groceries any way I please.
I'm not sure that's a great trade, so I'll pretend I don't miss it that much.

Now, hurdle #3. Return to reality. As in, no, we're not flying to Thailand for Spring Break.

Burmese Elephant Rider, Thailand

I wish.

Thomas still has absolutely no grasp of distances. Being on a plane is almost as normal to him as breathing. He was on at least 20 flights for who knows how many hours during the last two years.

Thomas, Umm Sequim Beach, Arabic Gulf

Adjusting has been harder for him in a lot of ways, especially in that he frets about whether we are going to stay or move again. Understandable, if guilt inspiring. We bounced around when we first got back: at Mike's parents' house...then my parents' house, then back to Mike's parents' house, and then in a furnished vacation home, then finally, 4 months later, back in our old house. Before we could move back into our old house we had to wait...and wait...and wait for our shipping container to arrive. And in that shipping container was Thomas' bicycle. His first big boy bike, and boy, was he worried. We had to check the globe on a regular basic to track its progress across the oceans.

You never saw a bigger smile than when that little man got his bike back, and in one piece, too. Major relief.

The reality for us was trying to not only fit the who we used to be with the who we are now, but all the stuff from those two realities had to come together as well.

It was also an adventure just to reacquire our stuff from the shippers, but just thinking about it makes me tired, so you'll have to use your imagination.

Some things, like the extremely heavy and exotic diningroom table, inlaid with metals and ceramics, best described as massive, well, it doesn't fit this house. Literally. It is nicely wrapped up in the garage and there it shall remain.

Other things, like the Persian rugs, look even more beautiful here than they did in the UAE. How a burgundy red and navy rug can match a cream and pale green and  purple decor, I don't know. But it does. Somehow, it does.

Water container, Al-Shindagha, Dubai

If I say to Thomas, say hello in Arabic, he obediently replies "Hello in Arabic!" But if he sees a woman in a headscarf he, more often than not, will march right up and greet her, Sala'am alaikum! This leads to some interesting discussions. Which also leads to the real hurdle: how to describe our lives in Dubai without sounding snobby, spoiled or pretentious? Or, just as bad, unhappy to be home.

Burj Al Arab\

Even without the worrisome snooty factor, how do you sum up another country? How do you describe two years and what that time and place has done to you?

This is not to say that we don't LOVE being asked.

We do. We really do. Seriously, ask us over, throw out some coffee and we will talk your heads off.
To the casual, curious, man-on-the-street I say: Dubai was luxurious. Hot. Everything was over-the-top impressive. I wore clothes exactly like the ones I'm wearing now, no, wearing a burka or living in a compound had nothing to do with our everyday lives. We travelled a lot. Yes, I miss travel, and the kids were really good at it too. Made lots of friends. Yes, I really miss those friends, but I'm happy to be here with you. It was really, really hot. And yes, it was very beautiful.

Did I mention hot? No, not a dry heat.

To you, I can also say that there are days when I wish the muzzein would sound unexpectedly as I walk down the street. And that sometimes the kids cuddle up to the blasting heater as close as they can without actually bursting into flame.

Arabic Coffeepot (dallah) Bab al Shams, UAE

In general, people comment that our kids are far more outgoing than the average American child, more at ease with people. I don't know if that is a byproduct of travel, living abroad, or simply the way they are.
People tell me I'm more confident as well, though my Dad gently but firmly pointed out that I might want to loosen up a little on making sure the dog doesn't smell like a dog, that it wouldn't have concerned me "before".

I've gone back to Fahrenheit from Celsius, not that I ever got particularly good at the latter, and to miles from kilometers. I'd be lying if I didn't say that is a real relief.

We watch the events unfolding in the Middle East with entirely new eyes, thinking especially of our friends there. There are no words to explain how different it is to know people that are doing their best to live in some of those places described in the headlines.

Last, our family agrees on one thing: even though Thomas is reticent to touch a cold wet car handle to open his door, (at least he doesn't have to use a potholder to keep from scalding his fingers!) we do so love the sound of the rain.

And I've yet to run a stop sign.

At least, not one I noticed...


Joanna said...

Nice! What an interesting reflection on how perspectives change from new experiences ...

*Paula* said...

Ah yes, it's good to be back...sorta. Loved this post Natalie. You always make me smile or spit my drink out, one or the other! BTW you will probably be able to find Ready Brek in a British import store - I grew up on the stuff!

Natalie said...

Thanks Jo for the blog lovin', and for listening to my blathering about Dubai and then reading the blog too. 10 points to you.

Paula: seriously? I'm going to be scouring the stores now! It was a happy happy day when I found powdered Pocari, but Ready Brek...oh, that would be a total score.

Ghost said...

Natalie, please correct me if I'm mistaken but in America, not only do you provide the recycling materials for recycling, you must also PAY the recycling plant for the recycling? For real? That's just crazy.
In most countries, you don't pay. In fact in Singapore, when I provide old newspapers for recycling, I get money for it.

Natalie said...

Ghost, this is so you, finding those issues! Love it. To answer, recycling varies from area to area as to how it works. One state over from us, in Oregon, they pay you to recycle glass and pop cans, but they have to pay a deposit and we don't. Businesses are given tax benefits and ratings on their "green friendly" behavior: carpooling, recycling, energy management, etc. There was talk of penalising businesses in Seattle if they didn't recycle! Sort of like checking the toilets to make sure they've been flushed in Singapore, right? :) It depends on where you live, but for us we pay for the recycling company to come every other week to pick up our mixed recycling, and if we have a computer or something like that to recycle we drive it to an e-cycle station. Batteries go through a similar process. I bag dead ones and drop them off if I'm already going that direction. (Kids toys use WAY too many batteries!) Anyway, mostly, for me, it was a shock to get yelled at for trying to do the right thing. Ah well, what else is new..? :)

Nathalie said...

Loved reading this post!!! You almost make it sound like the Americans are ruder than the French! Ha!

Mom2ABJ said...

OK, I brought 2 boxes of Ready Brek back with me! I will try to get Issam to score you a couple of boxes when he comes back in a couple of weeks, inshallah!

Welcome home, my friend.

Natalie said...

Paula: Nah, the mistakes were all mine. I found many French to be pleasant and helpful, just like many Americans. In fact, we've travelled enough now that I have to say most unpleasantries can be attributed to the individual, not the society. Um, and I say this apologetically, with the exception of the Athenians. They were, for the most part, darned cranky.

Sariya: SERIOUSLY?!!! YES! Connections!!! Whoo!!!!

Mumsey said...

One of the best posts ever! You made me laugh and nearly cry. How good is that?
Yes we pay quite a bit to recycle.
While I like the yard waste recycle also you'd think we could merit them dropping off a free bag or two of compost once in a while wouldn't you?
Nope! We're supposed to go to the store and buy our compost back for a hefty price. Ah good old American capitalism.

Julia said...

Have you tried the CD I gave you for Christmas? I thought it might ease the transition since it has a lot of middle eastern aural flavors (like a singer from Iran)and I thought you might miss some of the sounds from that portion of your being :)

Natalie said...

Thanks Mumsy and Julia, and Julia I was listening to it yesterday. :) It's great.

Nathalie said...

Hey Natalie, just thought about you while listening to this very interesting report on the radio and thought you might be interested: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00g7b6l (in case it doesn't show up it is called "building on Sand")

honda suv said...

Nice! What an interesting reflection on how perspectives change from new experiences ...