Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The More I Give to Thee, the More I Have

Foreign language is as boundless as the sea and just as hard to drink.  Maybe there's some excitement in knowing that it's a bottomless project; no matter your level of mastery, there will always be something new to discover.*  The sheer breadth of material to cover, however, allows for unwise drift.  Every so often I'll look up and realize I'm rowing away from the group, following some interesting but little relevant current (with 'relevancy' here meaning 'on our final exam').  The others are indulgent, but I'm not supposed to wander too far from the flotilla.

This happened to me in second grade, too.  My school, in a fit of progressivism, allowed us free rein in choosing our studies.  I don't remember doing anything that year but reading contentedly in a corner, though probably we had meditation sessions and talked about our feelings.  My third grade teacher -- in a different district -- taught me with barely checked disdain how to sit in a desk, face the chalkboard, and head and number my papers.  There were workbooks; multiplication tables suddenly became of paramount importance.  It was bewildering.  Third grade bit hard.  (Mrs. Proudfoot, if you're out there, just know that I never liked you, either.)

It's the second grade-style planetary nature of language learning that motivates me, though whether this is due to my own lazy stubborness or to a more respectable curiosity-fueled sense of wonder, I'm unsure.  I would love these last few months to be a time of wonder, with language discovered in context, all of us peripatetically exploring the Arabic terrain instead of trudging down a path marked by grammar charts.  Too bad that "I don't know, Madam Ambassador; I saw a shiny thing the week we covered that topic" is probably not going to cut it when I get to post.

*I admit that I'm not finding this all that exciting just now

Sunday, November 09, 2014


"Hey, check it out -- a rainbow."

"Oh, yeah; nice.  How do you say 'rainbow' in Arabic?"

"I don't know.  It's never come up."

"Hey, check it out -- is that some 'sectarian violence'?  Or maybe a 'car bomb'?"

"Now you're talking."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

An Open Letter to the Random Omani Man Who Tried to Tempt Me into Illicit Relations by Showing Me Pictures of His Goats

Dear Random Omani Man:

First, I want to thank you for your interest.  It's not everyday that an aging Western spinster finds herself subject to the attention of a successful host country national such as yourself.  I was impressed not only by the quantity of your goats, but also by their obvious quality.  As you noted, the one with the white forelock was especially fine and -- I might add -- well photographed.  Clearly you know your way around an iPhone as well as a goat pen.  You must be considered quite the catch in your village, especially if -- as you indicated -- you also have a cozy seating area in which one might partake of shisha and "tea."

Perhaps it was absorption in the photos that led you to draw next to me so uncomfortably closely while showing them, which I could understand given the subject matter and our intimate open air setting.  However, try as I might, I really can't find any reason for you to have touched my knee -- twice -- to bring my attention to the various proffered pictures.  Did you think my blonde coloring meant I was some floozy who would welcome your bold advances?  Did you assume my wearing of three-quarter length sleeves indicated a certain looseness?  Well, not so, sir.  I'm afraid real life is not like in the movies where women fall all over a man at the mention of 'Long Haired Merino' and illegally procured liquor; I apologize if Hollywood led you astray.  If it is any comfort, you are not the first to have been taken in by such false narratives.

In sum, call me when you get a camel.  Until then, I ask you to keep your wandering hands off my knees.

All the best,


Saturday, October 04, 2014

لا مفر منه

It's not fair -- or true -- to say that they area in which they have us living isn't the 'real' Oman.  It's as much a part of Oman as any other place in the country; it just happens to be the part that most closely resembles Cincinnati, were Cincinnati to be populated solely with Tagalog, Urdu, and Hindi speakers.  I've been trying to use Arabic in my day-to-day interactions regardless, but I wonder if it isn't slightly insulting to the non-Omani workers here.  For sure it's confusing for those I encounter; usually I have to go through two or three Arabic phrases before they finally say, still in English, mouths slack with indulgent skepticism, "Oh, are you studying Arabic?"  How cute of me.  I miss going to مطعم الأسرة in Amman and having the men in the little paper caps and blue jackets mutter barely intelligible Arabic responses to my food orders that I always took to mean, "Oh, you again with your بندورة and your كبدة دجاج..."

I drove two hours yesterday to visit an eid market in the town of Nizwa.  I told my classmates, who were going on a hike to a wadi, that I wanted to see the goat auction, but truthfully I just wanted to get out of Ohio.  The region was, in ancient times, a renowned producer of copper, and you can see it in the crumbling sides of the mountains, which are streaked with dirty penny-like browns and greens.  Coming over a crest to a wadi, I had to focus on the curve ahead of me to keep from driving off the mountain and straight into the expanse of date palms, it was so arresting a view.

The market goats were tempting, but in the end I settled on purchasing a single pomegranate to justify the trip.  After trading Arabic eid greetings back and forth, the vendor (an Omani) asked, with sudden excitement if I was a Muslim.  "Uh, no," I explained shortly, then felt the need to apologize for my obvious religious shortcoming when my response left him clearly crestfallen.  "Oh, that's just the world," he said, brushing off my apology.  I suppose Ohio had come to him.

Friday, September 05, 2014

عُمان‎ بحر

I love that the ocean -- despite its weight and vastness -- moves.  Watching the tide pull away from the Muscat shoreline and slip back into the Sea of Oman, I considered the immense power behind the water's retreat.  The sea tolerates lesser beings, as it knows it will outlast them.  Seagulls had embroidered meandering tracks in the wet sand, but only two terns had stayed to attest to the work; my own tracks were less delicate and attested more to improper footwear than to industry of motion.  Idly collecting shells from the exposed sand produced an unexpected Fibonacci sequence:  one brown, one yellow, two white, three red...  As I mathematically arranged the shells on my palm, the sun ate my exposed skin without comment.  The terns were equally unmoved and looked drowsy in the heat.

E.B. White says the sound of the sea is the most time-effacing sound there is; I don't know how long I stood there on the shore, clutching my shells and trying to leave an impression on the gulls and the tide.  Everything is full of promise in the beginning.  The challenge is learning how to engage it.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Katie's DC Assignment Survival Guide

Fear not!  The keys to your Washington success lie below.

1. Mind Your Lanyard:  there aren't many ways to assert your identity in a faceless, black-suited bureaucracy.  Your choice of lanyard provides a rare means of self expression.  Whether you intend to impress ("Embassy Kabul First Responders") or distract (your name handwoven in beaded lettering by indigenous Guatemalans), this strap is your opening gambit and should be carefully chosen to set the stage for your professional interactions.  Good to keep a length of beaded chain on hand as well, however, for when you want to look fresh out of A-100 and thus completely abdicate responsibility for the events around you.

2. Learn to Read Subtext:  in bureaucracy as in diplomacy, it's important to develop an ear for what's really being said.

"I'm the acting lead for antarctic issues for WHA/RSA."
[Check to make sure your packets include a page 5 -- they've only just started letting me collate copies.]

"I'm the deputy director for LAX/IAD."
[My boss thought this meeting was beneath her.]

"I'll have to see what the Counselor thinks."
[I expect you'll be working for me someday.]

"I'm Bob."
[I assume word of my importance has preceded me and no further introduction is necessary.  Oh, is the glint from my cufflinks hurting your eyes?  You'll get used to it.]

"I handle Pol-Mil for the Egypt Desk."
[The extent of my working knowledge is 50 different synonyms for 'coup'.  Missile, anyone?]

3. Know the Building:  nothing impresses more than intimate knowledge of the halls and institutions of Main State -- and nothing will serve you better than being able to correctly identify which of those halls to duck down when you see that cloying guy from your TDY to Latvia heading your way in the cafeteria.  Bad day in the office?  Try a trip to the basement area off the parking garage.  No one will EVER find you there.  "I have a meeting in SA-9" is also a good foil.  (If pressed, this is "by the alternate Pentagon shuttle stop.")

4. Seek Confirmation from Reliable Sources:  who better to ask whether your DC performance is up to snuff than the person who knows best -- you.  Don't allow capricious promotion panels or distracted office colleagues to dictate your sense of value.  Tell yourself, "I'm capable, people like me, and darnit, my Information Memos are changing the world."  It helps to look into a mirror when saying this, preferably one mounted over a liquor cabinet.

5. Relax:  finding yourself irritated (again) that they ran out of kale early at the salad bar?  Has the latest forced office happy hour left you jittery and drawn?  You ignore these signs of stress at your peril.  There is a persistent myth that only overseas tours come with R&R.  Not so!  Even DC denizens occasionally need to get away.  The R&R options for your Washington tour are as endless as the 'Now' bidlist.  Sana'a?  Lovely in the spring.  Baghdad?  People are literally fighting to get there.  Tripoli?  Stellar company come summer 2015!

If I can survive two years in DC, so can you.  Go get 'em, Tiger.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Revisting the Rubicon

Did I realize five years ago that opting for a year of Arabic would be a rubiconical juncture?  I don't think so.  Some of the best advice I've ever gotten was not to think about 'what to do' -- much too big to consider! -- but rather to think about 'what to do next'.  It's a good general approach, and I like that it allows for the 'deeply significant' appellation to only be assigned to decisions in hindsight.  If I had any interest in uchronia, I suppose now would be the time to exercise it (luckily, I do not).

So 'next' is another year of Arabic, and then Libya.

Embarking on more long-term language study at the unkind age of 35 is a level of masochism I had thought beyond even myself, and I'm curious to see how this goes.  Who knows -- maybe in five years I'll look back on the time and think 'Ah, good thing I went through that pain, or I could never have experienced [insert amazing outcome here]'.  I imagine so.  I'm happy with my path thus far, even though (in the cosmic sense) I couldn't really tell you where I'm going.

Plus, Oman has sea turtles; I've heard that on good authority.  I'm not sure they'll be totally worth the pain of what's coming, but I'm banking on them compensating for quite a lot.