Sunday, November 29, 2009

Turkey for Thanksgiving

So I'm standing in the West and looking at the East. A very Edward Said moment. East (turn) West (turn)... Istanbul is how I'd imagine Vienna to be if it were populated entirely by Muslims.* I've never actually been to Vienna, but I was blessed with a very active imagination.

It would be easy to over-romanticize the place. Staring up at the dome of the Hagia Sofia -- cathedral cum mosque cum museum -- is dizzying, dislocating... I resisted the urge to lie on the ground, but only just. At night, equilibrium restored, I made a nest of sorts in a rooftop cafe overlooking the Bosphorus. Eating a fruit and custard tart, drinking Turkish tea and reading Steinbeck, I was feeling generally very smug and worldly. The call to prayer suddenly booming from the Blue Mosque was a shivering shock. Bracketed by the strangled-baby call of seagulls and the subdued click-click of cups on saucers, it left me with that same shimmering dizzy vertigo as in the Hagia Sofia. I put down my book and really thought about where I was and the history of the place... Steinbeck says traveling alone unfixes you in time: "A memory, a present event, and a forecast all equally present." I think he's right.

*And indeed, I believe this was at one point in time the plan.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Never Love an FSO, She'll Only Break Your Heart

"I wanted to tell you guys..." The three of them looked up from their computers expectantly. Pumping my feet on the floor, I rolled my chair to the middle of our little knot of cubicles.

"It's been decided that Eric will take over when I leave ACS, so if you want to pull him over to show him anything you're working on or introduce him to any cases, I'm sure he'd appreciate it. I'll train him on things, too. Also," pause for effect, "I might be leaving a little earlier than we originally thought -- maybe a month earlier." I braced myself for the inevitable tears, the pleas for delay in departure. The FSNs glanced at one other.

"Okay." A collective shrug and typing resumed.

I'm sure they were crying on the inside.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

معجزة العيد

It rained on the morning of Eid al-Fitr. I had padded out through the kitchen early, opening the balcony door to wait for the call to prayer -- it's supposed to be especially long* and beautiful on the morning of this Eid, to mark the end of Ramadan. I didn't recognize the sound at first, mixed in with the "Allaaaaaaaaaaahu AK-bar!"s churning out of the mosques and running over the buildings. The cloud burst lasted only just long enough for me to register: water! Then a single flash of lightning and the drops died away. The few cars moving along the street below were giving off a tires on wet pavement noise that reminded me of Florida.

Later I told Ben what he'd missed: "Rain! It's like an Eid miracle." More miraculous: the thought of having lunch out.

*Ben jokingly refers to it as "the extended dance remix."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cornflakes for Dinner

Awake since 2am -- I never sleep through the night anymore. For once I can pair a reason to my insomnia: a woman I was trying to save died, and I woke up with her name pacing doggedly back and forth through my head. My brain is still trying to solve a problem that has solved itself, and all the reasoning in the world won't coax it back to sleep. Reading is generally preferable to trite tossing and turning; at random intervals I walk my book over to the kitchen to eat from the pile of aging figs in my refrigerator. Briefly I considered my cornflakes, but that's for dinner. I have to match my cornflake supply just so to my milk supply; excess milk goes off quickly, usually before I have a chance to get more cereal. I test the weight of the milk box to see what's remaining, then test the weight of the cornflakes. More pointless problem solving at zero dark thirty.

Weeks ago at the hospital I started to cry while my FSN and I waited for the Embassy driver to fix a flat tire. "She is going to die here because I can't do my job." What I secretly longed for her to say was that I'm good at what I'm doing, that this was a situation of the woman's own making, that we had done everything possible. The FSN watched me silently for a bit while I pressed a handkerchief over my mouth and nose to muffle the noise. "Sometimes there are obstacles," was the eventual reply. She had learned this word from me when I had delivered her present from India: a little carving of Ganesha. "He's supposed to help remove obstacles in your work," I'd explained. Now I wish I'd gotten one for myself.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Sometimes I fear I'm getting inured to new experience; that maybe by virtue of having seen more of the world, each additional trek has become less a thing of wonder and discovery and more an experiment in logistics and achievement of photographic goals -- the travel equivalent of plotting how to beat the Baptists to the good lunch spots instead of listening to the sermon. India seemed to have confirmed this fear: not as exotic feeling as I'd hoped, not as eye-opening, not as jarring and stupefying and perplexing as I'd heard tales of. Watching the other tourists, ragged Lonely Planets poked inside equally ragged bags, dreadlocks and sandlewood necklaces hanging over slouchy t-shirts done up with images of gods and (somewhat incongruously) Che Guevara, I couldn't help wondering: what is it they are seeing that I am not?

But now when I spot ghee on the shelf in the store, I think about the man on the train to Fatehpur Sikri who fed me homemade sweets and told me about the near mystical health benefits of clarified butter. When I see a clear, unbroken Amman sky -- the same bright, cloudless scene as each day previous for the past three or more months -- I remember walking in the monsoon downpour of Delhi, thinking the most precious gift I could bring back to Jordan would be my sopping wet clothing to wring out over the dessicated soil. When I notice the kites flying over the Citadel, I recall their miniature versions being jerked and teased into brief airborne moments over the Indian slums laid out by the railway tracks. India was at its best as a series of vignettes framed by train windows and the open doors of tuk tuk cabs. My memory of it is best that way, too: little fragments of a bigger whole I can't take in all at once.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Lateral Drift Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

I didn't like the post that was here, so I erased it. It's good to have that power.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I'd Also Like to Polish My Shackles

"So, Katie, any goals for the weekend?"

"My main goal is to get to a point where I can see the top of my desk again. I think that would make me really happy."

"You know, my goal is usually not to see my office desk on the weekend."

"Heh. Yeah, I suppose that's healthier."

Friday, June 19, 2009

I'm So Sorry, I Don't Think I Fully Caught Your Racial Slur.

Overnighting in Aqaba to provide support for the Ambassador's trip, I tried out my Arabic on the fellow at the hotel front desk. After about two sentences ("I'd like to pay for my room." "Do you take credit cards?") he expressed a desire to use his English. Being the consummate diplomat, I assented.

"Your Arabic is good."

"Thank you." ...for your kind lie, I added silently. "It's hard to find a chance to practice, since so many people I meet speak English." This last bit I had to say twice, since my attempt in Arabic didn't come across the first time.

"Yes, I try to always practice my English." He shot me a smile which could only be termed as 'beaming'. "I like to learn from the niggers."

"Oh?" I tried to sound nonchalant, but ended up somewhere closer to 'horrifically caught off guard'. Perhaps I had misheard..? "Oh?" I repeated hopefully.

"You know, Tupac, Fifty Cent." He began humming a refrain I could not identify and made some motions I could only assume were dance moves; a picture of my face at that moment would have made an excellent Stuff White People Like entry. "I know it's not good English, but..." he shrugged, still beaming.

"Well, it's not standard." I considered how best to let him know that the 'n-word' wasn't exactly standard, either. He was clearly very proud to have formed this insight into American culture. I shifted from one foot to the other and gave a bit of a throat-clearing cough. "You know..."

"Oh, here's your credit card back!"

Another fine diplomatic moment goes down in the annals of history.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

America and Her Magical Powers

"Sir, I'm sorry, but we can't frame that."

"What?! Isn't this the US Frame Shop? Didn't you see my US passport?"

"Well, yes, but..."

"But what?! Just what are my tax dollars going towards, anyways? Do I need to write my congressman just to get you to fill a simple request?"

"But Sir, it's... jello."


"You really can't frame jello."

"Why not? Don't tell me you've never had this request before. What good are you people, anyway? I want to speak to the consul! You're telling me the US government can't handle jello?"

"Well, it's not exactly standard. I mean... I'm not really sure how you'd attach it to the mat. And then there's the problem of leakage. Jello is awfully runny. Oh, and I am the consul."

"Look, you know how the frame shops are in this country: no respect for framing laws and practices; no appreciation of basic framing standards. That's why I came here -- I thought the US Frame Shop could help me. But now you're telling me you can't help me. What am I supposed to do with this jello? Just leave it unframed? Do you know what a bind that puts me and my family in? Are you really sure you can't just do something?"

"Well. I suppose, maybe, we could build a custom box from plexi-glass. We could design the box to be shallow, to go against the wall, then build the frame around it. We'd have to order the plexi pre-cut since we don't have any in stock, but we could put it together with caulking to make it watertight. Of course, we'd have to order the caulking, too, and buy a caulking gun. If we ran the airvac non-stop for a week it would clear the dust out of the warehouse enough that the caulking and plexi should stay clean while they were drying. We'd probably have to build some special vice grips as well, to hold it square without scratching it while it dried. Then, once that was all done, if you put the jello in the plexi-glass box, theoretically, I suppose, you might be able to frame it..."

"Great. I need it an an hour. Oh, and I don't want to pay for it. That's not a problem, is it?"

"Sorry, Sir, I just noticed -- is the person in line behind you carrying a human head?"

"Yeah, but he's just a greencard holder. I don't think he'll want it framed with conservation glass or anything."

Friday, May 01, 2009

Tea in the صحراء

Having made my first (of I'm sure many) trips to Petra and Wadi Rum, I now feel highly confident that I could live completely unassisted in the desert -- surviving on merely my wits and instincts -- for two, maybe even three hours. One and a half without chapstick.

It was beautiful, though; the closest thing I can imagine to walking on the bottom of the ocean. Everything was suspended and still and lulling. I didn't expect the desert to feel so maternal.

At one point, our Bedouin guide turned back and asked "انت مبسوطة؟": Are you happy?

"Yes," I told him. "Very much."

Monday, March 30, 2009

The God of Small (Freshly Laundered) Things

Picking up my drycleaning from the corner store after work, I was all business as I flipped through my bag to find my ticket. "I think you have some pants for me," I said to the man in Arabic. Pausing a moment to look up from his ledger, he half-closed his eyes and placidly folded one hand over the other: "Insha'allah." The clearly tongue-in-cheek, vaguely Berkeley-esque notion that God's concentrated will would be required to guarantee the presence of my work trousers led to a somewhat irreligious snort of amusement on my part. "Yes," I nodded, handing him the ticket. "Indeed. Insha'allah."

Saturday, March 28, 2009


"Are you Catholic or Orthodox?"

Hmm. I had been told this would happen. I'm American, therefore I must be Christian, but Christian here can only mean one of two options. A friend with experience in Jordan had warned me back in the States, "When they ask your religion, you'd better be one of those two, because if you're not then you must be one of 'those weird ones'."

My friend Heather thinks of these as Mary Tyler Moore moments. We'd already gone through my age and whether or not I was single, so I suppose religion was next in the logical progression. My typing skills, however, did not come up.*

I had decided before arrival that I would opt for Catholic. Having seen the movie Sister Act (once, I think on a plane...), I figure I'm moderately more qualified to fake Catholic than Orthodox. Plus, if I say it with a small 'c', that's not an outright lie. Right? Bad enough to be thirty and single. One hates to be labeled a religious fanatic on top of everything else.

But in this case the person I was talking to was savvy to foreigners and their erratic ways. Plus, we were going to spend the day together, and I didn't think I could keep up the pretense of a Catholic background, even with Whoopi Goldberg to guide me. I gambled she could take the truth.


Yeah, this was NOT the right answer.

*Kind of a shame. I don't like to brag, but that is the one area of my personal life in which I shine.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Concentrate! On Everything! And Tread Lightly.

Collecting my thoughts about this new job and place has been more difficult than I anticipated. Collecting my thoughts in general, in fact, is proving a challenge. Multi-tasking has never been something I particularly enjoyed; if a thing is worth working on, then I feel it's worth my full attention. ACS has a lot of things going on all at once, all of them needing my full attention... all at once. Or at least it seems that way now. When I get to be more of an expert, my hope is that assessing priorities will become more natural. Knowing how to triage seems like the key skill for this branch of consular work. Maybe for any type of service work.

Normally when I want to collect myself I'll seek out some alone time. Unfortunately, there's nowhere quiet or private to go in or around the embassy -- no tucked-away benches to sit on outside, no spare rooms, no little coffee shops within easy there-and-back-again-over-a-lunch-break walking distance. Not that I've found, at any rate. Space is at a premium, so this is understandable. Right now they're doing construction in the office area behind the client windows; today, the staff had a party with cake, also right behind the windows. It takes all my willpower not to turn around and say "Shhhh!" every five minutes. I must look more distressed than I had realized, as the Consular Chief this morning kindly offered me the use of her office should I need it. Part of me cringed. I have to remember to smile more when I'm trying to focus.

Meanwhile, I'm keeping a running list of 'Areas for Potential ACS Improvement'. I haven't really shared this with anyone; at this point, it's more like a hobby. It seems wise to figure out the logic behind current office priorities and systems first before making potentially disruptive observations -- more of that triaging skill I'm hoping to better develop. I don't want to throw off the established feng shui before I fully understand the consequences.

You are never qualified for the job you're going into, only for the job you just left. It's not exactly a comforting thought, but it's a true one. I want to be completely competent -- right now! -- so that I can quit bothering my colleagues, so that I can gain the confidence of the staff, so that I can help those people on the other side of the glass... but of course it takes time.

To give myself something else to fuss about, I bought a geranium:

We'll see if it fares better than the ones in Osaka.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


Friday morning is the start of our weekend, and thus the start of my exploration. The sky is shockingly blue and clear above the pale stone buildings. Every structure from here to the horizon is the same height and shape, repeated in soft undulation over the hills. Occasional empty plots, populated with cats and bits of candy wrappers, make breaks in the view.

The tinkling sound I couldn't identify turns out to be a herd of goats being driven through the neighborhood. Their bells ring like windchimes, though the animals themselves are quiet. The goatherd dismounts his donkey, adjusts his red and white headwrap, and enters the corner convenience store just ahead of me, leaving his flock to meander about outside in a cross-eyed, woolly fashion. To emphasize: There are goats in front of my apartment. And a donkey. Perhaps it's only a misguided love of culturally biased stereotypes, but witnessing this scene made me profoundly happy.

Inside the convenience store, a couple buying groceries is producing a more familiar sound. "Excuse me..." This is high folly given my Arabic aspirations, but I press on regardless. "Are you Japanese?" Why, of course you are. And of course you live in the building behind mine. And of course you know my friend Sara. The store clerk and goatherd both look seriously weirded out by all the bowing and non-English. I am not as weirded out as I should be, though the goats were honestly less of a surprise. There is no escaping Japan.

Having poured over various city maps, I am prepared enough to know that I have no real idea where I'm going. My normal way of exploration is to picture a taut string connecting me to my house; just so long as I have an idea of what direction the string is pulling from, I can usually find my way back. Usually. Eventually I'm going to need a car, at which point I suspect my string method will begin to fail me.

The people out on the street are mostly male and mostly idle. I say good morning, though maybe this isn't culturally appropriate. Responses are reserved, but not unfriendly. More goats. More cats. More houses. What I'm looking for is a maqhan -- a coffee shop. The goal is to find a place to sit and read.

No maqhan that I can see, though I've been ducking in and out of stores and wandering side streets for an hour. Settling for what seems the next best thing, I try my luck at a little falafel shop tucked between a butcher and a vegetable stand. My stomach is actually growling. The younger of the two men behind the counter looks at my expectantly.

"Uh." Performance time; ten months of training has come down to this. "Salaam wa alikum." So far so good! "[In Arabic, of a sorts:] I only speak Arabic a little. I'm sorry. But I'd like some food."

'Incredulous' is not too strong a term to describe the look he gave me. 'Peeved annoyance' might also be a good description.

"[From what I could make out:] What do you want? Falafel? Hummus?" He's ladling up different things out of various containers and showing them to me impatiently. "You want a 'saanduwish'?" A sandwich? Seriously? Is he making fun of me? I can feel my already low confidence crumbling. "Anything is fine," is my rather lame response. Heck, I don't know what I want. I want someone to pat me on the back for even trying to order lunch.

"Give her a sandwich." The older man intercedes. "Do you want to sit?" He's waving towards a table and spouting a stream of Arabic from which I'm picking up only every fifth word, but the context is clear enough. "Do you want tea?" Soon a falafel sandwich, a plate of pickles, and a glass of mint tea materializes in front of me. "Here, have the paper." He thrusts The Jordan Times in my hands. Locals drift in and out, some bringing their own bowls to be filled with hummus or fuul. The propane man stops by.

When I'm done eating, I ask if I can sit and read. Nods, waves of hands, a few questions about where I'm from ("Are you with the Americans, or the British?")... The younger man still looks annoyed. Another foreigner comes in and orders a sandwich completely in English, speaking loudly and rapping the counter glass with his knuckles when his order isn't understood. I forgive the younger man's peeved attitude immediately.

"This was delicious. How much is it?" The older man shakes his head, "No need. Welcome to Jordan." "No, really, I want to pay." He had given me far more than I'd asked for, and I hadn't been able to finish. The old man slaps me on the back as he hands me the half-read paper off the table. "Welcome. Good luck to you."

Next door at the vegetable stand, I ask for some nanaa, partially because the tea really was quite delicious, and partially because 'mint' is a word I know. I suppose by that same principle, I might also have ordered some 'pollution' or 'globalization'. I will figure all this out. .إن شاء الله

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Party of واحدة

Well, here I am. Can't say that it's as I remember it, because I'VE NEVER BEEN HERE BEFORE. My apartment is embarrassingly huge and marbley. Honestly, embarrassingly so. Not to get overly detailed, but a bidet in three of your three and a half bathrooms seems a bit unnecessary in a country with water rationing. I'm too addled with jetlag to register much, but I'm definitely registering a sense of spatial overwhelm. If I just close a few doors and never open them again for the next two years, I think this will bring the apartment down to a more psychologically manageable, socially just size. I've posted a reminder note on the back of the front door to help stave off any sense of entitlement: "Real people don't live like this."

It's so quiet here at night; i.e., just the time that I'm waking up. Thanks to an unknowingly generous neighbor (!يا شكراً حبيبي), I'm able to access the internet and have been streaming NPR to fill the void. I don't mind the quiet, but I'm fearful of the solitude. I don't want space to think just yet. Not yet.

At the embassy, each check-in form is accompanied by the question, "Are you [drop down in tone and lean forward] alone?"

"Yes," I respond dutifully. "I am [drop down in tone and lean forward] alone." It's tempting to go into a Scarlett O'Hara-like swoon here: "Oh, but that wouldn't be the case if only Ashley hadn't been promised to his cousin!"* No spouse, no kids, no pet, no car. I need this on a t-shirt.

*Cousbandry is big in the Middle East; I think this could earn me some real sympathy points.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Set Your House in Order. Or Not.

The little moments of self-reflection moving provides are sometimes a godsend, sometimes devastating. It occurred to me that I've been galloping through the last month in order to avoid them. Sitting in a friend's apartment alone and with no plans for the first time in weeks, I'm somewhat hesitant to start rummaging through the laundry basket of my own reactions. Some excitement, some regret, some fear... a lot of curiosity. Realizing I'm getting a bit wobbly, I shove all the wash back in to its proverbial container. There will be time to run a proper load when I get to Amman; for now, I think I'd rather let the laundry pile up while I read a book.


The day of my flight, and snow is whipping about outside like corn in a popper. 'Will I be stuck in JFK?' is strangely less pressing to me than 'How many layers should I put on before I run outdoors to frolic?' Am I ready for all this? I don't know. But I'm sure ready for one last snow angel. Too bad that winter hat Mom made me is already winging its way to Jordan!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

School's Out

Week one of homeleave, and my hands smell of pickles. I feel like a child whose Very Modern Parents have filled her summer vacation with Wholesome Activities: a lesson with the Arabic tutor, a trip to a museum, volunteering at the soup kitchen, playtime with a friend, knit, read, repeat. Knit, read, repeat. All I'm missing are piano lessons. Flying out to visit my grandfather today should complete my childhood summer vacation experience. If he uses the garden hose to turn the cow trough into a makeshift swim hole*, I'll be officially ten years old again.

I didn't notice the pickle odor -- a result of the lunchtime soup kitchen menu -- until dinner, when I was resting my chin in my palm. I don't think Grandpa will mind.

*okay, so maybe not in the middle of February.

Friday, January 23, 2009


subject: Out of Office AutoReply

I have finished (!) my time at FSI and will not have access to this email account until my arrival in Amman on the 3rd of March. I will be happy to respond to you after that time.

As always, have a Great Foreign Service Day!