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!