Thursday, February 28, 2008

Spooky stories

Ever had those parent moments when you suddenly see your home, children, and family through someone else's eyes and think, "Hm. Maybe that's not normal after all"?

O had a class presentation this morning in which he told the rest of the class and other parents about the things he's learned this term. You know: the 6-multiplication facts, the days of the week in Arabic, how to measure distance on an atlas. Then he read a story he had written, one I had already read and thought, "My, he's creative. Good for him." It was called "The Groglin Grange Vampire."

Before I get to the plot of the story, let me just say that O has been fascinated with "spooky stories" since he was in preschool and would gather his friends around them to try to scare them. I realized early on, however, that he likes to do the scaring, not be scared. I realized this when I tried singing The Kingston Trio's "With Her Head Tucked underneath Her Arm" to him. Oh, come on, it's a great singalong song:

In the tower of London lodges life.
The ghost of Ann Boleyn walks they declare.
For Ann Boleyn was once King Henry's wife
Uuntil he had the headsman bob her hair.
Oh, yes, he did her wrong long years ago.
And she comes up at night to tell him so...

With her head tucked underneath her arm,
She walks the bloody tower.
With her head tucked underneath her arm
At the midnight hour.

It has several more verses, but he didn't let me get past the first before he ran out of the room crying. I was merely trying to continue my own family's tradition of scaring children: spooky songs and ghost stories you promise are true.

So when O stood up in front of the class to read the story, I thought nothing of it. Until I noticed some of the parents looking wide-eyed at each other. Then I listened more closely to the story. It was about a boy whose parents leave him to go shopping. While they're gone, he and his friends are attacked by a vampire. The vampire then creates lots of bats who turn into even more vampires. Then the boy starts beating them down with a metal bat. Then he has his friends go gather garlic while he paints bread to look like bloody birds. The bats all swoop back down and then the garlic makes them sleepy. While they're knocked out, he can finish killing the main vampire by putting an electric drill through his heart. Killing the head guy gets rid of the others. The parents come home, the boy is safe, and all is well. (Don't try stealing the idea; it's copyrighted.)

Right when he got to the bread-painted-to-look-like-bloody-birds part, the woman in front of me turned to her husband and gave him a look that I'm pretty sure said, "We need to withdraw our daughter from this school. Immediately." Now, this woman had just served haggis pies to the class, and in my opinion, no one who serves a class of unsuspecting 8- and 9-year-olds sheep innards masked in a flaky crust should be looking shocked about a few fake bloody birds.

Now, what the morning has taught me is that maybe not all children obsess over vampires and horror stories quite like O does. But it also taught me that there's no time like the present to teach him the Lizzie Borden song:

About a maid, I'll sing a song, rikkiti, tikkiti, tin.
About a maid, I'll sing a song, who did not have her family long.
Not only did she do them wrong,
But she did every one of them in, them in. She did every one of them in.

You're all wondering how fast you can come up with a good reason for a moratorium on all future play dates with my children, aren't you?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Elbow room

I haven't posted for 8 days. That's a veritable drought for me even if no one out there has noted my absence. I thought our little excursion to watch a Motocross race today would inspire me. No such luck. We all came home dusty, coughing, a little bit deaf, and wondering not how long we could do without water in a desert, but how long we could do without entertainment.

So instead of reading about motorcycles, you get to read about compound life.

At first when we got here, I thought, "This is great. All of us together, bonding, sharing, helping each other out. This is truly what a community should be." I was waxing philosophically (is there any other way to wax?) about how much better off the world would be if we could reach out to each other like this, learn to lean on each other, pick up our neighbor's slack, be that shoulder to cry on, have an open-door policy that just lets the love flow in and out.

But here's what I've learned about myself in the last 7 weeks: I don't like people all that much.

For the past few days, I've had my doorbell turned off. And the door itself? It's locked. And not for safety reasons. Heck no. I've honestly never felt safer than I do living in Doha. But having other people's children run in and out of my house all day? Not safe for them, if I have to confess. I'm the grumpy lady in number #18. Run away! Run away!

It's not just children that have me feeling claustrophobic. It's adults. And it's nothing personal. These are all perfectly nice people, but nice gets cloying after a while. Even the nicest of you out there have to admit that. Don't you get tired of smiling? Aren't there days you want to walk out of your house and just not have to go to the effort of lifting up the edges of your mouth? Sure, it takes more muscles to frown than to smile. We all know that. But to just be ambivalent to the people around you? It's pretty easy and gives all of your facial muscles a break.

Does this make me a bad person? Admitting this? I would like to argue that it makes me an honest person. And I thought honesty was the best policy. Best means better than everything else. Better to admit I like staying holed up in my house than to pretend I'm in the mood to socialize. And besides, I've never said I was a nice person. Again. It's about honesty.

I just could never live this way on a long-term basis. One family has been here for 3 years and have 4 more years on their contract. How? Not how can they survive in a small Middle Eastern country, far, far from home. But how can they survive living in such close quarters with 54 other families? Is this what apartment-complex living is like? I'm thinking no. Because in an apartment complex, people don't always see you coming and going. They don't see when your car drives into the garage and when it drives back out. And they all live separate lives. Here? Half the families work for the university system, the other half for the oil companies. And they're all ex-pats, so who else do they have but each other? Who else do we have but each other? So, I know I should embrace this sort of lifestyle.

But the thing is, I have bad days. I have days when, if you ask me how I'm doing, I really just want to say, "Pretty crappy. And you?" Or better yet, I want to just walk away and ignore you. Again, it's nothing personal. Compound life just doesn't accommodate bad days.

And what's the source of these bad days? Do you not realize "American Idol" is getting close to the final 12 and I'm going to miss all of it? Every song, every tear, every insult, every bad hairdo? Do you SEE what happens to a person when they can't get American television? And doesn't "Dancing with the Stars" start soon? What about "So You Think You Can Dance?" And all I get is Motocross.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Fast cars, loose women, and whiskey

That's what was written on the screen t-shirt S and O's tennis coach was wearing a week or so ago. Before we jump to conclusions about the irony of wearing it here in Doha, let's review:

(a) Fast cars. The speed limit on most roads here is 80km an hour. Don't make me do the conversion math. (Okay, it's about 50 mph.) For the longer stretches, the speed limit rises to 100km/hour. (Okay, that's roughly 62 mph.) And all along these stretches are big white boxes with cameras inside, waiting to take a picture of your license plate if you go over the limit. Then you don't get an actual ticket, you have to go online periodically to plug in your license plate number to see if you were caught. People have neglected to check and then have been stuck at the airport when customs pulls up their record: "Oops. You owe 30,000QR [again with the math! That's about $8,000]. Cash only, please." The fines placed on various offenses vary from ludicrous to astronomical. Yes, there are still plenty of fast cars flashing their lights at me and honking behind me, but not as many as there were just four months ago before the fines were instituted.

(b) Whiskey (yes, I'm skipping the loose women here for a moment). See my January 18 posting if you're dying for a recap. Otherwise, skip ahead.

(c) Loose women. Apparently, that's me. Just over a week ago, I was out shopping with the little guy at an area mall. We'd been to the grocery store and then he wanted a muffin, so we hung out at a Starbucks for a little bit. While we were there, a young Arabic man stopped by the table to (I really believed this) talk to Ivan. He was friendly and asked Ivan (still, I'm believing Ivan is the focus of attention here) to visit him at the store where he works after we were done. The guy walked away and Ivan hopped down from his chair. "I go see him," he said. So off we went. The guy (he'll have a name soon) hurried to the front of the store to talk to Ivan (not me, I'm still thinking), showing him a display of expensive miniature carousels. I stayed back a ways, just letting Ivan enjoy the attention. Then the guy (honest, his name is on the way) asks me if I've been there before. "To this mall?" I ask. "No. This store," he says. "No," I answer. "I feel I am very lucky today," he says. And I'm thinking, hm, a little enthusiastic now. Maybe he thinks I'm actually going to buy something.

So I take Ivan from him, although he doesn't want to hand him over. We say bye and we leave.

Five minutes later, Ivan and I are looking at headbands for E in a little shop down the hall. (I've skipped to present tense, haven't I?) Along comes the same guy and he calls to Ivan, who runs over to say hello. I glance over at him and then go back to looking at the headbands. The guy comes over to me and says, "I'm sorry, I don't know your name." "Bobbie," I answer. "Bobbie?" he says, struggling to say it correctly. "That is a beautiful name." (Okay, now the warning bells are sounding. I like my name, but I've never claimed it's a "beautiful" name.) "I am Mohammed." He then reaches out to shake my hand. I shake it, only realizing later that was a huge social taboo--his more so than mine. But then he doesn't let go. "I want to see you tomorrow," he says. "Tomorrow?" I ask. And honest to goodness, a part of me is still thinking, boy, he really likes Ivan, because, really, the last time someone flirted seriously with me was about 3 c-sections and 1 VBAC ago. So I say, "Um. We'll probably be back again, yeah." Then he kisses my hand and walks off with a grin on his face.

So I laughed all the way home, thinking, this guy (yes, he has a name, but I can't use Islam's prophet's name to talk about a flirting experience) is probably barely half my age! I wasn't flattered, just amused. I told Ron that these guys come here from other countries, but then they can't date really b/c no women from their countries are here. They get a little, uh, desperate for women and it turns into harmless flirting. Oh, how sad. We should feel sorry for them.

Then I was talking to another American woman yesterday who has lived in Doha longer than I have and lived in Kuwait before coming here. She was talking about how the men have treated her. I mentioned this incident, and she said that legally, it is within Ron's right to go back to the mall, pull the guy out of his shop, and beat the daylights out of him for daring to kiss my hand. A friend of hers has a grown daughter who was touched inappropriately by a man here. So the parents went to the police about it. "What do you want us to do?" the police asked. "We can imprison him for up to 3 years for this." All the parents and daughter wanted to do was talk to the guy, and the police didn't understand why they were pulled into the situation at all. "Doesn't she have a husband?" they asked. She did. "Well, he could have just found him himself and beaten him up."

This friend of mine said, "But they think they can get away with it, whether you're married or not, because we're loose women." And I had never thought of it like that.

Suddenly, I'm not so amused and definitely still not flattered. Here I was feeling sorry for this guy who had to resort to flirting with a 38-year-old mother of four.

And no, I didn't go back to see him. Just in case you doubt me enough to have to ask. But I'm thinking sending Ron back to see him might not be such a bad idea after all.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Modesty is such a lonely word

S was asked to play on his school's football (a.k.a. soccer) team last week--a one-game gig unless the head teacher can drum up money for uniforms, a coach, equipment, etc. But even for one game, we needed to get him some shin guards. So off we went to a local mall to hunt a pair down. At our third store, we found a pair, so while Ron was mulling over the purchase (should we get 2 pair? should we get socks? should we get a ball while we're at it? should we try bartering in a mall? or is doing so reserved for the souks? [he got them to knock a whopping $3 off the total, thus serving to embarrass our children and encourage a continuation of Ron's mantra: "it never hurts to ask"]), the little guy was kicking a basketball around with one of the employees. Back and forth they went six or seven times until my son, quite excited about being potty trained, stopped, rested the ball at his feet, put his hands on his waistband, looked up at the employee, and said, "Do you want to see my underwear?" I blushed, explained what was going on, and said, "I bet you never had a customer ask you that before."

And while we're on the topic of underwear, there's E to discuss. A long-time fan of dresses, she changes into them as soon as she's home from school, not really considering what she might be doing in them that afternoon. A week or so ago, she put on a dress and skipped off to the playground. I followed her out and was talking to a neighbor when I turned around to see E hanging upside down from one of the bars, her dress dangling around her neck, her pink underwear showing for all the little Indian and Arabic boys in our compound to see.

Now, let me take you back to about a year or so ago when I was in my kitchen back in Pittsburgh making dinner. The TV was on and a dvd of one of the kids' birthday parties was playing. S and O had a friend over, and E was standing in front of the TV singing along to "Happy Birthday to You." At the end, the final "Happy Birthday to yoooouuuuuuuu," the boys all yelled, "Ew! That's gross!!" and I looked up just in time to see her spinning back around to face me as she pulled her underwear back up. That's right, taking Marilyn Monroe's example one step further, she had mooned the boys' best friend at the end of the song. "Hmmm. I wonder where she learned that from," my mother said when I told her about it.

And they're concerned about us embarrassing them by asking for a little discount on some shin guards? When I'm an old lady, I'm going to wear my knee highs around my ankles and play bingo every Tuesday night and insist on going to dinner at 4:30, not because I don't know how to pull the knee highs up or because I like bingo or because I'm hungry at 4:30. I'm going to do all of those things to get back at my children for all these talking-about, showing, pulling-down, and sometimes simply-not-wearing underwear days.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Doha 90210

S finally decided what he wanted to do for his birthday: a day at an indoor amusement park at one of the local malls. Not your idea of fun? Not mine either, really. But I've felt guilty over how bored the kids are here and thought this might cheer them up a bit, particularly the birthday boy himself who, when agreeing to go there (after all other suggestions were rejected), responded with an overwhelming, "(looooong sigh)Sure. I guess." My heart just warms with the memory.

He did end up enjoying himself. We even caught him smiling a few times, and I'm submitting the photograph as Exhibit A should he turn against me in the future and realize that no, he didn't really have such a great time after all. The rest of the kids had fun as well, so "Yay," the day was a success.

In spite of:

(1) Obnoxiously pushy children. We went back in the evening, after the little guy's nap, to get in a few more rides, really get our tickets' worth out of the day. The place was packed by then. I forgot Doha comes alive at night, as accustomed to the city is, I imagine, to sweltering heat that keeps them inside until the sun sets. But, oh, when that sun sets, the beings that emerge! I had to go on rides with my youngest two because if I hadn't, they would have been trampled over in the line! Even with me there, kids were trying to push past us. One boy, probably about 8 years old, tapped me on the arm and said, "Excuse me. I want to go up there." I said, "To the front of the line? Do you have a brother or sister you need to be with." He said, "No. I just want to go up there."

(2) Obnoxiously spoiled children. I was watching E and I on one of the rides, a kiddie ride, probably best for kids ages 2-6. As it was going around, the guy running the ride gestured to a boy, probably about 9, to sit down. The boy stuck his tongue out at the employee, and not playfully. He had a nasty look of hate on his face that was downright disturbing on a child that age. And what did the employee do? Nothing? He's learned he has "a place" here. And that "place" is to stand right where you are and pretend it's okay to have some brat demean you like that. I looked more closely at the other children on the ride, and several began to imitate this other kid, standing up and just grinning away at the man when he told them to have a seat.

(3) Litter. Okay, so Doha isn't a fantastically beautiful sort of place. As I've said before, unless you're driving along the oceanside and can see the water, the scenery is construction, palaces, and more construction. Let me amend that list and add litter. It's everywhere and here's why: servants empty the trash. To actually put an empty bottle or wrapper or bag into a trashcan would be to lower yourself to the level of your servants. Think I'm kidding? During lunch yesterday, we were in the food court and I passed a group of preteens finishing their lunch. They got up, leaving their trays and garbage on the table. Fine. At least it wasn't the ground. But then one of them finished a boxed juice as he was walking away and dropped the empty container on the floor, literally a foot away from a trashcan. When I'm out shopping or at the zoo or in a park, there are NO trashcans to be found. None. Why? Because the vast majority (I don't want to say all) of people wouldn't use them anyway.

Now, just in case you think I'm being negative about this society as a whole, I want to add this:

My culture is as incomprehensible to any number of other cultures as theirs may be to mine. I know that. I'm an American: I don't dress up when I go out. I'm loud. I'm not nearly as hospitable as they are. I make more social faux pas than I'm even aware of. And let's not bother getting into the politics. And would my in-spite-of list be even longer if I were to visit certain privileged cities in the States? Absolutely. Because in Malibu or Beverly Hills, you would have to add in foul language, alcohol, drug use, lots of sex, std's, and countless other moms' nightmares.

So I'll take a little pushiness and tongue-sticking-outing. And as for the litter? I'm just a visitor. If the people who live here don't care about making a difference, then I suppose I can either kick the juice box out of my way as I walk by, or pick it up myself.