Saturday, November 20, 2010

Viva la Vice: A Tale of Depraved Indulgence

There exists in Saudi Arabia a government body named the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.  The famed religious police, or mutawwain, operate under the auspices of this committee.  I have been lucky enough not to encounter any mutawwain thus far, but they are a fact of life in KSA.  I actually really like the English translation of the committee's name, because who's not for the promotion of virtue?  Granted my idea of vice is very different than theirs, and I tend to be pretty liberal in my tolerance of the (legal) vices of others.  I knew that I'd encounter limits on certain freedoms in KSA, especially as a woman.  But I find it's not the restrictions I worried about at first.  Being back in the U.S. for a short break has me contemplating the way I feel about some of these said restrictions. 

I don't drink, so the official ban on alcohol doesn't bother me in the least.  I rarely wear the abaya anymore; I think I've worn it once (and even then unbuttoned) since the beginning of October.  There's only been one event I couldn't go to because of my gender (and it was something I wasn't particularly interested in anyway).  But what I really miss the most?  Bacon.  And driving. 

Who knew bacon would turn out to be one of my biggest vices?!  Certainly not me.  And since I can occasionally get bacon and other pork products through special circumstances, it's not like I'm completely cut off.  It's more the idea of bacon, if that makes sense.  Pork products are the butt of many jokes among my friends, pun intended.  It doesn't help that I have a lot of friends serving in Muslim countries who frequently post about their own bacon withdrawal or their convoluted ways of obtaining it on Facebook.  It's a classic case of wanting what we can't have, and the constant conversation keeps it at the forefront of our minds.  One friend, who shall remain nameless, convinced herself that her overdue baby wasn't coming out because she was feeding it a steady diet of bacon, having found her underground supplier.  She tried quitting cold turkey.  I think she lasted 12 hours.  Part of that was overnight.  (Baby has since been born and seems not to have been influenced one way or the other by pork products.) 

So what was the first thing I ate when I left KSA?  Pork sausages in Heathrow, of course.  I got really upset one day last week when the ham sandwich I'd ordered turned out to have turkey instead.  And while I don't have pork with every meal, I at least consider it a whole lot more than I normally would.  I thought this might just be me until I had breakfast last week with a high school classmate who is currently teaching in Saudi.  We're both back for Thanksgiving and met to catch up.  And we both ordered something with bacon.  She told me that she is trying strategically to work pork into most meals.  I started laughing and said I knew exactly what she meant.  So it's not just me. 

Driving is a whole other thing.  I knew I would miss this.  I love driving.  A lot.  A lot lot.  But more than driving, I love getting into a car and losing myself in the act of driving.  It's a time when I can either think hard about things or not think at all.  I love listening to the radio, music, or books.  It's a time to be by myself, to explore my surroundings, to just be.  And while no sane person would wish to drive in Saudi (there are no rules of the road but lots of senses of entitlement), I do.  Because it's less about the physical act of driving than about going places independently.  As it is, I have to call motorpool and plan ahead.  And then plan for how long I'll be wherever.  Spontaneity is seriously restricted.  And the other thing is never being alone in the car, so I lose that bubble.  And even though our drivers are great and very accommodating and friendly and immensely helpful, I wish I wasn't totally reliant on them. 

It wasn't until last night, when I ran errands for several hours by myself, that all of these feelings coalesced quite clearly.  I was alone with a car, with no specific time I had to bring it back (gotta love sharing vehicles), with nobody needing to know where I'd be at what time.  It was freeing.  It's interesting, because I hadn't felt this loss of independence so acutely in Saudi.  I'd felt it to some extent, but that feeling of freedom let me know what I was missing all along.  So I'm not sure what I'll do with this new realization, but I am coming to realize that this is the hardest part of culture shock for me. 

I almost had to sit down in the grocery store.  Not only was I there by myself, with my own car, but there was pork and alcohol for sale.  I had to stop myself from thinking "haraam!"  I had to laugh.  Tomorrow I'm going to a movie theater.  To see a film about magic.  Now if that isn't haraam, I don't know what is :-).  Viva la vice while I can, I guess!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ebates: A Testimonial

And now, a break from your regularly-scheduled, commercial-free programming.  

I usually don't advertise on this blog, but with the holiday season I want to make sure everyone knows about Ebates.  Basically, you go to the Ebates homepage, choose your online retailer, and click the link to the retailer's site.  Then, you get a percentage cash back on whatever you purchase at said site, automatically.  The percentages  usually range from 2-10% with special deals all the time.  Plus Ebates collects and displays all the free shipping and discount coupons for online retailers, so I find I do much less research before purchasing.  The only major online retailer I use frequently that isn't an Ebates participant is Amazon.  But just about everything else is represented.  (If you put items in a shopping cart but then close your browser prior to purchasing, you don't get the points.  So click through the Ebates site every time you intend to purchase.)  I have been using this for less than six months and already have gotten about $110 cash back, just on normal purchases.  Right into Paypal, or via check!  At first I thought it would be a pain to click through Ebates every time, but it's an easy site, and it's worth the extra two clicks. 

So, here's my advertisement.  If you are a new customer and sign up using THIS LINK, you and I both get $5 bonuses on your first purchase.  That simple.  So, particularly for those of you overseas, it's well worth signing up.  Then you can start referring people for more bonuses.  Plus, you don't have to get any annoying emails from them if you don't want.  Though I allow about one a week to see if anyone is doing double cash back or anything fun.

(I am not receiving anything from this personal endorsement, aside from the $5 referral bonus everyone gets.  I just truly think it's a worthwhile site.)

So, click here!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Phenomenal Lyle Lovett

Being at home in the US this week has allowed me the time and quick internet to catch up on all my favorite blogs.  And to realize how little I've been posting lately.  Need to be better about this.  I've posted a couple things already (not Cairo yet, it's still hanging over my head...) but want to get caught up from last weekend. 

One of the things I miss most about being in KSA is the lack of cultural outlets.  No movie theaters, concerts, theater, etc., unless we put it on.  I think there are some underground-ish venues and performances, but it's not quite the scale I was used to in DC.  Or even in NH, where I live near Dartmouth and have access to all the great artists who come to Hanover.  Last year in DC I went to see LOTS of musicals, concerts,  sporting events, and various shows, including some of my favorite performing artists.  So there's some cultural shock this year.  Pun intended.  So when I knew I was coming home, I made a short list in my head of who I wanted to see and started researching shows.  Dartmouth wasn't featuring anything I'm dying to see, nor were the local opera houses.  And none of my favorite bands would be nearby.  So I started thinking.  If I could see anyone, who would it be.  And the answer was easy.  Very easy.

Lyle Lovett.

Most people aren't too familiar with Lyle Lovett, except perhaps his slightly wild hair and slightly wilder marriage to Julia Roberts.  They know of him, but they don't know his work.  Which is a shame.  Because Lyle Lovett is one of the most talented songwriters and singers of all time.  His lyrics are pure genius, his genres diverse, and he's a fabulous entertainer.  I grew up listening to Lyle Lovett, and, even now, he's one of the few artists my brothers and parents and I will ALL listen to without complaints.  I have all his albums and follow his career closely.  I started going to see him in college and do so as often as I can.  Which is easy when I'm in the US since he tours much of the year.  I last saw him in November 09 in DC, right after his latest album came out.  Even if you're a skeptic, go see Lyle Lovett and His Large Band in concert.  This touring group usually has 10-15 members, on all types of instruments and vocals.  Some have been recording and touring with him for decades, and some are newer.  But they're all phenomenal musicians and/or singers.  Without exception.  LL has a way of arranging his songs to best fit the musicians/vocalists he has with him, and his repertoire is large and diverse enough to accommodate this.  As a result, every concert is phenomenal.  Hands down.  Not to mention he's got a fantastic, dry sense of humor and amazing stage presence.  He has a way of making a large concert hall seem like an intimate venue.  His narrative and conversations with the audience throughout his shows keep people coming back year after year. 

Enough gushing.  So I looked on his website, and, sure enough, he was touring.  But nowhere near NH while I'd be home.  So I started thinking about traveling to see him.  And then I started thinking of taking someone with me.  And then I remembered my mother's birthday was coming up.  So I started appraising his concert venues for their ease/cost of getting to and from.  One venue won because he was performing in the same place two nights in a row.  Near an easily-accessible airport.  And that's how I chose Fort Worth, TX.  I had my mom take a day off from work before I told her why and asked my dad if he wanted to come too.  He said no, because it involved flying.  Which he doesn't do.  But Mom was game, as usual.  She and I like crazy travel adventures on a whim.  So I booked the concert tickets.  And the flight.  And the hotel.  And the rental car.  And started getting really excited and exclusively listening to Lyle on my iPod, as I do before every concert.  Another bonus?  This would be my first trip to Texas.  A travesty, I know. 

So I got home last Wednesday night.  Mom and I left early Saturday morning.  Very early.  Especially for her, since she and my dad had gone to see a concert the night before, and she only ended up with two hours of sleep.  I slept on the 3 hour bus ride to Boston.  She watched the movie.  We both slept on the two flights.  We landed at DFW, got our rental car, eventually found our hotel (who knew there were two Hyatt Places within a mile of each other!?), and rested briefly.  We drove in early to Fort Worth and parked downtown with the intention of finding a place to eat.  Which was more difficult than we imagined, since apparently November 13 in Fort Worth was a BUSY night.  Between the concert and a film festival and something else, downtown was buzzing.  And beautiful.  We didn't mind walking around looking for a restaurant with a decent wait list.  We settled on a nice Tex-Mex place and had a delicious dinner, including my second favorite enchiladas of all time.  (But keep in mind my standards are pretty low/quirky; the first best are in Cape Town.)

One of the bonuses about this concert series (aside from being in Lyle's home state) is that the performance hall is phenomenal.  The Bass Performance Hall in downtown Forth Worth is about 12 years old and considered one of the 10 best in the world.  I can see why.  Beautiful architecture, very inviting space, the hall itself is gorgeous, and the acoustics are amazing.  I rate it highly. 

Concert number 1 was phenomenal, for lack of a different word in this blog.  I expected nothing less.  I tapped my toes and my fingers and laughed and smiled the whole way through, as did Mom.  I will spare you the details, because I could gush for paragraphs.

The next day we slept in and had breakfast at IHOP, one of my favorite guilty pleasures.  We headed into Fort Worth and down to a top tourist attraction, the Fort Worth Stockyards.  We had no expectations and were pleasantly surprised.  Sure parts of it were touristy, but there was some authenticity as well (a live cattle auction!).  And who doesn't like pretending to be a cowgirl for a day?  The highlight of the day was the cattle drive.  Twice a day cowboys and cowgirls drive the Fort Worth Herd of longhorns around the Stockyards.  My only previous experience with a cattle drive was the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.  There's no comparison.  This 'drive' could more accurately be described as a saunter.  Which was great, it gave me time to snap photos and video and enjoy the scene.  But it was still slightly underwhelming. 

A day of shopping and sightseeing complete, we drove back into town to find a restaurant.  And drove and drove.  Nothing sounded good.  We checked a few menus but didn't find anything that struck our fancy.  So finally we settled on a nice BBQ place where we could get a decent steak.  We crossed the road, and just then my mother grabbed my arm and said, "Lyle Lovett," in an eerily calm and steady voice.   I looked up, expecting to see a concert poster.  Instead, right in front of me, was Lyle Lovett and his girlfriend April Kimble.  O.  M.  G.  I could have died.  I was rendered speechless.  They were in a bit of a hurry (to get to a private barbecue dinner I found out later), but he politely thanked my mother when she told him how much we enjoyed last night's concert and that we were coming back again tonight.  And as he walked away I called after him, "we came all the way from New Hampshire just to see you!"  He looked back, smiled, and doffed his hat.  Ten gallon of course.  And then they walked off into the sunset.  Or into Sundance Square.  Same thing.  Wow.  But wow.  There's a fine balance of being star struck and wanting an autograph and photo and wanting to let the poor guy walk down the street without being accosted by crazy ladies.  I think we stayed pretty centered, no matter how much we wanted to veer into crazy stalker fan. 

Dinner was good (how can you go wrong with fried okra, filet, and pecan pie?), but I was just completely star struck.  I started hoping for a shout out during the concert.  He occasionally does that sort of thing.  The concert was as amazing, if not better, than the first.  The set was slightly different, including singing about 1/3 different songs.  No shout out.  But it was still positively awesome.  Phenomenal even.  And the fourteen hour travel day the next day was worth it too.  (Fifty minute weather delay in Charlotte meant missing our bus in Boston by 5 minutes and having to wait an extra two hours.)

So the moral of this blog is, I love Lyle Lovett.  And His Large Band.  And I am going to make a tradition out of traveling someplace new every year or so to see one of his concerts.  (My secret fantasy is to recruit him for a State Dept overseas tour...  If anyone has any suggestions as to how to make this a reality, I'm all ears.)  He is, in a word, phenomenal.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

No More Houseguests!!

In a previous post, I alluded to some unwelcome household guests.  The good news is that they're gone.  The bad news?  It took significantly longer than it was supposed to, right in the middle of an incredibly hectic and stressful week.  A week later, I am able to look back on it without my heart rate going through the roof.  And so here's the story, along with some lion cat photos.

The plan was simple.  I would pack all of my belongings into plastic bags and then boxes.  They would be removed and put into a locked vehicle in full sun for a full day, enough to kill any lingering bugs after washing and drying fabrics at high heats.  Meanwhile, the offending soft furniture would be removed, the apartment fumigated, and, several hours later, the new furniture and all my belongings brought in.  I arranged to take the cats to the vets for a day of grooming.  I rearranged my schedule to be at home for the morning and evening moving times.  I did all the packing. 

And everything went smoothly at first.  Cats to groomer, check.  Belongings moved into truck, check.  Icky furniture removed, check.  And then we found out that the four hour fumigation treatment would actually be forty-eight hours.  Cue nervous breakdown.  No place to sleep.  No suitcase of belongings for two days (everything spread out across boxes).  No provisions for the cats.  And, worst of all, no time to do laundry and pack for my trip home just a few hours after being allowed to move back home.  Deep breath in, deep breath out.

I could write a long post on the 48 hours of drama, but the short story is that everything worked out.  Funds were mysteriously found to pay for two nights in a hotel after I started making faces at the suggestion I sleep on the gurney in the med unit.  Several boxes were delivered to my office so I could cobble together a few outfits and necessities for the hotel stay.  The vet agreed to board the cats, but only after I made a trip there to pay a 2000 riyal deposit ($533), even though the final bill would be a whopping 150 riyals ($40).  My colleagues were, as always, helpful and accommodating.  And I was able to move back in at the scheduled time on Tuesday (imagine that!), after picking up the newly groomed cats.  And the warehouse guys did an impeccable and quick job of moving my stuff back in.  I managed to get the laundry done and pack my bags, as well as unpack most of my belongings.  And let me tell you, my new bed is soooo much better.  Before I had a king-sized bed.  Which sounds nice.  Except the mattress was equivalently comfortable to a toddler bed mattress (complete with crinkly plasticky covering).  And had no box spring, just resting on a wooden platform.  So now I have a relatively comfortable queen mattress and box spring with a decent headboard.  Best of all, I can use my own linens.  Which should hopefully arrive when I get back to Saudi in a few weeks. 

The new couch and arm chairs and worlds better than my old couches.  These new ones are just FS-standard Drexel couches, but they are at least comfortable and better-looking than my brown burlap monstrosities.  Now I just need to get rid of the drapes.  Yellow, really? 

But what really kept me laughing and in good spirits all day Tuesday was Griffin.  I'd asked the groomer to just trim his long hair.  This was interpreted as "give him a lion cut."  Don't get me wrong, I think the lion cut is hilarious.  But that's the problem.  I can't stop laughing at cats with it.  Which can be scarring.  Griffin is very proud of himself and is soft.  But he's hysterically funny to look at.  See photos below.  I started using Picasa and am experimenting with photo collages.  The one below contains a few pre-grooming cat photos, pics of my moving chaos (along with glimpses of the ugly brown couches), and after pics of the furniture and cats. 

Turkey Day Travel

Sara at Wife-Mommy-Woman is hosting this week's Blog Roundup on one of my favorite topics - Thanksgiving travel. 

Late November is perhaps the time of year when, no matter where I am or what I'm doing, I start getting pangs of homesickness.  So much so that I've only spent three and a half Thanksgivings away from my immediate family.  My freshman year in college, I went to my aunt and uncle's house in VA for a wonderful weekend with family and friends and food.  My junior year in college, I spent Thanksgiving in a literature class at the Sofitel Hotel in Khon Kaen, Thailand.  We didn't get classes canceled, but we did have class while eating a buffet lunch that included turkey.  Three years ago I loaded my suitcases full of pumpkin pie filling, french fried onions, cream of mushroom soup, and cranberry sauce and flew to Oxford, England, where one of my best friends and I made a traditional American turkey dinner for her flatmates and classmates.  Last year was the half year. 

I was living in DC and was all set to spend Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle's house again, with most of the extended family.  Which is always a fun time.  Except that I knew that all three of my brothers and all the assorted nieces/nephews would be gathering at home in NH, for the first time in forever.  I hadn't planned to go home because missing work on the Friday after would mean losing per diem for that day, and I didn't want to deal with that.  But Wednesday morning of Thanksgiving week, I woke up feeling like I wanted to go home.  So I started thinking.  I decided it would be rude to miss Thanksgiving dinner with my extended family in VA (I really wanted to see all the cousins et al), but since my brothers wouldn't all be there until Friday, I might be able to do both.  What's a 500 mile drive each way when it's holidays at home??  So, feeling a bit crazy, I called my above-mentioned friend (also living in DC and from the same home town), and she agreed to join me.  We planned to leave after dinner on Thursday, drive through the night, and then head back Sunday.  Crazy, indeed.  The best part?  We didn't tell our families.  I had a really hard time not telling my parents (especially as I tried to figure out where everyone was sleeping while on the phone with my mom), but I managed. 

Thursday morning I packed everything up before heading over to my aunt and uncle's.  Hattie got really worried when I pulled out suitcases, thinking she'd be left behind, so I left the suitcases in the apartment while I went to VA.  Thanksgiving was, as always, a lot of fun.  When all the aunts and uncles and cousins and Grandma get together, we tend to reminisce and laugh hysterically most of the time.  Lots of good senses of humor.  I felt badly leaving so soon after a delicious dinner, but everyone understood.  (They're used to my crazy ideas by now, but I promised to email when I got home to let them know I made it safely.)  A quick stop at home to pick up the luggage and Hattie, a quick stop in MD to pick up L, and we were off!  We left about 8:30 pm and made great time almost all the way.  The only traffic we encountered was getting onto the GW Bridge in NYC.  We switched off driving and caffeinated well and reached our hometown at about 4:30am.  We made awesome time, in other words.

I dropped L off at her house (making sure she made it inside before I took off, as we weren't sure the doors would be open) and headed home.  My plan was to bed down in the kids' room (some of the only open space at that time of night).  About an hour later, my six year-old niece woke up and found me on the floor next to her.  She gave me a big hug and then ran into my brother's room, where my three year-old nephew had snuck into at some point during the night, yelling "Aunt Sadie's here!"  My brother of course didn't believe her and did a double take when I popped my head around the door.  My nephew woke up at about that point, so I got another big hug and then went into the living room to watch cartoons with the kids.  I tried to nap in a chair, but that was futile.  After another hour, my father woke up.  He walked downstairs, saw me, and smiled brightly.  Cue another big hug.  My mother woke up a bit later.  I was in the kitchen with my brothers and the kids, and Mom was still a bit sleepy.  She gave everyone good morning hugs and kisses and only noticed me as she went to hug me and realized I technically shouldn't be there.  The surprise visit home was a huge success - the surprised looks on everyone's faces was well worth the long drive and lack of sleep. 

I napped a little bit, had another round of hugs when my older brother and oldest nephew arrived a bit later and had a great day hanging out.  Thanksgiving is always around birthdays - my mom's and my nephew's - so that was another impetus to go home.  My nephew's third birthday was that day, so we had a fun family dinner and party for him that night, complete with turkey cupcakes!  Hattie was happy to be home as well, enjoying being able to go outside without a leash and chaperone, and she lapped up the extra attention.  She was a phenomenal car traveler - just happy to be going somewhere with me.  We would stop every few hours for her to relieve herself and stretch, but she was always content just to sleep in her bed in the backseat. 

Saturday I went into town to visit friends and colleagues, making my usual rounds.  Lots more surprised faces and hugs.  All around, a perfect November weekend in NH.  L and I started back to DC early on Sunday, taking a slightly circuitous route through NJ so as to miss some of the traffic on I-95.  This allowed us to stop at my favorite Italian deli and bakery in Raritan to get sandwiches and cannolis!  We of course hit traffic on 95 from the MD border to 495, but it was doable.  We just turned on the Christmas music and reveled in our weekend.  L's family had been as surprised and happy as mine, and she made the family/friends rounds all weekend as well. 

So this year I of course thought about surprising the family again, but the logistics were a little more complicated.  Things like needing a ride home from the airport and having a bed for three weeks.  That sort of thing.  So I made plans early, got decent flights at a decent price, and secured almost three weeks off with only six days of work missed by stringing together lots of Saudi and U.S. holidays.  I got home late last Wednesday night and have been enjoying the cooler weather and family scene.  My mom and I went to Texas this past weekend (blog post on that coming), and now I'm looking forward to a busy couple of weeks with lots of family, friends, and food :-).  So for me, more often than not, traveling for Thanksgiving is well worth the expense and hassle.  Whether from 500 or 6,000 miles away.  (We'll see if I'm still saying that the 27th-28th as I travel back to Saudi with a bajillion other holiday travelers...)