Monday, February 28, 2011

it's a conspiracy.

My students love conspiracy theories. They love them. Everything that they talk about is either about the Masons, Illuminati, or some kind of crazy American government plot. This is extended to basically everything that we have studied or not studied this year. Everything from 9/11, the founding of Israel, America in Iraq (pretty much any event in history) to the music industry. There is a theory that Eminem was once a member of the Illuminati, but got out because he thought they were doing evil things and that's why everyone is out to get him. I

Anyway, after a heated conversation about 9/11 today after class, I was left thinking. Why is it that conspiracy theories are so popular? I had a conversation with my incredibly intelligent sister about this and I came to two conclusions: people believe in conspiracy theories because ignorance allows any truth to be possible; people believe in conspiracy theories because they have a vested interest in believing whatever the conspiracy is.

Firstly, ignorance allows any truth to be possible. One of my students today maintained that everyone knows that there were explosions (like charges or something) that caused the World Trade Center towers to fall like they did. This student is not an engineer. I am also not an engineer. I can safely say that I do not know the physics behind what caused the towers to fall the way they did. Now it occurred to me while I was listening to this student that because neither of us really understand how these things work, anything could be possible and true. If we expand this idea to any other conspiracy theory, say, the "faked" moon landings, we discover that there's a lot of variables that prevent you from having an easy idea of how these things happen. I understand why people think that we faked the moon landings...I one has been there but 14 astronauts. They're really the only ones who have really experienced the conditions on the moon. So how the flag waves in a vacuum or how the lighting on the moon looks really is something that we have to do some crazy mythbusters type investigations to test. Usually people who believe in conspiracy theories are simply thinking based on public information...or youtube videos that have been proven wrong (yes I'm looking at you "loose change"). So ultimately, for my students and for myself, trying to argue about things like this are kind of pointless. I mean, yes, we need to get these things out in the open and discuss them, but if the student or the teacher cannot really intimately describe the mechanics and physics involved in something as complicated as a building collapse...then perhaps it's not a credible point to make in an argument.

Secondly was the point that my sister brought up. People want (or need, in some cases) to believe in said conspiracy. If my students believe, honestly believe, that 9/11 was an American government/Illuminati/Masonic plot then it lets Islam off the hook. They become the religion that is getting beaten up on; the victim. I know, and I like to think that most Americans know, that it was a group of very disturbed individuals that committed the atrocities of 9/11 in the name of Islam. Just like all Christians do not condone the bombing of abortion clinics or violent action against homosexuals, most Muslims abhor the attacks of 9/11. I had a conversation today with one of my colleagues about the perceptions that westerners and Arabs have of one another. It's built on Fox News and terrorism for most Americans, and American TV and the invasion of Iraq and US support of Israel for most Arabs. What this leads to is a desire to shut out the west and keep them at a distance, while Americans are both afraid of and intrigued by Arabs. Getting back to my point, sometimes people believe in a conspiracy because they want it to be true, and not investigating further is their way of allowing ignorance so that it can be (see how I tied it back to the other idea? You're welcome.)

I'm sure I'm gonna get some comments on this, but it's something that I have really been thinking about and talking about a lot with my students. Our understanding of each other is very limited, and even when we seem to get close, we realize how different we are.

Vicariously yours,

Friday, February 25, 2011

evenings with the shebab.

I have very recently returned to running on the regular. This is extremely exciting to me, as it allows me to do things that I have not previously been able to do (i.e. walk up stairs while having a conversation, tie my shoes without getting out of breath...). The only issue with this is that I don't have a lot of places to go running so I am limited to running on the Corniche (beach front road). You're probably saying, "Tyler, what's the problem? You get to run on the beach everyday...stop complaining." This would be great, but along with the view of the Gulf and the Bahrain causeway, there are the shebab, or young men.

There's not a lot to do in Saudi Arabia. Especially if you're a young man. No cinemas...they're not even allowed in malls without their families. There's also the issue of Bahrain being...well...out of order. The sheesha places here have also been closed because they were viewed as a "bad element" in the neighborhood. So what can they do? Apparently just sit on the Corniche sidewalk or in their cars and text, smoke cigarettes, and barbecue. They also really enjoy hanging out of moving car windows, driving really fast, and of course honking at everything. They get so loud sometimes that it freaks us out...but hey, they're shebab.

Because the only place to run is the Corniche, I end up spending a lot of time with the shebab. This means I get honked at a lot. I also end up having to get off the sidewalk sometimes because they've literally camped out right there. It's been pretty interesting. Most of the time they're so involved in their BBMing they don't say or do anything. However, sometimes I get the Arabic equivalent of "Run Forrest Run" (which by the way is "yalla, yalla!").

Ultimately, it's not bad enough to make me want to stop running there, but it is funny and a little sad that they don't have anything better to do. I think after awhile of running on the Corniche, it won't be a novelty...but then again I'm literally the only person I've seen doing anything remotely exercise related out there. But until either jogging becomes a socially acceptable activity or they find something better to do...I'll be spending my evenings with the shebab on the Corniche.

Vicariously yours,

My Dad is SO Arab: He likes to have "a guy" for everything

As previously discussed, my father is from the Middle East. He's a true role model for a nomad like me. He up and left his family and his childhood home to marry the woman he loved and follow his dream in America. He has fully embraced the American life, becoming a naturalized citizen shortly before I was born and just after he finished building the house I grew up in. It was a big year for the world.

Also as previously discussed, despite being in the States for more than 3 decades, my dad has a few foreign quirks the he never got rid of. Being that he's my dad, I never really thought of them as strange habits until "outsiders" like my slumber party guests and boyfriends started saying, "Does your dad always act that weird?"

Kidding. Kinda.

Before the Mister and I moved to Saudi Arabia, I was sure I would wrestle with some serious homesickness, but instead I've found some familiarity among my Saudi neighbors: my Daddy's "weird" quirks!

Here's another example of how I know my dad is SO Arab: He likes to have "a guy" for EVERYTHING!

Examples of Saudis having "a guy": When we bought our car a few months after arriving, we immediately needed to get insurance (We will get in an accident one day, here are a few reasons why). When the Mister asked around about where to get insurance, the immediate response from his colleagues was, "Oh I have a guy. I'll call him for you."

Two days later, we were fully insured. Apparently if we'd gone about it the old fashioned way (read: contacting a business based on its advertising), we would still be waiting for insurance. Dropping the name of the guy that knows the guy gets you places in Saudi!

Wednesdays are filafel day at work. One of the guidance counselors goes around and takes requests for the yummy fried wheat goodness. I decided I wanted to get in on that action, so I ponied up the cash and literally about 10 minutes later, a warm filafel was in my hand (we don't have a cafeteria, so we had to order for delivery). "WOW! That was really fast! How'd you do that?"

"I have a filafel guy."

I wasn't quite sure what to do with that information, but I certainly wasn't complaining.

Another time I mentioned that I needed to get a shirt tailored.

"Oh! Give me your number, I'll text you the number and address for my guy!"

The Mister's co-workers have a shawarma guy, a car guy, a grocery guy, a hair guy, even a guy who will come and clean the courtyard when the tiles get dusty. Saudis will even go so far as to go to a regular old store, but only speak to the employee with whom they have conducted business in the past. "No, I don't need help. I need to talk to my guy."

Examples of my father having "a guy": My dad has a car guy. I'm not sure when Daddy started patronizing his car guy, but his fidelity to this little independent garage located in the basement of an antique store in the town where I grew up is unwavering.

Daddy loves being on a first name basis with anyone, so he makes sure to frequent the same bank branch for years on end. He'll drive all the way across town just to go to his bank guy, even if there's a branch closer to where he is.

One time when I was a kid, we were on family vacation somewhere, and we were lost. Mom really wanted to pull over at a gas station and ask directions or something, but Daddy had another plan. He honked the horn and indicated for the guy in the pick-up truck next to us to roll down his window. Traffic was moving again, but Daddy yelled out his request for directions to the nearest Interstate entrance ramp.

Even though we went past a sign indicating that the interstate we were looking for was to the right, Daddy kept straight and stayed close to the guy's bumper. "What are you doing? The interstate's that way!" my flustered mom called out.

Daddy sucked his teeth, "Wait! We're going to follow my guy! He's going to take us there." In the course of 2.5 minutes, my dad had found a guy.

Thankfully that guy didn't lead us to the woods and kill us all.

You can't teach an old dog new tricks, and my dad--like any good Arab--loves his shawarma. Like our Saudi friends, my dad has found a shawarma guy at home (they're called gyros at home, but "gyro guy" just sounds creepy). I think he enjoys the Arabic conversation with the Iraqi owner more than the food itself, but Daddy makes sure to frequent his shawarma guy regularly.

His Arab fondness for having a guy for everything, though hilarious at times, does have one variation from the Saudi habit. In my opinion, Saudis have a guy for three reasons: 1). they like to network, 2). they like to feel powerful 3). they're a little lazy. As long as Saudis have a guy, they don't have to go to the effort of looking up the part number they need or having to describe the kind of hair cut they want.

With my dad, however, it's kind of like the old show "Cheers." You can't tell me Norm didn't like having his name called out as soon as he walked through the door. Daddy definitely loves having familiar faces greet him with a smile. He also is just a friendly guy. He likes being your guy, and he often finds his guys by being their guy in the first place.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Stuff Arabs Like #10: Junk Food

I'm sorry to expose your dirty secret Arabia, but the world has to know: you're addicted to junk. From the way the media spins it, you'd think Americans had the market cornered on binging pounds of candy and ingesting oceans of carbonated sugar. But to that stereotype I say "NAY!" It is the Arab that has the sugar addiction, and I'm not afraid to say it!

All you have to do is take one look at the candy aisle in any Saudi grocery store. In some stores, it stretches the entire width! From front door to refrigerated poultry! There is every possible chocolate bar, fruity chew and gum flavor imaginable.

And right next door? The potato chip aisle. Chips from every country you can think of in flavors like the traditional sour cream and onion and the bizarre ketchup and jalapeƱo. And inside the same building as the grocery store? A candy store.

Don't even ask about the soda aisle.

I guess I can't blame them for wanting to drink the sugary substitutes for healthy liquids like water. Bottled water is actually more expensive than gas here, and the desalinated water from the tap is salty and makes your teeth feel metallic. But my HEAVENS what is the excuse for the candy? I can't count the number of times I've asked a student what she's eating for lunch and she holds up a Kit-Kat and a bag of Lays.

I once brought up this issue with some of my students and one of them proudly displayed her diet soda and said, "Look teacher! I'm being healthy!"

I've made it no secret how much I love food, so perhaps some of this bafflement is rooted in my extreme jealousy at this ridiculously unhealthy lifestyle in a place where somehow the women are all able to maintain a Hollywood waistline. To quote the timeless Ron Burgundy: "I'm not even mad, I'm just impressed."

...and maybe a little grossed out.

Vicariously yours,

(meanwhile, Google image search "candy" in Saudi Arabia, and this is one of the first thumbnails you see. Whaat?!)

The King is Back in Town

Every time I heard someone say the title today, I couldn't help but think of this song.

There he is!

Yes, you read right. Abdullah has returned to Saudi Arabia. He had gone to the States for back surgery in December and then went to Morocco to recover. He returned...sometime in the past 24 hours. I'm not really sure when he arrived exactly because there are conflicting reports. Did he land last night? Did he land this afternoon? I dunno.

The important part is that he BACK (and we get a 3 day weekend because of it)!

Here are some interesting tidbits I learned about the Saudi monarchy in the past few weeks:

Abdullah's dear old dad.
  • King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is the fifth son of King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia.
  • Abdulaziz set it up so that all the succeeding rulers of Saudi Arabia had to be one of his sons (he had 37). Apparently Abdulaziz didn't have all that much foresight.
  • This is why King Abdullah, 87, will be succeeded by his brother Sultan, 82. Sultan will be succeeded by his brother Nayef who is rumored to be almost 80.
  • I say "rumored" because apparently the sons of Saud are famous for changing their birth certificates to make them younger than they actually are. This isn't for vanity reasons, but to repudiate thoughts of an infirm ruler.
  • Perhaps seeing the flaw in the original king's plan of succession (and shuttering at the thought of leaving his country in the hands of the reckless younger generation), King Abdullah set up the Allegiance Council in 2006. The council is made up of a bunch of Saud's (change comes slow here) and, after the reign of Sultan, will vote by secret ballot for the future kings of Saudi Arabia.
  • One loophole: Sultan is not in good health, so no one's really sure what would happen if he should die before his brother (between you and me, I've heard Nayef isn't all that popular of a guy so not many people want the succession to skip right to him).
I know I should probably be focusing on all the civil unrest surrounding Saudi Arabia, but for the moment I'm just fascinated by all the Kingdom-y stuff around me. I've never lived in a country with a King! The Saudi people seem to be genuinely excited to have their king back on home turf. It's like their grandfather has come back after a long trip. Everybody was praising Abdullah, espousing his good deeds and commenting on how happy they were that he is back and in good health.

As I mentioned, we get the day off on Saturday to celebrate his return, and I really think that Saudis will probably sit around on Saturday and talk about Abdullah and what a great guy he is.

A fellow American colleague and I commented on how funny it would be if the States got the day off every time the President came back from a trip abroad. We'd never get anything done!

Yes, living in a kingdom is very different indeed and today was one of those days that made moving abroad seem like a pretty cool decision.

Vicariously yours,

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My Dad is SO Arab: The Jimmy Rig

For those who don't know me personally, my father is Arabic. He was born and raised in Iraq and moved to the USA permanently shortly before marrying my mother in the '70s. He is now a full-blown American citizen with no intentions of moving back to the Middle East. He's so American, he didn't even bother to teach my siblings and me Arabic growing up...for various reasons.

Thanks for that, Dad. (kidding. kinda.)

Anyway, throughout my childhood, I never thought of my dad as a foreigner. (I still don't think he has an Arabic accent, though the Mister disagrees with me on that.) I just thought he had funny quirks. I was never really all that embarrassed by my dad, I just kind of laughed it off. But now that I'm just a border away from his homeland and among his "cousins," I realize more and more that my dad's quirks aren't unique to him! He's got more in common with his cousins than I ever realized!

Allow me to explain one way I know my dad is Arab:

He loves the "jimmy rig." I'm not sure if this term was coined by Southerners, but Arabs have the market cornered on the jimmy rig. The jimmy rig, according to is defined as, "[fixing] something regardless of how it looks or how long it lasts. Using any materials that are available in a creative way to make something work."

Examples of the jimmy rig in Saudi Arabia: Did the leg of your sofa break? ...LOOK! I found half of a cinder block and a bit of a phone book! Just stick those under that bad boy and voila! Problem fixed. No need to buy a new chair.

*Speaking of cinder blocks: When a new house is being constructed, it's generally made entirely out of cinder blocks and concrete. BUT, instead of planning ahead and making sturdy openings for the pipes and other things that can easily be retro-fitted into a timber house, Saudi construction workers just cut a path through the blocks and concrete, stick the pipe/wiring in, and put brick fragments in the opening. It'll have a few layers of stucco on it eventually, so what does it matter?

*I found out the other day that if you own property in Saudi, you have to build a wall around it. So all houses have walls along the property lines. This also comes in handy for those families that like to keep their women hidden. The Saudis are a very private people. The only problem is, when the neighbors start building their house next door, and their top windows can peek over your privacy wall, you've got to make your wall taller. WHO COULD HAVE SEEN THIS PROBLEM COMING?! So what do the Saudis do? Certainly not extend their wall on all sides with building materials similar to what they already have used! That would be expensive, I'm sure. No, Saudis rig up a wall extension made of sheet metal and poles that are no where near the same color as the original walls. AND they only extend the wall closest to the offending neighbors' house.

*Thanks to the immense American presence here, just about all Saudi buildings have both 110 and 220 volt wiring. Only trouble is, the plugs look the same no matter the voltage. Hmm...there's got to be some way to indicate which plug is attached to which voltage...

(Masking tape and ink pen. There is no other solution.)

*Did you get into a fender bender and now your bumper is kind of hanging off? Well, I've got some clear packing tape and some sturdy cardboard. And this won't be a temporary fix. Nah, we'll leave that on there permanently...or until you get into another wreck.

Examples of the jimmy rigs from my father: When I was in college, I rear-ended somebody coming home from the beach. I took the car to the garage my insurance recommended and two weeks later I had a whole new front end. I was going on a road trip immediately after I got the car from the garage and, I kid you not, 2 hours down the road, my front left tire blew, knocking my fresh new bumper half off. I. was. PISSED.

I was going to need a new bumper, and this was going to make my insurance go up. But instead, my father used a wire coat hanger to stop my bumper from flapping. Anytime I got over 60 miles an hour it would sound like I was coming under heavy fire in 'Nam, and if you looked at it from the wrong angle you could see the wire ends sticking out from under the wheel well...but hey! Free fix!

*I needed a set of mailboxes for my classroom at home. You know the ones. They're basically slots that are large enough for a stack of 8.5x11'' paper to go into. Those suckers are expensive! I mentioned this conundrum to my dad and he sprang to action! He owns a flooring business, so he had a fair amount of scrap hardwood planks lying around. He rigged up a great set of 90 mail slots. Some were wider than others, and there were a lot of random nails sticking out, but I'll be darned if those bad boys weren't the envy of the other teachers on my hall.

(No seriously. Everyone fought over the mailboxes on the left when I announced I was leaving my old school. Notice the jimmy rigged piece of butcher paper I hot-glued over the rows of slots that weren't being used except as trash receptacles by my angels at home. It's hereditary, apparently.)

The most hilarious part of this jimmy rig though, was the WEIGHT! Hardwood is called hardwood for a reason. It's dense! I would estimate that these mailboxes weighed about 100 pounds. One time I needed some help moving them from one side of my classroom to the other, so my brother came to help. We couldn't get all the way across the room without laughing at the struggle we were having and the mental picture of our father stepping back like Michelangelo from the Pieta and admiring his two-ton work.

*My dad is a gardener. It's his zen. And nothing interrupts his zen and sends him into a rage like intruders into his garden. They make lots of things to ward off groundhogs, deer, rabbits and other agricultural raiders, but why spend your money on all that mess when you can rig up a scarecrow like THIS:

(Most people would use an "old shirt" and a "worn out" pair of jeans...but those are two terms that don't enter my dad's vocabulary. Bed sheets. Now THOSE can be sacrificed to the garden gods.)

This scarecrow is next to a shed my dad built himself out of some plywood and aluminum roofing sheets. It's not all that bad of a shed, and Daddy wanted to preserve the wood against rot, so he needed to paint it. Paint's expensive, but never fear! Daddy had a fix for that! A few years back we'd remodeled the house so we had some leftover paint. None of the half-filled cans of paint contained the same color, but dump them all together and you had a 3 gallon bucket of a convincing lavender/puce color. Yeah. That'll work. Slap it on.

There are SOO many more examples of my father's jimmy rigs: the wood blocks that serve as wall mounts for the surround sound in the living room, the scrap wood closet shelves, the home-made slingshot used to ward off squirrels from the bird feeder. More than I can list.

I poke fun, but I do love my father. His little Arab quirks have become more obvious to me since I've moved here, and there will be more entries like this to come, I'm sure. But at the end of the day, all these reminders of my father just make this place feel ever-so-slightly like home.

Vicariously yours,

Monday, February 21, 2011

parent meetings are the same in every language.

What? It's true.

This is only my 4th year teaching, so I don't pretend that I'm totally jaded and know everything about the profession. But there are a few things that I have noticed about meetings with parents that seem to be pretty much the same no matter where you go. I've taught in public schools, private schools, a rural school, and, now, a Saudi Islamic school. So I think I've got a pretty decent survey of different meetings.

Generally, teachers need to meet with parents for 2 reasons: academic issues or behavior issues. Oftentimes they are linked...but 99.9 repeating % of meetings are for those reasons. Parent responses are, of course, more varied. And obviously all students and situations are all different. However, as I sat in a parent meeting today where the parent didn't speak English, and I understood only little chunks of the conversation, I heard the things that you hear as a teacher all the time.

"He is a really bright boy, he just needs support..." or "...he just needs to get away from distractions..."

"He just needs to focus..."

"Do you post the homework on the board?"

Lots of them. Anyway...

I sit sometimes and think of the things that make people from different parts of the world similar...and it doesn't really get any more similar than the way that parents care for their children. There is the range of parenting styles, of course. But parents everywhere just want the best for their kids. It's this understanding that (hopefully) exists between parents and teachers that each really does want the best for the kid. I liked sitting in the office with the parent made me realize that even though I didn't really understand his words, I got what he meant. And that, dear readers, is a great feeling.

Vicariously yours,

Sunday, February 20, 2011

English games are hard!

I like to hang out with my students. I've said it many times before: I enjoy teaching middle school and my students crack me up. One such case was a round of speed Scrabble with my seventh graders the other day.

Speed Scrabble (also called Bananagrams) it meant to be a high speed game where players create their own personal scrabble boards in front of them. ...sorta. There's more to it, but all you need to know for this story's purposes is that players have to know how to spell a wide variety of English words. It's a good game for language learners because they can set their own pace, and it can help them build spelling skills.

I explained the rules and passed out the games (I have a class set) and the girls immediately dove in. If there's one thing I will say for Arab students, it's that they are VERY competitive--even if they don't really understand how the game works.

As I was circling the room, helping kids out, answering questions, explaining how to spell some words, and laughing at this hilarity they were coming up with.

I caught sight of these gems:

  • It was early in the game, so a girl just had three words on her board: fire, inside, her.
  • One girl had the word "mol." When I asked what they word meant she said, "You know! 'mol.' Where you go shopping."
  • One girl had the word breast on her board. "Breast?!" I said. "Yeah, like chicken breast." Whatever you say, kid.
My favorite interaction of the day, however, was when one girl needed to make a word that ended in a "c." (The whole concept of crossing words on one letter was a bit of a stretch for them to understand, so they got stuck on the idea that "if I need to use the letter, the word has to either begin or end with the letter--no two ways about it.")

"Teacher, what is a word that ends in 'c?'" she asked, tapping a Scrabble tile on the desk in thought.

"COCK!" one of her classmates cried out triumphantly. Around the table, heads nodded as if to say, "Oh yeah! Cock! Why didn't I think of that!"

"um, well, that word ends with the 'c' sound, but it's actually spelled with a 'ck.'"



Vicariously yours,

Saturday, February 19, 2011

the nap trap.

What do you do when you get home from work? Maybe watch TV? Cook dinner? Play with the dog/kids (which is the same thing if you're my sister-in-law)? Well in Saudi the thing to do is nap.

School for us ends at 2:40 pm. So we're home by 3:30 pm if we stick around. It's nice to have so much time to run errands and stuff, but then again...nothing's open! This is an old tradition that has remained a way of life in the Arabian Peninsula. From what I understand, things were so hot during the early afternoon that people just shut down everything and go sit in the shade. With the creation of A/C, people kept the same hours...just now they take the time to nap. That way they can stay awake for the cool evenings and do all the stuff they want to do. This means for us that all the stores are closed until around 4 or so, and things don't really get started until like 9 pm.

When we first got here, we thought it was great. Thanks to the jet lag, we were sleeping after school pretty much everyday. It was also nice to know that we weren't missing much. But now that I've grown accustomed to the time and the way things work here, I'm not so sure it's good. This is a running debate among the Americans here. We affectionately call the daily afternoon nap, "the nap trap". It's a trap (oh c'mon, I had to) because you end up staying up late, which makes you tired the next day, and in need of a nap. Some are totally in favor of it. Some think that it wastes your afternoon.

For me, it changes everyday. Sometimes I just need a nap because I stayed up too late. Sometimes I want to fight against it because I want to get to sleep on time or get something done. Most of the time I find myself annoyed if I sleep during the day. I become worthless for the rest of the day. I'm against the nap trap because I only get so many hours a day to call my own. I don't want to be asleep for them!

Of course, I say all this while the lady is taking a nap...

Vicariously yours,

Friday, February 18, 2011


One of the great perks of working overseas, specifically in Saudi Arabia, is the lack of taxes. Saudi Arabia doesn't have taxes of any sort. No sales tax, no income tax. It's pretty nice. But of course, the US does, so that raised a couple questions before we left.

The hubbins and I are what you would call mathematically challenged. Even with the help of programs like TurboTax, we have managed to screw up our taxes every single year since we've been out from under our parents' wings. Add to that the complication of being on an entirely different continent, and you'll understand why we're hiring an accountant to handle our taxes this year.

Yes, even though we're not in the country, we still have to file. I contacted a CPA before we left to find out how much we should expect to pay out this April (last year we had the surprise of having to pay $500 on top of what we'd already had deducted from our paychecks. Who says marriage is a sweet tax break!?).

"Well, it depends on what your salary will be overseas," Mr. Taxman said.

"What's the cap?" I asked.

"According to current tax laws, citizens living overseas would have to make about $96,000 or above to be eligible for taxes."

I burst out laughing. "You mean combined income?"

"No, $96,000 per person," he answered, preplexed as to what I found so funny.

"Well, that still makes so difference. Even if my husband and I were both administrators, our combined income still wouldn't reach $96,000. So we're good."

Moral of the story, folks: If you're a teacher and you're in a financial bind, FLEE THE COUNTRY! Go somewhere like Saudi with no taxes and enjoy the pleasures of a tax free life.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's an interesting time to be in the Middle East, that's for sure!

I had a meeting with the TARA committee this morning. We've been keeping an eye on the situation in Bahrain, as we were alerted a few weeks ago that protests were being planned and things might get real. I just expected today's meeting to be about the cautionary moves we were going to take to make sure the conference went off without a hitch.

But when I arrived at the home where the meeting was held, I knew that things were not going to turn out as we all hoped.

Around 3 am this morning, the Bahraini police stormed the camp set up in the main round-about in Manama where protesters--families with women and children--were sleeping. Official reports claim that only 3 people have been killed, but that conflicts with what we've been hearing from committee members living in Bahrain and some news reports.

The TARA committee members watched in horror as Al-Jazeera showed tanks rolling down the main road of Manama, the kingdom's capital, just a mile or so away from the hotel where the conference is supposed to be held in just a week.

Obviously we've cancelled the conference and now have to watch as things unfold in the Kingdom of Bahrain, a chain of 33 islands just 16 miles away from where the Mister and I live. We can literally see the main island from our roof.

Selfishly, the Mister and I are bummed that we have lost our retreat from the stress of the Saudi Arabia, but our hearts go out to the people of Bahrain. All of this unrest is rooted in discrimination of Shia Bahrainis by the Sunni monarchy that has ruled the tiny kingdom for more than 200 years. Inspired by the success of the protesters in Egypt, the majority Shia citizens thought they would be able to capture the world's attention and force progress in their own country. I've been told that protests like this one have occurred several times over the past few years, and deaths have resulted even then. But now that rebellions are popping up all over the Middle East, Bahrainis are hoping to finally be noticed.

Bahrain, you have our attention.

Vicariously yours,

Stuff Arabs Like #9: Schtick.

I've pointed it out before, and I'll say it again: Arabs. Love. Schtick. They are a people who seem to be constantly on the quest for the next World's Largest [insert noun here]. If it's something that seems impossible, or out of place, Arabs love it.

Perhaps it's because, other than expanses of desert, they're lacking in the natural wonders department. Gotta compensate somehow.

Perhaps it's because there's just nothing else to do for entertainment than sitting around thinking of ways to one-up all the other world record holders.

Either way, when you're traveling in the Arab world, you're guaranteed to find schtick, and lots of it. A few examples:

The World's Largest Thobe in Jeddah (temporary exhibit and totally logical use of fabric)

The World's Tallest Building (for a minute), the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

An indoor ski "resort," the previously-blogged about Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates.

The World Trade Center Bahrain. This is actually some pretty cool schtick. They have 3 wind turbines attached to the building that provide green power on especially windy days (which are very frequent on this particular island Kingdom).

The Palm Jumeirah, Dubai. "You know what we don't have enough of? Islands that look like palm trees."

"Let's make some!"

The gratuitously large Mecca Clock next to the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Muslims are actually hoping to shift the world clock from being GMT centered to being centered around Mecca time.

The world's largest mall: Dubai Mall in Dubai. And inside that mall:

The world's largest acrylic panel in the world's largest underwater tunnel in the world's largest aquarium. A trifecta of schtick.

Who knows what they'll come up with next. I think the evidence above is proof enough that Arabs love them some schtick and they ain't ashamed to admit it!

Vicariously yours,

Every teacher lives for that mind-blowing moment

There are days that I absolutely love my 7th grade class. Being that I adore teaching middle school, I probably have more adoration for pubescent teens than most parents of the same age group. And every now and then, the 7th grade class that I have this year reminds me of why I love teaching so much.

We're doing a unit on non-fiction right now. It's a bit of a blah subject, but my girls have very limited grasp of world history so I've decided to broaden their horizons on two fronts with this project I introduced today. They're going to be doing research, and learning about world history at the same time.

I've given them a choice of 6 topics and they're going to have to research and create a little info booklet about the topic of their choice. I've specifically chosen topics about famous tourist attractions in places that I know most of them vacation. I chose the research topics banking on the fact that despite their annual visits to some of these places, my girls have never seen the iconic landmarks I've selected for this project.

These girls regularly spend holidays in Paris, London, and Rome. But if you ask any of them if they've seen the Louvre, the Tower of London, or the Colosseum, they'll look at you with a blank stare. They go shopping when they travel, and have no idea the treasures that are probably just around the corner from the hotel where they're staying.

The topics I've selected are relatively well known: Alcatraz Island, the Colosseum, the Catacombs of Paris, the Terracotta Army, and others. I did a little pre-test to see how much they knew about these things with today's bellringer: What do you know about Alcatraz Island?

The resounding answer was, "It's an island."


I'd created a little powerpoint presentation with just the most basic facts of the topics they have to select from, and I presented today. I hoped they would be intrigued by what they heard, but I did not expect the reactions I got.

At one point my classroom was in a total uproar, but not in a bad way. I was talking about Alcatraz Island and the Anglin-Morris escape of 1962 and the reactions of the girls who were actually listening prompted the more ADD-prone girls to ask, "Eysh? Eysh? [what? what?]." So while I was answering questions for the girls closest to me, the girls in the back of the room were recounting what I'd just said to those who weren't really listening in the first place.

(It as a super squirrelly day for this bunch, so I'd decided to go with the shock-and-awe approach in hopes of keeping most of the attention spans on what I'd had to say. I had resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to have the attention of everyone in the class, so I was pleased that their constant chatter was about the topics at hand, as opposed to their weekend plans.)

I seriously walked out of my classroom on an endorphine high. Mind-blowing moments like these are the stuff teachers live for, and I got 40 full minutes of it today.

I certainly hope the energy keeps up through the research process.

Vicariously yours,

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


This has been the longest first week back to school EVER. Tomorrow is the last day of the work week and that has kind of snuck up on me, but Saturday (our first day of the work week) feels like it was years ago. ...if that makes any sense.

I was sitting here reflecting on my week so far, and there have been many instances that my students have made me double over in laughter. I must say, as frustrating as my job can be, I genuinely enjoy my students. They challenge my skills as a teacher in a good way. They are pretty awesome human beings. And some of them really want to learn, not just get the grade they want.

In my 8th grade class, I've started a drama unit, and I've rocked their literary worlds. They legitimately did not realize that drama was a genre, not just something bitter teenage girls cause in your life when they're pms-ing. So it's been a fun week of introducing them to a new part of my language.

Anyway, for a review game today, I took a cue from "Whose Line is It Anyway?" and had the kids in teams of 4-5. The teams were given a review question and they had to answer it as a team, but they couldn't talk to each other, and only one person could say one word at a time. So they had to band together and work individually at the same time. It is a review game, but it's also just a game to get the class laughing. Research has shown that people retain information when they've associated it with a happy memory, so the more you laugh at school the more you learn.

ANYWAY. I knew this was going to be a challenging game for my girls to begin with because English is their second language, but I knew they'd have fun just the same. I gave the first team their question:

Me: Team one: What are stage directions?

Student 1: [blank stare]

Teammates: Yallah! (hurry up! come on!)

Student 1: [blank stare]

Teammate: Just say a word!

Student 1: Red?

The entire class burst into laughter. Stage directions are not, in fact, red. But that sure did make for an entertaining answer.

It was the next team's turn, so after they had lined themselves up according to height (their idea, not mine), they were ready for their first question.

Me: Team two, what is a line? ...and I mean a line in drama, not a line at the bathroom.

By now everyone had a rough idea of how the game worked, so they dove right in to their answer. It was hilarious because each of them had an answer in their heads, but all of their answers were slightly different. So when person one said, "A," her teammate said, "No! The first word is 'Lines!'"

One: It is?

Two: Yes! "Lines are..."

One: Oh. Lines are... [looks at two with a confused expression]

Two: No! you're just supposed to say one word! You say "Lines," and I say, "Are!"

One: Oh.

Me: It really doesn't matter how she starts the sentence. The point is you're supposed to think on your feet, but let's just go with it. One, you said "Lines." So Two says "Are...."

And they picked it up from there. They muddled through a sentence and when they had answered the question the class nodded in agreement and we thought they were finished.

Three: Because

Teammates: [confused looks]

I was wondering what more she could add to the answer "Lines are the words the actors say in a play." But they started rambling on and on. I think rainbows were mentioned, and ice cream...Eventually, One stopped the run away train...

Three: happy

Four: moments

One: period.

We were all in stitches because the expression on One's face was one of desperation. English is definitely not her forte and she wanted off this crazy ride. She laughed at herself along with the rest of the class. With an exasperated, "Khalass!" (quit it! or I'm over this!) she declared that her team's turn was over and sat back down.

I think it goes without saying that I'll definitely be planning more improv games in our dramatic future.

Vicariously yours,

Monday, February 14, 2011

in which i have to leave to notice some things here...

You may or may not be aware of this, but when you are in a place for a long period of time, things become normal. You get used to a certain standard in everything. Everything from food to just start to think that this is the way it is and you don't think about it. The best metaphor I can think of for it is how everyone else's house has a smell...but you never notice how your house smells because you smell it all the time.

Which can sometimes lead to tragedy.

As Amber has been telling you, we just spent the week in Barcelona. I think you guys are pretty smart, so I don't think I need to explain how Mediterranean Spain is different than the Kingdom. But our time away from Saudi (to use the metaphor again) let me realize the way our house smells.

So some things that I have noticed since we got back:
1. The Traffic: Holy death trap, Batman! I know that driving in Saudi is bad. I was even to the point of fear when we first got here, but I guess I got used to it. I knew the "rules" (in quotes because, of course, there are no rules) and driving wasn't a big deal. When we got back from Spain, I hopped in the car to run to the grocery store and was immediately almost killed. I pulled out from our street onto the main drag and a car went by me so fast and so close that my VOLVO shook. The past few trips out have been expletive laden to say the least. But one of the things that I've been thinking about is how before we left, I just expected that kind of driving and thus it didn't really frustrate me anymore. I apparently lost that control.

2. The Volume: We had to be at Barcelona's airport at 8:30ish in the morning. We arrived, checked in, and started to find our way to the gate when Amber stopped dead in her tracks. "What's wrong?" I asked.
"It''s so quiet!"
There were a ton of people in the airport, and if you've ever been to that airport, you know that it's super open and there's not a lot in the way of sound absorption. But you could have heard a pin drop. Here, however, not so much. We went to the grocery store and BOOM. Children running talking loudly at each other...women yelling for said children. It was insane. And deafening. I never remember it being that loud...but I guess you get used to the volume too.

3. The Prayer Break: I spent a week of being able to just go out and get some food or run errands whenever. It was great because I can't do that here. I have to be conscious of the prayer times. It really didn't bother me that much before we left, but once we got back and wanted dinner yesterday, I stepped out the door and suddenly, prayer call. Wait 15 to 30 minutes and try again. It's one of those things you're not really allowed to be mad about...I mean it's literally one of the major points of their religion. So I have to be a grown up about it...::sigh::

It's pretty weird to have your normal be Saudi normal...but it's ours. I guess I just forget how our normal is so strange...leaving to somewhere else always highlights that. Berlin is gonna do a real job on my perception of the Kingdom...ugh.

Vicariously yours,

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Our night out with the kids...and the Packers.

Through a stroke of fate, the Mister and I were in Barcelona for Super Bowl Sunday so we were able to watch the game. Being that we haven't been in the States for a long time and the only means of "watching" NFL games in Saudi is by huddling around a computer listening to the audio broadcast of the live games a la America during the Great Depression, we were stoked to soak up some seriously ridiculous American machismo.

We were well aware that we would probably be surrounded by obnoxious Americans who had bribed their wives into letting them out of the hotel room for the night to watch the Packers beat the Steelers (and Christina Aguilera botch the national anthem). We had steeled ourselves for the onslaught of random obscenities, the possible cheese head and guaranteed rounds of one-upping with stories of favorite NFL games gone by. We were ready for it, and had accepted our fate.

What can I say, there were free wings and trivia before the game.

What we weren't ready for was the onslaught of study-abroaders that were a mix of horny and homesick with a side of Europeans trying to get into the pants of a drunk American study abroad girl who had just come to the bar because there was nothing better to do with her Sunday night. But that's exactly what we got.

We had to reserve our seats ahead of time, and being that it was a small bar and we were only two people, we were put at a table with strangers. We were the first at our table to arrive, so when the strangers stumbled in and saw two old people sitting in the places they'd expected their new BFF of 3 weeks to be, we were front and center for the wave of disappointment that washed over all of their faces.

No matter. We had just as much right to be at that table as they had. Plus I like to think we're pretty interesting people, so all we needed to do was strike up a conversation and they'd realize that their night wasn't totally ruined.

That's where the hitch was. It's literally impossible to start a conversation with a person who sits 2 feet away from you on the shared banquette and then turns his body completely away from you so you just stare awkwardly at the cowlick on the back of his head. And you might as well not try to look past him and make eye contact with the other people in his group, because they're glaring you down and clearly talking about you in hushed tones to the other angry 20 somethings around them.

It was like I had B.O. or something. The Mister wasn't having any luck on this side of the table either. He had the chairs, and the girl next to him didn't even try to angle her chair slightly in his direction.


A word to the wise for all study abroad American college students out there: don't be total pinheads. There are interesting people in places other than America, so engage in conversations with strangers. Just don't go home with them and you'll make your mommy proud.

Eventually, after copious amounts of greasy wings and a few drinks, the kids warmed up to us. That and the fact that our story was way cooler than "we're just on vacation."

A few of the things that only viewers outside the US got to enjoy:
  • No American commercials. Biggest. let down. of. the. night. I seriously only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials. Because the game was aired on Sky Sports, a British satellite channel, they couldn't show the American commercials. Instead we got lame Tesco adverts and shots of Brits pretending to know what was going on in the bar they'd stumbled into. Seriously at one point before the halftime show, they interviewed a guy in a Vikings jersey. Too soon, dude. Too soon.

  • The creepy Spaniards that either thought they were going to watch a soccer match, or thought they were going to be waking up in a girl's dorm bed the next day. Neither of which became a reality. Hey guys, it doesn't matter how many drinks they've had, American girls don't think it's charming when you ask "What's the name of the team in the green?" or "Why do they call it football when they don't use their feet?" Especially during the Super Bowl.

  • The time difference. The game started at midnight, Barcelona time. It didn't end until 4 am. Apparently bars in Barcelona have to close at 2:30, so we got locked into the bar and were told we could not leave. A dream come true for every American college sophomore ever.

All in all, we did end up having a good time, and we got a good dose of Americana to last us at least a few more weeks.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, February 12, 2011

5 Things that make Barcelona Awesome

The people of Barcelona are surrounded by little things that are so European and quaint, and I'm sure they don't even notice it. Just like Americans don't think twice about the prescription drug commercials that come on every two seconds (of which there are absolutely ZERO in other parts of the world), the dwellers of Barcelona probably don't notice when they see some of these things in their day-to-day lives.

1. The fountains. Of course there are the grand fountains in places like Parc Cuitadella and Placa Catalunya, but I'm talking about the art deco drinking fountains you still find on random street corners in Barcelona. They're not just for show, people actually use them. It was like a personal scavenger hunt finding these unique gems randomly placed around the city.

2. The graffiti. While the sample above isn't exactly one of Barcelona's more creative works of urban art, it did give me a laugh. What I thought was very interesting about Barcelona is the placement of the graffiti.

All the stores in the older part of the city have those rolling metal doors that cover the entrances when the store is closed. Without fail, every single one of those doors has some form of graffiti on them.

Sometimes it was the random tagging of bored artists.

Other times the owners of the stores would beat the beatniks to the punch and spray paint a mural on the door themselves. It was almost just as much fun wandering around the city after the stores were closed as when they were open.

I thought it was interesting that you very rarely saw anything of historical worth that was vandalized. There are accounts of vandalism in Parc Guell in 2007, but that has all been cleaned up. Maybe it's because the city's really on top of things and cleans it up before you can see it. Or maybe it's because the penalty of graffiti is so severe no one will take the chance, but the graffiti was pretty much contained to just the metal doors or surfaces that would not be visible during business hours. The walls of the old buildings were totally clean. Statues didn't have new mustaches or ugly tagging. This is unlike any European city I've been in. Well done, Barcelona.

3. Bicing. Community bicycle programs like Bicing are popping up all over Europe. They're the eco-friendly fad du jour and I love it. Community bicycle programs work like this: 1). the city (more likely a government grant) buys a ton of durable bikes 2). the bikes are placed around the city in strategic, populated, flattish areas 3). residents of the city can buy memberships or one-time uses of the bikes on automated rental systems and get to take the bike, use it all day, and then park it at the first bicing docking station they can find when they're finished with the bike.

It's like Zipcar, but with bikes.

The system is designed to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the need for taxis and metros when locals need to run those cross-town errands. In Barcelona, you see bicing stations like the one pictured all over the place. They usually have at least one bike docked, or in some cases, the whole thing is full. And the people of Barcelona actually use the bikes! We regularly saw people whizzing by on bicing bikes.

4. The sidewalks. Like in Saudi where you know which part of town you're in by the design of the lamp posts, Barcelona's districts are roughly identifiable by the paving stones on the sidewalks. I'm sure few people in Barcelona actually notice this little quirk, but I loved it.

Not only are these sidewalks prettier than the typical concrete meh, but they add a little bit of traction in the wet weather and they give sidewalk cracks a lot more character. I also noticed a significant decrease in the amount of gum stuck to the sidewalks as compared to the concrete jungles of some American cities ::cough:: NYC ::cough::

5. The orange trees. I don't know what the story is here with these things, but the hubs and I would see at least one different orange tree a day. I'm sure someone out there knows the significance, and I'm sure the reason why the city has planted so many orange trees will only make me love them even more.

Vicariously yours,

Give the call of the whipper will

One of the first things I like to do when traveling is take a walking tour through whatever city I'm visiting. I know it's touristy and obnoxious, but it gives me a chance to get my bearings of where I am, and I get an idea of where the "safe" parts of town are. In addition, I always see all kinds of places to go back to and investigate.

What I hate about the walking tours is that they're often so dang expensive! But thanks to TripAdvisor, we found a FREE walking tour in Barcelona that was pretty darn good! Judit, our Runner Bean tour guide was so cute and friendly. She was born and raised in Barcelona and her pride in her hometown is very evident.

So we went to Placa Reial to begin our tour, and when we got there we found a little Sunday morning market.

Cute little old men buying and trading anything and everything cute little old men could want to collect: postage stamps, coins, pins, old currency, records, photographs. They were so cute stooping over the books of collectibles and bargaining prices with the cute little old man vendors.

And then there were these guys:

Set up like a ghetto yard sale, the Mister and I assumed that if you get pick-pocketed in Barcelona, chances are these guys will be selling it from a bed sheet the next Sunday. As you can see from the photo, they were hawking a random assortment of ...everything. One guy was working out of a plastic bag selling a bunch of cell phones that had mysteriously lost their chargers and had lots of strangers' phone numbers programmed into them.

The whole thing was very shady. And then while we were strolling between the bedsheets of the shady sellers and the tables of the legit market vendors, the dodgy mcdodgersons started packing up like a thunderstorm was about to ruin their picnic.

"I'll bet the cops are coming," the hubbins said with a chuckle. And wouldn't you know it, just about the time the bedsheets strewn with everything from porn to saucepans were packed up and out of sight....

Barcelona's finest showed up on the scene. It was kind of funny to watch the whole thing unfold.

Anyway, here are a few things we learned and saw on the tour:

See the Hebrew writing on the stone in the middle of the frame? This is a stone in the back wall of the Vice Roy's palace, built in the 1500s. In the late 1400s/ early 1500s, after the Spanish Inquisition had gotten rid of all the Muslims and Jews in the city, the royalty needed some stones for their palace. The Jewish cemetery on Montjuic wasn't getting much use, so it became the city's newest rock quarry!

The ruins of the Roman aqueduct that led into the ancient city of Barcino.

The church of Saint Filipe Neferi. This is the church where Gaudi prayed every day. It's riddled with machine gun bullet holes because anarchists trashed the church during the Civil War.

Cute stooped little old men were all over the place in this city!

This is Saint Eulalia (said kind of like "Aurelia"). She is the patron saint of Barcelona. She's got an alter on this little side street because this is the street where she was tortured (and eventually martyred) in the early 300s under the reign of Diocletian.

These are the steps on which Ferdinand and Isabella welcomed a guy named Christopher Columbus whom they had sponsored on some trip to some place far away from Spain. No big deal.

Vicariously yours,