Thursday, July 26, 2012

Obligatory anniversary blog post

Being that we are both teachers, the Mister and I planned our wedding in July: right in the middle of our annual vacation.

This year marked 4 years of marriage, and back in February, I had a fantastic idea for this year's celebration:

I love Dolly Parton. And I could not think of a better way to spend my anniversary than with the man I love, and Dolly cheesiness!

We rented a cabin through Dollywood Vacations, and that was by far the best idea we've had in a while. The cabin was the perfect size for the two of us, had a great view, and we could hear the Dollywood train whistle every day! I loved it!

Our home for a few days.

The view from both porches was spectacular!

The upstairs game room that led out to the second floor porch.
Yikes! This guy greeted us and watched over the upstairs bed we slept in. Slightly creepy.

Of course, there was NO way we were going to be staying that close to Dollywood and not go to the park! We spent 2 days in a Dolly wonderland! I loved it! The sound of Dolly's songs were in the air, screams of park goers drew us to the roller coasters (a new addition since the last time I'd been to the park--TWENTY years ago!), and the smells of greasy theme park food met us at the front gates. HEAVEN!

Awesome, AWESOME ride!

tee hee

The Wild Eagle: Dollywood's newest ride that just opened this year. It is the country's first "wing" roller coaster. That means that the seats of the ride are on either side of the track, so there is nothing above you or below while you're on the ride. It was A-MAZING!!

Hooray, indeed!

I remember watching the blacksmith make stuff when I was a little girl. I love that Dollywood has preserved some of the traditional crafts that are starting to disappear because of cheap manufacturing.

Cinderella. I remember riding this train when I was a little girl. It was much less thrilling as an adult, but still brought back great memories.

Look how greasy and sweaty we were! And this was at the beginning of the day!
To break up the excitement of all that Dolly, in the middle of our trip we went to the aquarium in Gatlinburg. Friends and family know how much the Mister and I love a good aquarium. This one was crawling (literally, at times) with kids and their families, but we still enjoyed watching the fishies. The best part had to be the penguins.

"What IS that!?"

This aquarium has a very large underwater tunnel where you can watch the sharks swim over your head. It was pretty cool,

Horseshoe crabs.


They were so much fun to watch.
On our anniversary night, we went out for a big, fancy, expensive dinner: The Dixie Stampede! Cause nothing says romance quite like dinner theater!!

This was the only picture I could get inside the arena. Boo.

For those who have never had the pleasure, the Dixie Stampede is Dolly Parton's "dinner attraction." You get a big, hands-on meal while watching a horse show musical-slash-competition. It's all finished off by a logger race at the end. It was redneck, mildly racially insensitive, and hilariously tacky. I loved it.

Even though he had his doubts at the beginning, the Mister declared that this was one of my better ideas for an anniversary vacation. He should have known to never doubt the Dolly. That girl knows how to have a good time!!

Vicariously yours,

Friday, July 13, 2012

Serving up some drag realness

The other night, I had an experience that so greatly contrasted my life in Saudi Arabia it just made me smile. I went to a show. This isn't an uncommon occurrence in Nashville. But this was a special show. Last Friday night, I went to a drag show.

Oh. my. lady boy.
I realize this is not a topic I usually discuss on this blog: I usually reserve my posts for international musings and photos of place and things most Americans don't have access to. But a lot of my students read this blog and I think this is a part of my life that some of them might be interested to know about. At least some will find it interesting.

Plus it was a fabulous night and I want to show everyone the pictures!!

For those who have never had the pleasure of going to a drag show, here's how it works:

Step 1. Pay your entry and get your wristband.

Step 2. Scan the crowd and find the best spot for the show.

Step 3. Wait.

Step 4. Enjoy the magic and hilarity.

For those who don't know, a drag show takes place in a gay club. The performers are men who dress like women. As was the case for most of the performers on Friday night, the queens sometimes have had some body modifications to make them look more like women.

exhibit A. ...and B.
The performances consist of the drag queens lip syncing to various popular songs and, depending on the talents of the performers, dancing and interacting with the crowd. The queens all have their own drag names that are different from their non-drag names. Each queen has her own style, there are the super girly types, the more punk types, and the androgynous, more modern types. There are several forms of drag, and I love them all.

Aurora Sexton. She's serving up showgirl-meets-1950s realness.
On Friday, however, I was there to see one particular queen: Latrice Royale!!

The shade of it all!
Latrice was a contestant on a show called Ru Paul's Drag Race. Think America's Next Top Model meets Project Runway...but with drag queens. It's a guilty pleasure of mine, and Latrice was one of my favorite queens from season 4. Even though I only got to see her perform one song, she was fabulous and I had a great time. I used to go to drag shows just about every Friday and Sunday night in college and I have missed hanging out in the drag scene. This is definitely an experience I would never have had living in Saudi Arabia! I love my crazy life.

Here are a few other photographic highlights:

Sara Andrews serving up a little Katy Perry.

Vicariously yours,

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reverse Culture Shock 2012

Last summer, I bragged about how little reverse culture shock the Mister and I experienced after our first year overseas. Upon further reflection, we did experience some awkwardness and adjustment last summer. Ok, by "we" I mean me. But whatever.

I think a lot of our lack of shock last year can be attributed to the fact that we only spent 2 weeks in Nashville. The rest of our summer was spent travelling, including a 2 week trip to Costa Rica, so it was like we were just on an extended vacation from Saudi Arabia rather than actually going home.

This year, however, we aren't leaving the USA at all. We're doing small trips here and there inside the country, but most of our time is being spent living with the Mister's parents in Nashville and just hanging out.

Boy has that ever been a breeding ground for reverse culture shock! It's very odd to find myself sometimes feeling like a stranger in the place I called home for 27 years. Here are a few for instances:

1. Costco. Admittedly, we jumped in to bulk Americana a little too soon. The Mister and I went to Costco with  his parents the day after we landed in the USA. We were jet lagged and surrounded by bulk groceries and electronics. It was bizarre enough to be back in the States, and then to be bombarded visually by 72-count boxes of bagel bites, premarinated chicken, and affordable 68 inch HD TVs was sensory overload. I kept finding myself thinking, "oh! We should buy that because we don't know when the store will get another shipment." I didn't need a 50 oz container of spinach and artichoke dip, but the hoarding tendency that is necessary when living in a country that doesn't often get the Western conveniences was in overdrive.

2. Jesus. We've been home for about 2 weeks and I still find it odd to see Bibles on sale in the grocery stores.  I still half expect to hear the athan every few hours. The other day I was in downtown Nashville and heard the howling drawl of the beginning of a country song and for a split second I thought to myself, "It's a little early for the call to prayer."

I went to church with my dad on the second day back (mom was out of town) and I just cried during the opening music because it was so nice to be able to worship. Out loud. In a room filled with people who shared my beliefs. It was also very surreal to be sitting in a near-stadium sized sanctuary* in Middle Tennessee so soon after being in Saudi Arabia.  

*only a minor exaggeration.

3. The shock. Literally. I've talked about the static shock that I got every time I got out of the car in Saudi Arabia because of the abaya. I didn't realize how ingrained that expectation had become. I'm still hesitantly grounding myself and bracing for the zap when I get out of the car, even though there's not a stitch of black polyester on my body.

4. Pickpocket paranoia. I never had to worry about personal theft in Saudi Arabia. That kind of crime is incredibly low in the Kingdom. But whenever we travel, the Mister and I are very cautious about our wallets and passports. I clutch my purse close to my body and scan crowds for suspicious characters. The other night I went to a show at a club downtown and I walked in and had to fight the heightened awareness. I was in Nashville, not the middle of Rome. I didn't need to worry about pickpockets in a club where all anyone is concerned about is how to score the spot with both the best view and access to the bar. Calm down, Amber, and enjoy yourself.

4. Everyone speaks English. You know what it's like when you wake up from a deep sleep in a hotel bed and for a couple seconds, you're really confused as to where you are? There have been 2 distinct instances where I've felt like that, but without the sleeping. 

The first was in the Philadelphia airport. The Mister and I were going through TSA security (so annoying after an international flight!) And I turned to him and in a medium tone said, "It occurs to me that I haven't refreshed my deodorant or brushed my teeth in at least 15 hours." 

The red headed guy behind us made eye contact with the Mister and kind of chuckled. Tyler said, "Amber, you have to remember that we're back in a country where everyone around you speaks English." As soon as he said that it was like I snapped out of it and thought, "Oh crap. He's right." For 2 months, I have to make sure that inappropriately specific comments like that are shared quietly or not at all. Bummer.

The second time was a few days later when we were visiting my brother in Atlanta. We had gone to a favorite bar of his and settled down outside with our drinks. As we were sitting there people watching, a small group exited the bar and passed by our table. I heard them talking in English and right away a voice in my head said, "Hey! That's an American accent!" I was just about to say something to the Mister when I realized: I'm IN America! Everyone has an American accent!

There have been lots of other small things that have snuck up on me in these past few weeks. I was really confused the other day when the Mister was text messaging with his sister as opposed to using the international texting app we use when we're in the Middle East. I hear a song on the radio and think, "How funny that this song is on the radio here!" Music City...U.S.A...oy.

I wonder if there will ever be a summer where I'm able to just flip the switch from one world to the other. In the meantime, please forgive me if I act a little strange and annoyingly expat-y.

Vicariously yours,

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reflections of a former abaya wearer

Whenever I talk to people about living in Saudi Arabia, the first thing they ask about is the abaya and hijab.  It's funny, people's responses run the gamut from utter disgust ("That's just BARBARIC!") To inquisitive ("really?! So...what do they wear under there?"). The concept of a government that allows for so few rights is totally baffling to the average American. I tell people that, honestly, wearing the abaya and hijab wasn't always bad. I didn't feel oppressed or downtrodden. It was annoying at first because I hadn't quite gotten the hang of tying the scarf on effectively. Like all things in life, my obligatory wardrobe change had its ups and downs.

For example, the most obvious plus side was the fact that I could wear anything I wanted under the abaya and no one would know! Don't get carried away, it's not like I walked around the grocery store with nothing but the abaya and a knowing grin! But now that I'm not living in Saudi Arabia anymore, it is a little disappointing that I can't just pop out for dinner in my pajamas. Most people think that the black hue of the abaya and hijab makes your core body temperature unbearable, and most of the time they'd be correct. But whenever we weren't going to or from work, I was pretty much rocking mis-matched shorts and a tank top under there. It really helped to keep me a lot cooler than my husband, who had to wear jeans for modesty's sake.

The aspects to wearing the abaya and hijab that I didn't like would probably surprise most people. I didn't feel "just totally violated" as some people have asked. I am thankful that I have the ability to choose to leave and not have to wear the abaya anymore, but when I was in the country, I had absolutely no issue with complying with the cultural norms of my temporary home. 

No, I took offense with the annoying things like the unnatural amount of static electricity that would build up as I got in and out of our leather-clad car seats. There were times that I was legitimately afraid that the spark would set the polyester robe on fire! Can you imagine the headlines?!

Another thing that was annoying: trying to tie on the hijab while sitting inside the car so I could walk from the car to the school....of course my co-workers pointed out that, because I had already pulled in to the parking lot uncovered, putting the hijab on at that point was kind of moot. But it was part of my obligation as a teacher at an Islamic school that I at least show modesty while on school grounds. I guess in my head, the non-tinted windows of my car shielded me from sight...or...something. Anyway, it was really hard to tie on the hijab while scrunched over in the passenger seat of a car, especially towards the end when my hair had grown down past the middle of my back. I tell ya, life was so hard.

I use a messenger bag to carry my school stuff to work. So whenever I was wearing the hijab, the strap would lay on the part of my shawl that was on my shoulder and any time I moved my head, the strap would pull it off my head a little bit. It's kind of like when you have really long hair and it gets caught in things like car doors and pinned between your back and the I'm the only one with that problem? Can anyone empathize with this story?

Moving on.

What I'm trying to say is that a little part of me is going to miss wearing the abaya and hijab. Ok...because it's the part of me that doesn't care about fashion or appearances and likes to sit around in her pajamas all day but still get errands's a big part of me that's going to miss wearing the abaya and hijab. But wearing the garb of Saudi Arabia for two years has certainly made me appreciate my right as an American to express myself freely; be that in pajamas or out.

Vicariously yours,

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Trending Now: Tourist Italy

After we left Saudi Arabia, the Mister and I met up with my sister and her husband in beautiful Italy for a 2-week vacation. We were loving being in the Western world again and the Mister was nerding out with all the European history that was around us.

Unfortunately, also all around us were TOURISTS!! I was expecting to be surrounded by hordes of once-in-a-lifetime trippers that notoriously wander, eyes aloft, cameras at the ready. We were in Italy during the high season, after all. But I've noticed that every time we got to Europe, there are certain trends in the tourists. Here is what is so hawt on the tourist scene in Italy this summer:

1. College study abroaders. Ok, so this isn't a this-summer specific trend. And being that we were in Italy, I'm sure the locals are bombarded by waves of these groups of 20-somethings who have just met their newest best friends and feel oh-so hip and global while traveling on a class field trip with 50 other Americans on a chartered coach. This summer, it's really easy to spot the American abroad: just look for Ray Bans (real ones for the pretentious, fake ones bought from the street vendors for the ones who arrived and realized they were too broke and too late to be in with the pretentious crowd but still wanted to fit in), European summer scarf tied around the neck, and a floral, high-waisted mini skirt with white tank top tucked in to the wide belt for the ladies. Soo college hip and European at the same time.

2. Jumping photos. This is not a new trend. I think it was introduced about 4 years ago, but it has sticking power. Personally, I am not a fan of the jumping photo. I have several friends who are enamored with the freeze-frame, suspended-in-mid-air, anime-esque-facial-expression-capturing type of photography, but it's just not for me. But lawd!! From college students to Asian tourists to honeymooners, tourists in Italy love them some jumping photos!! I have the feeling this will be the last summer for this trend...or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.

3. Taking pictures with the iPad. It's really interesting how far photography has come. From tintype to instagram, I wonder what the early photographers would say if they could see us now. Maybe I'm suffering from a little case of gadget envy, but there is one form of modern photography that drives me crazy: Taking photos with your iPad, especially when you're on vacation.

All I could focus on when we stumbled upon a parade in Florence.

Here's why I don't understand it:

  • The iPad isn't small. Unless you're schlepping around a huge purse, it's not going to fit easily in any bags. And when you're traveling, you don't want to look like you're carrying around $700-worth of fancy technical magic on your person. You're just asking to be purse-snatched.
  • You look like a dork. I literally laughed out loud at a guy we saw riding in a pedi-cab across a square in Rome who was struggling to maneuver his iPad through the little back window of the vehicle while simultaneously trying not to drop the expensive piece of equipment and get an instagram-worthy shot of the ancient ruins he was riding past. He looked like a total dufus! And he could have accomplished the same feat with just one hand and a little craning of the neck if he had a sensible digital camera.
  • You take up tons of space in everyone else's shot. You're standing in a crowd. We're all trying to take the same picture as you. But because your means of recording this moment for posterity has a 10 inch screen and a flappy cover thing, I have to wait for you to move out of my shot so I can take my own darn picture! 

I'm sure this post makes it sound like the Mister and I had the most judgmental and annoyed time ever while in Italy with my sister, but that really wasn't the case. These were just some of the things that made us roll our eyes as we were strolling the streets of Rome, Florence, and Venice.

Vicariously yours,