How to Turn Conflict-Zone Living into a Video Game

Welcome to the first Packing Lust post of 2014! I'm so excited to get back to posting after a nice, long, good-for-the-soul holiday break. Let me set the scene for you. It was mid December, and Charming and I were looking forward to our family's visit with warm anticipation.  We decorated. Charming made a star-shaped tree topper out of aluminum foil whose star shape would later be called into question.2

Morgan (BFF, land lady, and co-owner of the cafe downstairs) did an AMAZING job decorating the restaurant, turning its already warm atmosphere into a festive tribute to the season.

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And then, as if perfectly timed, it started snowing. How quaint. I took this picture with plans to show you what I assumed would be a light, pre-Christmas dusting.Dusting

But then it kept on snowing.

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And snowing.

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And snowing. Until we were completely snowed in. Except for Jelly, who is an unstoppable canine force.

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The power was out for days. Propane was running dangerously low. Charming was fielding calls from freezing employees who didn't have a way to heat their homes, but who were more concerned about the run-off flooding Gaza and displacing thousands. I spent a day downstairs with Morgan and Saleh complaining about how cold I was. They let me sit in the spot closest to the fire, piled blankets on my shoulders, and put their dog in my lap. I went out at one point and got into a life-or-death snowball fight with strange men. I survived and promised Charming (and myself) I wouldn't leave again during the storm.

The roads out of town were closed. My vision of greeting my family at the airport wouldn't come true.

When they landed at Ben Gurion Airport, they had to  make their own way to a hotel in the city. Little did we know, Tel Aviv was sunny and practically balmy.

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As soon as it was remotely possible, we got into a 4-wheel drive vehicle and headed for the beach. Getting out of town was like leaving the wreckage of a zombie-desolated city. Cars were sliding all over the road.  At one point, I left the safety of the Jeep to make a mad dash over ice for an ATM. Armed with cash, a first aid kit, extra water and blankets, we started our journey to the coast, neither of us sure if the roads would be open or passable.

We made it. It took twice as long as normal, but once we were out of the treacherous hills, it was an easy trip. It was so great to finally see my family and enjoy a Tel Aviv coastal sunset.

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I should note now that this isn't my entire family. My dad and two more siblings weren't able to make it for this trip. Maybe next time.  We had such a wonderful time with our smart, funny, loving, and very patient and gracious family. We made sure their trip included lots of good food, starting on our first night together in Tel Aviv.

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The next day it was back to Ramallah, where the snow was melting.

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Charming outdid himself with his breakfast spreads. We ate.

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And ate.

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And ate.

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and ate.

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And went all around both Israel and Palestine, including an emotional visit to Hebron. Very few people were around, except for the TIPH observers. (Temporary International Presence in Hebron).

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The family were good sports the whole time, turning the challenges of 3rd-world living into levels 1-5 of a video game. Level one being getting through passport control, and level five being a moment in Hebron when, upset Charming hadn't tipped them enough for their (unrequested) services, a huge gang of boys surrounded our vehicle and tried to trap us in the parking lot they had lead us to by closing the gates. We escaped our would-be captors by a very narrow opening. Perhaps our good luck was due to all the holiness, including a trip to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Here they are stooping low to go in the door that was made small to protect the Church of the Nativity from marauders on horseback, and presumably, tall people.

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We took them out to Ein Kenya, which is a beautiful spot of nature near Ramallah, and home of Juthour Arboretum.  We got our exercise, and my mom, brother, and sister managed to hang out looking like models for sunglasses and active wear.

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We went to Jericho and on down to catch a view of the Dead Sea.

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The trip gave me the opportunity to do some Gensplaining. I love pretending to know what I'm talking about.

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Prince Charming got to do some tour-guiding as well. It was a pleasure when our visitors were so open-minded, curious, and eager to talk about the joys and challenges of the region.

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Seriously, family, your visit and wonderful mindset rocked and made every minute fun.

I thank all three of you for being intrepid & adventurous,

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positive and resilient in the face of obstacles and setbacks,

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and extremely stylish and radiantly attractive.

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I was so sad when you packed up to leave.

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We love you!

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Calli's Visit to Israel and Palestine

Calli's Visit to Israel and Palestine-001Today's entry falls in the middle of the much anticipated visit of my dear friend Caroline. I met Calli when I was studying at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England for a semester of university, a fact that we've both had to tell stern passport control agents as we entered each other's countries to visit over the years.

Poor Calli's entry to Israel via Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv this visit was prolonged as they put her through the standard series of interviews they do when finding out someone is visiting Palestine.

I paced and worried as over an hour passed from the time her plane was supposed to land. I knew that they were holding her in a room somewhere by keeping her passport hostage.

When she finally emerged and after joyful and relieved hugs, she told me they asked many of the same questions over and over. They even asked "Aren't you scared to be going to the West Bank?" which after so long living in the West Bank seems like a funny question; the gap between how the average Israeli seems to perceive the safety/instability of the West Bank and the actual reality on the ground is so wide.

While Calli has been here, we've talked a lot about how the people of these interwoven countries  react differently to the perceived threats they offer to each other. In Israel, there are bag and trunk checks at the entrances to major malls and parking garages. There are lines for free gas masks. In Palestine, they don't plan much more than three days out for anything. Life is too unpredictable to try to control anything. There could be a protest, closure, or (in Gaza) a missile strike. The result in both countries is the same: people who live with constant stress and anxiety.

Here I've not observed the sense of The Good Life, or the relaxed openness I've found in countries like Italy and France.  In both countries I demand or take what I need - it is never given to me without strong action.  In Israel I must demand loudly that the server at a restaurant come take my order because that's what everyone does.  No demand, no service. In Palestine I must cut off other drivers in traffic because that's how everyone drives.  If you don't cut someone off, you simply won't be able to go where you need to go.

Another interpretation of all this loud demanding and offensive driving is that is it simply part of the passionate Mediterranean culture of the area. But I think it's a bit more than passion I'm observing. I sense deep rooted fear and oppression.  It's almost impossible to avoid tapping into the fuel line of fear that runs people's lives here.

In addition to talking about the ups and downs of life here with Calli, we've made sure to experience a lot of the ups, starting with hummus and salads on the beach in Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon. Calli is a gifted photographer and took many of these photos:

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Saturday Prince Charming made an Instagramable and delicious traditional breakfast with eggs, zatar, olives, and more:
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We went to the Dead Sea for a float -- and a therapeutic skin masque made from the naturally
occurring black mud there.
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Sunday we visited Jerusalem and took a walk along the ramparts. The best part of that was holding an invisible bow and arrow aimed out of one of the narrow defense slots at the top of the wall.
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Later in the evening we went to the Tower of David light show which got great reviews on Trip Advisor. It was very impressive and well-produced.

Last night we enjoyed evening and sunset views from Hosh Jasmin restaurant in the West Bank near Bethlehem and Calli enjoyed her new favorite drink - Leemoon bee nana, or lemon with mint, an icy sweet thirst quencher.

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Now we are headed out for some shopping and yoga.

Thanks for visiting Calli, it's been wonderful to share our temporary home with you!

Heroes and Villains

Sunday, May 26, was a lazy day for me and Prince Charming. We had some movies lined up to watch, and the first was a documentary called Five Broken Cameras. Just a couples hours later I've still got post-cry shakes. However, I also feel very glad that this documentary exists, because the end is hopeful, and the story is so human.

It's about a Palestinian man, a peasant who lives off the land, and gets a camera to film his kids childhood. His youngest son is the cutest little guy ever, and I fell in love with him over the course of the documentary.

The story is told through the five cameras he gets in succession, each after the last one is broken, often by a flying gas canister or related accident. Through these five lenses, we see what the camera saw in its life, and we see the story of how each camera met its end. Of course, what we are really seeing is the story of the families in this Palestinian village that is on the edge of several Israeli settlements. We see the wall go up, and we see the olive trees burned over and over by the settlers at night. We see the soldiers come to the homes at night to take children. We see people tear gassed, we see them throw rocks, and we see a man committed to nonviolent resistance gradually become scarred and angry as he sees what is happening around him. We also see, most hopefully, that he is always trying to heal in the best way he knows how.

I loved this film as a reminder that we must heal ourselves and each other, and to heal we must, like a doctor, first see the wounds. We must be witness for each other to the atrocities that take place in our lives.

Once you've seen the wounds in Five Broken Cameras, go watch another film. This one was part of a coaching training program in leadership, indirect negotiation and strategic intervention. Anthony Robbins has been studying what makes people change their lives for a good for many years now.

He had a conference on leadership planned on September 11, 2011. Instead of canceling after the terrorist attacks, he somehow got people to stand up and really speak the truth about how they felt about the event. There was a Muslim man who got up and said "this is retribution." Well, of course many people wanted to attack him, and even tried to there at the conference. One man, an Orthodox Jew with relatives in the West Bank (fundamentalist settlers - the kind of people who burn Palestinian olive trees) got up and offered to talk peacefully with the Muslim man.

Robbins led an indirect negotiation between the two men ON 9/11 itself that transformed both of them. They formed a Jewish-Muslim organization for understanding and peace.

I laughed and cried watching that film. It's called Negotiating Conflict: Leadership in Times of Crisis. According to this website it's available in full-length for free, although you can watch a 7 minute summary here.

We all wonder how peace will come to the Middle East and other areas of ethnic and religious conflict. The sorts of transformative moments shown and experienced by the viewer in these two films is our only hope for peace.

And now may I bring you from May to July?

A few days ago:

"What do you think happened? It had to be something tragic." I looked at my American friend, who has lived in Palestine for much longer than I have.

"I don't know. Something beyond tragic, I think," she said, looking at me intently.

I didn't know exactly what she was getting at, but I did know that is not what you say when someone loses a child. Losing a child is tragic, and one of the worst things that could happen to a parent. I could think of few things beyond tragic.

We were talking about a mutual acquaintance we both saw on occasion, ____ , a woman who lives in a nearby village. We had both known _____ to be cheerful, with a quick and genuine smile. Although she spoke little English, I enjoyed when I got to see her, since she would always communicate through her shy, dazzling smile. Knowing that she was a poor, kind, and intelligent woman who worked hard to support her special needs daughter and her dissolute husband only made me admire her more.

The last time I saw her, she tried to smile as usual. And her mouth moved. But her eyes failed to hide a pain that was too big to push behind a smile. I am haunted by that telling look - her attempt to smile as I said goodbye to her.

"I think someone must have done something to her child," my American friend said.

At first, I was confused. But then I realized -- "If her child had died, she would have just told us."

"Yeah."

The next day, my American friend looked rather pale, and told me she'd seen an article in the paper. A 14-year old girl from a nearby village had been gang raped by a group of seven men, each between the ages of 17-26.

I grimaced. "That's horrible."

"Have you put it together yet?"

"You think… it was ____'s daughter?" I didn't want to believe it.

"It must be."

"How do you know for sure? We have to find out."

How do you call someone and ask, in imperfect Arabic, if their daughter was recently gang raped? I don't know, but my brave American friend managed it, and later confirmed that the victim was indeed ____'s daughter.

My friend also told me that this group of men had gang raped before. Yet that time, each of the families of the men had paid off the victim's family to not press charges.

The story showing up in the newspaper meant ____ had refused to take a bribe from these seven families and was pressing charges.

I likely don't know all of the ramifications of that decision, but I do know that this poor woman is turning down much needed money to support her daughter and fight for justice. She's making a decision that some other parent her in village did not make for her little girl. She's a hero.

I also know that means there are seven families in her small village who want nothing more than to shut her up. Seven powerful families who are now aligned as her enemy - this poor woman whose special needs daughter was lured into an apartment only to be beaten and raped by their sons.

How can we help her? We are working on connecting her with a lawyer specializing in women's legal aid. My hope for her is that, if she wants it, she can gain refugee or other status that will allow her to leave with her family to start a new life in a place where her daughter won't spend the rest of her life fearing the seven men who will likely not be brought to justice. Then again, we can hope for justice.

And you know I wouldn't leave you without a way to take action - to do something to help ____. The Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling is reaching out to support her. You learn more about them here and donate here.

Bulldozer on the Beach

I almost decided not to write about this weekend's experience, because I've already complained so much about what it means to live under a military occupation, but I know you like to read about what goes wrong here. Otherwise, you'd get too jealous of me and my sweet life, right?So this weekend we decided to go to a new beach, one north of Tel Aviv. It was to be one of the first weekends of warm weather this year. And this time, we had a real, live Palestinian in the car.

Also, a real live Scot.

So with two Americans in the front, a Scottish lass named Kate, and a Palestinian habibti in the back, we set off for a beach we'd never been to called Herzaliya.

Now, normally, I'm prepared with my realism and slight cynicism about traveling to and fro between Palestine and Israel. It's always hard. We always get lost. There's always traffic. Checkpoints suck. Blah, blah, blah.

But lately, things have been easier. We've been making local friends who've helped us through the more difficult parts of life here. We sort of know where things are, and when we need to avoid certain checkpoints. It's about time, since we are just a few months away from the one year mark.

So as we rolled up to the checkpoint, I made a swaggering comment about how I'd bet money that the guard would just wave us through.  I was willing to put money on it. Seriously.

No ma'am. They asked for all our paperwork, and our Palestinian friend pulled out her I.D. and her special card from the UN giving her permission to enter Israel.

Holding our passports hostage, they told us to pull the car over, and open its cavities.

Then we had to get out, and put our bags through the x-ray machine. We had to pull out water bottles and for some reason, our Kindles had to get scanned multiple times.

Then they pulled aside our Palestinian friend to get her alone to interrogate her. In the end, they told her she couldn't pass through this checkpoint.

What was so frustrating for me is that I'm pretty good at negotiating with the teenagers who run the entry points to Israel.  (Yes, it helps that I'm a white American female.) I realize that negotiating with teenagers  is always a delicate and unpredictable process. And I'm aware that negotiating with teenagers who are CARRYING FIREARMS  is a delicate, unpredictable, and dangerous endeavor. However, I've done it before. with success and the help of an adorable puppy.

So I asked the soldiers what was up, and where our friend could get the information that said she couldn't pass. Turns out, she needed to find out from the  DCO (which stands for District Control Office or something) to find out which checkpoints she is able to pass through. At that point, I was thinking of trying the puppy method, which I'm pretty sure would have worked.

However, as I talked to the guards, the other members of my party were giving me "let's get out of here," looks, so I didn't continue to negotiate with the guards.  However, I think that, given another year of experience here, I will have the confidence to negotiate more effectively with the guards. It's all about confidence, whiteness, and having a few phone numbers of U.N. representatives in one's pocket. We seriously needed to get to the beach, and I was and will be willing to negotiate with armed and brainwashed teenagers both now and in the future.

But the story doesn’t end there. We turned around and drove maybe three more hours, getting lost and irritated as our planned time in the sun dwindled. We finally made it to another checkpoint where we had to get out again, and went through the same x-ray process, right down to having to scan our Kindles twice.

This time, they let all of us through.

But then we got lost again. Charming simply gave up, his foot cramping from driving so long. Our normally bubbly and outgoing Palestinian friend felt so humiliated that she stopped talking. That left me and Kate to figure out how to get to the beach. We pulled over, and thankfully, Kate offered to ask some nearby people for help.

They gave us directions, which matched Charming's suddenly operating phone GPS directions.

We finally made it to Herzeliya beach, with just a few hours left to enjoy.

But we did enjoy them, filling up on sushi overlooking a marina.

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Then we met more friends (who'd come from a different direction and arrived hours before us) and settled in on the beach.But, I kid you not, just moments after settling in, a huge bulldozer came over in front of me and started creating a pile of sand that blocked my view of the water.

Seriously.

This was a huge beach, and the bulldozer was just a few feet away. You can see from my body language  how pissed off I am.

(Charming has decided to appear photographically on this blog. I'm so happy! This is a rather mundane photo for him to be making his first appearance in, but I'll try to add more shots that show his good looks later.)

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If this had been an American beach, they would've been handing out hard hats.If this had been an American beach, they would've done the beach improvement work at 5 am when no one was there, instead of the middle of a Sunday afternoon.

But this was Israel, where if someone wants to plant a pole on the beach on Sunday afternoon, they are going to do it.

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And they told us it would take  5 minutes.  Of course It took 30, and made me feel personally in danger of being squooshed by a giant wooden pole.By this point, the day was just hilarious. There was nothing to do but laugh.

And fly a kite.

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I'm dancing, because after seeing this project, I decided I would dance in all future posed photos of me.Thanks Charming, Kate, and our dear Palestinian friend for contributing to a wonderful horrible adventure day. Seriously, life is so funny and crazy and wonderful.

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P.S. All photos in this post are by Kate Aykroyd. Thank you Kate!

Jaffa Flea Market

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And Art in Tel Aviv

The ever-charming Charming did all the planning for a little surprise Valentine's getaway this weekend to a cottage (sounds better than a one-room concrete slab house) just one block away from the BEACH in Tel Aviv! He sure knows how to win my heart. There are no photos to prove it, but I did a February swim. It was invigorating and refreshing and freezing cold.We've been to Tel Aviv before, but I forgot to tell you that the city's full name is Tel Aviv-Jaffa, because the old city of Jaffa was there before they built Tel Aviv. It's just south of what is Tel Aviv proper. Jaffa was and is home to many Arabs, and this means  that Tel Aviv in its entirety is fairly well integrated. Tel Aviv-Jaffa, as I've raved before, is art and fashion friendly. I suspect it's also the only place in the Middle East where an Arab boy or girl could openly choose to love whoever they want to love. All this freedom attracts people who like freedom, and from what I've seen in my travels, that often means artists. Everyone in Tel Aviv has an eye, even the graffiti artists.

9882835_origWe made it to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and saw some Picasso, Renoir, a Monet, and an Israeli artist whose name I've already forgotten and who I don't think will go down in history. I got inspired, as I always to in musems, to make more art.

Although the museum was modern and beautiful (and had a lightfall, whatever that is), my favorite arty experience was visiting the Jaffa Flea Market and seeing the  pop art that is the collections of flotsam,  collectibles, trinkets, and old shoes that fill the market.Here's one corner of the Jaffa market.

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What's that? You want a closer look?
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Oh, not the unicorn? You were perhaps more interested in seeing a monkey getting cozy with a giant banana? I'll do my best:
8325571_origInside that shop:
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After the bizarre figurine store, I started noticing figurines and street art around town.
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The trip was musically completed by a trip to the cinema to see Les Miserables.  It made me SO happy, despite the saddest song in the whole thing ringing through my head these past couple of days ("So different from this hell I'm living!"). Charming and I have been taking turns singing "But the tigers come at night." Sometimes I can hit that low note. Or pretend too.  Anne Hathaway worked so hard! And they gave her most of the beginning of the movie, which probably should have been edited down, but I'm so glad they didn't.Anyway, that whole Lay Miz tangent was so I could tell you about the bathroom mirrors in the mall curled around the cinema. Are they doing this in the U.S. now?

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Looks like a normal mirror. But it's a surface for advertizing.Genevieve's vanity: Sponsored by oscillococcinum. (I had to wikipedia it. A homeopathic treatment for the flu derived from duck liver and heart.)

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So you're supposed to look in the mirror, and be like "Dang. I look ________________. Yeah, I need some duck liver."Then the screen fills with the image, but you can still sort of see yourself through a haze of duck liver product.

Offal good fun,

Genevieve

How I Spent My Holidays

And, we're back. Welcome to a new year! I hope you all had a great holiday season. Truth be told, I'm still on my vacation and spending time with family in North Carolina. I guess it's really time to get back into the swing of things, and there's a lot to blog about after a two week hiatus. I'll keep it light, sharing a few photographed high points with y'all, babydolls. (I'm in North Carolina visiting Aunt Jenny and family, and loving how Aunt Jenny calls everybody babydoll.)The story starts back in the Holy Land, where we made a jaunt out to Bethlehem to soak up the atmosphere of Manger Square on Christmas Eve. (I drove and we got into two collisions, both of which may have been my fault, but I was saved by a refugee camp tribal elder who witnessed what happened and kept me and Charming from being word-lashed or chain-whipped by an angry cab driver. Later I accidentally pinched a child's finger in my window as I was rolling it up while he was trying to beg for money from us. Parentheses mean I'm keeping it light, right?)Once we finally made it to Manger Square, I enjoyed strolling around, smelling the corn and candy vendors and sipping hot chocolate with our young friends (the kids of one Charming's co-workers that we are friends with).

Manger Square, Christmas Eve 2012

Especially delightful were the row of large Nativity displays, all in unique styles. This one had a glowing, realistic-looking "fire-pit" lightbulb. It was quite large - the whole display was as tall as me.
6772491_orig And it wouldn't be the Middle East without a Santa playing soccer.
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Back in the summer when I first visited Bethlehem, I was struck by the carved olive-wood Nativity scenes that included a modern piece in addition to the standard holy family, shepherds,  angels, and wise men: a security wall.
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The wall is still being built around Bethlehem, slowing cutting them off from the tourist trade that keeps the economy alive.Charming's birthday was just a couple days later. We went to Tel Aviv, which is always a haven of sane driving, good food, and often, good weather compared to the West Bank. We drank beer at a bar that was practically on the beach.We found a cafe we went to lunch to, and then later for dessert. They sang Happy Birthday to Charming in English.This cafe served me one of the most beautiful Chai Lattes I've ever seen, and a tofu sandwich that was stunningly delicious and filling.

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Later, I climbed a modern, artistic rope jungle gym that gave me a great view of the sea at sunset.
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Then I got on an airplane, leaving Charming behind (he had work to do) and went to North Carolina for a  friends and family visit and to enjoy the ease of life in America.  I started off meeting my friend Julie's firstborn.  It's so crazy when a human being goes from being in someone's body...
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...to outside and interacting with this crazy world. It was so fun to see their perfect baby look around and smile. It gives me such a great hope to know that his parents will love him with everything they've got as he grows up and experiences more of the world. Charming and I see a lot of kids who from a young age work between the tires, darting in and out of moving traffic as they hope to beg a few shekels from each car. Julie's baby will never have to do that, and that makes me so glad.
After a few days with the old college friends, it was down to Lumberton, where family members looked rather smashing in the Kafiyas I bought them at the factory in Hebron.
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Lots of cuddly time with Binks the family dog, who my sister calls a "living teddy bear."
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My wonderful cousin got engaged to his beautiful girlfriend back in November, so they let me take a quick engagement photo session. It was rainy and I didn't adjust the camera settings correctly, but a few of the shots turned out. This one's my favorite:
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And that about brings us up to the present. Lots of good family time, and right now that means lots of time thinking about 3000 Miles to the Cure, which is my mom's main focus right now. Today we are in Charlotte visiting the Mulligans and were just brainstorming to help mom write a speech she'll be making in the near future about her bicycle race across the U.S.

My beautiful momma

In case you missed what my beautiful mom is doing, you can read this post, or just go straight to theFacebook page or the donate page if you've been meaning to donate five dollars for brain cancer research.Next stop, sunny Florida for a few days with Aunt Kelly and Uncle Mark and my grandparents, then back to Lumberton quickly and finally back to my Charming who I already miss too much.Happy 2013!

Tel Aviv with Exclamation Points!!!

Happy Dance!!!

 Tel Aviv with Exclamation Points-001Tel Aviv!!! After a run on the beach this weekend, I returned to the hotel and did a happy dance that Prince Charming was mocking/enjoying all day. I can't believe we waited this long, but the stars finally aligned, and we went to Tel Aviv twice in one week. This weekend to come we will leave for our long-awaited, full-length honeymoon(we previously had a "mini-moon.") But that didn't stop us from acting like this Tel Aviv trip  was also our honeymoon. Charming booked our honeymoon, and got such great travel deals that with the leftovers we were able to splurge this weekend on a hotel in Tel Aviv that was less than one block from the beach, and even had a little view of the water:

Well fack me, it's the Mediterranean!

Fack You in the Mooth

Sweet, charming children live near our apartment in Ramallah. They are polite, genteel, peaceful boys between the ages of 8 and 12 who are apparently learning to write certain words in English. Someone recently gave them all plastic machine guns, and now they run around the rocks and rubble nearby play-acting battle. Also, they (we theorize) recently wrote a sweet message on our car: "Fack you in the Mooth." Charming washed it off our front windshield on Wednesday morning and we set out for a day trip to Tel Aviv where he had some business to attend to. It was only after arriving in Tel Aviv a couple hours later that we saw the message our back windshield had been sending to all the traffic behind us: "Fack You." Oops.  Turning lemons into lemonade, me made the phrase both a term of endearment and a useful expression of wonder, as in "Well, fack me in the mooth!" We used it often in Tel Aviv and promised ourselves we'd return for a three-day weekend which we have now just completed. Fack yeah!

Hummus Loving Babes

Tel Aviv feels like the San Francisco of Israel. The most refreshing part for me was seeing the street fashion and sculpture. It was food to my poor, art-starved eyes.The ladies of Ramallah, truth be told, do put some thought into fashion. They match the shoe to the handbag and aren't afraid of color. They often wear sparkling head scarves. But it's hard to enjoy fashion if the culture dictates you not show your Allah-given shape:
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Tel Aviv culture, by contrast, is not afraid of shape. I think my favorite look from the weekend was this:
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The shoe! The slit! The strut! The textured wall! The weather-appropriateness! I'm in love.Can you handle a bit more aesthetic gushing? Here's Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, graced by a stunning Holocaust memorial sculpture by artist Yigal Tumarkin.
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I'm  a self-centered, pleasure-loving snob who loves good food and art. Sometimes I wonder how I can survive another day in the rubble and trash-covered West Bank.   I wish both countries would get their act together - that Israel would stop oppressing Palestine and Palestine would stop the random acts of violence.Israel can be violent too - but it's usually a quieter violence. For example, Charming has been frustrated that after his organization funded a new road leading to a small Arab village, Israel demolished the road, leaving the inhabitants stranded. The hearty young people will probably survive, but the infirm may die without speedy easy to food and medical care.  Palestine needs to resist, but not with violence.  Did you know non-violent resistance has a 75% success rate, compared to a 25% success rate for violent resistance? Someone needs to tell that to the world's terrorists, because they apparently haven't heard yet.This is not my conflict, though, and I'm only here to help where I can. Complaining doesn’t help. Thankfully, I'm also here to spend money and eat good food.  Anyway, I have a dream, that eventually, one day, a long, long time from now, or maybe sooner then we think, there will be stability in the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians will have hummus-loving babies together and everyone will enjoy art, bicycling, and wearing Ray-bans in peace and harmony.

Cyclist in Tel Aviv.

Things I Said I Would Do

There are some things I said I would do after my wedding, and gaining weight was one of them. I knew I'd eat a lot of delicious food during my and Prince Charming's honeymoon season and that would cause me to put on, oh, five to seven pounds. Done! In Tel Aviv, we ate like professionals.I ate:

  • A  larger-than-Texas sesame bagel smeared with cream cheese and pesto and stuffed with tomatoes, olives, sweet corn, and a hard-boiled egg, then toasted in a panini press.  Here it is.

Get in my mooth!

  •  Sushi rolls topped with cold quail eggs and washed down with hot saki.
  • Chewy french style bread ribbed with olives, topped with toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds, and spread with blue-veined cambazola.
  • Foccacia and fresh penne pasta salad with bright green broccoli, vivid red tomatoes, and peppers the color of sunshine. It was topped by a snowpile of curly shredded parmesan and washed down with local white wine.
  • The creamiest, richest tiramisu of my life.
  • Passion fruit sorbet laced with the fruit's crunchy black seeds.
  • Chocolate in bar and cake form.

Are you hungry yet? I am and I just finished eating a massive meal. I'm so thankful for good food.  I think enjoying food is one of the reasons we are here on Earth, so go out or stay in and cook something AMAZING today!

Another thing I said I would do after the wedding - or rather, would not do, is cut my hair. Why do lots of women cut their hair after getting married? I didn’t want to be like everyone else. I love long hair, and I swore I'd leave it long because I like it that way. But once we got to the West Bank, it felt heavy in the humidity and heat. I was ready for a change. Transitions go together, maybe. The heat and my need for an outer change to reflect the big life changes happening led me to steadily cut my hair off bit by bit, culminating in this final chop I had done at a Tel Aviv salon:

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I enjoyed the experience of getting my hair cut. I like the novelty of looking different. But I know I'm going to want long hair again in, like, three weeks. It will take 18 months. But this is the second post in a row that mentions hair, so I'm going to stop talking about it now.  Let's talk instead about eggplants.

Eggplants

Yes, eggplants. They are painted all over Tel Aviv. Some graffiti artist is doing his or her thing with the spray can and the result is eggplants everywhere.

Eggplant graffiti in Tel Aviv.

What do they mean? It's a mystery. There are eggplants of varying shades and emotionality all over the city.

Photo from Tel Aviv blogger Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.

What the fack? I looked up the symbolic meaning of the eggplant and couldn't find much that seems to apply. In some Asian cultures the eggplant symbolizes a variety of things. If anyone finds out anything, let me know.I'll close this post with the sun setting on the beach in Tel Aviv where we had beautiful moments.
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A Salty Birthday

Spa Club Dead Sea, Ein Bokek, Israel

We celebrated my birthday this weekend by floating in the Dead Sea and having relaxing, pampering, and unusual things done to our bodies.Charming scheduled a mud wrap, and I really tried hard not to sound creepy as I asked if it was okay if I... watched.

"No, " said the rather abrupt and brisk lass at the reception spa. She seemed very sure, until she changed her mind five seconds later.  I grabbed some great photos of Charming getting wrapped up in a mud enchilada, but to protect his privacy I won't put them here.

Later, I got oil dribbled all over my forehead and massaged into my scalp during an Indian treatment called Shirodhara.

When we arrived on Friday afternoon, I got right into the Dead Sea; I really wanted to feel the famous floating sensation. Sure enough, I felt like a was wearing floaties on my limbs as they popped to the surface of the  water.

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I tested out a few different poses and angles, spending some time (as well as countless hours in front of bathroom mirrors over the course of my life) trying to take the most flattering bikini shot. Here it is.
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Later I was playing in the water, finally able to live out my solo synchronized swimming dreams:
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Before getting water in my eye. Ouch!
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It kind of hurts.It really hurts!

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The water has only gotten more potent with salt and dissolved minerals as it has shrunk in recent years due to the Jordan River, its only supplier, being siphoned off gradually. When you get in, you feel it sting any parts of your body that might be a little raw or red. After 15 minutes, (for me) it started to tingle and burn everywhere. If you get in in your eye, or if you have a cut somewhere, you better run out of the water and rinse it out.There was a ramp to help beachgoers enter the water, but salt had crystallized all over it, making it sharp and dangerous.

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Anything that touched or hung in the water, such as the ropes on a large umbrella planted in the water, grew heavy with sharp salt crystals.
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We reached down to the bottom, and pulled up not sand, but Charming's favorite cooking ingredient: salt.
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The water looks like water, but it feels like warm oil, and beads up on your skin when you emerge. The warmth was strange, considering that it was very hot on the beach.  The double heat meant that a long, pleasurable day sunning on the beach was out of the question. We spent most of out time in the hotel.The next day, we woke up at 5 am to catch the sun rise on my birthday. It was a great way to start another year of life on this crazy planet. Thanks to my wonderful prince charming for this shot:

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The morning was two or three degrees cooler than midday. That was my last float in the Dead Sea.What did we do for the rest of Birthday Weekend? There was eating, of course. Breakfast at Spa Club Dead Sea:

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Dinner and lounging at Orjuwan Lounge in Ramallah Sunday evening.
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And finally, the playing of the ukulele and the game of Risk.
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Shark in a Souk

Prince Charming and I drove a few hours up to Acre, Israel (also called Akko) this weekend.  Alternately exhausting, colorful, peaceful, exciting, and always hot, the Akko trip was worth my throwing together a quick slideshow vlog for you. Click below for a chaotic, colorful, and very brief glimpse (3 minutes) of our trip.

Religion Evolving

Images and Thoughts on Religion and Conflict from Bethlehem and Jerusalem

I am indeed, living in the Middle East. Home of arguably the most famous ongoing conflict in the world. I write this partially to address the situation that hangs over every  single head here.  Although people live life normally, the situation is always present because it's a part of daily life: the ongoing, deeply rooted, bewilderingly complex state of affairs between Israel and Palestine.

After going through checkpoints a number of times now, and having visited a few of the holy sites in Jerusalem this weekend, I personally have to report a surprising sense of heaviness in the air in this part of the world. It really shouldn't be surprising, since there is so much impotent rage here, yet I also expected to find a spiritual feeling here. Places that are very spiritual tend to feel light to me. Another way of saying it is the air feels thin. These thin places  seem closer to awareness, awakening, or salvation.

Instead of finding that lightness, that transformative essence, in Jerusalem, my  spirit felt weighed down. Perhaps this was because of being denied entrance to a holy site because I am not Muslim (How could they tell? The color of my skin and the showing hair on my head, I think). Perhaps because of all the checkpoints, the guns, the soldiers, and the guards. Finally, it could have been the overwhelming crowds, heat, and incessant marketing of low-value souvenirs.

Old City, Jerusalem. Taken by Prince Charming.

What I'd like to write here is coming from my own thoughts on religion, my own spiritual journey, and trying to gain clarity on how religion relates to the situation here.

It's true that I don't fully understand the situation, and I've heard the longer one lives here the less one understands it. If I don't understand it, it's going to be very hard to make any small steps toward doing my tiny little part to be a peacemaker, which is what I'm here for.  Actually, I am here because I said "Yes." Simply that. Peace is just one of the unmet needs here.

The land conflict here is certainly tribal. And religious. And those two are connected here in a way that is hard for me to understand. In the U.S. it's fairly common to separate our religion from our tribe.

There are a lot of problems with religion. Two groups very aware of these problems are thoughtful residents of the Middle East and thoughtful American religious believers. I was one of the latter group as recently as two years ago (I still consider myself a Christian, although my beliefs are such that many Christians would say that I am not one, but that's another story). Young, thoughtful believers are leaving the church in droves, leaving the remainder to ask why.

There's a common phrase people use to describe the state of their soul-beliefs. I heard it a lot in Los Angeles: spiritual but not religious. I believe that those who describe themselves this way are part of a cultural trend that will, I hope, result in the evolution of religion. In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes "The new spirituality, the transformation of consciousness, is arising to a large extent outside of the structures of the existing institutionalized religions."

Religion is where spirituality and community come together.  The essence of spirituality is this: we are all connected to everyone and everything. The essence of community is this: we love each other no matter what.

Yet often religion, which should be the nexus of the two, separates us and makes it all too easy to define and differentiate between those who deserve our love and those who don't. Religion seems to specialize in black and white. Not grey.

What I know from my personal spiritual evolution is that for a long time, I couldn't handle grey area. The certainty of dogma appealed to me. Here is what is right, here is what is wrong. I still believe in absolutes truths, but I don't think any one religion has them all.

For me that moment when I could think "Ah! I don't have to actually believe, literally, that Mary was a virgin to learn from her example of purity of heart, faith, and maternal love.  She said yes. What a beautiful metaphor. Maybe I can say yes too," was a life-giving breakthrough. It freed me to have faith and spirituality without leaving my brain behind.

Entering the little door to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It had to be shrunk to hobbit size to make it harder for invading armies to enter.

From that point, I realized most of what I had tried so hard to believe -- much of it unpalatable to the intellect --  were teaching metaphors, not absolute truths.  Taking them  seriously and intensely is very important.  I think this is why many people feel they must believe in such a literal way. If it's not true, it has no value for them. Yet there is great value in art, in literature, in many things created by humans to express  life-giving concepts.

I tried explaining this new paradigm to Christian friends and it didn't go over well. Finally, someone told me that religion is like a virus - its structure must stay the same or it won't replicate successfully.  Therefore, attempts to redefine it must be quashed for the religion to continue.

Perhaps the best hope for peace here in the Middle East is what Tolle calls "a large-scale opening of spirituality outside of the religious structures."

Letters squished into every available opening in the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. Can you see mine? The word "love" is visible.

The men-only side of the Western Wall, viewed through the divider between the men's and the women's side.

I'm not sure anything could have confirmed my decision to change my thoughts on religion a couple of years ago more than visiting Jerusalem this weekend did. When I was in Jerusalem, it was evident to me that all three monotheistic religions come from the same source, and therefore what they teach cannot all be true in the literal sense. What was also clear is that what people here are fighting for is not love, freedom, salvation, peace, or any of the things that their religions promise. What people are fighting for is the right to identify with a place and say that it belongs to them because of what they look like, who their ancestors are, and what they call themselves. It's not about spirituality. At best, the fight is about heritage. About history.  And I believe all the people in the world should be able to respectfully visit heritage sites and pray --or not-- in the way they choose.

Women of various beliefs and backgrounds pray in their own ways at the Western Wall.

I understand the good heart behind religion; it's about helping people have hope and peace, and in tribal cases, reminding people where they come from.

I think when spiritual leaders discover that they can offer the same hope, guidance for living, and sense of community without drawing lines in the sand and separating people, religion will evolve. Lines in the sand are exhausting to maintain. They must be drawn and re-drawn constantly. Sometimes, as here, they require missiles, rocks, and machine guns to maintain. The  lines are exhausting because they are arbitrary. We are all connected. We generally  desire the same things for ourselves and our loved ones.

I believe that about Israelis and Palestinians, and I believe that about you and me. Yes indeed.

"I imagine that yes is the only living thing.” - E.E. Cummings

Right now, I'm saying yes to watching the fading light of the glorious post-sunset twilight  here on my balcony in Ramallah. The air here, on the outskirts of town, is lighter than in the big metropolis of Jerusalem. Kids scream with delight as they play on the street several levels below. It is a spiritual moment, my daily bread today. You are here with me, as I imagine you experiencing your own diverse daily bread moments all over the world.

Julie Gray in Tel Aviv

In one of those small miracles the universe provides, it happens that another female screenwriter with a passion for peace, creativity, and helping women, moved from Hollywood to the Middle East a few months before I did. I know, right?

Her name is Julie Gray. I found her through something she wrote for the Huffington Post, and later a mutual producer-friend in Hollywood sent us both a message: "Do you two know each other?"

I have hummed with resonance reading her blog entries about the big move. I almost feel she has saved me some writing time and certainly expressed some cultural differences in a unique and honest way that I love.

Read her adjustment-related entries here. She's living in a different area (Tel Aviv) and has a different background (she's Jewish) but a lot of what she writes is very similar to what I'm going through.