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.
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.
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.

Later, I climbed a modern, artistic rope jungle gym that gave me a great view of the sea at sunset.
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...
1126613_orig 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.
Lots of cuddly time with Binks the family dog, who my sister calls a "living teddy bear."
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:
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!

Trust in Palestine

1353416304I held up my red Trader Joe's bag and mimed putting produce in the bag. The shop owner nodded to affirm that I could use my cloth bag as a shopping basket at the produce store near the city center of Ramallah. After I'd filled my bag with Romaine lettuce, apples, passionfruit, pears, oranges, and a pineapple, I brought it to the back of the shop where the cashier stood. One by one, I set my selections on the counter, reaching deep into the bag to make sure that there was nothing left in there. "Is your bag empty?" the cashier asked with a friendly smile.

"Yes. I think so." I picked up the bag from the bottom and flipped it over, shaking to make sure no fruits were hiding in the corners.

"No. Don't do that," the man said darkly and with a small cringe.

"Shaking the bag? Is it bad luck?" I asked.

"No… it's a mistake. You think I don't trust you."

"Oh, no, I said. "I shook it for me, for me to make sure there was nothing left. For me."

"Okay. If it's for you, it's okay."

Trust. It seems to be a delicate and tender subject here in Palestine. I've had more than one encounter like the above. Proof offered too bluntly, as if in a hurry to show that one can be trusted is embarrassing in this culture. Perhaps in the U.S., we too feel some sense of slight embarrassment if we ask for evidence that the bag is empty, that we aren't dealing with a shoplifter. Yet here there's a stronger sense of affront, perhaps to a thicker sense of honor, if someone provides too fast a proof of their own honestly. It's almost as if the other person is saying "Seriously, stop trying to prove yourself! I don't doubt your honestly. By thinking I doubt you, you are basically calling me a suspicious miser, and that is highly offensive."

In a similar vein, I've often paid for something with a bill that is too large. When I first arrived, if the change was tiny (1/2 shekel, or the equivalent of 13 cents) I might say "keep the change," only to be meet with a vehement "no, no" and to find the change thrust upon me.

The positive side of this cultural element is generously given trust. Yesterday morning I went down to a martial arts studio-gym that recently opened up not far from our apartment. They offer personal training and gym membership. I had emailed earlier about setting up a personal training appointment, but when I arrived, I discovered that the gym didn't take credit cards, which was the only payment method I brought. The manager of the gym, who had met me only once before, said "That's alright. You can pay next time. Shall we start with some cardio?"

As I relate this incident, another one comes to mind. A shop owner is telling me, "you can pay next time." Since I don't remember anything else about the incident, I'm not sure if I went back and paid him. I hope I did.

Although this extensive trust in customers seems to my American entrepreneurial mind like poor business practice, it does warm my heart to a culture that I haven't always felt warmly towards.

Another heart-warmer is walking around town with our new puppy, Jelly. I was afraid people would be fearful or antagonistic towards her, since it's not a culture that is big on dogs. Instead, some simply ignore her, and others are downright friendly. I took her on her first car trip since the one that brought her from the shelter to our apartment, and when we got out, a group of young men began whistling and making kissing sounds in our direction. Instead of my usual sense of annoyance at young men making kissing sounds at me, I thought "they are talking to Jelly," and they were.

They asked what her name was, and then called her name, "Jelly Jelly Jelly." I went and did my errand, and when I passed by them again, they said "Jelly Jelly Jelly!" They seemed totally absorbed in her charms, and not in my perceived charms, and I was grateful. It occurred to me that this dog is going to change my relationship to men in Palestine. She is my protector (she seems to bark at people who I'm afraid of and to be friendly to people I like) and she is also a friendly diplomat - a sort of buffer zone - who will ease gender relations for me.  Yes, it also occurred to me that men here (some, always some, not all) treat dogs the same as they treat women...

But that is another blog post for another time.

Many of you have been worried about me and Prince Charming with the escalating violence here. Thanks for your care, and to those of you who have sent messages our way. We feel safe here, but we are taking precautions to stay away from protests. Charming has been working very hard, and his NGO has been an important voice for peace in the media lately. He's had a vital role in managing the emergency response, and I'm very proud of him. He's helped save lives and will help save many more. If things escalate much further, we may have to evacuate. But for now, we seem to be as safe as we were in Los Angeles.

Finally, for those of you who are excited about my book Minimalism for Grandparents: Decluttering for Health, Happiness, and Connection in the Golden Years,  you can like the Facebook page here. I think that those of grandparent age, as well as youngsters, will get value out of it if they have an interest in living a simplified, meaningful life.

Peacefully yours,


Lessons With Mohammad

Cool Shey Tamaam

I've been taking Arabic lessons with this fabulous teacher named Mohammad:
Thanks to his patient instruction, good humor, and abundant provision of coffee and mint tea (shai bee nana), I'm on my way to polyglot-dom. Polyglottony, perhaps.The arabic alphabet is, thankfully, just about the same number of characters as in English.

My  favorite letter is "sha." It looks like this: ش I think it looks like a cup of  شاي "shai" (tea) that someone is sprinkling some sugar into. When it's connected to another letter, it loses the big scoop on it's left, as you can see in the word "shai." Look at that word "shai." It has three letters. "sha" and two vowels "ah" (looks like a 1) and "ai or ee." (ي )My favorite words and phrases so far are: (Arabic is written right to left)

My husband = Zowji = زوجي  No problem  = Mish Moshkilay مش مشكيلة Tea with mint with sugar = Shai bee nana bee sukar = شاي بي نانا بي سكر Everything is perfect = Cool shey tamaam = كل شي تمام 

I'm still learning; I may have misspelled some of the words in Arabic.

I feel like I'm REALLY close to being able to read Arabic. I'm able to sound out many words on street signs if I give myself plenty of time. Knowing what the words mean is a whole different ballgame. But I have a fun feeling of a whole new world opening up. It's like being five and learning to read all over again.

Taybeh Micro Brewery in Taybeh, Palestine

A Beer for Jesus

This weekend, Prince and I jumped in the car, which had newly fixed air conditioning. AC, my friends, can save the world, or at least save a hot summer drive in Palestine. The AC was good for our marriage, and we actually enjoyed the drive to the tiny village of Taybeh, getting lost only a few times.

We arrived and drove almost straight into the microbrewery. It is tiny. No one seemed to be around. We left and came back. It looked like a garage with the door open. Should we wander around alone, we wondered?

Prince Charming thought not. We weren't even sure we were in the right place.

"You're right. This is weird." I said.

Finally, out of curiosity we wandered in, and we saw someone we had missed before: the daughter of the owner of the microbrewery, Ms. Koury. I'm sorry I can't remember her first name. Her family established the brewery in 1994. She very kindly gave us a tour. It was wonderful to see a successful enterprise where the owners obviously cared a great deal about the pristine quality of the product. We didn't get the free taste of beer at the end of the ten minute tour that the brochures promise, but it was rather early in the day and we also forgot to ask about it. We left with a box of beer and a couple photos of the brewery:

9507543_orig 439970_origTaybeh changed it's name from Ephraim (of biblical fame) to Taybeh when Sultan Saladin passed through in 1187 and thought the folks in the village were hospitable and generous. Apparently, that's what Taybeh means, although we also heard that it means "delicious" so maybe the people tasted good too.

Jesus stopped by this village for a rest before his crucifixion. It's too bad the Taybeh Micro Brewery wasn't around in his day; I think he would've enjoyed the beer quite a bit, especially considering the series of really bad days coming up for him. Today, Taybeh is the only "Christian Village" left in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, although there are many towns with Christians in them.

After our tour of the microbrewery, we endured 2.5 miles of spiritual and physical testing out in the desert outside of Taybeh on a lovely hike under the blazing noon sun. In the middle of our death march, we took refuge under a large olive tree. Much to our delight, the tree did not shrivel and die, but provided shade for our half hour rest and consumption of water, dates, peaches, and almonds.


Hiking in Taybeh.

We took the tree, and the spray-painted rock markers, to be a sign that we were on the right path, both spiritually and geographically, and continued a short ways to gaze at the dark mouths of caves in the hills surrounding Taybeh.

When we got back into the village, we found Peter's Place, a brand new restaurant that was "soft open," meaning that is was so new it hadn't had it's official grand opening yet. Ms. Koury recommended it, and we are so glad she did and that we climbed up the hill to the middle of the old part of the village to find such an oasis.

Feasting at Peter's Place.

It was also so new that the menu had just a couple options: salad, seasoned bread, and/or hot meal:

5288290_origAlthough the inside of the restaurant was cavelike, cool, and beautifully lit,

4320560_origWe decided to sit outside where the patio offered cool breezes and nice views. To finish up this post, I'll add this video which captures my general fatigue and joy at sitting down with a cold beer after a hike on a hot and dusty day.

Four Different Kinds of Water Massage

Charming and I just moved into a new apartment, and it's quite posh compared to our previous digs here in Ramallah. Here are a few photos of the interior. Standing in the kitchen looking into the living room:
6112745_origPrince Charming is smitten with the kitchen and has big plans for all the delicious things he's going to cook here:
6301152_origWe love the patio:
7997155_origThe view at sunset is spectacular. I'll think about taking some nice shots of the view for a later posting. In the mean time, check out the beautiful nighttime shot of Ramallah from our old patio that Charming took and posted on his blog.

The new place has significant charms, including a shower with four different kinds of water massage and a radio. However, as of right now, the internet and hot water (as well as a long list of other lesser functions) are kaput. The landlord promised in a very passionate telephone conversation (passionate compared to US landlords, perhaps normal here) yesterday that we can trust him and that it will all be working very soon.

Bug Bites and Black Belts: The Little Things Are Big Things

5054374Yesterday was a tough day of little challenges. I couldn't sleep, and in the morning, I was complaining to my prince about the extreme itchiness and discomfort I was experiencing from the bites from whatever tiny creatures inhabit our mattress. Or, I theorized, were the bites from mosquitos? Could he ask the people at the office if they had any advice? He was sipping the morning coffee that I made him in front of an open window, and looking doubtful that among all the saving children, he was going to have time to ask about the possibility of bugs in our mattress. I looked at the open window and got up to slide the screen shut, giving him a "the least you could do is shut the screen to keep the bugs out" look. Then we argued about the insect life in Rammallah, Palestine, vs. Lumberton, NC. He went to work. I cried my eyes out for an hour, loudly, relishing the fact that no one I knew was going to hear me and ask any questions.  I rallied, called him, and resolved our stupid little argument. I found the pain-relieving spray (see photo) that Prince Charming had, of course, thought to pack, covered my skin with it, and slept blissfully for four hours.

Later, doing the dishes, I was scrubbing a hardened flake of oatmeal off a cup. My hand slipped, shunting the sharp shard of oatmeal under my fingernail. A small cut, a small annoyance. But damn it, couldn't something just go right today?When Prince got back from work, I told him that if something big and horrific happened to us, like something like the people back home are afraid will happen to us (crime, terrorism, etc.) we'd get through it. Our "I'm a tough survivor" instinct would kick in. Adrenaline would flow, and we'd roll with the challenges like it was our job. And people would think we were so tough, so heroic.We laughed and laughed about how it's really the little things that are the big things. He reminded my about how he'd stubbed his toe hard a week back, and even though it was just a stubbed toe, damn it, it was sore for days, and he had a lot of walking to do. So long to impressing his new staff with his powerful gait.I was reminded of when I was at a Tae Kwon Do Tournament as a teenager. I had just sparred with a huge, Amazonian warrior black belt with legs twice as long as mine, and a deadly, "I'm from the Bronx and I've killed girls just like you," look in her eyes. (It's my story, I'll embelish a little. Okay?) I was tough. I was brutal. I fought hard. I got kicked in the stomach and the face. I didn't cry. I probably won the match, but the point is that my instructors, my teammates, everyone was telling me I was One Tough Cookie. And let's be honest, I was. There weren't a lot of girls like me in my peer group.But what happened later was that I had to stay  for hours supporting my teammates. I wandered around the tournament, getting increasingly hungry, thirsty, and tired. This was right at the beginning of puberty, and I was just beginning to learn that I had a blood sugar issue and I would feel wonky if I didn't eat every three hours.

I didn't feel hungry, but I felt lost. I began to cry. I wanted to lie down. I remember that my instructor came over to me and said "What's wrong?" I shook my head, saying something like "I don't know, ahhh! I don't know….no snack yet, I lie down here?"

He gave me the most bewildered look, and said something like "You just beat Bronx girl, and now you are crying?"

It was a Little Things are Big Things moment. It's not the big fight that'll get you. It's missing your snack two hours later.

Goats Staring Me Down

Around Ramallah


Early this morning I went for a very short jog on Al-Teera, the main road in Ramallah that is acceptable for women to run on alone from what I understand.  I paused to take this photo of pink flowers and a minaret in the background: flowers


Later, I noticed our neighbors were grazing their goats in the front yard:



And finally, here is the amazing view from where we are staying right now. It's a good general view of a lot of the city, as well as a lovely grove of olive trees in the valley below: