Saturday, December 18, 2010

Do You Want To Waste Some Time???

That’s what my friend B said to me on a Friday morning as she offered to accompany me so that I don’t feel alone while I… well, waste my time.

I had the babysitter booked, my gym clothes on and enough mental strength to detach from the good company of friends to go and do my two hours of workout. But New York Sports Club had other plans. Without prior notice, they decided to shut down for the day.

I looked at the door sign which said: we’re closed, but all I could see were my precious $$$$ bills flying away and into the babysitter’s wallet. I can’t go home! I thought, not yet willing to accept defeat.

So I headed back to my friends, but they were wrapping up their coffee morning. I looked at my watch and I still had a full hour to… well, waste. I had nowhere to go… the time was too long to just sit still, and way too short to try and squeeze in any meaningful errand. Besides, I couldn’t think of anything meaningful to do!

So B and I decided to go shoe shopping. It’s always good therapy. And around Xmas time in New York, it’s also cheap therapy.

As I came home, upset, frustrated and thinking what a waste, it suddenly hit me! I actually spent a morning most working moms (including myself in previous lives) can’t even dream of.

I had coffee with good friends. I went shopping. I bought a new pair of Ballerinas for peanuts and I was not alone or lonely for a single moment.

So why am I always so stressed about a small change of plan? Why am I always looking for what I don’t have? Namely, a good job. Why am I looking at all this as “wasting my time”?

First of all, I think of it this way, because we do call it this way!

Second, many of us are frustrated in New York. This is a land that has so much to offer… if only you had the money to spend without any remorse.

Third and what I call a revelation, I, unlike many of my European and Australian friends, am not going back home for any future, near or far. My friend Mel knows she’s leaving by the end of the year and automatically fall back into her old routine as an MD. K is already volunteering as a teacher to beef up her CV before she goes back home. Opportunities await those who go back. That applies to me if I chose to go home too.

But it’s not a choice now, is it?

And that’s where all my angst stems from. Knowing that I really have no choice…not knowing whether I should just give up and enjoy my freedom or wait and hope for another career boost. But that latter isn’t really a choice either, because freedom in NY comes with a price tag. The private school fees, the babysitter, the expensive children’s activities all conspire to make freedom, an undesirable bargain at the end of the day!

Enough whining, I’ll go peek at my new Ballerinas in their fancy box and dream on….

Friday, October 15, 2010

Nostalgia and Lost Hopes - The "H" Exchange

It’s 2.15 pm. Tam finally slept and even in her sleep she tried to cling merciless to my arm. I have one hour of freedom (within the confinements of my home of course unless I want to risk arrest by ignorant macho NYPD guys who never had to deal with a clingy and very cranky child for any length of time). What do I do?

I could catch up on HOUSE, or Desperate Housewives. I could finish my book. I could browse the internet and look for fall fashions I would never buy. Not because I hate shopping. Not because I have no money. It’s because I would never find the occasion to show them off!

So much to do and so little time for me, that like every day of my life these days… I sit and stare at the walls and watch the precious hour fly me by.

It’s weird because I usually sit downstairs where I could see the boys as the bus drops them off. I don’t want them to arrive just yet. But I do waste my free time away sitting aimlessly on my comfy leather couch waiting for them.

Today, I master all the courage and energy I have and move from my downstairs couch to my upstairs desk. You’d think I live in a grand chateau where marble stairs keep winding their way up to heaven. I actually live in an attached condo unit in a small community that hasn’t been constructed yet. So my neighbors consist of skeletons of to-be very pretty condos, a bunch of Mexican workers till 4 pm and a few leftover tractors parked in my (supposedly very cute) cul-de-sac.

I’m upstairs and I check my mail. Here is an interesting one from a good friend of mine. She’s far away from home on a work mission, in one of those godforsaken lands that look impressively huge on the map but are actually vastly empty once you set foot on them. Not a single landmark to see, a culture to taste, or a souvenir to bring back home. Her e-mail is quite alarming!

See, H rarely complaints. Like all of us she questions her decisions a lot. But when she moves forward, she doesn’t just walk in strides, she leaps. That’s what I love about her, her zest for life and living her dreams.

H and I go back a long time. We finished university a year apart, both majoring in communication. We weren’t friends back then but we shared a common professional passion. Years later we met in NY, both newlyweds and both finishing our Graduate degrees in Journalism & Middle Eastern Studies. If that didn’t bring us immediately closer, our little boys sealed the deal when they were born only one year apart.

I read her mail and my heart goes out to her. Homesick and nostalgic for her kids, H is miserable she missed her flight (tech issues). For one moment, stranded in a bug infested airport, she feels lost and confused. She wants to get home to her kids and 24 hours later is simply unfathomable.

As the minutes unfold, our email and FB exchange gets deeper.

I find myself sharing with her a similar moment I had a couple of years ago when I got stuck in fancy Dubai airport (because I slept in front of the gate and missed my flight).

I was so exhausted and so eager to go back to my kids (was still breastfeeding so some parts of my physique were just as eager to go back to Amman) when somehow I woke up to see my flight moving away from the gate and my lone bag standing there on the tarmac.

It was compounded by the fact that I had this sudden sense of loss. My husband had just informed me about the move to NY (he was leaving three weeks later) and I lost all sense of achievement and reality. So my first instinctive reaction was: "Why the hell did I come to this conference.. I've never left the kids before, and now what? In a few months I'll be a useless soccer mom and this conference will not equip me for suburbian life in NY!"

I was right about all the above, including the pain that two unplanned missed baby feeds induced!

But H and I have since forked away from our common path. She stayed in NY, and the seeds we both planted for a meaningful career (we had grand ideas on how to educate journalists around the world and write life altering stories) have quite yielded in her little backyard. So it is imperative for me to remind her of her goal and how fast she’s leaping to achieve it. It is also imperative to explain to her that her kids will be fine without her for a few days. (yes, we complain and complain but the two of us can’t really deal well with parental separation).

I want to add that I actually long to be in bug infested nowhere land now than have my arm so tightly woven into my daughters dress as she peacefully naps through my hour of freedom.

But I don’t!

If I do, I would have to admit that I have failed to achieve my dream and that I now live it through her life.

Where she stays on to work on the seeds we planted, I have to uproot myself every time I start reaping some results and start all over again. Until a certain moment - which happened a few weeks ago - when I suddenly declare failure. I give up!

The fact is, I’m sitting here and telling HER story. What does that say about me? I’m out of my own stories to tell so now I’m borrowing from my friends’ interesting lives! That’s scary!

It’s 3.15. My time is up and I have to go take position on my leather sofa for the boys when they come in looking for me.

A final thought crosses my mind: “What will I do with my life when the day comes and they stop looking for me?”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Coffee Talk - Interfaith Friendships

Mix 6 ladies, who have just met, yet know that they have at least a whole school year to look forward to together. Add coffee, milk, tea and a homemade Pumpkin cake. Start a neutral conversation about kids, school life and adapting to a new home and BAM! You’ve just planted the seeds of at least a couple of budding friendships, the kind that lasts a life time despite cultural, geographical and sometimes language cleavages.

That’s how we survive as expat wives with school age children!
We look for companionship everywhere we go: at the Gym, with other spouses of our partners’ colleagues, wives from our native countries. And we’re often told to find the most meaningful interactions in the most unexpected places.

I didn’t!

I mean, I do go to the Gym, I hang out with Egyptian ladies and I occasionally socialize with my husband’s peers. But it’s in the kids’ school parking lot where I found myself as a mother, a woman and an expat wife.
I was taken in by a warm group of friends, all expats from different origins and all united for one simple goal… ROCK NY while we’re at it :)

And we do.

In a few months we had conquered the streets of Manhattan… on bikes. We have danced the night away and went home in style in a stretch limo and champagne. We got dressed in the wildest 70s fashion and danced silly to a full house of school families and teachers. We received standing ovation, not just for our choreography, but for our spirit and positive vibe.

This was last year. It was my first year in Westchester.

Last Monday we gathered around my dining room table, 8 ladies whose children frequent the same school. The same girls who rocked the city last year minus those who have left but plus more who have just landed in Westchester.

We sipped our coffee and had our cake. We talked about school and the activities that await our lot this coming year. It was sweet, formal and easy conversation….. For about an hour!

But then we found ourselves unraveling our most inner thoughts about faith, religions and coping with our own hypocrisies. As layers of our values were peeled one after the other, our true characters suddenly came to light. None ashamed of her belief or the lack of it! None really caring if the others agreed or thought her weird! Because as expat wives we can afford the luxury of honesty. We appreciate the true values of kinship, acceptance and respect. We know that in a matter of 1, 2, or 3 years, we will be hugging each other good bye probably to never meet again. And that is the core of what we have together, a true and honest appreciation of each other and of the challenge we face to be happy, content and fulfilled no matter where we live.

Last Monday my friend Alex concluded as she was standing at my door: “I’m glad we can talk so freely about ourselves and know that we will be respected for the difference and diversity that we bring to the table!”

It’s funny, because a year into this great friendship and after a series of deep conversations, and even after last Monday’s coffee talk about faith, I don’t think I know which sect of Christianity she belongs to, or where exactly I can find any differences between Muslim me and Christian her. I never asked. It never seemed to matter. Somehow, our core values are more similar than the published gaps between our religions. And that’s what matters!

It seems to me that every new post is also a new chance to reinvent myself and explore the world beyond the realms I grew up within. So far, I like most of what I see. And I find it quite comforting that a bunch of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Non-Believers ( I didn’t know that people in Japan don’t generally follow a dominant religion) and maybe others can gather around my coffee table on a Monday morning and enjoy a cup of coffee together.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Summer Greens

Here comes the Sun…

And the humidity, and the mosquitoes, and the weird crawlers up my bedroom wall.

So this is summer in Westchester. Sure it’s sunshine and green all around. But it’s also slimy, grimy, and a bit stuffy too.

I see people lounging on their garden chairs in swim shorts, with not a sea or lake or even a small creek in sight. I see children riding their bikes in tick infested parks. But who cares, summer is here!

I see mothers, flaunting their blooming summer dresses as they drop their kids to school each morning, and I ask myself: why am I still in jeans and fall-toned tee shirts? Why has my inner summer not kicked in yet? I guess I don’t like heat, nor humidity, and certainly not the sting that follows a bug bite just at the tip of my toe. But seriously, it’s June already, where is my summer?

I look around me and all I see are shopping bags. 17 gifts for 17 close family members and friends back home. So that’s where it’s been hiding… back home. Funny I still call it home after 11 years of roaming. But every summer I take the kids and go back to spend July and August in and with Egypt. We land in Cairo, do the social rounds and then shed our jeans and shabby tees and head straight to the beach.

My son just came up to me. He says: ‘Mami’, why aren’t you wearing shorts??? It’s really hot outside!

I look at him with empty eyes. I see myself wearing my Gap tan shorts and a flashy yellow Burch flip flop. But I’m not here, sitting in my bedroom, sipping tea and typing this post. I’m miles away across the seas, lounging with my friends and perfecting my tan while having my tea.

I’ll wear my shorts when we go to Egypt, I tell him. He gives me that quizzical look to put some pressure for a more detailed answer; a more convincing reason for a four-year-old. How can I explain it to him?

In his mind, it’s simple. The sun comes out, we put shorts on. So why is ‘Mami’ a couple of seasons behind?

In my mind, life is seldom that simple, especially when a lot of Roamer related complexities are playing out. Westchester with all its serene scenery and bug infested atmosphere is my home three quarters of the year. It should not and will not claim my summer too. The sunny season belongs to another, equally bug infested place. It’s not Egypt!

It’s specifically a small square of white stone built on a 300SqM land in the middle of the Egyptian desert on the Northern Coast of the Mediterranean. It’s my small beach cabin. That’s my summer home and that’s where I wear my sun dresses, enjoy the sunshine and don my OFF spray armor as I prepare for my nightly battle with mosquitoes. I lose my fights daily, but I cherish those moments as they mark the beginning and end of every summer of my roaming life.

It is the one constant, the anchor which brings us all back to our home. Any other notion of home is transient. We live it for what it is, a moment of our lives. But our summer cabin remains, patiently waiting, wrapped in plastics and covered in sand, every summer for us to go back, open its windows wide and let the sun in.

Monday, May 17, 2010

PJ Friends

When we were young, really young, maybe 8 or 10, we used to dress down and go to Pajama themed birthday parties. My kids now like them too. They even have Pajama day at school. They dream of their much anticipated first sleepover. Not gonna happen but they don’t know that yet.

I’m not sure where it all comes from, this excitement about spending good times with our friends while garbed in our favorite PJs. But it sure was fun, in a comfy intimate way.

I don’t get invited to PJ parties anymore. But I still look for my PJ circle of friends everywhere I go.

I was talking to my friend Alex, and after a lot of whining from my side, she finally conceded. Though it is easy for some of us to make friends the minute we set foot in a new place, it’s the intimacy we need with our friends that we miss the most.

This is the kind of friendship that can only mature with age, and a heavy build-up of fun memories. Unfortunately for Roamers like us, those friendships that age to satisfy our taste, are the ones that we constantly have to leave behind.

They are my PJ friends. They’re the friends who are so good in their hearts, so clear in their minds and so accommodating in their gestures that at some point – you can’t really tell when exactly- you open up to them in a way you could have never done with friends back home.

Let me explain….

I moved to Jakarta and became neighbors with “O”, after a short while, and for space and money reasons, we decided to invest together in one washing machine. In three short months, she and I became washing buddies, sharing dirty laundry and slightly cleaner secrets with every spin of our new machine.

In New York, There were “H” and “A” and a larger group of amazing friends. In two years, we were all camped out in the same hotel rooms, or our own living rooms, literally socializing in our PJs and not bothering to change either clothes or silly attitudes in each other’s company. It was that comfortable!

We had our “Diner” moments; this occasional “girls only” rendez- vous at the neighborhood diner at 4 AM, sipping at stale coffee while spilling our frustrations and angst out. It’s funny, but every once in a while, one of the girls would send me an FB message saying: I need a Diner moment now. That’s all she has to say. She knows I understand. She knows I can relate.

Back to Jordan, it took longer, but towards the end of my short stay, I had established a solid network of PJ friends. All with kids already, our most intimate exchanges were always late at night, watching a movie with dear F and sharing a large bucket of ridiculously fattening Caramel Pop Corn; having coffee with R, completely at ease despite our half washed faces and sleep puffed eyes after our kids’ drop off in the morning.

Midnight visits to M’s and sipping hot tea on a chilly night on her terrace bring back the soothing taste of Chamomile while my frequent argileh escapades with F at Bianca café are the ones I crave the most.

I’ve been quite fortunate in Westchester, actually blessed is the right term to describe my life and my new entourage. They bring out the crazy, non challente, impulsive girl in me. I’m actually surprised she’s still there. Thought I’d lost her somewhere between moves. It’s truly liberating… and fun. It’s the stuff that makes the best memories. Like Alex says - every time my whining starts getting to her nerves- we’re in a good place here.

But I’m still waiting. Patiently idling away the hours, the days and the weeks for this moment when – one or maybe some of my new found friends will reach that level of comfort around me, and I around them, and become my PJ friends. Only then will Westchester truly feel like a warm welcoming home.

For now, I’m looking forward to more BBqs, karaoke lunches, dancing parties and wild nights out in the city, dressed in Sevens and fancy tops, my social PJ still safely tucked inside my closet waiting for that moment to be donned with pride.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Parallel Lives

How do you cope with the loneliness that engulfs you the minute you set foot in a new destination? How do you deal with nostalgia, and the pain of leaving those you’ve come to love, behind? Again? and Again? and Again?

You could spend your time exploring the new place and meeting new people.

Done that! It helped but didn’t really work.

You could chalk off your previous life and send it along with boxed up memories buried in the furthest brain hole away from your consciousness.

Done that too, didn’t work either!

The space between my brain cells- the few active ones that is – is so fluid that the memories just keep popping up in my dreams and at various silly moments, especially when I’m at the grocery store. It doesn’t help either that I have to do groceries almost every day.

So I devised a plan.

I don’t have to leave any previous life behind… except the ones I didn’t quite enjoy. I can take it with me wherever I go and rolling out whenever the urge takes over.

Then I mapped it out.

I’ll live New York through the dream job I never had but at times when I’m writing, I can pretend that I’m actually writing for a purpose.

I’ll live Amman through all the new telecom gadgets in my possession: Skype, Twitter, FB and my BB. I stay connected, renew my virtual subscriptions and stay up-to-date with all the happenings.

I’ll live Cairo through my family and the updates I get from my school friends. I’ll know all the details, see all the photos and pretend that I’m familiar with all the hot night spots, the latest baby additions and the cutest new boyfriends on the menu.

So if you catch me at Trader Joe’s staring at the pasta rack and not really picking any box, don’t ask if I were OK; because at that moment, I’m probably having lunch at Centro with my former colleagues from Amman, or maybe lounging by the Nile at Sequoya with the girls in Cairo.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Coffee Talk - Living in a Shoebox

It was agreed today among us, the ever-wise expats of Westchester, that the secret to happy living in America is to find a culturally appropriate shoe box and align oneself with its occupants. You can never be just American. You have to be a hyphenated American. The closest to my heritage would probably be Arab-American!
But after observing closely the local AA community I had the chance to meet here, I realize that I don’t quite belong there. They are the Louboutins of the Arab World, or at least they behave as such. I’m more of a Nine West girl or recently, an Uggs fan. Does that make me Australian-American????? I can already see Katie’s face cringing at the thought 
But it’s true, as my friends said today, that we hang on to our heritage much tighter when we move away from our homeland. I’m more Egyptian here than I ever was when I lived in Cairo. I cook Egyptian, I dress Egyptian and I behave Egyptian. Or at least that’s what I believe when people give me that quizzical look and I justify myself with a mischievous smile and a wink and I say: Oh I’m Egyptian.
The truth hits when I go back home, summer after summer, and I find that in Egypt, I don’t eat Egyptian. I don’t dress Egyptian and in all honesty, I have no clue what behaving like an Egyptian means!
So back home I don’t fit into the regular Bata box (Egyptian national shoe brand), and here, I can’t seem to find a box that gives me room to happily wiggle my toes.
I think of Roumi cheese.
I don’t eat Roumi. I never even liked Roumi. It’s so sour and oily; and in the presence of the infamous Gruyere and Kashkaval, who wants to have Roumi in their fridge?
I miss having Roumi in my fridge. I even threaten anyone who comes to visit without a pack of Roumi. Yes it’s that bad! I crave Roumi cheese and I would love to feel its oily tongue- nipping taste in my mouth right now.
I come to New York, and I just want to wear Azza Fahmy jewelry. I fill my house with Arabian horses – on oil paintings that is. I drive a distance to the Arabic shop to buy my monthly stock of Montana Molokheya and other Egyptian crudités.
I try to watch Egyptian television and if you happen to catch me cheering our national soccer team in front of a pathetically weak cyber feed, you’d think I was born a soccer fan. I never even liked the game before I left Egypt!
So what does this say of me?
That I’m holding on to my heritage in an effort to find myself a fitting shoebox in the new world.
What I found today- unfortunately after my friends had already dispersed - was that the box I need is right there at my fingertips. It just hasn’t received its proper label. And it’s neither a Louboutin (with great sorrow), nor a Bata either (woof, sigh of relief).
So today, I’ll propose a few labels for my new shoebox: The Exp Factor- The Expat – GC (Global Citizen - thanks to Alex) – Rrrrrrrrrr (for Roamer) - Shoes For Lovely People (this brand actually exists!) – but my favorite so far is the one I found on Zappos: Zoo York!
Any brilliant ideas??
I extend the invitation to all UN spouses and expatriated wives to claim their rightful place in my shoebox and celebrate our common identity

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Desperate Housewives of Westchester

As a UN Spouse, when are you allowed to announce your status as Desperate Housewife?

Some like the life.
Some were meant to be full-time moms and home-makers. I like it too. But I just can’t fill the emptiness that engulfs my days.
Blame it on my mom. Blame it on my dad. They both taught me that a woman has to earn her independence and never rely on a man’s wallet to feel secure.
Blame it on my husband. He made it clear that he would never marry a “typical Egyptian” because, in his mind, she would be a spoilt, sheltered girl who always relies on the men in her life to take care of her. That’s why he married me, he says.
No pressure there… no pressure at all!
I moved to New York over 7 months ago… I tried online courses. I got busy with GREs and Toefels and school applications. I didn’t get into the single program I applied for. So yes… I’m disappointed. But that’s OK, this too shall pass!
What I worry about is the prospect of another full year of doing…. NOTHING.
Is it healthy to have nothing to talk about other than new dish recipes and child sicknesses?
Is it normal that the only source of real fun is when my new-found friends invite me to their inner circle and go out to lunch?
Is it OK that after so many years of pursuing higher education and building, NO: hand- carving a career despite all the moving around, I’m back to square zero, not even SQ 1??
Maybe it is. I just have to find it in me to accept it.
Or maybe this itching to do more, and achieve more is an infliction that many other roaming spouses suffer from. We just don’t share our thoughts enough.
So I hereby officially announce: I’m the new DHW of Westchester NY.
Let’s see how many will join the club and maybe then… our sheer number will make me feel finally empowered.
Too bad no hunky plumber is moving in my hood anytime soon ;)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Citizen of the world

They say home is where your family is. I say home is where I was before I came here. It was the Cairo I left behind when I moved to Jakarta. It was New York City when I moved to Amman. And ironically, it’s Amman, ever since I moved back to New York.
They say home is where your heart is. I say home is where I left a piece of my heart behind. It’s where I said good bye to real friendships and great adventures. Home is where I created memories and saved them in scrapbooks and photo albums.
They say home is where you come from and “don’t you ever forget about your roots”. I say that after 11 years of roaming around the world, I’ve spread my seeds in many fertile lands and by now, I have deep roots that have sprouted into beautiful flowers in every city I lived in.
Today I don’t feel homeless. Today I embrace the whole world as my home. Sounds too poetic. Right?? Maybe a little cheesy!!! But that’s living a Roamer’s life. At times you feel lost and lonely and on a day like today, having spent a great evening among good and sincere friends, I feel good about the world.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Surviving the DMV driver's test

On a bright Friday morning, I stepped out of my car, went to the driver’s seat, adjusted it, then the mirrors and buckled up. I grabbed the wheel and took off for what I was sure was just a routine driver’s test.
Patiently, I waited at the first STOP sign, then the second, then a third and by the fourth I thought to myself: How many more before my blank-faced tester can actually realize that I DO READ ENGLISH, I KNOW HOW TO BREAK AT A STOP SIGN and I CAN ACTUALLY DRIVE, especially since I’ve been doing it for almost two decades and at least six months (without a single penalty) in this state?
That’s when I made a small jump. It was a big mistake!
That Friday, I went back home in utter disbelief. On the one hand, I didn’t yield (after patiently stopping at that fourth sign for over a minute). But on the other, I drove really well.
That was Friday the 11th. On Thursday the 12th, a snow storm hit the city and everyone vowed to stay home. I took off and headed to the site of my second road test.
Same waiting line, same sober faced with an I_HATE_MY_JOB look testers; but the streets were all covered in snow. Two stop signs later and practically no danger to yield to (everyone else really stuck to their homes), I passed!
Now I am officially approved by the NY DMV as a safe driver. How much exactly did that cost me?
- Study time, though that was the only part I found important
- A trip down to Manhattan to do the practical test and wait for hours for my papers to be processed. Finished a boring novel and missed a nice lunch with my friends in the process, which was an utter waste of time
- A painful four-hour session of decent and responsible driving that is TOTALLY designed for teen drivers. I don’t really drink, let alone drink and drive. I’m worried about children crossing the street, but I’m concerned about the safety of my own three little ones strapped in the backseat of my minivan. For God’s sake, I drive a minivan!!! Ring Ring Ring!
- Two mornings trying to pass a practical driving test
- A nerve-wrecking and quite humiliating experience sitting next to a woman I don’t know, whose sole job is to judge my every move: a turn of the head, a jerk of the knee, and God forbid, an untimely sneeze. Then she sits and starts scoring my abilities right there and then. So instead of focusing on the road, I try to steal a few sideway glances to see if I’ve already failed or not.
I passed.
But it’s far from over…
Still have to do the trip to Manhattan to renew the license I have yet to receive.
Yes, they gave me a learner’s permit which expires two days after my test was scheduled, how clever was that?
So now, I’m bracing myself for yet another boring novel, a lunch missed at one of my favorite hang outs and a morning totally lost to bureaucratic chaos..and NO..this isn’t happening in Cairo. It’s right here in one of the world’s supposedly most humane countries!!