Monday, July 16, 2007

A few notes from the past month...

I’ve passed my one month anniversary-of returning to normality, that is. I’m now just an everyday, average citizen in the US, and, in many ways, it feels good. Good to be able to live in shorts and tank tops, good to eat bacon for every meal (not that I do, because then those shorts wouldn’t fit), good to rediscover the beauty of this remarkable nation, good to mend those car-bombed bridges of my relationships, good to walk into a restaurant and order in English and be understood, good to smile at neighbors, good to be finally treated as an adult by both family and strangers, good to be breathing, good to pull warm clothes from the dryer, good to have a new Razr (which, insha’allah, will last longer than those phones from Egypt), good to drink Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper, something I never could find in Egypt. But I also miss it-more than the places, I miss the interactions, the thrill of talking in Arabic to niqaabed women in perfume stores, the excitement of grasping the meaning of Al-Jezeera’s headline news, the hilarity of a new marriage proposal for each day of the week, and, of course, I miss my friends. But I thank God for Skype and Facebook and the network of interstate highways.

I’ve already made good use of them once, over the Fourth. When I returned from Egypt, Mother was still convalescing from the very major surgery she’d endured a week or two ago, and I played nurse and housemaid for awhile (I still am, somewhat) and allowed her sore body to recuperate and heal. Every time she did little more than walk up and down the stairs, her stitches bled and her sides ached and you’d have to be a very cold person indeed not to want to help. She is an incredibly positive person (where do you think I got my disgusting cheerfulness?), but she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t recovering faster, despite the fact that we all told her she’d undergone a double mastectomy and lymph node removal and the body requires time to recover from major body part alteration. Anyways, some of my duties were quite enjoyable, particularly the visits to her surgery check-ups. Alright, her doctor was quite cute, Dr. Vietzen, with a degree from Harvard and very gentle, dexterous hands, and a quiet, intellectual temperament. Mother just laughed when I threw on one of my beautiful Thai silk scarves, perfume, tank top, and mini skirt for a trip to the doctor’s office, but, alas, Mother’s condition improved and our appointments with him ended and the harpooning could pass much beyond the plotting stage. We did have a moment, Paul and I, when he thanked me for my excellent care of Mother and our eyes met, for an instant, but then he walked out the door. Oh well…

There are moments every day when I do become frustrated and long for the freedom I had in Cairo, but there are just as many moments when I look around and am utterly content and want nothing more than a life of endless summer. As much as I hate to mention it, Mom’s cancer does affect our family life in sometimes perturbing ways. To rationally discuss what we’ll do when she’s gone, to hear her tell Dad to finally get a dog, is hard to ingest sometimes, to try to consider a future without her. Whatever happens, we are all so grateful for the years we’ve had, and it makes each vacation that much more precious, knowing she may only have a few more chemo- and cancer-free years to spend with us. Which is really why I’m not working this summer, not because I have no motivation or ambition, but because she, and my former boss, told me I’d work my entire life. Enjoy this slice of freedom while you can, because next summer you’ll probably be sitting in an office somewhere contemplating the summer days floating by without you.

Before our road trip to Chicago, I had my own doctor encounter during my yearly physical that was 6 months overdue. The only available slot available happened to fall on my birthday, so I celebrated my 21st being violated by Dr. Rutlidge while discussing the wonders of ancient Egypt. “Yeah, I spent Thanksgiving on the…owwww!....ummm Nile and I saw this really cool…ahhhhh…..temple called Abu Simbel and, you’re done, thank God!” There were several questions she asked-if you’ve gone through it, you know what I’m talking about-to which I was obliged to respond affirmatively and there were several I rather prevaricated on. “Do you always wear a seatbelt in the car?” I’d like to see you find a seatbelt in a cab in Egypt, cuz, honey, they just don’t exist. “Of course I do.” Do you smoke?” Well, there was the sheesha, and the constant exposure to second-hand smoke, and the roiling clouds of pollution I lived in so…”No.” Stuff like that.

The rest of my 21st was rather tame in comparison; seriously, despite my threats and vaunts, I spent the evening opening presents with my family, dining at Wildfire while I imbibed on a Mojito and Cosmo (my first two legal drinks!), eating cake at home, taking salacious photos with my present from Andrew, a bottle of Capt. Morgan’s, and watching Chasing Liberty. What frightens me is that many of my relatives and acquaintances got to know me this year through my blog during my time in Egypt, where, for lack of anything better to do, I spent most weekends in bars or at parties. At home, there are other distractions to occupy my weekends other than alcohol, but in Egypt, we had little else to do and much to drown, so, bottom’s up!

My redoubtable mother had, despite her continuing recovery, suffered to travel down to Marshall the weekend after I returned to move Andrew into his kicking new apartment; well, Dad and Andrew transported most of the heavy stuff, I aided them a little, and Mom did what she does best-organize. But that wasn’t much of a vacation, and the Fourth was looming on the horizon, and we wanted to celebrate her perseverance (and I’m not usually ;-) a detractor when it comes to vacation), so we decided to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Chicago. I think Aunt Mary was my most dedicated blog reader over the last year and I was curious to see how I would be treated, given my newly acquired ‘maturity’. My grandparents had accepted me as the slightly prodigal daughter returning at long last to home, but loved me just the same, resigned to accept that I was slightly more unruly than when I’d left.

So, late as usual, Mom, Dad and I piled into the Accord at 6:30 pm on the 3rd to head down to Chicago, Dad finally conceding the wheel to me after crossing the border into Illinois at midnight. It was a tempestuous night; rain slashed across the road, whipping the trees into a frenzied rattling; lightening arced across the sky, blinding in its terrible beauty; thunder moaned its low, ominous dirge throughout the land, penetrating even my earbud-encased ears. And then there was Dad, the most annoying element of them all, who claimed to be sleeping in the back but frequently leaned over my shoulder to criticize my driving, yell instructions, and otherwise create undue stress. I refuse to drive with him in the car from now on. It’d been awhile since I’d traveled through Illinois, and I’d forgotten that the lesser states use toll roads, so the three of us, amid much cursing and shouting, scrambled to find change. As I pulled into the first toll booth, the man cast one look at me and asked, “So, honey, where do you model?” Ahh, men, the same the world over.

Eventually, after a few wrongs turns and more swearing, we found the quite lovely Comfort Inn in Crystal Lake, checked in at 1:30, and hit the sack for an exciting Fourth. The next morning, the Chicago Schlichtings picked up Dad and me in their van and drove us to the Pingree Road train station where the two of us and Uncle Jim, Sara, and Abby unloaded for a day downtown. I felt rather provincial, boarding the train and unsure of how to conduct myself; Minneapolis isn’t small, but compared to Chicago, it’s quite miniscule and without a proper rail system. It took an hour and a half just to get downtown. An hour and a half! Along the way, we passed through countless suburbs, interrupted a few town parades (I scowled as we passed through Palatine, I’ll never forgive them for their treatment of the Royals in Valpo…but that’s another story), and eventually pulled into the main train station downtown. My dad and I calculated it had been at least 10 years since I’d seen Chicago, and it was, well, bigger than I’d remembered. All those skyscrapers, where they really here before?

I allowed Sara and Abby to lead me through the streets to the trolley stop, where we boarded and eventually found ourselves in Millennium Park confronted by a giant, chrome bean. It was more reflective than I’d considered, and, walking through it, I moved back and forth and watched my figure attenuate and fatten one the ceiling. Weird! From there, we moved on to the Taste of Chicago, where the five of us happily trolled the paths of Grant Park and munched on greasy food and met up with Alex, Sara’s boyfriend, who, after hearing so much about him for years, more than exceeded the lore that proceeded him ;-) John Mayer was set to play in a free concert at 3, but we realized he himself would not actually walk onstage till about 5:30.

What to do until then? Shop! Under the pretense of showing me Michigan Avenue, Sara and Abby led us down the length of the street, the men lagging a bit behind, until we found the H&M store, but, you will be happy to note, I didn’t buy a stitch. After that, we took the trolley back to the Taste, listened to John Mayer (we couldn’t actually see him due to the insane masses of people), who was very good live, watched the considerable inebriation of certain concertgoers, and ate again after the concert. Of course, we couldn’t leave Chicago before the Fourth fireworks, so they decided I needed to see Navy Pier-which I did hurriedly-and then we returned to the waterfront, plopped wearily down in the grass, and waited for the fireworks. At 9:30, they exploded into the sky in a spectacular show of sparkle, color, noise…for 10 minutes. Granted, they were a good ten minutes, but still, I expected more from Chicago. Reluctantly, we left the waterfront and pondered taking a taxi to the train station to head home.

“How much does a cab run in this city?” I asked my uncle.

“Oh, to the station, about 20 dollars for a few miles.”

What! Ridiculous! I will never adjust to the exorbitant price of cabs in the U.S., so we walked the several miles, witnessing a hit-and-run car incident, and waited an hour to board the train. Due to the plethora of people downtown for the Fourth, the railway company reduced train operations, resulting in a mad crush of humanity waiting for the 11:30 train back to the Northwest suburbs. Standing near the tracks waiting for the boarding to begin, I could not help compare it to the positively civilized train boarding I’d experienced heading to and from Alexandria in Egypt. When the doors opened, I was swept along in the inexorable push of humanity, separated from my companions, and sprinted through various cars before someone grabbed my arm. It was Abby, thank God, who pulled me into the seat she’d secured while I caught my breath. Interesting characters ride the rails, and we were all treated to the entertainment of some peculiar individuals. Strangely, Chicago actually allows alcohol on board their trains but had to temporarily ban it because of the Taste. So, usually, the individuals would still be finishing up their drinking on the train…When we got home, Mom was dozing in bed, but still had enough energy to display her pedicure, compliments of Mary, and tell us about her far more leisurely day.

My parents and I slept in the next morning, had a late brunch, and relaxed until Sara invited me over to swim in their pool, an invitation I gladly accepted. Actually, I continued relaxing even in the pool, as the extent of my exertion was walking to the edge to pick up a fun noodle. That evening, we dined at their house with two other Schlichting family members, Roger and Elizabeth, brother and sister-in-law to my grandma. That evening, I was exposed to a phenomenon that is, apparently, sweeping the state of Illinois-Bags. There are actual prescribed rules for this game, with set dimensions and distances, but it is basically a bean bag toss. Despite the mockery of certain family members, I was decent; well, not really. My throws tend to veer alarmingly to the left, and, instead of hitting the board, hit another team member. But it was fun to joke and compete in the warm summer night with fireflies flitting around our heads and willows swaying softly in the backyard.

The next day, my parents and I went to the Twins game, who happened to be in town playing the Sox. Once again, I was struck by how insanely large Chicago is; from Chaska, I can arrive in downtown by car in 35 minutes, but it took us a good hour and a half to reach the stadium, and then a few more wasted minutes of wrong turns and “Dad, you’re driving us into the ghetto!”

We arrived at the indisputably beautiful U.S. Cellular ballpark, or The Cell, as Chicagoans apparently call it-definitely an improvement on old Comisky, that even I remember as being in need of renovation-a tad late, bought our tickets, and were waiting in line for popcorn when we glanced at the monitors. How could the Twins already have 5 runs? Didn’t the game just start? By the end, plenty of Sox fans had either drowned their misery in beer or simply left, but we were happy, screaming our support for the Twinks in our Minnesota gear. I mean, a 20-14 whupping deserves celebration, no? Chicago pics below...

That evening, Sara and I made Cosmos and apple martinis (devilishly delicious, btw) and watched the chick flick Music and Lyrics while our parents caught up. Then, the next morning, after a delicious breakfast at a quaint little Crystal Lake establishment, Reese’s (the best omelet and hash browns I’ve had in a long time), Sara, uncle Jim, Dad, and I went downtown again to visit Shedd’s aquarium and marvel at the sea creatures and press through more crowds. Driving on Lake Shore Drive, I couldn’t help but envy Chicago for its lake and the beaches it possesses. On that clear summer day, the lake radiated serenity and provided the perfect backdrop for bikers, joggers, and strollers. More than anything, it lent a sense of space to an otherwise crowded city, offering a limitless horizon to those given to dream. Our last night with the Chicago Schlichtings was perfect; after a casual dinner, we decided to forego the movie and play a rousing game of Sequence, a riotous card board game that is too complicated to explain if you haven’t yet played it. Though I recommend you should.

With everyone I meet, the conversation inexorably turns to Egypt and my experiences there. I’m working on perfecting the highlights and skirting over the disappointments into a compact slot of time, but I usually digress onto a tangent of some sort and end up talking way too long. I repeat, if I ever do this to you, tell me I’m being annoying and arrogant and I’ll shut up, I promise. I only want to talk as much as anyone wants to listen, but because I’m a naturally enthusiastic person, I can often misjudge my audience’s appetite for me.

I think my mom finds the new me slightly amusing, certainly more racy, more obdurate, and a bit more unpredictable than before. So, when Dad said that I seem to complain a lot less than I used to, I think I pleased Mom when I responded, “There’s not a lot to complain about in the U.S.” Life is so ridiculously easy here compared to abroad, I still sometimes feel like I’m on vacation, rather than back in reality. Of course that may be due to the fact that I’m intentionally unemployed, sleep till noon, read, write, walk, eat, and occasionally shop every day, rather than actually hold a job, but still. Properly functioning societies are nice….

So, with much laughter, we said good-bye to the Chicago Schlichtings, returned to Chaska with a brief detour in Janesville to the scrapbooking store I espied from the road, and didn’t really do much the rest of the week. Well, that’s not exactly true. Harry Potter opened on Tuesday night at midnight, and Meghan, my highschool/Kenya friend invited me to go along, so I navigated the roads all by myself all the way out to Apple Valley and the Imax at the Minnesota Zoo, where I cheered and watched Harry fight of Voldemort in 3-D. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to wear my Hogwarts costume, but there were plenty of others who had meticulously dressed the part, so I observed their interactions with considerable amusement.

Colleen, my feisty red-head from Arabic class, and I grabbed drinks at a downtown bar on Nicollet Wed. evening where I related the other half of my experiences abroad. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read my blog most of this year, and nothing I said didn’t occur; however, certain parts were omitted to protect my, well, innocence, in many ways…But girlfriends deserve the whole tale, from Cairo to Thailand to Jordan to Israel. According to Colleen, that one night in Thailand is a story for the grandkids ;-)

Then, on Thursday, my best friend from the pre-Wawa days, Meg, came and visited me from Madison, and we gossiped, watched Clueless, saw Harry Potter (just as good the second time!), and slept in. It was so wonderful to see her and show her my world and just talk about my life. Having graduated last year from the U, she has endured a year in the real world and has offered a rather dreary perspective of the corporate world. I just hope I end up somewhere I like, insha’allah, love, but, at least, enjoy when I enter a career. I spent the next night watching Happy Feet and picking up Andrew from an Uptown apartment at 4 am; despite his incorrect directions, I eventually wove through the south side of Minneapolis. Next time, I’m going and we’re crashing in someone’s place till the next morning! Dinner with the grandparents, a Brazilian birthday is pretty good here in Chaska. In fact, according to a recent poll, Chaska has been rated the 8th best city in the nation! So, yeah, I’ve really got nothing to complain about.

Who says you can't go home?

I wrote this several weeks ago, but have been rather slow in publishing it, so consider it from the mindset of 3 weeks ago...

When I hear Bon Jovi and Jennifer Nettles croon this tune, I can't help but smile to myself, realizing how true these words are. Who says you can't go home, who says you can't go back, been all around the world and there's only one place left I want to go, who says you can't go home, There's only one place they call you one of their own...I got on that plane in Cairo with a light heart, a bit of nostaglia and melancoly perhaps, but more eagerness than regret. I loved Cairo, but I had already cried my tears, said my good-byes, and come to terms with the city. We understand each other, Cairo and I, we've learned many of each other's secrets, observed the shame and triumphs in our lives, sat up late together providing comfort when no one else could. I embraced it the day I arrived, reveled in its chaotic beauty, got drunk on its intoxicating flavor, surrendered myself to it one late night as I stood gazing on the balcony, and kissed it good-bye at 8 am with a promise to return, again, to its strangely comforting arms. But then I stepped into the Heathrow airport, and realized that there is still a West out there, with food chains, and English speakers, and I could ask questions and be understood. It was disconcerting, the first time I asked a security guard for directions. "Excuse me? I'm, yani, trying to go," and I made the motion with my arms, "to the American Airlines counter, Ammmericaaan Airlines." And he looked at me as if I was slow, and directed me in an adorable English accent, as I averted my eyes and hastened away. But America, that was a truly amazing thing! My plane ride was full of typical Americans, overweight, obnoxious, appallingly dressed, and loud, while I wiggled in my cramped seat and doughtily ignored their disturbances. Oh Chicago! I was sorely tempted to drop to my knees and kiss the sacred ground of the motherland, but I restrained, barely, and entered the amazingly efficient queue for immigration. When I approached the fresh-faced young officer, he looked at my form, looked at my passport, and then glanced at me. "Why were you in Egypt?" "Oh," I said airily, "I was studying Arabic, and the other countries (yani-Kenya, Tanzania, Jordan, Thailand, and Israel) I visited on vacation. I haven't been back in 10 months!"I projected such an exuberance, such a boundless enthusiasm to be home, that he questioned me not on my travels, but on the creeping ink vine spreading across my arm. "What's that?" "Oh, it's a henna tatoo, I got it in Egypt!" Flashing him a contagious grin, I twisted my arm to show him more, while I sensed the people in line behind me rolling their eyes ;-)"It's very cool," he said with honest interest. "Well, welcome home!" "Thank you!" I responded with another huge smile and floated through security, managing to drag my suitcases onto the final leg of my journey. The flight home was relaxing; I heard, for the first time in ten months, those good ol' Minnesota accents, and the manifestations of Minnesota Nice. I know most of you don't talk to strangers, don't say hi in supermarkets, but we do, and my seatmate and I talked for half the flight about sundry topics-our family, the novel she was reading, my travels, her travels, etc.-before the plane touched down, at long last, on home turf, and I sprinted through the familiar Minneapolis airport into my daddy's waiting arms. He lugged those giant green suitcases (sound familiar, Colin, David, and Lesley ;-) off the conveyor belt, wondering what in the world I could have packed. Well, there are the vases, and the leather poufs, and the camel table, and some scarves, a silk robe, clothes...You get the idea. And, for all of you doubters out there, I got everything home, everything! Two of the boxes were stalled in customs for a few days, but they eventually arrived on my Chaska doorstep, beaten but whole! And that's how I felt, as we drove those familiar roads, stopped for my first American food, Chipotle, headed up Pioneer Trail, commented on the road construction, and pulled into our driveway. I had been away 10 months, and so much had changed-new roads wended were once there were fields, stoplights now directed traffic where before only cows lowed, but some things never change, like a mother's love. An almost bald scalp may have replaced her thick, curly hair, fresh stitches may now be the only things covering her chest, but it was still mommy, and her eyes still glowed with the same tenderness (and, occasionally, reprobation) and her spirit had not dimmed, nor had her bossiness ;-) "Someone bring up those suitcases!" Did we suddenly fall into our old routine? Of course not, because I'm now Wawa, and she's not the same mother I left almost a year ago. Disputes arise, spates disrupt our harmony, but, overall, the transition from separation to constant togetherness has been smooth. I unpacked, the next day, to Nancy, the Arabic pop princess, mafiish haga tigiing in the background, and mom laughed. "You're not the same girl, are you?" "Nope!"Because of her incapacity to perform most tasks due to recent surgery, I execute most of the household chores, including grocery shopping, and, oh my God, I got behind the wheel for the first time in ten months, cranked the radio to K102-Today's Country-and pulled into the SuperTarget parking lot. Sweet, glorious heaven! A real grocery store again! I almost died, looking at the prices and realizing Tostitos were no longer 10 dollars a bag, that milk was again refrigerated, that items actually had permanent places on the shelves. At one point, I stopped loading my shopping cart and fretted about how I was going to carry it up the stairs to my apartment. And then, right there in the middle of the store, I cracked up, because I was truly home, could wheel my cart out to my Honda, drive into the garage, and carry it right in the door. Yes, America really is that convenient. My parents soon learned that their somewhat new daughter, was, indeed, a bit bolder, more candid, and quite willing to scandalize them with stories of her various escapades, but they took it all very well, and throw it right back in my face. Family dinners, let's say, are alot more interesting, as now Wawa is the fallen one, and Andrew the saint. Spring Breaks in Thailand are dangerous things, what can I say? But, in all seriousness, I've found a peace at home that I could not acheive anywhere else, and it draws from the closeness of my family, the familiarity of my surroundings, perhaps the cleaness of the air, the nature present even in my neighborhood, and, most of all, the acceptance from all of who I am. They refuse to call me Wawa, but they've welcomed her into their midst, and that means more to me than they know. It's not to say that life is not sometimes difficult, that I would rather not be spending time at the doctor's accompanying mother, or changing her bandages, or taking care of the house, but she spent 20 years raising me, and now it's time to repay a small sliver of that. Or so I try to tell myself, I'm really not that good of a daughter, but I'm trying to be a better one...I saw my grandma and grandpa, inhaled the slightly musty aroma of their house, hugged their increasingly frail frames, and perched on the fireplace as grandma slapped her knees and exclaimed over my tan (which is quite impressive, btw ;-). How did she call me? Effervescent. And grandpa, dear grandpa, looked me sternly in the eye, and commented, with a bit of resignation, "I guess I won't even ask you if you behaved, because I don't think I want to know the answer.""No, I don't think you need the details."I returned to campus this afternoon, parked in Riverbend garage, saw my old Arabic class friends, slurped on a Jamba Juice, greeted my old colleagues (well, I didn't just see Egypt, I also visited...), chatted with my Honors advisor for an hour before I realized that we had accomplished nothing in regards to my graduation but had thoroughly enjoyed each other's company (Mary's more like my big sister than advisor), and realized that MN is my home, and I can try to run from it and be bold and brazen and Wawaish, but, at the end of the day, my roots will pull me back to this place. Well, if my roots don't pull me back here, the unquivocal use of a dryer, a dishwasher, and a shower that works may. And the clean air, I can't get enough of it, I walk and I walk and I walk and I breathe, and it's beautiful. And I wear shorts, mini skirts, and tank tops, and no one honks. Oh, hell, I even tan on the deck in my underwear and the neighbors don't care!