A Slice of Life – Kurdistan, Volume 2

Oh, the Things We Have Learned….

I’m sitting on my couch, staring out the window at a grey sky. Through the fog I can just make out that the Kewa Rash have a fresh sprinkling of snow. Geese are honking loudly and insistently three floors below me, at what injustice I don’t know, but I am sure it is valid. I hear the music of the gas man in the distance, a strangely melodic tune that plays through loud speakers. He drives through the streets with this son, his small truck full of gas cylinders that we all need to heat our houses and use our stoves.

How I know it is the gas man is proof that I have learned some things in my time here in Kurdistan. We used to hear the truck and the tune and laugh, wondering what the man in the truck was selling. One day in December, I was anxiously waiting my husband’s return home. We had no electricity and we had run out of gas. It was cold and I wanted a cup of tea. I heard the music and looked outside. Down on the street below was the unmistakable shape of gas cylinders. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. I took off like the proverbial bat out of hell, flew downstairs and saw my husband coming up the tiled path. “It’s the gas man” I shouted! “That’s the sound of the gas man! Let’s find him!” He was just around the corner and with limited Kurdish we were able to let him know what we needed. With good humor, and more importantly, a gas cylinder that was heavy and full of gas, he marched up our three flights of stairs and we were set for the next month.

There was great rejoicing in our apartment that night. The electricity came on and we had two full cylinders of gas.

It’s the little things that matter in cultural adjustment. You do fine with the big things, but it’s the little ones that make you lose your patience and think that you are incapable of living. For me it’s usually things to do with the house. For Cliff it’s usually things at the office. Thankfully, we are not usually both low at the same time.

Others things we have learned are how to get to the bazaar by mini bus, what to say when we need to get off the mini bus, how to order business cards, where to get keys made, where to get hair cuts, what time the bazaar opens and closes, which vegetable stalls have the best produce, how to get a taxi to take us to the grocery store and wait while we shop, how to catch transportation to the big cities, how to say hello, goodbye, how many children do you have, where do you live, we have five children, we live in Rania, we work at the university, how to buy jili Kurdi (Kurdish clothes) and which kebab place has the best kebabs. This may seem like a short list. Believe me, it is not. One of our sons said to us “Wow, at this stage of your lives, I bet this is really good for you!” I sort of hated that he had seen right into my heart and knew what I was thinking. I am someone who adores my creature comforts. Give me warmth, beauty, and a soft cinnamon roll and I will rule the world. A very comfortable world it would be, full of squishy people. But I digress.

Kurdish Resilience & Hospitality

Kurdish resilience and hospitality are known worldwide, and we have been grateful to experience both while we have been here. The story I wrote on advocacy is a remarkable story that characterizes the resilience that we are privileged to see every day. In terms of hospitality, we have been invited to countless homes and have enjoyed delicious food offered with a generosity that is incomparable. Along with this, we have experienced the generosity and hospitality of help and time. “If you need anything, anything” say our friends “call us!” They mean it.

Dinner invitations are usually no less than four hours, usually six, and often include huge platters of rice, meat, and various stews coupled with small bowls of olives, containers of thick pomegranate syrup, and chopped salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Along with this there is always bread. As we are invited into people’s homes we are also invited into their lives as we learn about how many children they have; where they live; who is pregnant; and at least earlier this fall – who they were going to vote for.

Recently we had the privilege of attending our first engagement party. It was held in Qualadze, a city about a half hour over the mountain from where we live. Women and men were separated for the event, so my husband, our son who was visiting, and two friends headed to the men’s section while I held my own in a room full of women of every age, shape, and size. Babies nursed while grandmothers and aunts gossiped. It was amazing. We wore Kurdish clothes to the event and I was grateful for a friend who coached me through the dressing process through a video chat. Both men’s and women’s clothes are beautiful with yards and yards of material. The end result was that I was a glittering vision of gold and fabric. This is my kind of place and these are my kind of women. The more glitter and gold, the better. None of this black is chic stuff for them! Just yesterday I went to Rania bazaar with a friend to buy more fabric and have an outfit made. The fabric stores are visions of color and sparkle – they are amazing.

With our son and our friends after attending an engagement party. See! I told you I was a glittery vision – and you didn’t believe me!

Work

We both have challenges around our work. The challenge of working with a group of students to help them get to Portugal was a great example of the many obstacles that Kurds, and now we, face in daily life. The lessons learned in that five-month long process are similar to what we face daily. It takes great persistence and patience to work within the infrastructure at the university. The strengths are many – a committed president and other leadership, good conversations with students and staff, warm friendships and hot tea daily. The challenges too are many. From getting ink for a printer to trying to get email responses, we glory in what many in the west would see as tiny achievements.

In a conversation with two of my colleagues this week I shook my head and said “You are amazing! You face obstacles and challenges everywhere, but you still move forward and do good work.” I felt myself holding back tears. It is a privilege to work here – even on the no good, very bad, awful, horrible days.

Talk Club

Friday is our day off, and most Fridays we head to Rania Bazaar to meet at a youth center with Kurdish students and others who are interested in improving their English Language skills. We begin with an opening activity and then break into small groups where we respond to a set of previously determined discussion questions. It is usually attended by Kurds in their twenties and we love meeting and interacting with this age group. They are the future of Kurdistan and if Talk Club is any indication, than the future will be strong. These are young men and women who are not afraid to learn, discuss, and share their opinions. They have worked hard at mastering English and they are amazingly smart and incredibly fun. We share a lot of laughter and learn something each week. It’s truly a highlight of our week and we miss it on the weekends when we travel to Erbil.

Miscellaneous

Rania is a small city, and we tend to run into people we know everywhere we go. This familiarity has helped a lot in curbing potential loneliness. While we miss our friends and family members dearly, and think of them in our days and in our dreams, this new community has offered us extraordinary connection and friendship. It comes with laughter, joy, and its fair share of cultural misunderstanding, but we are so grateful.

So there’s your slice of life from Kurdistan! Wherever you are today, may you learn to reach across cultural and communication boundaries – it is absolutely worth it and you will be the better for it.

  • 2nd, 3rd, and final photos are courtesy of Cliff Gardner

Betsy – An Extravagant Friend

Betsy – An Extravagant Friend

We are in Athens, mere steps away from the Acropolis that sits high above the city inviting people of every tribe and nation to come and walk its ancient paths. It is the height of privilege to be here and I am deeply mindful of this.

And though Athens has its magic that I could write many words about, it’s not what I’m choosing to write about today. Instead, I want to write about an extravagant friend.

Her name is Betsy and on Christmas Eve, she died.

She died at home, surrounded by her family – her big beautiful family – a husband of over 40 years, children, and grandchildren. After God and coffee, Betsy loved family, but she also invited many into that family. I was one of those people.

I met Betsy when I was 29 years old. My husband and I had arrived in Cairo with our three small children a few weeks before. I was desperate for friendship. We limped our way through the first few weeks and then on the same day both of us had encouraging breakthroughs in unexpected offers of friendship – his through a man named Fred Perry, mine through Betsy. When we look back on this time, it was these two friendships that were the starting point in helping us unpack our bags and hang our hearts in Cairo.

I was emotionally and spiritually lonely. As I sat with my three kids in my fifth floor walk-up apartment one morning, loneliness flooded over me and tears quickly followed. I reached for the community newspaper, lovingly called the Maadi Messenger. In between the “I am Fatima. I wash kids and clothes” and “Learn Arabic quickly!” ads was a section on community activities. There, under community Bible studies, was the name Betsy McDermott and a friendly “Call if you’re interested in joining a Bible study.” I resolutely picked up the phone, checked to make sure the neighbors were not on it as it was a party line, and dialed the number. The next minute Betsy’s unforgettable “Mcdermott Home! Betsy speaking” came from the receiver. It was a voice from Heaven. I paused and then launched in to a halting introduction.

We talked for 45 minutes and by the end of that call I had a Bible study, a best friend, and a wise mentor. Just minutes before we hung up that day, Betsy said “You sound so familiar! Are you sure we haven’t met before?” We figured out that we had mutual friends in two missionary families who had lived in Karachi and knew both of us. We had indeed met! We met when I was in junior high and she was in high school. She was in a singing group in high school with our mutual friend “Auntie Grace” Pittman. It sealed the friendship in ways I could never have expected. She understood the third culture kid piece that I didn’t even know was a word.

With that commonality, I was invited into Betsy’s world of friendship, and what an amazing world it was! It was a world where coffee and hospitality were like oxygen. They were followed by laughter, listening, deep theological discussions, and always long talks about family. It was through this world that I met Martha, Karen, Marian, Christine, and a long list of others who had been invited in and were feasting at the table of friendship.

Betsy’s home became my sanctuary. At Betsy’s house, everything was better.

Expatriate friendships come with an asterisk, and that asterisk is a reminder that all friendships end with goodbye. If you can survive the goodbye, there’s a chance that the friendship will survive the ocean chasms that separate continents. The first was a partial goodbye. Though not separated by an ocean, we were separated by a bustling city of 15 million as we moved to a different part of Cairo. I grieved not being able to drop in on a whim. It was my two-year-old who took on the grief. I remember one day saying goodbye to Betsy as I hopped into a taxi to head from Betsy’s house to mine. Stefanie looked out the window at Betsy and burst into tears. She took in all her mama’s emotions and instead of having a lump stuck in her throat as I did, she grieved in big, gulping two-year-old sobs. I can still see Betsy’s startled face through the grimy taxi window as she waved goodbye.

Two years later, Betsy moved from Cairo to London and the chasm of people became an chasm of water. Although our across the city move two years earlier was difficult, this was now a different country, different time zone, and different life. I didn’t know if I would make it. But the friendship survived, and Betsy’s home in London became my yearly friendship and therapy session. Along with that, we kept in touch through letters, visits during the summer when we were both in the United States, and phone calls. When I unexpectedly found out I was pregnant just before Christmas in 1995, I had told no one. I got off the plane in London after Christmas and burst into tears with Betsy. She hugged me tight. “You’re so lucky!” she said – and in that moment, I began to believe it.

We left Cairo in 1996, but the yearly trips to London continued as I faced the most difficult adjustment I had ever made within a small town in Massachusetts. Soon after, her oldest child began university in Boston and I got to briefly see her on her periodic trips to visit him. In 1999, Betsy moved to Rochester, New York – just 15 minutes away from where my brother lived. Her home there continued to be a place of peace and grace for my life. I was struggling with many, many things – but at Betsy’s house I had a temporary respite. I could relax in her hospitable embrace.

It was in 2003 when we began to see less of each other. Our family moved to Phoenix, her kids began moving away, and trips that included each other were less frequent. Periodically we would reconnect, and it was always as though I was the only person in the world who existed. Our friendship continued with the competition of adult kids, aging parents, and grandchildren. We were now lucky to grab coffee once a year. At this point, I knew she had breast cancer but she was doing well. Each time I saw her she seemed to become more beautiful and more resilient.

Betsy was a third culture kid. She had been through coups, wars, and earthquakes. She had her appendix taken out by an undercover CIA operative, had evacuated countries, and raised her own kids around the globe. She was as comfortable at a fancy dinner party as she was in a slum in Cairo. The stamps in her passport had more stories than a book could contain.

With this as her background, it’s no wonder that her heart was the size of the globe and filled with people that represented that globe. I got to be one of them and even though her heart was heavily populated, when you were with her you thought you were the only one.

More than that, Betsy had a deep relationship with God that affected everyone around her. “Scarcity” was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She radiated the joy of being alive. Betsy was extraordinary.

I wish I could get together one more time to tell her how much I love her, how she met me in my tears and my weakness and gave me strength to move forward. I wish I could thank her for the coffee and friendship, both served so well. I wish I could hug her and hear her laughter and voice one more time. I wish I could thank her for her extraordinary generosity.

I can’t do any of those things. But I can learn from her. I can learn more about what it is to open my heart and my home to people, not afraid that the love or coffee will run out, not worrying that there is not enough to go around.

I learned so many things from this friendship. I learned that faith is a journey and that to question doesn’t take away a rock solid foundation. I learned that loving people is costly – it cost Betsy to love, but she did it and made it look effortless. I learned that hospitality opens up our world and our hearts grow larger.

I didn’t know that Betsy was so near the end. To Betsy, suffering was matter of fact. At my dad’s funeral over a year ago, I asked her about her breast cancer returning. She looked at me “Everyone has something” she said. She didn’t have a mental scale that she kept, weighing her suffering compared to others. She welcomed it with grace, and in doing so had room to comfort others. It was after Thanksgiving that I learned she had stopped treatment and was in palliative care. It hit me hard. I had just welcomed a new grandson into the world and found out that my father-in-law had died. The contrast between life and death felt tender and raw; the veil that separates these two so thin.

For Betsy, that veil was lifted on Christmas Eve when a host of angels welcomed her into the arms of a God who is above all extravagant – extravagant with grace, hospitality, and love; a God who never acts from scarcity but from an abundant well of goodness.

And so I grieve. I grieve not having a last coffee with her. I grieve not having a last hug. I grieve not having a last heart talk. I grieve that I will never again hear her voice or listen to her laugh.

I want to hug my friends and family a little tighter and open my door a little wider, I want to love out of abundance, not out of scarcity.

And so Betsy, I thank you. You lived and loved extravagantly and without hesitation. May I learn to do the same.

Like the Seasons….

normalized departure

Like seasons and birthdays, our comings and goings were a normal part of our lives. When we reached adulthood, we would meet others who had never moved and we would be amazed. On the surface, we felt arrogant – “look at us, we’ve been everywhere” was our silent thought that shouted loudly in our attitudes.

But just below the surface, we longed for weekly family dinners and shopping trips with moms or sisters; for fights that were resolved because they had to be; and for tight family units that stuck together through the years.

While we were roaming the globe collecting stories through the stamps on our passports, others were creating homes and building lives. Each choice came with both joys and challenges.

When your identity is semi-rooted in movement, then you face a crisis when you stay put, when you plant roots, when you’re ‘stable.’

And then if we did settle down, we felt the guilt of stability and wondered how our lives had become so predictable and so mundane. We made the mistake of equating stability with stagnancy.

Stability – strong, secure, safe, steady, firm. Those are adjectives with substance. They mean something. They are foundational to living well. Stability can be present in a life of movement or in a life where you are rooted in one place. Stability is not about where you live, it’s about how you live.*

And in all this, the seasons still came and left, and in between we continued to live.  


*from the Guilt of Stability

Quote on photograph from Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Saturday Travel Quote – Keep Your Suitcase Packed!

Today’s travel quote is from Bettie Addleton – my dear friend and a dear family friend. Bettie’s quote personifies her life of travel and adventure. You can read more about Bettie here. 

suitcase with quote

How about you? Do you have a travel quote to share? Have at it in the comments!

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/luggage-suitcase-shoes-tie-travel-22901/ word art Marilyn R. Gardner

You Take Yourself With You (And Other Things About Living Overseas)

Airport Check-in

Readers, I’m posting at A Life Overseas today about what does and doesn’t happen when you get on that plane to go overseas.

Here is a preview of a longer version where you can then head over to A Life Overseas to read the rest. 

I’ll never forget the day the call came from the American University in Cairo. It was a Sunday morning and my husband had left for church with our three children. With three kids under four years old, we had our hands full. I had worked the night shift as a nurse and arrived back to the house in time to eat breakfast, hug them, and send them on their way.

I then began the difficult task of getting to sleep. We were in a period of great uncertainty. My husband’s job as an English Teacher had ended at Jacksonville University and the job that we thought we would be going to in Saudi Arabia had fallen through.  My faith was at a low, my body exhausted.

As I lay on my bed, half-asleep, half-awake in the warmth of that August morning, the phone rang. It was an administrator from the American University in Cairo. I don’t remember much about that phone call but the final words she said to me were these: “Tell your husband that his future at the American University in Cairo looks very promising”

Sleep would not come that day. I could hardly wait for my husband to get home. We had dreamed of going to Cairo while dating and the dream had only become stronger. The year in Jacksonville had been difficult – a time of healing, waiting, repentance. And now we were watching miracles unfold to get us to the Middle East.

Two weeks after that phone call we were in Cairo with our youth, our passion, and our three little ones.

And that’s when it got hard. Because there are some important things that we didn’t realize when we were on one side of the pond – the side where churches applauded us and raised prayers on our behalf; the side where Christian fellowship was easy to find and when I was tired I could open up a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Here are some of the things I learned as I moved forward in my new life, creating a home and longing to serve. Read the rest http://www.alifeoverseas.com/you-take-yourself-with-you-and-other-important-things-about-living-overseas/

How Two Weddings Spell Belonging

In three weeks time we have attended two weddings. This has not happened to us since we were engaged and seemed to be attending weddings every other weekend.

The first was the Friday evening following Memorial Day. It was a lovely event. Two people, both coming from difficult past relationships who have experienced deep healing and restoration came together, united in marriage.

And we were honored to be invited.

In fact, I was so surprised I had to read the invitation three times. I knew the wedding would be small, I knew it was a second marriage, I knew that family and friends who had known them far longer would be invited. So when our invitation came I was surprised and more than a little pleased.

They invited US.

This is the point where I explain to readers that we have moved so much that we haven’t been invited to many weddings. You have to know people a while to get invited to important events like weddings and funerals. You need to be a part of their community, a part of their lives. This couple considered us a part of that group, the group that belonged.

The second was an invitation to the wedding of a couple who attend our Parish – our first Orthodox wedding. Again, it was an amazing feeling of belonging. “Have you been to an Orthodox wedding before?” We were asked. And no – we hadn’t. “You’ll love it! They’re beautiful!”

Two invitations. Two weddings. Two events that signified we are not strangers, we are not outsiders, we belong.

What spells belonging? What things happen physically and emotionally that tell us we belong?

This is a huge question for the one who moves, the one who’s heart is set on pilgrimage. The stories of far away are fun and exciting — you wouldn’t give them up for the world, but when you sit at home on a Friday night, knowing there is no one you are able to invite over, no one to be spontaneous with, the stories feel flat and unimportant. Stories, after all, need an audience to live.

But it can take a lot to belong. As a third culture kid and then a third culture kid living as an expatriate, belonging seemed easier. Expat communities are filled with comings and goings – if you don’t connect quickly the year will be half over and you realize many are packing up for their next assignment. Because of this, connections happened and deepened quickly. Despite not having legal documentation of citizenship, belonging was not an issue.

Physically I believe there can be a visceral sense of belonging. For me that occurs whenever I’m placed among palm trees and warmth, more so if the palm trees and warmth include a mosque nearby. I know others who feel at home the minute they touch down at Logan Airport in Boston, still more that love the seasons – crisp fall, cold winter, colorful spring, and hot summer.

Emotionally? Though I know it includes attitude, willingness to accept where I am, adaptability and more, I’ve found it’s not just about my own willingness to adjust and put myself out of my comfort zone. (One could argue that as a newcomer, I’ve already put myself out of my comfort zone, and that in spades.) It’s also about others being willing to accept the outsider, to extend belonging and community to the newcomer.

What do you think? What spells belonging to you? Is it weddings? Friendships? Or just plain time?

And in closing, thank you Lisa & David, Tabitha & Elijah – for extending an invitation to belong.

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How Two Weddings Spell Belonging – The first Wedding and the photo booth – Friends who have extended an invitation to belong.

The Aerogramme/Aerogram

English: 1967 US aerogram issued to accommodat...

This week I received a letter written on a blue aerogram! I hadn’t seen one of those in years and it pleased me immensely to hold it, to slice open the side and the two ends, to read it, to flip-up the bottom and read the back side.

So many memories came rushing back in that moment. So many letters in so many mailboxes.

The aerogram, although no longer sold in US Post Offices, has a rich history. It was first introduced in Iraq in 1933 by Major Grumbley of the Royal Engineers. That original aerogram,weighing less than 2/10 of an ounce, was preprinted with the likeness of Faisal I of Iraq on thin grey paper. The aerogram didn’t gain popularity until the middle of the Second World War, however, when airmail service started up between Britain and the Middle East. It was a private and inexpensive way to send letters back and forth. The US didn’t issue an aerogram until April 1947. Twenty-five different designs, with increasing postage costs, were issued until they stopped printing them in 2006. David Failor, Postal Service executive director of stamp services at that time stated by way of explanation, “Demand for these has been next to nothing for the past five years.” People send emails to their globally scattered friends, I suppose. Or perhaps they skype them.

Long gone are the days when the nearly weightless blue aerogram was used to convey love and affection, news of births and deaths and family.

For the me the aerogram has significant sentimental value. I remember receiving letters from home when I first went to boarding school at age nine. One of the “aunties” would appear at tea time to distribute the mail. She’d call out the names of the fortunate few. I distinctly remember the swell of hope that my name would be called. I remember the pains of sadness when it wasn’t. More often than not my name was called though. My mom sweetly wrote us most every day. Often she used a small domestic Pakistani aerogram to convey little pieces of news from home. She’d tell of her and dad’s deep love for us. She’d tell stories of life on the Thal Desert, her life in a courtyard surrounded by tall walls.

Later on in junior and senior high school our mail from home was put in a mailbox down in the “Big School”. There was a box for each grade and so now we could see who got mail and who didn’t. Casually looking through the few letters in hopes that one of them had your name on it conjured up the same little girl feelings but now there was the mildly applied pressure to pretend you didn’t really care much. Friends that had moved on from boarding school wrote too. Amy Jo, my loyal best friend from fourth grade on wrote regularly and often after their family moved back to the US and then relocated to the UK. She routinely wrote on a blue aerogram form. I still have most of the letters she wrote. They are tied together with ribbon in a box in our basement.

When I left the safe space of boarding school for the broader world of college and Canada I found myself often in the post office. My world might have profoundly changed, my self deeply shaken but I knew the post office and her mistress. Everyday I’d check for mail. Sometimes two or three times a day. Hoping. Longing. Needing some reassurance that the world I had left wasn’t imaginary, needing to know I wasn’t completely going insane, needing to know I was missed. Those letters kept me tethered. Mom and Dad wrote, there were a few teachers who wrote (Ann and Stephen, Marie, Phil and Ruth), there were friends that wrote, classmates, my dorm mother Deb.

Years later, when Lowell I courted through the precarious marriage of the Canadian and the Indian postal systems, the aerograms revealed the man I came to love and to cherish. Each aerogram he wrote under the ceiling fans of a lonely India settled into my heart. I read and reread them. I studied his pensmanship. I tried to read between what he had written and what he might have meant. I looked for humour and affection. Those aerograms might have survived international air travel but they quickly became worn from overuse! We still have all those letters, our courtship by correspondence, safely ensconced in plastic page protectors and stored in a three-inch binder at the back of our closet.

Our years in India saw the great change of communication march before us like a momentous Republic Day parade.

Early on we relied on those blue letters for comfort and the assurance of prayers. After the aerogram marched past, the faxes came and went. No sooner had they moved on then we watched, to our great astonishment, the entrance of email, slowly at first, but quickly gaining momentum. Letters and packages still came. Blue aerograms still came, in the wrong spot in the parade line, but always an absolute delight to receive! Cell phones and international texting joined the procession. The internet,with speed and information and Facebook, still marches on but we left India before that line swept past us.

The aerogram yet speaks to me of nostalgia and a collection of sweet serendipitous memories. This letter from my friend, who maybe only lives three miles away, contains more than just the bits and pieces of news she wrote. Her letter speaks to me of the past.

With her one letter, a whole rush of forgotten letters have arrived. My mailbox is full! Thank you Tammy!