This Expatriate Life

I’m going to diverge from earthquakes for awhile, not because they have stopped, because they haven’t. The earth moves every day, our hearts race, but it is the new status quo. I’m going to share a little more about the day to day life of living away from home; wherever that might be. The posts will be labeled “This Expatriate Life”.

Starting with the very mundane “Where is the pepper?”

Our little can of McCormick black pepper was empty, and somehow we missed that on our numerous trips to Costco this summer. Since our return we had checked for ground black pepper at the two major supermarkets, Bhat-Bhateni and Salesway, and at the US commissary. No luck. But we did find pepper seeds. We do have a pepper grinder, however it is sitting in our kitchen in California. It is one of those moments of “I know we have one, just not sure in which country”.

But one thing we do grind up a lot is coffee! We did buy a lot of that at Costco.

So I thought, “I’ll use the coffee grinder!”
I may have been a little too ambitious as the pepper I produced was not “grounds” but dust. When I opened the grinder, some of the pepper just floated away. But we filled a small container with our pepper dust and had pepper with our evening stew. All was fine, until the next morning.
It was Monday morning and we didn’t have ground coffee for the espresso machine — no K-Cups here. When I went to grind the coffee, I realized the grinder was still fouled with pepper dust. In typical Monday morning fashion, just not enough time to clean.
Not good to send Bill to school without his espresso coffee in the morning, but that’s another story.
I was on my own in the evening as Linda was part of the “Back to School” event for the elementary school. Our house keeper was unable to work today due to a general strike in the country, so I tackled the domestic chores of washing up in the kitchen. I could go on for volumes about the water, and maybe someday I will, but in summary the water we use for cleaning our dishes, our clothes, and our bodies, smells rather disgusting. You would never dream of swallowing it. It is a lot like the irrigation water we used in desert farming in El Centro… after it had gone through the fields. When we wash dishes with this water, we let them completely air-dry, in the wishful thinking belief that the nasty germs don’t like dry surfaces.
I clean the coffee machine only with bottled water. I tackled the fouled grinder with paper towels, trying my best to loosen the fine dust that just wanted to float back to the bottom. My previous experience as a science teacher kicked in and I realized that all of that rubbing was just creating a static charge that attracted the fine pepper particles. What I needed was a new strategy to get rid of pepper dust.
I may be a “blow hard” so I thought I would put that to the test. I leaned in close over the grinder and blew into it with all of my strength. Which as a scientist brings me to this law of nature: crap has got to go somewhere, or in this case dust. As I blew into the grinder, the dust flew into my eyes.
Now you know where the pepper went.


You never forget your first…

…job hunt

Recently the New York Times featured an article in the Education section called “Teachers Vie for Overseas Postings,” which did a fairly good job of describing the job hunt for international educators. I have been working in schools overseas since 1981, and like in the article, it started at a fair.

I was in my third year of working as a teacher in the Jurupa Unified School District in Southern California. Three years, and three different jobs: a combined class of grades 2 and 3, then a grade six in another elementary school, and in my third year I was a high school biology teacher. In the fall of that third year I saw a small ad exclaiming “Teach Overseas.” It was from International Schools Services, or ISS. The application process to join their job placement service was extensive, and included an interview in Los Angeles with one of their representatives. Once that was done, I started receiving thick packets in the mail with job opportunities around the world. Only then did I appreciate a new world was opening up before me. I could be working in Europe, Asia, or Africa next year. It was a very exciting time.

ISS had a job fair in New York. I made arrangements for the trip. A very expensive trip! A couple of schools, including one in Cairo, had setup interviews with me ahead of time.

However just ten days before the fair, the district’s wandering elementary art teacher, Gary, came into my high school classroom and said he heard I was looking overseas. He told me about a small job fair he was attending that Saturday at UCLA. I cancelled my trip to the ISS fair, phoned Egypt and made an appointment to meet the head of the Cairo school at Stanford on Sunday.

ISS recruiting fair in San Francisco  – Malcolm Stitt in the NYTimes

Tables were crammed together in a lobby of one of UCLA’s large lecture halls. Each head of school sat behind the table and behind them on butcher paper was a list of the jobs they had available. I got in line for Frankfurt, then London, and got interviews with both. But each line was long and as they made interview appointments, the list of openings was thinning out. My third line was Kuala Lumpur. After 30 minutes of waiting in the line, the head of the school stood up and said “I don’t want to interview anyone else unless you can teach physics!” “I can teach Physics,” I replied, handed him my resume and had my third interview setup.

The interviews were in hotel rooms in a building adjacent to the university. London had pulled the room’s desk around and he sat behind it. Frankfurt sat on his bed, shoes off, legs stretched out toward the interviewee. Both went well, but I was hesitant about my third and final interview, Kuala Lumpur. As I entered the room he was sitting across from me at a low coffee table, “Aren’t you kinda of weak in Physics” he challenged. “Yes, but I’m a great second grade teacher”. He laughed.

At the end of the day I went home buoyed by an overabundance of delusional self-confidence that I would get at least one job offer. That night I had dinner with my parents told them about the events of the day. Then I remembered “Oh no, I have an appointment tomorrow morning at 9 am at Stanford University!” I was tempted to blow it off, feeling confident about my job prospects, but in the end I did the right thing. I had made a commitment  and I needed to follow through with it. My mom volunteered to ride with me (she could not drive my stick-shift) on the 400 miles north. We drove through the night and stopped at the Denny’s in Palo Alto around 8am. I changed into my suit and entered Stanford’s career placement office at 9 am. “I’m here to see Dr. Brandt,” I say to the receptionist. “Oh, Dr. Brandt cancelled his trip to Standford.” “Are you kidding me!” Grrr. No time for a rest or a gripe, Mom and I hopped back into the car and drove back down to Riverside – the next day was a work day.

One of my first trips as an overseas teacher – Cairo! Never did run into Dr. Brandt.

In the end, I got that wonderful phone call from Frankfurt and immediately agreed to a contract.

A few weeks later I got another call from the guy who thought he was going to interview a physics candidate at UCLA. It turned out, he really did need a second grade teacher!

A bookshelf tells volumes

When we first arrived in Abu Dhabi seventeen years ago, there were no bookstores. There was, and still is, “All Prints,” a rambling collection of books, magazines, and stationary. A great place to find a binder, but not a best seller. The closest bookstore was McGrudy’s in Dubai along the Beach Road. A wonderful store with lots of treasures to discover. With a nearby coffee kiosk and ice store, it was a regular part of our Dubai shopping trips. Nowadays you can find many bookstores in Abu Dhabi, including our own branch of McGrudy’s.

There is little wonder that a major part of our shipments to either the US or Nepal this June will be books. Not only do we have the accumulation of 17 years of books collected here, but I still have my copy of “Borror and Delong’s Introduction to the Study of Insects” from my university days. A handy reference when I get those requests “can you identify this?”

“Yes, that’s a bed bug.”

A lot of sifting and sorting coming up: What to toss, what to read, what can’t we give up.

After a Harry Potter Release

The books we can’t give up tell a story. When I enter the home of a new acquaintance, their bookshelf tells volumes. With us, our collection of guide books define our life experiences:  jungles, mountains, England, New Zealand and everything in-between either chronicle our journeys or our desired destinations. As our children sped into adulthood, their authors became ours, a shared family experience going through JK Rowling and George RR Martin. It was fun to see it go the other way too as they too discovered my favorites “A Canticle for Liebowiez”, Asimov and the works of Ray Bradbury. Which of those books will grace our shelves in either California or Nepal? What story will our bookshelf tell our new neighbors and colleagues?

All of this bookshelf nostalgia is being redefined. My digital bookshelf on my iPad is not shared with casual strangers who cross my threshold though I’m sure there’s an app for that. However this book rambling was inspired by the online discovery of a bookstore in Kathmandu called the Quixote’s Cove. Here’s a description from the site:

“The building, in which Quixote’s Cove is located was built in the early 1930s and has a rich history. During the 1930s and 40s, it was used as a catholic church by the Jesuits and was a central but secret convening ground for the Praja Parishad, the first pro-democracy and anti-Rana regime revolutionary party. As a secret gathering ground, the building has witnessed clandestine meetings between some of Nepal’s most prominent political leaders and poets including Ganesh Man Singh and B.P. Koirala along with Martyrs Shukra Raj Shastri and Ganga lal Shrestha. The walls still reverberate with their spirit of freedom and the words of the poet Lekhnath Paudel, who used to recite his poem there regularly, still float in the air. The bookstore shall seek to revive its past in a more public manner and become the convening ground for today’s thinkers and doers.”

No doubt, some new (or old) books from the Quixote’s Cove will grace our bookshelves in the future. Another story to tell.