Thursday, August 06, 2015

Foreign Service Problems: Potluck vs. Cabin Pressure Protocol

Spa Lo (photo from their website,
This week my husband outdid himself for my birthday/our anniversary.  He found someone to come clean our apartment (which is quite a trick here in Algiers) and he made reservations for me and my friend Magda* to have an afternoon at a posh spa.

During our spa chat, I shared with Magda how reluctant I am to do things like hire a housecleaner, join a gym or go to a spa.  Even travel (other than trips to family, Congo or church meetings) is something I don’t do unless hubby plans it.  An accusatory voice in my head reminds me of all my friends for whom that money would make a big difference.  Growing up a pastor's kid, it was ingrained in me to put the community’s needs first---to pay special attention to newcomers and the marginalized---and, of course, to always wait until everyone else has gone through the potluck line before filling your plate.  

I reflected on how this approach has led to hunger (metaphorical and literal), disappointment and resentment as I’ve tried to adapt to the Foreign Service life.  Magda pointed out that in the high-stress embassy world where most folks are barely holding it together, I need to shift my approach to what we are instructed to do on airplanes: When there is a drop in cabin pressure….put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.  Otherwise, you end up gasping for breath and in the chaos no one will help you.  That is, if I don't start taking care of me first, I can't be bitter if others don't take care of me either.

So, while I probably won’t be returning to the posh spa anytime soon, I've decided that I am calling long-term dibs on the housecleaner hubby found us, and the next childcare lead I find I’m claiming for my family instead of sharing it with others first.  Once my breathing and brain function are back to healthy levels, then we can talk about hosting potlucks at our place again.
*I wish everyone had a friend like Magda. She gets me out of the apartment regularly by pressuring me into things like joining a gym or going out to lunch. She listens non-judgmentally as I fret on and on, whilst she herself is dealing with being a foreigner without the perks of diplomatic status.  She always encourages me to take care of myself.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Les Soeurs de Bethesda

It takes a lot for me to be truly surprised by something anymore.   This week, however, I spent a few days at a nunnery in Switzerland for a meeting of leaders in The United Methodist Church's North Africa District.  This wasn't the part I found odd.  It was when I began to ask more about this monastic order hosting us that I received my shock. These sisters aren't Catholic; they are United Methodist!

This monastic order of deaconesses, the Sisters of Bethesda, started in Strasbourg in 1892 and by 1923 had formed themselves into large communities in both Strasbourg and Bale.  The sisters had many vocations--including service in Algeria--between them, and in Bale they even founded a hospital that still stands proud.  Next door, the remaining Bale sisters live together in a building designed for the realities of this chapter of their journey together.  As their numbers dwindle (now just over 30), empty rooms function as guest housing.

It's bittersweet to be privileged to witness this chapter of something so beautiful as people of faith spending their lifetimes together--sharing their possessions and encouraging one another in their service to humanity.   This nomad yearns for such communion.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

National Anthems

Photos from U.S. Embassy Algiers' Facebook page
 It's National Day season here in Algiers; the time when many of the embassies try to squeeze in their biggest diplomatic event of the year (celebrating their Independence Day, Queen's birthday, or some other patriotic holiday) after the winter cold/rains and before the start of Ramadan, when diplomatic functions can't start until after sunset. There are so many of these events that a friend of mine laughed that she had gone to ten of them in just five evenings!

Being both a foreign service spouse and a member of a choir whose memberships includes several high-ranking diplomats (led by the British Ambassador), I got to hear--and rehearse-- a number of National Anthems this week. In fact, I was even drafted to be the soloist for the USA's Anthem for their event (had never analyzed until then why that song is so tricky to perform).

I found a sort of spirituality in attending the patriotic celebrations of others and singing their anthems with them.  In fact, this week reminded me of the ritual of Passing the Peace in church.  Sure, we have our differences and it is frequently difficult to get along, but these embassy receptions aren't simply parties for diplomats, government officials, and key contacts just as Passing the Peace isn't merely shaking hands.   It is about setting aside our conflicts for a moment and honoring each other.  And if only for just that evening, a world where there is true friendship between all our countries seems possible.

Ramadan Kareem


For obvious reasons, we only sing/play the first verse of the Algerian Anthem at all these events.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Life in the Labyrinth: Algiers, Algeria

Labyrinth in Church of Reparatus, Orléansville, Algeria
A dear friend from college, Kate, recently flew out to spend a week with us here in Algiers. I hadn't realized just how desperately I needed her shoulder to cry on until she arrived.  Kate is the sort of woman I aspire to be: emotionally mature, playful, great listener, the kind of friend who will go to unreasonable lengths to stay connected.  No matter how big the storm she's going through (and she's faced some whoppers), she still manages to project serenity to those around her and never pulls the "my problems are much bigger than yours" card.  Did I mention she's brilliant too?

We did our best to show her around, which led to conversations about the labyrinth that is this city.  She mentioned that one thing she likes about prayer labyrinths is the way they always start by bringing you extremely close to the goal and then sending you far away from it. I got to thinking about that again today as I received a couple more rounds of undesired news.

For the past 7 months here, it feels like every time I've nearly got everything settled (housing, childcare, work, ministry permit, transportation, etc.), the rug gets ripped out from under me and I'm back at square one. I confess that lately I have failed miserably at my resolution to be a cheerful non-anxious presence to folks around me.  I suspect my only friends/acquaintances here who haven't heard my complaints are the ones who call me their pastor.  So today, as I missed a turn and drove round and round looking for a route home, I meditated on the thought that my adventures in Algiers are like the journey of a prayer labyrinth; the desired spot is always so tauntingly close, yet the journey weaves you all over.

When I finally made it back to the house (with my child now soundly asleep), I, out of curiosity, googled labyrinths in Algeria.  It turns out that the earliest known Christian labyrinth is located in Algeria.  Toggling over to my Facebook newsfeed, a friend had linked on my wall that the man who played Toby, the infant brother from the beloved Jim Henson film Labyrinth (if you've never watched it, go do so), has just collaborated with some of my favorite actors to make a film.  Just a coincidence?  Not in the surreal world I live in.  ;)

Jim Henson's Labyrinth is overflowing with wisdom 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Love is in the Air: Springtime in Algiers

a sunny afternoon at Ben Aknoun 
After what felt like an eternity of cold rainy days, the warm sun returned to us in Algiers this week. As school was still on break, this meant Evelyn and I got to take some outdoors excursions with friends.  The people-watching aspect of this was highly enjoyable.

Young love is definitely in the air here in Algiers.  With socially acceptable dating activities being limited to well-lit public spaces, the parks and cafes are full of couples with that special look in their eyes. The sprawling Ben Aknoun Zoo (which is much more open parkland than zoo) was like Lover's Lane--or should I say Noah's Ark?--, with couples lining up at the entrance and quickly dispersing off the paths.

Even as I was perched inside the hamster-cage-like playset on the rooftop of our neighborhood Ben Burger (Evelyn is too short to climb up to the slide level without help), I had to hold in my giggles as I observed the interactions of numerous youth sharing fries and infatuation.  In one secluded corner an Algerian young man wooed with his guitar.  I found myself floating through a personal time warp as I listened to him serenade the object of his love with Hotel California followed by some Clapton and, yes, Stairway to Heaven. Next he transitioned into a Nirvana medley, complete with Teen Spirit. The set was finished with a jump back to mid-'60s love songs. The two departed having clearly connected in a profound way. Meanwhile, my friend Magda and I and the kids shared a moment of beautiful love with a Ben Burger chocolate cream layer cake. I think I may have liked it better than the strawberry tart we shared there the previous day.

Because Ben Burger isn't just burgers & fries (photo from their FB page)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Standing up to Hate (A Love Letter to my Muslim Friends)

Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco
My blog has become rather quiet again lately. I’d blame my studies and crazy life, but I confess it is also because I’ve started to be swayed by the “safety via keeping a low profile” philosophy followed by many of our colleagues here in Algiers. The more I learn and the more I integrate myself into my new community, the more quiet I become about how I spend my days, what social organizations I’ve joined, and what I think. This is a shame because, as my Facebook friends* know, I have been having a lot of fun these past five months playing tourist and discovering the beautiful aspects of Algeria as well as neighboring Morocco.

There is a specific thought, though, that’s been eating at me a lot lately, so I’ve decided to share it as an open letter—a letter specifically to my Muslim friends.

To my devout Muslim friends:

Some of you I have only just met; others entered my life many years ago. First of all, I would like to say thank-you to each of you. Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for the casual conversations, the hallway banter, and for being a friendly face. Thank you for being there for me when I needed a shoulder to cry on. Thank you for helping me raise my daughter. Thank you for even showing up regularly to my ballroom dance classes. ;)

Thank you for inviting me to join your holy meals—from feeding me as a hungry undergrad in Washington, DC (no, it was no coincidence that I hung out at the American U. interfaith center frequently around sunset during Ramadan) to welcoming my family to the Iftar at your mosque in Plainfield, Indiana. Thank you for teaching me what your faith means to you. For sharing why you do—or don’t—chose to wear a hijab. Thanks for including me in special events in your life—like wedding celebrations.

There’s been a lot of chatter online by self-proclaimed Christians about how Muslims like you need to stand up to violent hate groups who self-identify as Muslim. Since the logic is that one is responsible for the actions of others who identify as the same religion, I offer my deepest apologies. I apologize because I have failed to effectively stand up to those who call themselves followers of Jesus yet they slash your tires, insult you, hurt people you love, and make you feel fearful to be open about your faith. I apologize for the hate crimes and the massacres and the vitriol spewed on the evening news. I apologize that, as one person of faith speaking to another, I don’t know how exactly we can stop the madness.

I now find myself living in a country where Christians are not popular, to say the least.  It doesn’t help that the older generations remember the heinous acts committed against Algerians by those who claimed to follow Christ. To my new Algerian Muslim friends, I say a special thank you for being kind to this Christian.         

I am not sure what else I can write other than say "I love you" and let the rest be read between the lines. 

Standing with you faithfully,


*If you send me a Facebook friend request but don’t already know me personally, please include a message introducing yourself and telling why you want to be friends.  

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Teaching my Toddler to Pray

Our favorite turkey turned 3 Thanksgiving weekend
Becoming a parent has forced this theologian to ponder a lot of difficult questions about what and when to teach my child about God, Christianity, and other religions.  I'm improvising as I go, but I've settled on a method for teaching prayers that is working well for us, so I thought I'd share.

I decided I didn't want Evelyn to think that prayers were phrases she recited that she (hopefully) would someday understand. I also didn't want to instill in her a view that prayers are about asking/telling God to do things for us (God is not Santa Claus).  After binging on TEDTalks that pointed out the link between happiness and gratitude, I realized that I wanted the foundation of her prayer life to be a discipline of thankfulness--of being in awe of the majesty of life and the Source of Life.  Thank-you was a concept she understood, so early this (last?) year we started doing thank-you prayers with her.

As far as Evelyn knows thus far, praying is saying thank you.  Before meals and before bed, we say "Dear God, Thank you for..... [family], [friends], [food], [things we appreciated about the day]. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Amen."  She often surprises us with the things she decides to express gratitude for (ex: 'thank you toilets'), but she certainly grasps the concept.

She also knows that we can sing prayers too.  She often hears and comments on the sounds of singing prayers coming from the nearby mosque.  Church, she knows, is where we go to pray and sing.  It is also now where we go to see the statues of mommy Mary, daddy Joseph, and baby Jesus, whose birthday party is coming.

If you haven't guessed where this is going, yes, I've found our thankful prayers a good spiritual discipline for me too.  As I deal with adjusting to life in yet another country, I am tempted to be grumpy or whiney in my prayers--or neglect them altogether in my pity-party funks.  Sticking to our new prayer formula has been keeping me focused on all the people who are supporting me (both here and far away) and all sorts of other stuff that is worthy of my gratitude.

Soon, when I think she is ready, we'll add other components to our prayers like apologies and lifting up things that make us sad or scared.  Eventually requests for help will make their way in there, but right now, we're just a really thankful family.

I'm thankful that the Catholics in Algiers share their building and include us in their children's events.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Algiers: ‎Botanical Gardens of Hamma

On one of our first weekends in Algiers I had the great luck of being at the right place at the right time.  Stuart wanted to spend the weekend morning at the office catching up on email from while we were on home leave, so Evelyn and I decided to visit the community pool at the ambassador's compound.  Turns out the ambassador had the same idea (going for a swim, that is).  We got to chatting and she said she had scheduled a trip to the Botantical Garden of Hamma in town that afternoon, but the person who was supposed to go with her was ill.  Seemed extravagant to have her big security team escort just one person around a park.  Would our family like to join her?

And that's how we ended up spending a lovely afternoon at the botanical gardens and how Evelyn's carseat got installed next to the ambassador in her official car  (Evelyn has no idea her life isn't normal).  The gardens were created in 1832, and according to Wikipedia, are considered one of the most important botanical gardens in the world.

Here's a bit of movie trivia for you: The classic 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man with Johnny Weissmuller was filmed in these gardens

and there was a small retro-style zoo

Ambassador Polaschik and the Denyer clan

Algeria: Oran and Tlemcen

Hard to believe it has been seven weeks since we arrived in Algiers.  I find that the more I get to know a place, the harder it is to write about it.  Much easier to skim the surface than delve into complexities.  So, let's stay in tourist mode and keep skimming, shall we?  ;)

Our CLO (community liaison officer) office at the embassy has been great about organizing at least one touristy activity per weekend, and we've been signing up for them.  We started with a 3-day holiday weekend to Oran and Tlemcen.  We went by train (Algeria has a modern and efficient train system) to Oran and from there by bus to Tlemcen.  My Facebook albums of highlights of the sightseeing trip are public, so feel free to browse:  architecture and cave, shopping, views from the top, train.

I was surprised to discover that Oran has number of posh hotels.  I won't share which hotels our embassy security office prefers us to use, but I felt like we were on a stylish vacation.

Some of my other surprises/lessons/stuff that started to sink in on that trip:

1) Oran is great city to walk around if you love architecture.  Beautiful old buildings, and there is a current effort to start restoring them.

2) The requirement about embassy folks having an Algerian police escort when we are outside of Algiers wasn't as creepy as I thought it would be.  In fact, it was kind-of nice to have someone watching your back and not have to worry about getting in trouble with the police for taking photos.

3) Tlemcen has a fabulously huge cave that goes all the way to Morocco--at least until the French sealed off the connect to stop arms runners! (Tlemcen is an attractive town, too)

4) There is a lot of agricultural activity going on once you get outside the cities in Algeria.  The clementine fruit originally comes from here. A friend says this region reminds him of the countrysides in Spain.

5) You can't start to understand what you are seeing when you walk around Oran without grasping the conflict that came to a horrific exploding point 1962 as well as the violence in the 1990s.

And that's all I'll say about that.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Algiers Life: The People in my Neigborhood

Who needs a gym when you can climb this?
It's hard to believe I've now been in Algiers for two weeks.  Apart from catching the embassy shopping center shuttle a couple times and going to the botanical gardens (that's for another post), we've pretty much haven't left our new neighborhood.  The dog walks gives a nice excuse/motivation to explore our surroundings.

So what is my neighborhood like?  Well, as I mentioned previously, it is hilly.  This fact has not escaped the notice of our toddler, who comments on the embassy car going up and down as it drives her to preschool. The Hydra neighborhood (anyone who knows Algiers can easily guess what neighborhood I'm in) is home to several embassies and is relatively affluent.  That said, we're talking high-density-lack-of-parking-vertical-apartments-with-junk-sitting-on-people's-balconies affluent.  I'm not sure where the uber-rich live, but I doubt it is here.    

We are living on one floor of a building we share with other embassy families.  We don't have a 'yard,'  but we do have a reasonably nice shared tiled terrace with plant boxes and some mosaics on the wall. There are worst views to have from one's living room.  From the kitchen windows, I can even observe the activities on the streets below us.

There are many businesses in our neighborhood--especially on the main plaza, which is nearby.  Bakeries (fresh baguettes, croissants, pastries, etc), florists, produce vendors, gelato shops, pizzarias, fancy salons, shawarma shops, small corner grocery stores, fancy dress shops displaying gowns that defy what I've been told about Algerian modesty norms, travel agencies, school supply shops, tablecloth restaurants, etc.

not a sea view, but not too shabby
Everyone I've met has been very friendly--including the police officers/traffic cops, who seem to be on every corner.  I've even been surprised at the number of shop keepers who have invited me inside even when I had the dog with me (this is common in Paris, but definitely not in the USA).  Despite what I had been warned, I don't think I'm at any risk of feeling trapped inside my house at this post.

My neighborhood is full of life.  In the public spaces one finds boys gathered around foosball tables and groups of old men sitting on paint cans passionately involved in a game of dominos.  School children in their uniforms walk by our house in large numbers multiple times per day (half-day system or long lunches at home?).  Most want to pet our dog when they see him.

There don't appear to be many other dogs in our neighborhood, but there is an abundance of feral cats.  I'm told these are welcome because they keep the rodent population at bay. The levels of litter drive me nuts (especially when the youth hanging out by the convenience store toss trash on our street), but the government pays cleanups crews who occasionally come through and tidy up.    

One thing that has surprised me, though, is how many Algerians in my neighborhood don't speak French. Guess I'd better add Arabic to my growing languages-to-learn list!

In case it wasn't obvious, this is the soundtrack that was playing in my head as I typed this: