Sunday, 2 February 2014

Only in an American school....

This in today from the Bambina's school:

Dear Parents,

Your child may have mentioned to you that a lock down safety drill was held across all grade levels yesterday. We have been practicing a variety of drills throughout the school year as part of our commitment to school safety. 
Drills encompass situations from fires to inclement weather (like dust storms), from an unwanted campus intrusion to unsafe situations in our surrounding neighborhood. We do not wish to frighten students with thoughts of possible emergencies. On the contrary, research tells us that students and teachers who think about potential situations, prepare for them, and practice how they would respond are more able to remain calm, act confidently, and stay safe in the event of a true emergency. 
School safety is everyone's responsibility-teachers, support staff, students, and parents. Students were reminded that their primaryresponsibility during a safety drill is to move quickly and quietly, following the directions of their teacher and school administration. We hope you will help us reinforce these expectations at home with your child and support us in our efforts to build a culture of safety and preparedness.

If you have any questions about these drills, please reply to this email.
Best Regards-
The Bambina says they have now trained the children what to do if an man with a gun enters the school and starts shooting people at random. They are to lock the door of the classroom, tape paper to the window on the door, turn out the lights, and hide under their tables.

Can you tell that my daughter goes to an American school?      

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Mommy, what's ham?

Tartiflette - a famous dish in the French region of Upper Savoy, consisting of potatoes, reblochon cheese, and chunks of ham.  I ordered it for lunch during our ski vacation in the Alps, with a plate of ham and sausage varieties on the side. Kids would not touch any of it.
When we moved to Madagascar, we had to be careful about what we ate. Strawberries were a no-no (pig manure possibly containing worms could have been used as fertilizer - the worms can get inside the permeable skin of the strawberries and then you eat them and you could get a worm in your brain). I also stopped buying pork and ham for the family because of sanitation conditions in the local pork industry. This was a radical change from Italy, where prosciutto crudo (cured ham) was a family staple.

Fast forward two years later, and we had move to Kuwait. In Kuwait, just like back in Madagascar, we eat no pork products, not because of sanitation issues, but because we're in an Islamic state where the raising or importation of any and all pork products has been banned.

Last night, I read the Bambino the book Green Eggs Ham just before bedtime. At the end of the book, I asked the Bambino, in a teasing kind of way because he is such an incredibly picky eater, "Do YOU like green eggs and ham?"

"What's ham?", he replied.

This is what I get for not serving my children pork products for a period of five years straight.

To be honest, I did try to serve pork back in France last summer, but the kids didn't take to it. They weren't used to it. They picked the lardons out of the penne pasta with parmesan cheese that I had served them. They wouldn't have any of the organic pork sausage that I had bought at the farmer's market. They've never fancied sandwiches of any kind, so I don't bother preparing them. The Bambino was offered ham sandwiches at his day camp and while he did apparently eat the bread, he wouldn't touch the ham. Didn't know what it was. Didn't want to know.

I tell myself that in the long run, this is better. Pork and ham contain nitrates that have been added as a preservative. That stuff can't be good. And my vegetarian friends never cease to tell me that pigs are smarter than dogs, so we definitely should not be eating them. Still, it makes ordering food at the restaurant in the French countryside or the Alps all the more difficult. They don't eat much of any other meat there and vegetarian main courses are almost non-existent, unless you're in the Alps and you order cheese fondue.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Do your kids a favour: make sure they learn how to ski (well)

My parents didn't get to ski when they were young. They were too busy with the Great Depression, the Second World War, and then with moving to the New World. My siblings and I bore the direct consequences of their ski-free childhood by having our own almost-ski-free childhood. I say "almost" because at the age of nine, I did get to spend three days on a class ski-trip. The ski-trip didn't turn me into a slalom queen, but I managed to learn some basics of downhill skiing.

I was 19 years old the next time I got to go skiing, and 25 years old the third time I got to go. Since meeting the Frenchman 13 years ago, I've had to opportunity to downhill ski a few more times; yet even after six years of consistent practice, I'm a competent skier but I will never be a great one or even a very good one. 

Great skiers start when they're young. Small children seem to know intuitively how to ski from the second they stand up on their skis and you push them gently down the bunny hill. They bend their little legs, spread them wide apart and away they go. They're not afraid. They might not know how to stop (at least until they learn how to do a proper snow plough) but even then, they're not scared. And they're close to the ground so if they fall, they don't fall far.

The inchoate sense of balance and confidence on skis never leaves a small child who's been skiing a few times, and children who learn to ski early on become excellent skiers later on.

Well, better skiers than their mom, anyway.

Is skiing an essential skill? No. It's probably not as important to learn how to ski as it is to learn how to swim. Swimming is an important - maybe even an essential - life skill. 

Skiing on the other hand is what I call an "upward mobility skill". Why? Because skiing is expensive. You have to rent or buy skis and boots. You have to buy your lift passes. You have to take lessons if you haven't skied before. And if you don't live close enough to the mountains to go just for the day, you'll either need access to a ski chalet or a hotel. Skiing is for the upper middle class and the upwardly mobile. And one day, your child will be (you hope, anyway) upwardly mobile.

If you think your child might get a university degree one day, maybe even a masters or a doctorate or a professional degree, you should make sure she learns how to ski while she is still young.  

What's so special about skiing? When your globetrotter adolescent spends a year in Europe on a Rotary Exchange or for his Junior Year Abroad, what will happen when his host family invites him for a weekend of skiing in the Alps? One of two things: if he already knows how to ski he'll be glad and relieved that he does. At worst, he'll take this fact for granted. On the other hand, if he doesn't know how to ski and he finds himself on the bunny hill all weekend while the rest of the family (including their teenage kids) is enjoying the real pistes, he'll almost certainly be asking himself, "How come I never got to learn this when I was a kid? Why didn't we ever do this?"

When your daughter is in college in Colorado or Utah and her group of friends decides to go skiing for the weekend, you may be glad to see her home from the weekend, but she'll resent and regret the fact that she missed a ski trip with her friends. 

But it doesn't stop at superficial college outings.  That job that your son will land when he's 25 years old in that international accounting firm, or advertising company in London? Well, they'll be having an office ski trip in the south of France every year. And guess who'll be cursing you for not making sure he learned how to ski? 

When your daughter is on the partnership track in a law firm in Paris, and wants to network with the senior partner (who grew up in Upper Savoy and was on the national ski team for a while), it will really really help if she knows how to ski. 

Do your kids a favour. If you have the money and the vacation time, take them skiing. If you can't ski, do what my friends Cécile and Guy do (because they can't stand skiing but they realise that it will offer a certain social value to their kids): send your kids to ski camp for a week or two every winter.  

Those ten years of violin lessons my mother forced me to take? A complete waste. It was obvious from year three that I was hopeless.  Forget the music lessons unless your kid enjoys it or has an obvious talent for it, of course. Teach her how to ski. Her business and social network will care very little about how well she plays violin, unless she does it for a living. On the other hand, if your child attends university, the chances that there will be a ski outing at some point in your child's future professional or social life is fairly high.

And if you can't appreciate the idea that skiing will be a good skill for your kids to have in the long run, just enjoy the smile that you'll see on your kids' faces when they get their achievement medals at the end of the week. This year, it was a "flocon" (snowflake) badge for the Bambino and a bronze star (étoile bronze) for the Bambina.

Other upward mobility sports are golf and tennis. It's good to know how to play these, too. I can remember our office having a golf and tennis day. Guess who had never played a game of golf in her life? So I signed up for tennis instead (which I also had never played). Also a disaster. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Globetrotter's Guide to Learning to read Arabic

I have been living in Kuwait for two years (18 months if you don't count summers in France). During this time, I haven't had a single lesson in speaking, reading, or writing Arabic. I can say "chokran" to thank someone and that's about it. 

Yesterday, I looked at this word on the sign outside the grocery store... and read it. M-R-K-Z. Merkaz.

Hmmm. I call my Lebanese friend Amal to ask her what "merkaz" means. "It means "center", she says. Of course, the Sultan Center, the name of the store where I'm getting my groceries.

So there you have it, everyone. Congratulate me! I am now reading Arabic without having taken any lessons at all. Just 18 months of a constant barrage of signs for McDonalds, Burger King, Zara, and GAP, etc. and I'm catching on.  Who says illiteracy can't be beaten?

Can you make out the letters M-A-K-D-O-N-A-L-D-Z ?



Applying my newly-discovered Arabic reading skill, I'm starting to make out more actual words in Arabic, not just brand names. I have learned the word STOP in Arabic just by reading the Arabic part of the sign.

Q-F (/kef/) is the word for "stop"
And take a look at this sign out in the desert. I can instantly recognized the words "Al-Kuwait" just by recognising the "K", but what about the word for "city" (which, incidentally, precedes the word "Kuwait" in Arabic, reading right to left. Let's see: M-D-I-N-A. So the word for city in Arabic is "medina" (just like the city of Medina in Saudi, I guess).

Of course, I'm going to have to check all of this out with my Arab friends. The tricky part is that the letters change depending on where they are placed in the word, so I have to get used to remembering a letter three different ways depending.

Meanwhile, the Bambina has 45 minutes of Arabic at school every day. She's better at it than I am (for starters, she can actually say something more than "Chokran") but she says it's very hard. I would be thrilled if she learned to speak, read, and write Arabic competently before we left Kuwait. Even if she doesn't get to take it in lycée when we return to France, she may get inspired enough to study it again later on.

The week before, I had an email from her Arabic teacher complaining that the Bambina only got 4 out of 10 and that she needed to try harder!

Monday, 11 November 2013

Here's one thing you can do on the weekend in Kuwait...

In Madagascar, there was nothing to do on the weekends. There weren't even any malls (can't say that about Kuwait!). However, we could always hop into our car and leave the city to explore the countryside. The roads were not great and sometimes there were no roads but we got to see some incredible wildlife and quaint Malagasy villages.

Antsirabe, Madagascar
One of the many lemurs at Vakona Lodge, just north of Antanarivo, Madgascar
Getting to know the tortoises on one of our weekend trips outside the city

Kuwait on the other hand? When you live in a tiny country encased by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the ocean, you can't go very far by car. There is desert for two hours and there there's more desert but you can't go there because it's the border.

The border at Iraq
The result of this hemmed-in environment is that the kids are bored for much of the weekend. There's the mall. But the mall just means buying stuff and spending money. There's the beach club. We go there every Friday during the warm months, but cooler weather has arrived. I won't call it winter, but it's not beach weather.

There's no park near where we live (and Kuwait parks are not in great shape, anyway), there are no outdoor cafés, no outdoor art exhibits like at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, no children's workshops at a local museum (that I know of...), but we have found one thing that we can do one weekend at month. We can visit and even volunteer at the animal shelter in Wafra.

Wafra is a town near the Saudi border. It takes over an hour to get there. The Kuwait Society for the Protection of Animals and their Habitat (aka K'S PATH) houses its animals there.

The advantages of visiting this shelter are numerous:
  • The shelter is in the country, surrounded like farms, so going there is like taking a day-trip to the country. That's a refreshing change from visiting shopping malls.
  • You get to see all kinds of animals - dogs, cats, baboons, falcons, horses, donkeys, goats, are the ones that come to mind. It's almost like visiting a zoo. There is a real zoo in Kuwait but it's depressing to visit. This place is not depressing. The animals are well taken care of.

  • You get to walk the dogs outside around the surrounding farmland.

  • You get to play with and brush all the gorgeous kitty cats . 

Can you tell that I'm a cat person? :-)
  • You get to meet other families living in Kuwait.
  • The kids get to experience the joy of animals and of volunteer work.
Be careful, though. Your kids may convince you to adopt one of the animals.

Meet Pumpkin, our new cat

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Spending the night in the desert of Kuwait

Every November since we have been living in Kuwait, we join the Amicale des Français au Koweït (that's the local association for French-speaking expats) for a night in the desert. We meet up at 1 in the afternoon at an agreed-upon place, someone hands us a map and GPS coordinates, and we head out in a convoy to a corner of Kuwait where there is nothing but sand and the odd herd of camels.

Some observations about the desert in Kuwait. First of all, it's almost completely flat.

It's nothing like the beautiful vast rolling dunes that you see in the United Arab Emirates, for example.

The flatness makes finding a campsite all the harder, because you really do need dunes to camp out. Dunes make camping a better experience, more beautiful, less windy, easier to find a private spot when you want to go pee! There are a couple of places where you can find a sand dune or two, fortunately, but they're rare.

Seconlyly, the sand of the Kuwait desert isn't consistently smooth and fine. In many parts, its more like gravel. There are plenty of stones and even large rocks to be found in it.

And then there is the garbage. It's a sad fact that there is trash everywhere you look in the desert of Kuwait. It litters almost every square meter of sand. We are guessing that there is no or limited trash collection for the bedouins who live in the desert. That might be one part of the problem. However, I also sense that people in Kuwait have not developed the common value of caring for their communal environment. The desert doesn't belong to any one person individually but to the whole country, so it's not up to any one person to keep it clean. It's sad because, even without the dunes, it could be a beautiful desert. As it stands, it can be truly ugly just because of all the trash.

The camp is only an hour and 15 minutes away (Kuwait is a tiny country!).  Once we arrive, we have to set up our tent right away, before it gets dark. Pitching a tent can be an arduous task in normal conditions. It's really hard when you have a strong wind, and sand blowing in your face while you're doing it. We end up getting help from a few people to set up our tent, plus several bags of sand and rocks to prevent the tent from blowing away when we aren't in it.

Once the tents are pitched, it's time for the aperatif. Everyone gets beverages out of their coolers (I'm not going to mention what kind of beverages people brought with them. I'll leave that up to your imagination).  We drink to good health and the expat life.  The Crown Plaza Hotal has already arrived with the catering truck, and an hour later, there are tables and chairs set up and a buffet dinner is served. We have a lively dinner filled with banter, jokes, and camraderie. The kids hardly eat anything. They're too busy rolling down the sand dunes and exploring dark places for snakes and lizards.

After dinner, it's time for singing around a big bonfire.

Somewhere around 11PM, we make it to our tents and fall asleep. This may seem early to you, but it's been dark since 5PM and we're exhausted.

In the morning, we wake up with the sun and the sound of wind. Sand covers every crevice of our tent and every orifice of our body. After a communal breakfast of coffee and packaged croissants, we take down our tents and pick up any garbage on the ground.  We think it's important to clean up after ourselves. 

We can't wait to get home, take a shower, and appreciate the new-found luxury of our homes. The desert is fun for a night but not longer than that.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Hallowe'en when you're not in North America

In Kuwait, Hallowe'en is a sensitive subject. Whether it's something to be celebrated or not depends on who you talk to.

There are first of all the vast majority of people who are expats from countries who don't do Hallowe'en and who don't care to start the tradition (people from the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka, for example). 

Then there are the expats from North America who are **very** keen to somehow continue their tradition with their children while abroad.

And then you have the expats from the United Kingdom, western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand who, even though they don't celebrate Hallowe'en back home, are happy to join in on the fun with their North American expatriate confreres while abroad. The Bambino's French school is an example of this mindset. The French don't traditionally celebrate Hallowe'en - at least not in France. But the French school in Kuwait definitely does. The kids in the preschool and kindergarten arrive in costumes. The classrooms are decorated. The teachers, also in disguise lead the children through the administration corridors yelling "farces ou friandises" (a French translation of "trick or treat" to anyone who'll give them some candy.

And then there is the 30 percent or so of the population that is Kuwaiti and that is divided on the subject of Hallowe'en. Some see Hallowe'en as a fun and harmless way to stimulate their children's imagination. Others see at a Christian/pagan/satanic festival that has no place in Kuwaiti culture and should be banned from sight. Kidzania Kuwait recently canceled their Hallowe'en costume party after receiving pressure from customers who took offense that a local business was promoting a non-Kuwaiti tradition.

But even in Kuwait where Hallowe'en remains a little bit hush-hush do to local sensitivities, if you're looking for something to do on 31 October, you can always find a Hallowe'en party at your local beach club or at places like The Little Gym or at your child's school. The hard part is finding a place to do trick or treating. In other expat countries, American families might organise a trick or treat in the park. We used to do this in Paris. Everyone lines up, and then the kids at the end of the line "trick or treat" the others in turn.  Nothing like that has ever been organised here in Kuwait. Last year, we did no trick-or-treating at all. This year, due to pressure from the kiddies, I'm sending them over to some (American) friends who live in a building full of other Americans (it's one of the faculty buildings for the American University of Kuwait, in fact) and my kids will trick or treat at all the apartments in the building. I'm giving a kilo of candy to my friends to distribute to other kids on our behalf.

But even with this kind of make-shift set up, I realise that my children will probably never experience a true All Hallows Eve. It's not the same thing when the whole city or even neighbourhood isn't participating. It's not the same thing when there aren't jack-o-lanterns lining the porches and window sills of every house on the street. And it's not the same thing when you don't see hordes of kids everywhere outside traipsing from door to door. The real Hallowe'en will have to wait until they're grown up and possibly living in North America - although I hear that in France, it's also catching on...