The family that goes places

Heading towards the Abbey; sweet relief from the beach

My friend Launa wrote beautifully about her own family’s year abroad and how it defined and strengthened their identity as a family of four. She used the metaphor of a shopping cart; when one wheel wobbles, the others can pull it straight. (Of course in any year abroad, there were times when all four wheels are wonky…).

Maybe because of Launa’s experience, I’ve had the same expectation for ourselves or the same question: what will this year reveal about who we are as a family? And the honest answer is (as it is so often this year), I’m not sure. And I certainly don’t have a metaphor in mind. But I did get a little insight last week at the beach in Italy.

Terence and I get antsy easily. For our honeymoon, instead of lying on a tropical island, we accepted invitations to two weddings on consecutive weekends, one in Belfast and one at Disney World. We spent three days in each place and the intervening time on an island off the coast of Georgia. Staying still is not our style.

I think that holds for our kids, too. I’ve always felt a tension here — on one hand, I believe the conventional wisdom that kids thrive on structure and routine. But on the other, I think they too can get bored, and benefit from new stimuli. I will never forget bringing eight-week old Hannah from the quiet of Delaware to New York City for the first time. As we stood in Flushing, under the 7 Train and the LIRR and the airplanes thundering towards JFK and La Guardia, with traffic honking all around and every language on earth being spoken, she looked at me with wide eyes as if to say: all this was here, and I never knew it.

We spent last week at a charming small town by the sea in Italy. It was scorching hot. We did the evening passeggiata, ate gelato, made sandcastles, swam in clear, refreshing water. But after a few days, we had itchy feet. Terence and I researched and found a Cistercian abbey that was accessible by public transportation. We were so excited. We are such geeks.

Of course I come from a long line of geeks. Another title for this post could be: “My Father’s Daughter.” All throughout my childhood, my dad packed us up for Outings. The point was to get out of the house, go somewhere, discover something new, with extra points for historical importance or cultural value. The family photo albums Dad painstakingly created are full of evidence of Outings all over New England and Europe. We visited so many churches we created a family acronym — ADC, Another Damn Cathedral.

Now I’m the adult, dragging my kids to ADC instead of spending another day on the beach. We sweetened the deal with hot chocolate and cornettos. As the train pulled away, the whole family seemed to relax. Margaret grinned up at us: “where are we going?”

That isn’t the point my love. The point is simply to go.

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Study in contrasts

On August 16, I flew to Israel with my kids, my mother-in-law, seven meticulously packed  suitcases, and ten small books or activities for each child, gift wrapped, one for each hour of the flight. The flight, the move, felt like a marathon for which I trained. I slept up, packed healthy snacks. I brought the kids on a trial run to the airport, so they’d know what to expect. I arranged childcare for the whole morning of the flight, while I exercised and napped. As I wrote at the time, all this obsession and organization was a bulwark of sorts against masses of anxiety and fear about what the heck we’d gotten ourselves into.

The flight itself was a chaotic atmosphere full of screaming babies, antsy toddlers, praying observant men, families on their way to reunions and bar mitzvahs. (I loved it; our chaos just blended in). When we landed in Tel Aviv, the entire plane erupted in applause. I went off into the unknown, someplace I had never travelled.

On July 2, we flew home from Paris. We had slept in different beds for five nights straight, and taken three other flights over the previous fortnight.  Our giant bags were packed, helter skelter, with the by products of months of hard travel. Clothes so dirty I want to just burn them. Damp bathing suits. Sand from Sperlonga and dirt from Umbria. All of us were deep down tired. We were also facing a double-header of medical issues: two moms down. My mother-in-law was in a hospital in Rome, having broken her arm. She faced surgery and physical therapy before she would even be allowed to fly home. And I was still running a fever from a sudden illness that hit at the most inopportune time, just as we were scheduled to travel from the countryside to Rome to Paris to New York with two exhausted children who were acting as anyone would as their world was turned upside down, again.

At the airport, the lines were long; the flight was delayed; other passengers looked askance at my kids. It wasn’t pretty, but we finally made it. “Welcome home” whispered Terence as we endured the most annoying part of any flight, the wait to disembark. “Welcome home” said the man at Immigration. I hope I smiled through my pounding headache, my feverish sweat.

Everything ended in a tumble of boarding passes, antibiotics, emergency childcare, frayed tempers and tears. I’m not sure what I expected from homecoming but it wasn’t this. But, here we are, Independence Day in America, and we are home.

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I’m a little ashamed to admit that we needed time off from our year off, but that’s the case. We have been in Italy for  10 days and have done almost nothing but this. Lounging by the pool in Umbria, by the seaside in Sperlonga. The Italians would call it dolce far niente, sweet doing-nothing. I don’t think I realized how exhausted I was, on so many levels, until we got here and I could release all the effort of learning and experiencing….everything this year. As Terence said, looking out on these Umbrian hills, “it’s nice to see hilltops that are not crowned with settlements.”

It’s a ridiculously blessed life. We’re surrounded by Terence’s family and looking forward to a reunion with mine next week once we are back in the U.S.

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Terence and I are still making decisions about schools for the girls next year. There’s no question we got that decision right this past year. JAIS was an amazing fit for our family and in fact the school may have spoiled us for life.

Margaret running to school in the morning

For starters, both girls just loved going to school every morning (at least once Margaret got over her clingy phase). They were excited in the morning, wiped out in the afternoon; just as it should be. They both had experienced teachers who were warm and caring but also cultivated independence. You know it’s a strong student/teacher relationship when your kid starts channeling her teacher’s voice. Margaret would walk around muttering: “I have to be sensible!” — quoting her teacher, a non-nonsense woman from the North of England.

My favorite thing about JAIS was that it combined private school resources with a public school mentality. Yes, the school has small classes, creative curriculum and lots of time for art, music and PE. But there was also major ability range within each class (also factoring in that many kids were studying in their second or third language). Our kids’ teachers were masters of differentiation. Although the school was “fancy” by Israeli or Palestinian standards,its facilities and programs are simple compared to US private schools. And that’s how we like it. The school totally lacks pretense, elitism or materialism — as do most of the families. People come to Jerusalem to serve or to learn, not to get rich. So our children made friends with kids who shared our values: adventure, diversity, intellectual engagement, public service. And Terence and I made tons of friends as well.

Hannah went on a ‘Haj’ around campus to learn about Eid Al-Adha. Margaret took a field trip to her teacher’s kibbutz. Both girls had friends from 12+ countries and numerous religious, linguistic and educational backgrounds. School life could not have been more stimulating, yet it was also coherent, structured, calm.

No school is perfect, and it was also fun to help JAIS grow and improve. I had my first school board experience, a great learning experience for me and hopefully a way to give back.

Both kids have been mourning JAIS. Margaret woke up crying the other morning, saying she wanted “one more playdate!” with her friends. Hannah realized, also with tears, that she had forgotten to collect her ‘extra clothes’ from her cubby. I don’t blame them; I also feel like inventing excuses to go back, not necessarily to Jerusalem, but to this school. I don’t know where we’ll find its combinations of qualities again. Maybe that is why I’m struggling so much to make decisions about the next set of schools.

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I used to really love goodbyes. I used to specialize in the tearful parting, the passionate attempt to summon up a friendship and all it meant to me. I had three goodbye celebrations before departing for my year abroad in college, resulting in some friends toasting me thus: “Hilary, we really really love you but please leave.

There wasn’t time for any toasts leaving Jerusalem. Or I should say, I chose to not leave time for them. I went to Lebanon last week, meeting up with my in-laws who were visiting Beirut. It felt like a ridiculous, selfish thing to do — abandoning Terence with the tasks of packing and cleaning and making tuna salad for the end-of-year kindergarten party — but also perfectly consistent with the values of our year. What is that great Edna St. Vincent Millay quote? “There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take / No matter where it’s going.” Exactly. Squeezing in one more trip made more sense to me than appropriate goodbyes. Somehow it gave me the excuse I needed not to even try to sum up our year, or tell people what they had meant to me.

I came home from Beirut via Amman and the Allenby Bridge at 2 p.m. Thursday. I had planned to be “packed and done” before departure, but that’s a moving target. The next 35 hours were a whirlwind and I got, I think, a total of six hours of sleep over two nights.

Yesterday was a marathon travel day. We woke up at 3 a.m., moved out of our apartment, got on the Nesher sherut at 4, and were at the airport at 5. It takes forever to get through Ben Gurion security (“what are the names of your friends in Jordan?”). By 7:45, waiting for our flight to Paris, Hannah and Margaret were ready for some yoga to stay calm. Maybe I should have done some too.

We had to fly Tel Aviv – Paris – Rome which makes no sense but was the only way we could re-route our tickets to include this trip on the way home. We also hauled all our belongings with us and stored two giant bags at Charles de Gaulle airport during our 4.5-hour layover. It was worth it to save thousands of dollars, but at times yesterday I wasn’t so sure. We were Those Travelers, the ones with the teetering pile of luggage that takes forever to check in. (I wanted to scream: We travel light! This is our stuff from an entire year!) The ones you pray to God don’t occupy seats anywhere near yours. The girls were reasonable on the actual flights but there were many meltdowns along the way for all four of us. By 11:30 p.m. when we finally arrived to this gorgeous farmhouse in Umbria, we were barely talking to each other.

So begins this weird in-between time, when we are not in Israel/Palestine but not home either. I’m getting inklings of what re-entry will feel like. To the man at Charles de Gaulle airport who looked with horror at Margaret and sniffed before dramatically moving two seats away from us: thanks a lot. You make me miss Israel/Palestine and its anything-goes parenting philosophy. After months of being dazed and confused in the Israeli dairy aisle, the little glass pots of organic French yogurt in the airport cafeteria felt hilarious.

To be honest, I’m pretty overwhelmed and exhausted for reasons that include but go beyond our 23-hour travel odyssey. I don’t know what it means to say goodbye to a year like the one we have had.

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In transit

We have 30 hours left in Jerusalem and I’m feeling like this. I have lots of stories to tell about our last days here, and about my quick trip to Beirut earlier this week. (This guy is in the National Museum there). They will have to wait until next week when we have time to catch our breath. Wish us luck!

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I went to Hebron on Monday, probably my last excursion in this region. It was like saving the worst for last. Hebron, specifically the area of the Old City under Israeli control (H-2), is a dreadful, depressing, hellish place that makes Qalandia look like a beach resort. I felt a moral responsibility to visit but I knew it would be a tough day.

For a summary of the situation in Hebron, Wikipedia is actually pretty good. My husband wrote about his experiences in Hebron back in the fall, as did another blogger who visited around the same time and took many illustrative photos.

In the fall, we considered bringing the girls to Hebron, but decided that I’d stay home with them because we had heard “it can be tense.” That is an understatement. All day on Monday I imagined how I would explain the situation to Hannah, whose nosy questions are now legion. Here are some things I saw:

– A concrete barrier down Shuhada Street (Palestinians on one side, Jews on the other)

– Shuttered Palestinian shops with Stars of David painted on them

– Numerous checkpoints controlling entry to the Old City, each staffed with a soldier with his gun pointed in combat position

– Chicken wire and tarps that have been hung over the market street to protect goods and shoppers from trash and excrement thrown down from settlers living upstairs.

– A group of Israeli school children, on a field trip, giggling and apparently oblivious to the economic and ethical destruction around them.

– A large group of IDF soldiers standing in a circle in the mosque section of the Cave of the Patriarchs, with their boots on.

Almost all the people on the streets are military or international observers. There isn’t any sign of “regular life” in these streets.

I know that one explanation for all these sights is: “this is necessary to protect Jewish visitors to the Cave of the Patriarchs.” But if I gave that explanation to Hannah, she would push and probe whether such drastic measures are really required. Another possible explanation would invoke the massacre in 1994, but Hannah would have the same question I do: why do security measures punish Palestinians when the gunman was a Jewish settler? As a six year old might say, no fair.

This part of Hebron feels surreal, but it is real. It represents the worst of an extreme in Israel, an extreme unchecked. The place crackles with tension and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. It made me so sad — and sad for both sides, actually. As I witnessed the situation in Hebron area H2, I thanked my lucky stars that my children neither live nor will serve in the military there.

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Here is an elderly couple I see all the time in our neighborhood. We pass them every morning on our way to school, as the girls tear at top speed past the Greek monastery, through the park and down the steep hills to JAIS. We pass them again in the afternoon as we trudge, hot and tired, up those same hills, school bags dragging. They must be in their 80s but at 3 p.m. they are significantly faster and more energetic than we. A couple of weeks ago, I started going out for walks after dinner and I ran into the couple again. Do they walk all day or are we just on the exact same schedule? I hope I’m still walking in my 80s and that I have Terence by my side.

Experiencing this city by foot has been one of the defining experiences of my year, of all our years. It’s funny: the more we walk, the less we can tolerate cars and buses, and the girls and I are now get carsick extremely easily. I love having the time to walk instead. I’m seeing things I never would from a car window: the little lizards scurrying in and out of cracks in the stones. The amazing birds, including a family of green parrots that sometimes roosts in nearby trees. The stray cats, especially one who lives in the dumpster in nearby alley; he’s intense, a fighter, a survivor. The plants: bright flowers, heavy fruit trees, green-gold olive trees and rosemary bushes. And that’s not even including the the human species…

Walking has helped me slow down and notice things.

I wonder how I’ll keep walking next year. Of course there are tons of gorgeous walks and hikes around the SAS campus, but there’s something different about going out for a walk versus just happening to cover five miles in the course of daily living, and passing such a kaleidoscope of existence in the process. Just for kicks, Terence mapped the distance from our house to the Old City, then used the same radius from our house in Delaware. It gets us down one (pretty but monotonous, also dangerous) road, around the corner onto another similar road, and up the driveway to the girls’ new school. Who knows? Maybe we will walk to school once in a while. But it won’t be like this.

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Qalandia for kids

Terence and I both had appointments in Ramallah today and the kids were off from school so we brought them along. The day itself was great, though hot and tiring. We paid a final visit to my sister-in-law’s apartment and enjoyed fish and chips near Manara Square, followed by amazing Rukab ice cream. The kids have made many trips to Ramallah by now and I still believe what I felt on our first family visit: we want to show the West Bank as a place where regular people try to lead regular lives.

Yet Hannah and Margaret are becoming more aware of the politics. “Is that Israel?” Margaret asked today, pointing at a yard that was fenced off from the road. When she sees barbed wire now, she thinks borders. Our first several trips to Ramallah were to visit a friend with a car; she always drove us home, thus bypassing the infamous Qalandia checkpoint. Then she moved away and we started taking Bus 18. On the way to Ramallah, the bus goes straight through Qalandia but on the way back to Israel, it disgorges at the checkpoint. If you have the right paperwork (I’m not sure what this entails, but as Americans we obviously have it) you can pay to take a van that takes a longer route through a different checkpoint. We usually don’t do this because we’re thrifty and because waiting for the van to fill can take ages. So today, as usual, we walked through Qalandia.

The web is full of detailed descriptions of crossing Qalandia. I recommend Matthew Teller’s.  On my own, I find the journey upsetting and spooky: the narrow metal chutes, just wide enough for single file. The turnstiles that allow perhaps three people through at a time, then freeze. The disembodied voices of the guards coming through loudspeakers. I always emerge angry. Every Israeli should have this experience, and then tell me how they feel about the Occupation, I’ll think to myself.

But with kids in tow, Qalandia is even trickier. Today was hot: 91 degrees at 6 p.m. There is no air conditioning in the terminal and the wall-mounted fans were switched off. We had had a busy day; Hannah and Margaret were already dragging. The line wasn’t moving and things weren’t clear. Hannah started to whine and ask (perfectly logical) questions: why does the turnstile keep stopping? Why don’t they open another lane? I’m hot! I want to go home! When regular admonishments didn’t work, I tried to appeal to her wannabe maturity: Hannah. Focus. Look around. We’ll talk about all of this when we get home. Bad call, Hilary. Why? What am I supposed to see? Why can’t we talk about it now? Who knows if she was actually bothering anyone (Palestinians are lovely to children, even in long lines at Qalandia) but Terence and I were mortified. We yanked the girls out of line, pulled Hannah to the side and whispered intensely: Look at this place, how people are being treated like animals. How hot and dirty it is, how long the lines. When do you come here? Once in a while, when we go visit Anne. Do you know that Palestinian kids have to do this twice every day to go to school? People in this line are exhausted. You are very very lucky because you happened to be born in America. So be quiet, be respectful, and think about how lucky you are.

To Hannah’s credit, she did just that and we eventually made it through the checkpoint (though not before the guard carefully looked up all four of us on the computer. No, my three and six year olds are not security threats). I gave lots of hugs for the rest of the afternoon, while replaying the scene in my mind. Did we handle that right? Was that too intense a situation to put kids through? Should we have forked over the cash for the Hizmeh van, or left the kids at home? Did I inappropriately impose my beliefs on my kid?

Kids are resilient and Hannah has probably forgotten all about Qalandia by now, but I’m still turning it over in my mind. Our job as parents is to protect and expose, protect and expose. I wanted to show my kids a wider world, to burst them from their faculty brat bubbles, and no doubt we have done that. It’s OK for them to realize they are truly lucky by an accident of birth. But it’s also sad to see them confronting systematic oppression on a scale we saw today. Qalandia is no place for kids, but Palestinian kids have no choice.

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Hills and doves

Jerusalem is full of hills and we live on top of a particularly big one. In 1948, the monastery next door to us was a strategic point (and site of a major battle) because of its elevation. This means that whenever we come home from anywhere, it’s always uphill. My legs know these gradients so well now, the short steep parts and the long gradual inclines. “One more hill!” I’ll mutter to myself, or exhort my exhausted kids, as we climb.

One more hill is all we have now. One more three-week period before we leave Jerusalem and head for home, via two weeks in Italy. Nine months ago, I wondered if I was ready to start this life-changing experience but now I know I’m ready to end it. No big dramatic moment has brought me to this point, just a bunch of quiet acknowledgementsI consult my ‘bucket list’: been there. Done that. I see that I will miss some things, and that feels OK too. We have had so many adventures, so many new experiences. It has been incredible but I’m ready for a slightly flatter learning curve. I’m ready to kick off my shoes, put my bags down, and just be home. (And yet I also know that this longing is illusory. It will take time and energy to unpack, set our house up again, reconnect with friends, refocus on work, find new jobs, start new schools).

Trash disposal in East Jerusalem, the kind of thing that’s driving me nuts right now.

Perhaps it’s predictable that everything about Jerusalem is driving me crazy these days. The sun is blinding, the people are mean, the buses are jerky, the streets are dirty, the prices are ridiculous, the politics are heart breaking. I’ve been cranky this week (perhaps understandable, since I was also solo parenting while Terence and Anne were in Egypt). I look at the “countdown to summer!” mural in Hannah’s classroom and think: it can’t come fast enough.

All this agitation is just a way to make it easier to separate. I have to get pissed off so I can say goodbye.

But yesterday I opened my bedroom blinds and found this sitting on my windowsill. She’s sitting on two eggs and staring at us with implacable eyes. I crash around annoyed, Margaret and Hannah yell at each other or laugh their heads off, Terence comes home from Luxor at 1 a.m. and still this dove sits and stares. It’s like she has seen it all. Let me borrow some of this patience not to race too fast and frustrated through these last weeks of the year.

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