The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly in Madrid

It’s not easy to condense a week-long  vacation into a blog post. But since most of you take vacations and don’t report every detail to me, I’ll return the favor. I met the girls in the Madrid airport and we spent our first night in the Nuevo Madrid Hotel, eating (our first of several) Iberico ham & Brie sandwiches in bed, for lack of anywhere better.

Girls in hotel lobby

Girls in hotel lobby

The following day, we met my sister Jackie and my nephew Louis at the Madrid train station to ride the high-speed train to Barcelona.

My best Christmas surprise was that the girls had dug my beloved elf Buddy out of storage and brought him to Spain. He was super-scared to ride the train at first but later admitted it was an enjoyable few hours. He’s growing up so quickly!

For the next several nights, we stayed in a 3-bedroom apartment in the Las Ramblas area of Barcelona. Here’s our awesome view:

I chose this place because of the location and the fact that many reviewers complained about other buildings sporting a heinous number of stairs but no elevator. I was aware that the elevator would be small, but thought “better something than nothing.” It was beyond claustrophobic, more like a dumb-waiter, but we were able to send our luggage up and down and Jackie and I could use it at night to avoid climbing the stairway to heaven.

Other highlights:

  1. Sagrada Familia is a Roman Catholic Church in Barcelona. Construction began in 1882, was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, and resumed in the 1950’s but its completion isn’t projected until 2026.

Typical "Berg Girl at a museum" expression

Typical “Berg Girl at a museum” expression

2. Tio de Nadal- While waiting for our entrance time to Sagrada Familia, we wandered the nearby streets and repeatedly saw this log everywhere but had no clue what it was.

Jackie said it was some kind of local tradition. Well, it turns out that his name is Tió de Nadal and he’s a present-pooping log. I’ll briefly explain, but this shit’s hard to believe.

 

In the Catalonia region of Spain, Tió is brought into the home on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and is “fed” each day and covered with a blanket to keep warm until Christmas Eve. On December 24th the children hit poor Tió with a stick so he can crap out presents for them. While at the Barcelona football team’s stadium, Camp Nou, we witnessed some children hitting Tió and, lo and behold, when the blanket was lifted gift bags for all the kids were pulled out from under him. Magic.

3. There was more to Camp Nou than just witnessing Tió-abuse. I wouldn’t even have gone here if Louis wasn’t with us, but we ended up spending more time at Camp Nou than any other attraction. There was no match being played, but my sis and Lou had already attended a Madrid game before the girls and I arrived in Spain, so we just toured the stadium. Memorabilia fills cases in multiple rooms and lines the walls; we were also able to go into the stands. Super cool. Thanks, Lou! Next time, just buy the jersey outright. Lesson learned, I hope.

 

 

4. Gúell Park- Located on Carmel Hill in Barcelona. Carmel Hill is one big hill, I tell ya. The street we climbed had an escalator running up the middle for the last two blocks.

The park surroundings are very gingerbread-like.

Antoni Gaudí designed this park, as well as Sagrada Familia.

(This part’s for Jenna only: Gaudí, Gaudí, Gaudí, Gaudí, Gaudí! Enough??)

Lots of buildings, sculptures, and mosaic work. The girls were on a mission to find the salamanca, which means lizard for those of you who find that my level of Español surpasses yours :).

5. Flamenco Show: Not to knock my sis for planning many of the activities, but Kate, Jenna, and I agreed to dub this event “toe-tapping, knee-slapping, chest-pounding, hand-clapping, finger-snapping, greasy-haired fun.”

By the time we trained back to super-crowded Madrid, I was wiped out. We shopped, ate, stopped for coffee,

Enjoying your Starbucks, Janet?

Enjoying your Starbucks, Janet?

and meandered through a Titanic exhibit. Oh yeah, we also visited the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Spain’s contemporary art museum. Always cool to see some Dali and Picasso works, but we spent most of our time re-naming the questionable sculptures.

We also consumed gluttonous amounts of gelato, sangria, and churros with chocolate.

Louis enjoyed the seafood paella and lobster slightly more than Kate did; I think it was a little too close to its original form for her liking.

I concluded the trip with a chilly day in Rome (the girls had taken my winter coat back with them), walking around, seeing the sights on my own. Accidentally ended up at Eataly too, a nice surprise. I confirmed that even though my Spanish is terrible, my Italian is worse.

On deck: a month of Trimester 2 at work before my sister visits! No days off, but I have a few weekend activities to anticipate. I also plan to visit a few nearby countries that are just a short, inexpensive plane hop away. It’s now or never, as I’m entering the home stretch of this journey. I think I need some churros and chocolate to wash down that bittersweet pill.

Hasta luego!

 

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Message in a Bottle

“Where should I send your Christmas card?” LOLOLOL. The three easiest ways I can think of are to put it in a bottle and drop it in the Persian Gulf, throw it out of an airplane at 35,000 feet, or secure it to a falcon and hope for the best. Abu Dhabi has neither an address system nor regular mail delivery. In fact, a year and a half after moving here I still don’t know what street I live on. Truth. We receive bills via text message and either pay online or at the mall. Luckily, I’m able to pay most of my bills right across the street.

I recently read with interest an article about Onwani, the Abu Dhabi address system that’s set for completion in December 2015. Wait… it’s already December, and it looks like there’s still a ways to go. Granted, numerous street signs have been installed in recent months.

However, there are still many streets with multiple names or none at all. Buildings are slowly being assigned numbers. A friend’s building now has an address or two; yes, there’s a different number on the back than the front. Mine has none. Like we learn as youngsters, one is enough for everyone and it’s not fair to exclude. Hopefully this will all even out soon. For now, we navigate the city using GPS and plugging in coordinates, building names, or a landmark near our destination, winging it by sight when we get close.

On the bright side, I never come home to a pile of junk mail.

So please scan and email me your card or send it to my condo back home and I’ll come home to a nice Christmas in July. I really do love all the holiday cards and family photos though, so don’t cross me off your list! I’ll hopefully have a nice family photo by next week to post on FB and Insta that will act as our card for this year. Meanwhile, I’ve amassed some photos of Christmas in Abu Dhabi. They’re not all pretty but most are, and it’s been really nice to celebrate the season these past few weeks.

Tree at Beach Rotana

Tree at Beach Rotana

Life-size gingerbread house

Life-size gingerbread house

Obviously for someone on the naughty list

Obviously for someone on the naughty list

??

??

Tree at Emirates Palace

Tree at Emirates Palace

Friends Ciara & John hosted a fun Christmas dinner last weekend

Friends Ciara & John hosted a fun Christmas dinner last weekend

And now begins our two-week break. Many people have already left to explore new places or visit friends and family at home. Happy and safe travels! I won’t be checking in while vacationing with the fam in Spain, so now’s the time to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy 2016- peace, love, health, and happiness to all!

Wheel in the Sky

The Corniche is located on the western side of the city of Abu Dhabi. A curved 6-km stretch of land, it’s a great place to hang out. Pier fishing, cycle paths, bike rentals, fountains, park areas, a public beach, exercise stations (which I find humorous for many reasons), and my favorite thing… cats. Lots and lots of cats.

Exercise Station

Exercise Station

The Corniche used to be all beach area; dhows and ships would anchor there before Mina Port was constructed. Now only a portion of the area is a public beach.

Corniche15

The Abu Dhabi Yacht Club is nearby. This is where I watched the port race when the Volvo Ocean Race sailed through last year.

Marina Mall is across the street from the yacht club. I quickly came to despise this mall because I went there probably every day for the first 10 days after arriving in Abu Dhabi. It was the closest place to eat, shop for household items, exchange money, and buy a phone card.

One of the weird things that happens when I go to the Corniche is that my ‘Chicago’ kicks in. Because I liken it to Navy Pier, I go on and on about what needs to be added to the Corniche to make it more exciting. I gab about the restaurants, beer garden, Skyline Stage, rock & roll boat rides, cruises, Ferris wheel, fireworks, etc. that make Navy Pier such a popular destination. I’m not trying to knock the Corniche. Really. It’s a beautiful place to walk, bike, relax, and enjoy the views.

Why I constantly compare is beyond me. Maybe it’s because the Corniche is so underutilized that my mind is blown. This is waterfront property! Attractions in Chicago are always jam-packed. Granted, it’s a little warm here during the summer months, but I walked the Corniche yesterday on a beautiful “fall” afternoon and passed fewer than three dozen other people. Oh well, more space for me, I guess.

You’d think with all my ranting, everyone would simply tune me out. But someone had their ears open because look what just rolled into town next to Marina Mall.

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout! They’re really getting the hang of this commercialism thing!

Breaking Free

There’s an Arabic expression used when you’re happy about something (or when someone sneezes, which I do quite often here). All you UAE teachers can belt out that magic word with me… “HAMdullah!!” It basically means “Thank God!” and I screamed it from the rooftops when we got the ok to take our students on a field trip last Thursday. After overcoming numerous obstacles that I CANNOT get in to in a blog post, we were cleared to attend a quasi trade show on its final day.

Taweya, which focused on various aspects of societal awareness, was held at ADNEC, the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company. I’ve been to two other events held there, so my first thought was, “How are we gonna keep track of all the girls in such a huge venue?” I was never cleared to go on a field trip last year so feelings of inadequacy had long settled in, and though I was excited to go somewhere… anywhere… I was freaking out as well.
So right after Thursday morning announcements we took attendance, collected the permission slips, and waited for the signal to load the buses (which was done in a record 47 minutes!) My first time on a school bus, I was a bit scared. You’d be, too, if you saw the way some of them careen around here- it’s not at all like home. Our driver was fine, although he took the long way from our school to the highway. I have sympathy for anyone who knows less about the area than I do, so I let that go with maybe only one or two disparaging remarks.
There were six chaperones for four classes (and since it was a Thursday, many girls opted out of the excursion and just declared it a 3-day weekend for themselves, so classes were small). You’d think six chaperones would be adequate for sixty 10th graders but girls here are very protected, hence my job of looking after 13 students actually made me quite nervous. I must’ve counted to 13 a half dozen times before we even left the school grounds. I put one of my responsible favorites in charge of role call and told her she’d also have to round everyone up at the end of the trip (ironically, she was one of the last three to return to our meeting spot at the agreed-upon time.)
When we arrived at ADNEC we were ushered from the bus to the waiting room by security. Once allowed into the exhibit area, my bff co-worker Katie and I were thrilled to see the amount of security present, rendering our jobs all too easy. No worries of girls getting lost, leaving, hiding out in the bathroom, nothing… ahhhhh. The exhibits only spanned two of the rooms in ADNEC so we were able to walk around the area multiple times during our visit, keeping an eye on different groups of girls throughout the morning. Though the students would spot us and run over to chat every once in awhile, Katie and I had plenty of time to do what the Emirati culture does best- relax. Almost every booth offered coffee and/or tea, water, chocolate, dates, and even roses, not to mention plenty of swag. It’s a story best told in pictures, so here you go:

Greeted by a live Emirati bobblehead

Greeted by a live Emirati bobblehead

The UAE needs to start conserving water soon, inshallah

The UAE needs to start conserving water soon. Inshallah

Tea, cheese pancakes, and chocolate at one of the booths

Tea, cheese pancakes, and chocolate at one of the booths

Cool demonstration by police dogs

Cool demonstration by police dogs

CSI

CSI

Driving simulator. Though some of the girls play video games, it's obvious they don't have driver's licenses.

Driving simulator. Though some of the girls play video games, it’s obvious they don’t have driver’s licenses.

By far, the Emirates Driving School won the

By far, the Emirates Driving School won the “most popular attraction” award. The students waited in line to spin around in this car.

Meanwhile, Katie & I made sand decorations.

Meanwhile, Katie & I made sand decorations

in a shot glass

in a shot glass

Tea, dates, water. Good thing because we hadn't snacked for 3 minutes.

Tea, dates, and water. Good thing because we hadn’t snacked for at least 3 minutes.

Pantry goods storage safety: store cleaning products separately from food. Hopefully next year they'll move the cleaning products off the bottom shelf so pets and kids can't reach them. Again, inshallah.

These poor Emirati mannequins were served uncooked macaroni- yuck! The real point of the exhibit was pantry goods storage safety: store cleaning products separately from food (see back left of photo). Hopefully next year they’ll move the cleaning products off the bottom shelf so pets and kids can’t reach them. Again, inshallah.

In other words, watch out for buses or this could be you.

In other words, watch out for buses or this could be you.

US Customs Official pic

US Customs Official pic

The Emirati culture revolves around gift-giving: pens, pencils, highlighters, chocolate, flowers, coloring books, CDs, brochures, bags, etc.

The Emirati culture revolves around gift-giving: pens, pencils, highlighters, chocolate, flowers, coloring books, CDs, brochures, bags, etc.

We spread the word for the students to meet us at the entrance doors at 1pm. Yalla (hurry up!)!! Tweny minutes of yalla. The girls are capable of moving so slowly that sometimes I swear they’re walking backwards. Really, it’s kind of an art. Then there were the last minute hunger pangs and desperate need to grab Starbucks on the way out. We eventually navigated our way back to the bus, where all the students piled on top of each other in the back (see any number of previous posts regarding non-existent safety regulations while driving). Katie and I both may have dozed off despite the usual clapping, chanting, and screaming these girls do so well. But we’ll chalk up another success on our behalves. It’s a new day, people. We’re rockin’ it outta the park this year. Hamdullah!

Baby, It’s Cold Inside!

The luxury of a long weekend allowed time to explore a few attractions I’d heard about but hadn’t yet visited. Besides, who doesn’t like an excuse for a road trip? I decided that one day would be dedicated to “chillin’ in Dubai,” and by that I mean hitting up sights that offer a temporary respite from the 100+ degree temps.

Watching enthusiastic desert-dwellers enjoy freezing temp activities is almost as exciting as watching their reaction to rain, something I witnessed only twice last year. In the land of everything, what isn’t here naturally can be created in the blink of an eye.
Stop #1: Ski Dubai, Mall of the Emirates
Real snow!! And lots of it- three football fields’ worth, they claim. Pretty cool for a desert. This 25-story tall ski hill has a chairlift and five ski runs that range from beginner to black diamond.

Throw in tube slides, a freestyle area for snowboarders, and a children’s interactive snow park.


Those who are so inclined can also roll down a long, brain-scrambling run inside a giant clear inflatable ball. Should you decide to partake in these activities for the afternoon, skis, poles, hats, boots, socks, gloves, etc. are available for obvious reasons.
Stop #2: Dubai Ice Rink, Dubai Mall
This is just one of the many attractions at Dubai Mall, “the world’s largest shopping and entertainment destination.” The Olympic-size rink hosts shows on ice and big-screen telecasts of popular sporting events. It’s also the venue for Dubai tournaments of the Emirates Hockey League Cup. Every night they host a disco dance party with a DJ and light display. Groovy.

Stop #3: Chillout Ice Lounge, Times Square Center, Dubai
Dubai would have to hang its head in shame if it wasn’t the home of the Middle East’s first ice lounge. Luckily, someone had the bright idea to create a hot drink café (where else?) in the middle of a mall. The entrance fee is quite pricey (75dhs/ $20US) so I’d recommend waiting for a Groupon or using the Dubai Entertainer. A BYOJ (bring your own jeans) kinda thing, the fee includes use of socks, boots, gloves, a hat, and a winter coat. A hot beverage of your choice is also included and can be sipped while sitting on a faux-fur covered ice block chair at an ice table.

Visitors admire the changing colored lights while kicking up “snow” off the ground.

You can stay as long as you’d like, taking pictures on or next to the ice sculptures, but 20-30 minutes is enough because it’s a tiny place. And it really is cold.

It gets HOT in the UAE, even for someone who prefers warm weather. But I admit it was actually enjoyable to beat the heat in Dubai, if only for a day.

Eid al-Adha

My daughters have a soft spot when it comes to cute farm animals… they do eat meat but they’re not into gyros, and cringe when I post anything from the UAE that has to do with a lamb sandwich.


But in the spirit of education, here goes…
Starting tomorrow, Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, will be celebrated by Muslims for four days. One of Islam’s holiest days, Eid al-Adha celebrates Abraham’s willingness to take his son’s life at the request of God. As the story goes, just as Abraham prepares to kill his son Ishmael (Isaac), he is told that his intent to carry out this act is proof enough that he loves God and, as such, is given a sheep to sacrifice instead. Today, Muslims continue the practice of sacrificing sheep (or camels or goats) in observance of Eid al-Adha. The week before Eid, many sheep are seen being transported in trucks (and even cars) on their final ride to the families’ homes.

PC: AJ

PC: AJ


The animals are ritualistically killed and the meat divided into thirds with equal shares given to 1) the family, 2) friends/neighbors/relatives, and 3) those in need.
At this time of year, thousands of Muslims also take part in the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Participation in the Hajj at least once in a lifetime is a requirement of all Muslims who are physically and financially able to do so. Many people save for years to be able to experience this event.
For non-Muslims, Eid al-Adha will just be a nice 4-day weekend. As is typical here, many of the students already began their holiday earlier in the week; today we had a grand total of one dozen 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in attendance.
A few days ago, I asked the girls how their families celebrate Eid. Most times I wish I could extract more elaborate responses than I do, and this was no exception. Some are traveling to visit family; most seem to be having parties “in the home,” which is a popular phrase they use instead of saying “at home.” Many of the girls watch the animal slaughter take place, and since they probably have done so most of their lives, are not squeamish about this ritual as it holds extreme religious importance to them. They are focused on the communal aspect of Eid and are as excited as kids at Christmas, as gift giving (especially money) is also involved. The girls didn’t pass out gifts this year but last year I received a handmade keychain.

And here’s a window decoration at our school:

As for me, I’ll spend the long weekend in and around the area, eating camel burgers and lamb sandwiches, and will report back on the happenings.
Eid Mubarak, everyone!

Big Silver Taxi

Taxiing around Abu Dhabi is a weekend norm; fares are reasonable and the zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving renders it a necessity if you plan to have a drink or three. At this point, I’ve been in well over one hundred taxis. Easily identifiable, most taxis are silver with a yellow sign:

How to get a taxi? For me, Sky Tower across the street is where I often head. My building, Arc, is now actually connected to Sky via an enclosed overhead bridge, which is nice because prior to this we had to play real-life Frogger while dodging traffic across the multi-lane street outside our building. Waiting in line at Sky has become a bit tedious due to scorching temps, recent sandy days, and near 100% humidity. So lately, I’ve been calling for a personal pickup. Fares are reasonable- the meter starts at 3.50dhs or $1US; calling for door-to-door service doubles that fee, but is well worth keeping my hair from tripling in size and my makeup from melting into my already half-blind eyes.
Once you’re a regular, the whole call process is automated. The company sends a reply text within 10 minutes that includes the driver’s name, mobile number, and ETA. Sometimes the wait is 5 minutes, other times longer. Last Thursday night mine was 15; I decide to wait downstairs in case he’s early. The 15-minute mark passes, then 20. I take out my phone to call the driver and my phone’s ringing. I answer to an automated message: “The driver is waiting at your requested location. Press ‘1’ for the wait to continue. I press ‘1’ and then call the guy’s cell. He insists he’s in front of the building and I insist that, whoa, I too am also in front of the building. So now we kick into Abu Dhabi mode.
Me: “You’re at Arc Tower on Reem Island?”
Him: “Yes, Arc Tower.”
Me: “Are you at the front of the building where the sky bridge is?”
Him: “No, no bridge.”
Me: “Are you in the car park?”
Him: “No, I’m out front.”
Me: “Do you see the three really tall buildings with the penthouse that connects them at the top?”
Him: “Yes, I am there.”
Me: “OK, you’re next door at Gate. If you drive around the corner to the next building you‘ll be at Arc.”
Him: “Ohhhh, yes. I am at Gate. I’ll come to Arc now.”
So he picks me up and then has to call my cell to verify that I’m the person he’s supposed to pick up. Like at that point there was any doubt.
One problem with taxi drivers is that their English isn’t always the best. I know, I know, their English is better than my level of whatever their native language is, so I’m patient. Second, because of the lack of street names and addresses here, you better have some sort of GPS on your phone if you’re unsure of how to reach your destination because odds are they don’t have the tools to help. Third, drivers usually work in 12-hour shifts, so body odor and other smells can easily get trapped in the vehicle, making for a breath-holding ride. You just never know.
This guy began without any strikes against him. He was semi-understandable. I knew he wasn’t a newbie when I informed him that I needed to go to the Park Rotana and he asked, “To Cooper’s?” Good call, my man. And the big bonus… odor-free car.
So I settle in for 15 minutes of “Where you from? Where YOU from? How long have you been here? And you? You teach? You like it here? You have family here?” Pretty much the usual conversation. Meanwhile, I’m slumping in the back seat as he alternates between accelerator and brake, hmmm, maybe three hundred and fifty times. I think I’m gonna be sick.
Part of the reason the roads can get messy is this: Let’s say you’re on a highway that has a posted speed of 100km/h. Generally trucks are allowed to go 80, similar to rules at home. But in Abu Dhabi, if there’s a way to complicate something, it will be done. In a taxi, a verbal warning is triggered if the driver goes over the posted speed (Please slow down. You are “over-speeding.”), but when the speed is 100 km/h, regular cars are allowed to drive 120km/h before hitting the ticket zone. Generally, many traffic problems could be mitigated if faster drivers used the left lanes and slower ones used the right, but that courtesy isn’t practiced here. Throw in 1) those who don’t even hit the posted speed limit and 2) the far-left Emirati lane (for insane speeders who are aware of camera locations and slam on the brakes just before passing them to avoid tickets, then speed back up as quickly as if they never slowed down), and the speeds of cars on a single road can vary by almost 100km/h.

speed tower

speed tower

This guy was a weaver. Like me, he didn’t appear to enjoy driving slowly, so he switched from one lane to the next in an attempt to free us from driving behind those who had no desire to put the pedal to the metal. But every time his over-speeder message came on, he had to slow down. Taxis can be ticketed at any time, not just via the dreaded speed camera.
So it was speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down. Alllll the way there. Blech.
Finally, we reach the hotel. Now, tips here are not expected but they are appreciated. I usually just round up to the nearest bill, whatever that may be. Let’s say my fare is 27dhs; the driver will get 3 (which is about $1US). It’s actually acceptable to give nothing, so 3 is good. The guy’s happy and gives me his card and says I can call him directly in the future. I told myself long ago that I’d befriend a driver who didn’t annoy me. So far nobody has measured up. This one failed with the stop and go technique. It occurred to me that this is a metaphor for another aspect of my life. Yes, it definitely is. But I’m looking on the bright side. I may not have found my steady taxi driver this weekend, but there’s always tomorrow.

This Is How We Do It

The school year officially ended this afternoon!! One last post is in order before I head to the airport in a few hours.

The folks on this page… what can I say?! I was fortunate to meet up with them upon or shortly after my arrival last August. Each has contributed to making this journey an incredibly fun and semi-sane experience. Swapping teacher anecdotes (though some work in other fields), hosting dinner parties, meeting up at our beloved Cooper’s on Thursday nights, Friday brunches, beach days, golf outings, safaris, concerts, birthday celebrations, etc. They’ve all helped make this experience bearable when it wasn’t, and spectacular when it was.

A mix of characters from England, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Canada, and the US. All up for adventure. As luck would have it, the majority of us will return in August after we go our separate ways to recharge abroad and/or back home. Cheers to all- safe travels and enjoy your summer!

And yes, I do have better pictures, but instead of perfect smiles I thought I’d show everyone what we’re really like outside of work. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Forever Young

As far as birthdays go, this one rocked! I’m not much into aging, though when I whine about it I’m often asked if I’d prefer the alternative. No, I wouldn’t, but life is moving quickly! I think it’s even harder for my parents to watch their kids inch closer toward AARP eligibility. Ack!

I awoke yesterday morning and ran to my breakfast bar to open presents; my friend Jen had brought them with her when she came to visit in April. My sister sent me a bracelet and the girls made a photo album chronicling our Abu Dhabi adventures over Christmas. Add to that a slew of thoughtful gifts given to me by the wonderful people here (see you in the fall, Dave Matthews Band!), and I started the day off right!

FullSizeRender (4)

The celebrations actually began about 10 days ago since Kevin and I combined our birthday party.

Me & Kevin

A group of us went to Stratos, a revolving restaurant, for a sunset happy hour. Sadly, I must admit that it made me a little queasy to spin ever so slowly for two hours while drinking cheap sparkling wine but- YOU KNOW ME- I forced myself to have an enjoyable time. It looks like only the girls were in a picture-taking mood that night.

Me, Ruth & Ciara

Me, Ruth & Ciara

Ruth, Ciara, Maeve & Dani

Ruth, Ciara, Maeve & Dani

Fiona & Ashley

Fiona & Ashley

Then last Friday I went to the shooting range at the Armed Forces Officers Club (which actually deserves its own post someday):

Caracal Shooting Paper

before heading out to an “all-you-can-eat-and-drink” 4-hour Mexican dinner with a small group of friends, including Bettina and Shannan. They get credit for giving me this lovely birthday hat among other treats.

Birthday Photo

Bettina and Shannan had bought a Groupon for a night at Emirates Palace Hotel and invited me to the pool on Saturday. Whoa. Cool stuff. After the year we had, we spent hours double-noodled in the lazy river “complaining” how we had to steer clear of the rocks or how the chlorine was getting in our eyes when we tried to duck under the waterfalls. Rough life. But we agreed we earned it the hard way!

Room “key”

Emirates Pool

Emirates Palace Sun Loungers

Emirates Palace Water

Then of course my official birthday landed on a Sunday, the first day of our work week. Boo. But Craig took me to a super-nice dinner at a reastaurant in the St. Regis Hotel called 55&5th, which I highly recommend. It’s expensive even with the Entertainer app but well worth it. Definitely the best meal I’ve had here to date.

Birthday Dinner

I predict the next 8 weeks of my life will be the most stress-free of any I’ve experienced as an adult. With Ramadan beginning by the end of this week (Muslims fast during the day for a month and non-Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink in public during daylight hours) work has been shortened to half days. The students are currently taking one exam per day so all we have to do is grade the English exams and proctor those in other subjects. I’m as close to being on vacation as one can be while still working.

So thanks to all for making this a great birthday! And thanks for making this a great birthday. Or did I already say that? I’m old and tired. But it’s either that or the alternative so cheers to another year!

Life Is a Highway

Today’s post is dedicated to my daughter Kate’s opportunity to work at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which took place in France over the past several weeks.
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Truth be told, I was a little upset that she hadn’t opted to study abroad during her junior year in college. Back in the day, I myself spent two summers studying French at Université Laval in Québec, and I’m all for getting out there to see how others live (the answer to that, according to most places I’ve visited, is that many people in the world live MUCH more simply than we do in the U.S.). I will always remember the great adventures and forever friends that the opportunity afforded me. But the best part of leaving home for an extended period of time is when you realize that another place has become your home away from home- you can jump on the bus, get yourself from here to there, pass familiar faces on the street, and know what you’re going to order in a restaurant because you eat there every Friday. In other words, you live your normal life, just elsewhere. Heck, I’m doing it again now while teaching in the UAE and I’d like to think my kids have enjoyed flying by the seat of their pants with me enough to do it on their own. The fact that Jenna’s currently in Europe with her friend Kat’s family thrills me to no end. Multiple countries, parental supervision, what’s not to like?
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Text from Jenna: Mountains in Austria.
Me: Are the hills alive with the sound of music?
Jenna: Duh.
Me: That’s my girl!
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When Kate told Jenna and me about her opportunity to apply to the Cannes program, we freaked out. OMG. We love everything French. We speak fluent Franglais! I’m lucky she brought it up at all, because I realized she didn’t comprehend the magnitude of this opportunity. I’LL GO IF YOU DON’T!” I screamed via Skype. After interviews and paperwork, she was a confirmed participant. Fast-forward a few months and my baby was on a plane to Nice with 13 other girls from Grand Valley State University; most are Hospitality & Tourism Management majors but a few are in Public Relations. Some of the girls hadn’t ever left the country, but I knew they were in for the experience of a lifetime. Although I’m halfway around the world, hours and hours and hours of phone time confirmed my confidence that Kate could prepare herself for this trip, so I was super-excited for her.
Once the girls arrived, they were constantly on the go. From orientation, training, working at the pavilion membership areas, beach screenings,
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yacht parties- yeah, I know it sounds rough, but they worked their tails off, often well into the night. All parents were kept informed and updated by Dr. Lorie Tuma, who has headed this program at various schools for five years.
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She blogged, emailed, and posted on Facebook daily so we didn’t have to worry about our daughters’ whereabouts or safety. I can see from the girls’ Facebook posts and Instagram photos the love and respect they have for Lorie and her tireless efforts to get all of them up and running quickly in addition to ensuring that everything ran smoothly for the duration. We’ll all be forever grateful for her successful efforts!
Below are some photos of Kate and the others while they were hard at work, living out an experience that I’m sure will positively impact the course of their thinking, their careers, their lives, and the way they view opportunity.
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Brushes with many of the rich and famous didn’t hurt, either.

Salma Hayek

Salma Hayek

Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler

Naomi Watts

Naomi Watts

Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman

Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey

And here’s a “behind the scenes” video Kate compiled, which also contains footage of their free day in Monaco.

All I know is things change constantly. I’m here in Abu Dhabi and every few days I have a reality check, whether it concerns the good, the bad, or the ugly. Life is not about being a “traveler” because nothing beats having a home base; it’s about filling yourself with what makes you happy.
Having the supposed means to do something should not be a factor. Yes, loans suck. It’s my job here to chip away at those as much as I possibly can. But studying abroad is often less expensive than going to college in the United States. So to my kids’ college friends reading this- try it, go for it. Many of my friends’ children have jumped at the chance to experience life in a new place; some of them have incredible internship opportunities that will open doors for their future careers. My friend Deb is hosting a foreign-exchange student in her home for the 2015-2016 school year, the coolest part being that her parents did the same when we were in high school.
Life is weird. But you only get one shot. And that great big world out there? It just got a little smaller for my kid.
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Now, as soon as Kate wakes up I anticipate the return of our hours-long phone conversations. Hopefully in French, but I’m not holding my breath.

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