be kind.

April 9, 2015

In my experience, one of the most common complaints that travelers tend to have about other places is that the people who live in those places are rude, snobby, or otherwise unapproachable. I’ve mentioned before that one of the most common search queries that brings people to my blog is, “Why are Saudis so rude?” In that same post, I also mentioned that I was warned that French people are rude, as well, and for me, that was proven incorrect. Even so, I admit that I’m totally not above thinking that people in a certain place are largely unpleasant.

For example, a few years ago, when Mr. Mostafa and I were road tripping through southern California, I got it into my head that people in Los Angeles are rude. I had basically one experience that led to this conclusion. We were stopped at an intersection near the beach; I could smell the salty sea air in the wind blowing through the windows. A BMW convertible pulled up next to us in the right lane, driven by a middle-aged man wearing Ray-Bans. A woman sat next to him in the passenger seat; she was cute, with short dark hair, maybe in her early 30s. After the initial glance to my right, I looked forward again and waited for the light to turn green. When that happened, the man gunned the engine of the BMW and peeled away from us, tires screaming, as the woman threw her head back, looked at me, and laughed uproariously, with a tinge of cruelty.

And that was it—I decided I wouldn’t ever want to live in southern California. People there are snobby.

I’ve gone over that moment many times in my head, and after the initial inexplicable sting wore off, I started to break it down in a more forgiving light. Maybe the man had just told a really great joke. Maybe she had read something really funny on her phone. Maybe the woman really was laughing at us for some reason—but the thing is, even if that were true, it had nothing to do with me. I’m totally fine, even if she did find me worthy of being laughed at, scorned, or belittled. Why in the world did I let that one jarring experience cloud my entire experience in California? Why would anyone let a single bad experience cloud their entire experience anywhere?

The truth is, on that trip, we met plenty of really nice people in California. I remember Mr. Mostafa having a long conversation with the friendly concierge who welcomed us when we stayed on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. I can’t really remember what they talked about. I also remember that we had a very nice waiter at the restaurant in Malibu where we ate dinner on the beach. But those memories aren’t nearly as clear as the color of the hair of that woman who threw her head back and laughed while looking at me as the BMW she was in left tire tracks on the asphalt next to us. I don’t get why, especially since I know that people in California are, on the whole, not any more rude than people in the Ozarks. But knowing that didn’t keep me from bracing myself for the unfriendliness I stubbornly expected to encounter once I crossed the state line on my road trip to California with my mom and Lavender.

I didn’t find it. I mean, sure, there were some people who weren’t super chatty with us, especially not at first. But who is super chatty all the time? No one, that’s who. And on our road trip, we encountered very few people who remained standoffish even after we did our best to engage with them in a pleasant way. Lavender was a bit of an icebreaker, as well; I mean, how can you resist this face?

IMG 5709 750x499 be kind.

But I’m happy to report that when it comes to interactions with strangers on this road trip, my memories will be almost entirely happy ones. When we smiled, people smiled back. Everywhere. The lady who maintained the breakfast area in the hotel where we stayed in Kingman, Arizona was so sweet and helpful. At the Hoover Dam, we had a wonderful time chatting about horses with a small, adorable family from the Bronx. Everyone in the San Francisco Zoo was nice. One of the clearest memories I will take away from our cross-country road trip is all the smiles­—both from me, my mom, and Lavender as well as from all the people we met along the way.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in life so far, it’s that there are really very few people in life who are honestly, truly mean to their core. There are misunderstandings. There are ideological differences that people allow to cloud their interactions with others. Sometimes people are just having a bad day. But even when people aren’t kind or friendly, as long as I am, I’ve done my job. Whatever happens after that has nothing to do with me.

It’s so tremendously liberating to finally understand that. I can only control myself. What others do, how they react to me and interact with me, is entirely up to them. And I’m happy that so far, no matter where in the world I am or what culture in which I find myself enmeshed, it seems like there is always warmth to be found, as long as I am willing to reach out for it and accept it when it comes…and ignore the rest.

moving toward home.

April 2, 2015

Every time I come home to the States, I find myself pontificating about the meaning of home. And thus far, this trip is no exception. So for anyone who is sick of reading about that particular topic, I’m sorry. But writing serves a lot of purposes in my life, and one of them is helping me sort out my feelings. And fair warning, folks: I have a lot of feelings yet to be sorted.

Because my grandmother lives in northern California, I tend to find myself in the Bay Area every few years or so. Every time my toes touch the ground there, I am reminded of just how much I love that part of the world. For years, I dreamed of one day being able to afford to live in the Bay Area. It’s hard for me to imagine how anyone could not love it. And even though I’ve never actually lived in California, its connection to my parents means that I feel like, in some weird way, it’s my home, too…the same way if you ask my husband where in Saudi Arabia he’s from, he’ll immediately say Madinah, even though he’s never lived in Madinah. But it’s the area where his parents are from.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, my parents both grew up in the Bay Area. My father’s family members are Ozarkians from way back, but during the late 1930s, my Grandma and Grandpa Hunter packed up and moved from Missouri to California, and that’s where they raised their family. But every summer, they loaded up the car, got on Route 66, and drove back to Missouri for a couple weeks in order to visit all the relatives that were still there.

My dad grew up dreaming of moving to Missouri, the place where his parents were raised, just like I grew up dreaming of moving to California, the place where my parents were raised. In his heart, he was always a country boy, and he knew he wanted to end up back in the Ozarks. A few years after my parents were married in 1969, my dad came home one day and said, “Pack up, Emma. We’re moving to Missouri.”

Well, my mom had never been to Missouri. She’d never lived anywhere other than California. But she loved my dad. So off they went, cross-country, landing in a town with a population less than half the size of her high school graduating class.

At first, my mom was not in her element in the Ozarks. She remembers that as she drove to the next town over, she gripped the steering wheel and sweated with nerves because she was so completely unaccustomed to driving on roads that weren’t packed with cars. The emptiness of the highway unsettled her.

About six months after she and my dad moved to Missouri, my mom decided she was done. She wasn’t happy in Missouri, and my dad wasn’t happy that she wasn’t happy in Missouri. She caught a flight back to California and had no intention of returning to the Ozarks that my dad loved so much. She got a job at a Nissan dealership and was settling back into life as a California girl (“I remember I was sitting in the office at the dealership when they announced on TV that the Vietnam War was over,” she told me). But about four months later, my dad showed up at my grandparents’ house in California, where my mom was living. He missed her, and he wanted her in Missouri with him. She loved him. So back to the Ozarks she went. And she’s been there ever since.

It’s interesting to watch my mom in California as we visit my grandmother. It’s her home, and yet, it isn’t at all. Her childhood home in San Mateo has long since been sold (it’s staggering how much that tiny house is now worth), and now my grandmother lives north of San Francisco, in Sonoma County. My mom has so many memories in California. It is her childhood. She still says that she would be happy living there. (I mean, besides it being where she grew up, it certainly doesn’t hurt that northern California is astoundingly beautiful…and San Francisco sourdough bread is just heavenly.)

But Missouri is her home now.

I wonder about this. It hurts my heart a little bit to think that maybe this is how I will feel about Missouri someday—once my home, still could be if I really wanted it to be, but just isn’t anymore. Right now, I don’t feel that way. I feel like Missouri is my second home—the place where I spend a minority of my time, to be sure, but still, always, home.

I think part of the reason that I’m so nervous about this potential evolution is because I can feel it happening in small ways already. This is my fourth return trip to the States since I moved to Riyadh in 2012, and for the first time, on this trip, I didn’t come home with a list of foods I planned to eat when I landed because I missed them so much. Instead, before I left, I found myself making requests to my mother-in-law for Saudi dishes that I knew I wouldn’t be able to find in the States. When I got here, I was struck by what a nutritional void so much of the food was. Instead of being thrilled that I had access to Dr. Pepper at every gas station soda fountain, I kept thinking about how the food in Riyadh always makes me feel full and nourished, not just full. I kept excitedly anticipating late April, when Mr. Mostafa will land here and get into the kitchen and start cooking some kabsa for me and people I love.

Granted, I don’t think I’m anywhere near seeing Missouri with only the nostalgic admiration that my mom has for California. I still have too much of an emotional connection to Missouri beyond it simply being where my parents live, and I don’t intend to be letting that go any time soon. Rather, I feel like I’m steadily moving toward feeling like Riyadh is home, just as much is Missouri is. The other home. My other home. I’m cool with that. Even if neither home looks like northern California.

IMG 5632 750x499 moving toward home.

the kindness of older british gentlemen.

March 26, 2015

So, I realize that the title of this post might sound a bit seedy, to the brain wired to instinctively swerve that way. (And I can’t deny that I’m often in that group.) But hear me out. It’s not that kind of thing.

Entire books could be written about traveling with a toddler. But really, there’s only one thing you need: luck. And that luck comes in the form of fellow travelers who are understanding, and if you’re really fortunate, helpful. Although I prefer to avoid generalizations when possible, I have to say that from my experience based on my recent travels, I’m now convinced that older British gentlemen are highly likely to be among this population.

But aside from the luck element, being able to breastfeed or otherwise drug your toddler into submission via excessive sustenance is also essential for a reasonably smooth travel experience. I had tossed around the idea of attempting to wean Lavender before I traveled to the States, since the logistics of breastfeeding a squirmy toddler in an airplane seemed overwhelming; a very wise friend of mine, who has logged many hours traveling alone with her two little ones from Riyadh to the States and back, advised me, “Don’t, especially since it’s your first time flying alone with her. The boob is a powerful weapon to have.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Lavender and I left Riyadh in the middle of the night, on a 1 a.m. flight to London. Mr. Mostafa waved sorrowfully to us from his perch in the family lounge at King Khaled Airport, where he could see us waiting to board at our gate. We waved goodbye, blew him kisses, and we were on our way.

As you may have guessed, on this flight, we sat next to an older British gentleman, who was in the aisle seat next to my window seat. When I approached my seat, he immediately stood up to help me load my backpack, laptop bag, and baby carrier into the overhead bin (because I was sitting in a bulkhead seat with no seat in front of me, I had more legroom, but I also had to stow most of my things in the overhead bin). After this, we got settled into our seats as he and I exchanged formal pleasantries and he attempted to make friends with Lavender. She wasn’t having it, which he was good-natured about. In fact, he was wholly good-natured about being stuck next to a baby for a flight that was over six hours long.

By the time the flight took off, I had built a makeshift tent around me with my nursing cover and the airline-provided blanket, under which Lavender was nursing and sleeping. The older British gentleman played Sudoku and did not act disgusted or titillated, nor did he otherwise indicate that he in any way noticed that I was breastfeeding a toddler in my lap.

Once I had Lavender soundly asleep, I repositioned her and myself and we both slept for a good chunk of the flight. When we woke up, it was time for breakfast. After the flight attendants gave us our food, I discovered that I hadn’t been given utensils. I had no fork or knife with which to eat my (yummy-looking) omelet.

I pressed the flight attendant call button, but they were all busy with serving meals to the rest of the passengers, so I settled in for a bit of a wait. I was okay with that; I mean, I’m sure that if a flight attendant could choose to strangle someone without consequences, it would be a person who presses the flight attendant call button during a meal serving time.

But within a minute or so, Older British Gentleman noticed that I wasn’t eating because I had no utensils. Wordlessly, he hopped up, moved down the aisle, and ever-so-politely plucked a napkin-wrapped utensil bundle from the serving cart. He brought it back to me. I thanked him profusely. He said I was welcome.

At the end of the flight, when we were parked at the jetway and the seat belt sign was turned off, Older British Gentleman stood up, got my luggage out of the overhead bin for me, and asked if I needed any help carrying anything. I assured him that I didn’t, but thanked him for all the ways he had been helpful throughout the flight. He wished me and Lavender a pleasant journey, and went on his way.

In Heathrow Airport, I had to catch a train in Terminal 5 to our connecting gate for our flight to Dallas. I hiked through the terminal with Lavender strapped to my front, my backpack on my back, and my laptop bag slung over one shoulder. I’m sure I looked like a pack mule, because when I boarded the train, a second older British gentleman immediately stood up and insisted that I take his seat.

“No, no, I’m fine. Thank you!” I objected.

“No, no, I insist!” he said. “You’ve just arrived, eh? Welcome to the UK!”

I mean, seriously. Could people be any nicer?

Lavender and I spent the next few hours strolling around the terminal, giddily buying up snacks and Peppa Pig trinkets (she loves Peppa Pig, and not unsurprisingly, we’ve yet to see any Peppa Pig merchandise make its way to stores in Riyadh). By the time it was almost time to leave London, Lavender had settled in with her iPod and a bag of potato chips (excuse me, we were in the UK, so it’s crisps, right, Brits?).

IMG 5252 750x500 the kindness of older british gentlemen. She was totally into British life.

On our flight from London to Dallas, we sat in the middle row, next to yet another older British gentleman. Third Older British Gentleman, like First Older British Gentleman, had a thing for Sudoku. Also like First Older British Gentleman, Third Older British Gentleman had little to say beyond formal pleasantries and helped me get my bags into and out of the overhead bin without a question, both while boarding and leaving the plane. He also politely pretended not to notice when, a few minutes into the flight, Lavender began to get fussy and I once again wrapped myself up to settle in to breastfeed her to sleep—I say pretended, because there was no way he genuinely didn’t notice. As much as I tried to corral the adorable beast, her feet managed to kick their way out of their tent a time or two, landing squarely on Third Older British Gentleman’s arm.

A few hours later, it was lunch time. I got my silverware along with my meal this time, but eating was slow going, as eating tends to be with a toddler on one’s lap, especially when you’re sharing  your meal with said toddler. At one point, Third Older British Gentleman spoke up and said, “Excuse me, I know this may be…a bit awkward, but I feel I must ask—would it be helpful if I cut your meat for you?”

Dude. Third Older British Gentleman offered to cut my meat. I was impressed but embarrassed that I was apparently in such a state of in-over-my-head-ness that it appeared that I needed to employ someone else to wield my utensils for me. I thanked him but assured him I was okay.

A few more hours passed, and a visit to the restroom became necessary for both me and Lavender. Third Older British Gentleman stood up to let me out, and when he saw me reaching for the overhead bin to retrieve my backpack for a diaper and wipes, he got the bag down for me. When I got back, I put the wipes back into the backpack and Third Older British Gentleman wordlessly replaced the backpack in the overhead bin.

As I mentioned, just like First Older British Gentleman, Third Older British Gentleman wasn’t talkative. However, he did clear up some British lingo for me. As the flight prepared to land, we were served tea with scones and sandwiches. I tore open the scone package and handed a piece to Lavender, then took a bite.

“Oh!” I exclaimed, as though I’d just discovered alchemy. “So in Britain, a scone is a biscuit! Or, I mean, in America, we call it a biscuit.”

Third Older British Gentleman nodded and said, “Yes.”

“But in Britain, a biscuit is a cookie, right?”

He nodded again. “Yes. Usually. But, you know, sometimes, it’s just a cookie.”

Words of wisdom, Third Older British Gentleman. It may seem like a biscuit, but sometimes, it’s just a cookie.

As the plane began its descent, I thanked Third Older British Gentleman for being so understanding about having to sit next to a parent traveling alone with a little one. He waved his hand and said, “Oh, it’s nothing, really. I had children. This”—he waved his hand toward Lavender, who was engrossed in an episode of Bubble Guppies, her little head encased by headphones that swallowed up her ears—“can’t be easy.”

Boy, was he right. But several hours later, when I walked off my final flight of the journey (from Dallas to Springfield, Missouri) to see my mom and my cousin waving gleefully at me and Lavender, it was impossible to deny that it was all so worth it. We’re now digging into our time in the States, and we can’t wait for Mr. Mostafa to arrive in a few weeks…and to be with us when we return to Riyadh in May. We won’t have to employ the help of Older British Gentlemen on the way back, but it sure is nice to know that such kindness is out there when we need it.