Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Autumn at Latitude 24.4 Degrees North

An early-October picnic just before sunset on our compound. Since the grounds are always watered, everything is green and the air has the delicious smell of water. Nothing else in Riyadh has that smell.

September in South Dakota always brings cool, crisp weather that I associate with school starting and summer ending. It's the perfect temperature for outdoor biking and walking, for long-sleeves and sweatshirts, and for cozying up in the covers. September in Riyadh was nothing like that - but luckily, now that it's November, it is finally beginning to feel like Fall! I never thought I'd miss the cold so much. People tell me that it will eventually get cold enough here to see your breath. My excitement at this revelation surprises them.

Mid-day is still plenty warm and sunny, great for short sleeves. But by sunset, the air becomes beautifully chilly and I can break out my long-sleeve SDSU shirt that has been waiting patiently in my closet for many months.

These photos are a mish-mash of images from the last several weeks.

Checking out that impressive palm trunk.

Since the pool is heated, we can still go swimming, but the air gets quite chilly unless we go at noon when the sun is directly on the water.

A handsome guy I found in the pool.

It's great weather for tennis though!

Sebby wants to play too. :)

Halloween was a bit different for us this year. We didn't do any trick-or-treating. However, Josh and I did manage to get tickets to the rather exclusive Halloween party at the American Embassy. This allowed us a glimpse into the decadent world of how people let loose while living in Riyadh. The feast was fantastic, from the salads and desserts to the steak, shrimp, and even roast pig. Add to this socializing, sampling the drink bar, and dancing, and we could see why embassy party invitations are such a well-guarded commodity. People were encouraged to dress up for it, but I was lacking in supplies, so all I managed was some face-painting. Here is my cheetah:

Some of the guests were completely decked out, such as a team of blue-striped Avatar creatures, and the costume contest winners: one guy dressed as Kingdom Tower and one as the Faisalia, the two most famous landmarks in Riyadh. I would have taken photos, but photography was prohibited.

Kids weren't allowed at the party, but Misha was dying to have his face painted anyway, so here he is as a monkey. Instead of trick-or-treating, he rode his scooter around the compound and showed off his costume.

Some various indoor shots:

Both kids love tomato soup.

We are always creating tents and forts.

I finally got around to making a superhero outfit Misha has been wanting for Growl. It turned out well!

Sebastian got into the grocery bags and started making a tower. Misha quickly joined in, and they worked together to make an impressive pillar!

There's that impish grin ...

Building a house around Sebby.

Ready for school!

Gotta love floor puzzles. Best part - it's toddler-proof! The pieces are too big and thick to lose or break.

Big brother attempts to carry the little brother.

Sebastian is intrigued by the puzzle.

Time for play-dough!

Lounging with mom.

Indoor soccer match!

Coloring peacefully...

... until mommy says no eating the colored pencils.

There's nothing better than a nice, new box of crayons!

The kids.

Snuggling up in much-loved footed pajamas.

Story time.

And bath time!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Kindergarten in a Second Language

Ever since leaving Kyrgyzstan four years ago, Josh and I have held onto the hope that we could travel again in time for Misha to be able to go to kindergarten in a different language. And somehow, it happened!

Misha proudly shows me his classroom during welcome week.

Before we left Riyadh for the summer, I jumped through all the hoops to get Misha enrolled in the kindergarten for children of students and staff on campus where I teach. It's perfect for many reasons. First, it's one building away from where I teach. Misha jumps in my taxi every morning, I drop him off at his school, and I walk into my department. I hate losing my precious time to traffic congestion, so not having to make an extra trip to take him to school is great. When I get off work, Misha's ready and waiting for me to take him home. Second, since it's a local school, it's far cheaper than an international school. British and American international schools here run over a thousand dollars a month in tuition, but all I have to pay for this local school is a small fee for their computer classes plus afternoon day care fees. And most importantly, this kindergarten is in Arabic.

Lunchtime! Or, as Misha has learned, "wejba!"

Our main goals for Misha's kindergarten experience are for him to learn Arabic and to have socialization with children. We are not worried about him academically, since we work with him at home and he can already read easy books. By going to an Arabic kindergarten, Misha has access to the real language and culture of Saudi Arabia - something that Josh and I are mostly isolated from. I have to admit I'm quite jealous that Misha gets to have fun and learn Arabic all day long! From working at Hillcrest Elementary School back in Brookings, I have seen Spanish-speaking kindergarteners start school without a word of English, and by the end of the year they can speak and understand basic English. We are so excited to give Misha the opportunity of experiencing another language in kindergarten. How much he learns and whether or not he retains it is not the issue - we are just happy he can have the chance to use his brain in new ways, to experience the thrill of understanding foreign speech, and to have his curiosity piqued to learn new languages and cultures.

Carpet time, a classic part of kindergarten.

Of course, we were expecting it to be difficult for him, but Misha has adapted amazingly well and he's excited to go to school every morning (though not so exicted to wake up at 6 a.m. to get ready). During registration week, children were invited for optional half-days, one of which Misha attended. I had to leave him there by himself while I went to teach. He was reluctant to leave me, but he gave me a hug and kiss and said goodbye. When I came back that afternoon, he ran over to me shouting, "Mommy! They gave me PRESENTS!" He showed me stickers, balloons, name tags, and even a remote-control tractor that he had received. (All the boys got tractors, and all the girls got Barbies!) They really know how to make kids like school. Then Misha had to show me all around his school - his classroom with all its play areas, the cubbies, the outdoor covered playground, and even the mini toilets.

As Misha showed me around, I was thrilled with what I saw. It looked like what every parent would want in a kindergarten - blocks, trucks, counting toys, magnifying glasses, plastic animals, puzzles, an art station, a reading station, a kitchen play area, etc. The walls were covered with pictures, Arabic and English ABCs, the classic 100-chart with Arabic numerals, a weather chart with days of the week in Arabic, and posters of all the colors.

The winner! Misha wins a prize.

Misha loves his teachers. He gives them hugs goodbye when I come to take him home. Saudi women, from everything I have seen, adore children and love to spoil them with gifts and affection. Being pale and red-headed, Misha stands out and gets even more attention. Some of the teachers speak a little English, so they are able to help him. After six weeks, Misha knows numbers, body parts, animals, family members, colors, and handfuls of words from songs, games, and exercises they do in class. He comes home singing entire songs in Arabic to us! His teachers have told me that he is learning quickly and that they are impressed with his Arabic accent. His main classroom teacher was kind enough to take photos of him at school and burn them to CD for me so I could see him interacting and having fun. Thanks to her, you're looking at those pictures right now.

Building a block pyramid, with the number chart in the background.

Recess: the playground is full of slides and climbing gyms, all shaded from the sun.

"This is where the girls play," Misha told me as we looked through his pictures. He was so excited to bring home the photo CDs - he couldn't wait to show them to me.

Sorting by color.

Creating a zoo.

Showing off the class pets.

Exploring his world with tools from the discovery station.

Workbook time! Sometimes he brings home some homework, writing Arabic letters and numbers. He finishes quickly and asks me, "Why didn't they give me any more homework?"

Ready for morning exercises!

Every morning, school begins with songs and exercises. Children count and move, following the teacher's directions. I think it's a brilliant way to begin the day! They also play a lot of action games. One of Misha's favorites is "Shejara, Namla," which means "tree, ant." When the teacher says "shejara," the kids have to stand up tall like a tree, but for "namla," they crouch like an ant. The teacher tries to trick the students a bit like Simon Says. Another game they play involves running around until a teachers says freeze. Then the teachers fan out into the mass of frozen students with the intent to make the kids laugh by making funny faces at them. If you laugh, you're out! Another is similar to Duck, Duck, Goose, called Tag, Tag, Tagia. (A tagia is the white Muslim skull cap.)

Since we will probably be in Saudi Arabia for just this one year, it has worked out amazingly well for Misha to attend kindergarten here. In fact, he will probably gain the most out of all us this year culturally and linguistically! After kindergarten, children are segregated by sex and taught only by teachers of the same sex, so this year is the most normal experience Misha could have. We are not sure if Misha would even be allowed to attend a public first grade school. But judging by how happy Misha seems this year, he is getting exactly the attention and confidence he needs at his kindergarten.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Home to Riyadh

The first thing Misha did when we arrived home was have a reunion with all of his toys.

There are some things we really miss about Egypt. Namely:
- the fact that people go outside all the time and you can take walks
- you can glance out your taxi window and occasionally see a woman at the wheel of the car beside you
- you have the pleasure of being served by a woman once in awhile, like in a pharmacy or a restaurant
- you can eat pork if you want to and have a drink if you want to
- you can go to the movie theater
- you can wear what you like and the streets are filled with colorful clothes
- it feels like you really are in a different country because there is Arabic all around you, and local people enjoy talking to you

All of those things are either very rare or point-blank illegal in Saudi Arabia, so we made the most of our time while in Egypt. However, there are some things that we appreciate about Saudi Arabia after coming back. These include:
- everything is quite clean here
- we have our own great apartment, bathtub, stove, and car, and we know how to get places
- we don't have to haggle over prices anywhere
- people don't guilt trip you for a tip every time you go to the bathroom
- it's easy to find good food and convenient to go shopping

Home sweet home.

Coming back to Riyadh this time around was completely different than our first-timer arrival into the country. Gone was all the stress of finding day care, an apartment, a car, and figuring out how to navigate this address-less city. We already know exactly how to get to work, the grocery store, the DVD store, our favorite fresh juice shop, the dry cleaner's, and our favorite malls. Plus, we had a few weeks of vacation left before the university started up again, so we had time to relax and settle back in.

Though we had the good fortune of being away for the hottest part of the year, September in Riyadh is no cool breeze. It's still 90-some degrees even well after sun set. Misha insisted on wearing his soccer sweatshirt in this photo - not because it was chilly out, but because he was going out to play soccer. Obviously. So he certainly couldn't take it off! By the end of his half hour soccer session, he was rosy-cheeked and soaked with sweat.

Sebastian knows the importance of staying hydrated.

Ready for tennis!

The kids are doing great and growing up quickly! Sebastian already has a handful of words under his belt, including "hi" and "bye," "uh-oh" (in perfect context), "ju" for juice (or any food item at all), "okay," and more recently, "up," "all gone," and "owie" (again in perfect context). He also does an amazing imitation of a cat's meow as well as the funniest sound effects for eating when he's hungry. (The comedy show reaches its pinnacle when Sebby chirps "juuuuuuu?" and makes his munching sound effects while trying to stick his hand down my shirt. Oh boy.)

Drinking successfully by himself! Well, sort of ...

Playing in the laundry.

Sebby is becoming more and more of a playmate for Misha, though they still fight more than they get along. Nevertheless, Sebastian's ability to sit and stack legos or to concentrate on filling a page with colorful marker scribbles has vastly increased, and the boys are able to enjoy more and more things together.

Misha helps us out by pushing Sebby in the grocery store in the new stroller.

Always finding new things to play with! This spatula will be long gone by the next time mom urgently needs it to flip pancakes at breakfast time...

As for Misha, his creativity and vocabulary continue to amuse and impress me. A sampling of Kid Talk:

"Mom, you're a great guy."
"Daddy, how come you're a boss but you're not the real boss, because Mommy's the real boss?" (in response to Josh's comment to 'go ask mom.')
"I'm still trying to concentrate."
"Be careful - it's very fragile!"
"My voice is kind of crunchy." (when he was hoarse)
"It looks marvelous!" (upon seeing the newly arranged living room)
"She has bracelets on her teeth." (that is, braces)
"I'm kind of like Ramadan because, you know Ramadan? You don't eat?" (while recovering from the flu)
"I'm the starvingest one in our family! The starvingest!"
"Mom, you smell good. You smell like cookies."
"I don't wanna distract him anymore because he's trying to sleep."
"You're my bestest mama and you're comfy." (snuggling at night)
And I'll conclude with the kid of quote that epitomizes life with two kids. "Mom! Sebby's trying to put the peanut butter in the bathtub!"

We filled our vacation time with various activities....
like making chocolate chip cookies,

getting inspiration from our beautiful papyrus painting

for our own papyrus masterpieces,

and of course, going shopping. Since we returned to Riyadh during the last week of Ramadan, almost everything was closed during the day, opening up only after 9 p.m. for a frenzy of shoppers. Absolutely no restaurants were open in the city before sundown, and even though some grocery stores were open in the afternoon, everything shut down again for several hours while the entire city broke the fast with their families. After the meal, starting at 9 a.m., people began to flock to the malls. It was madness - Riyadh is nocturnal during Ramadan. Being stuck on the compound all day meant that we too wanted to get out and do something - so off to the mall we went. Unfortunately, this meant that we were shopping with the kids from 9 to midnight or later, which threw off all of our schedules drastically. The process of getting our schedules back to normal once work started was not pleasant.

Air hockey at the mall.

Checking out the toy store.

Wii Bowling at Jarir Bookstore, the Barnes & Noble of KSA.

We met a very sweet Syrian family during Ramadan and celebrated the birthdays of the father and daughter with them (until very late into the night, of course). Misha and their son Ziad, after fighting most of the night, bonded in the back seat of the car and suddenly didn't want to say goodbye!