Thursday, March 3, 2011

Not Quite English: Fresh Bread, Frenchly Made

Expats love typos in signs, menus, etc.  Expats also love to take pictures of these funny typos and share them. Depending on your opinion on this business, I shall say "I'm sorry" that this is the first of many similar posts, or "get excited" that this is the first of many similar posts.

So I went to the fancy grocery store because I wanted some fancy bread and not the usual khobz. When I got home I got a double-dose of enjoyment from it -- tasty bread and an amusing wrapper. It invited, "So. Enjoy me!" and "So. I did!"

The Wiktionary says "Frenchly" is a word so prehaps I shouldn't criticize ... nah, still funny.

This was no ordinary "French stick".

Monday, February 28, 2011

Mary had a little lamb ... for lunch

I bought some minced lamb at the grocery store because it was next to the minced beef and was cheaper so I thought why not (although I acknowledge this is probably not the smartest meat-purchasing strategy). But then I had to find a recipe for what to do with it so I scoped out Epicurious per my usual. I settled on this recipe for Lamb Kofte with Yogurt Sauce since I had the ingredients on hand and oh man, am I glad I did.

I made the meatballs and yogurt sauce per the recipe but replaced the onions with tomatoes and cucumbers and passed on the muhammara. My meatballs were a little malformed but it was so juicy and delicious! The prep was fast, too, which is not a prerequisite for a tasty lunch but is always a bonus. I recommend you invite yourself over to my house for lunch sometime and make me make this for you.  Or you can make it and invite me over, you know, whichevs.

Mint + Lamb = Meatball Magic

Touristing: Baptism Site

Bethany beyond the Jordan, the site where Jesus was baptized, is located about 40 km southeast of Amman. Interesting in a I-visited-the-Baptism-site-check! kindof way but honestly a bit of a letdown. I feel bad not finding spiritual sites of Biblical importance more exciting, but ... I don't. I was on the tour listening to the audio guide and it says "Here is where John the Baptist baptized people" and its a little brown thicket. Reaction: "Really, right here by this random bush and pile of rocks?" I had to constantly remind myself it is an archeological site and 2,000 years had passed and things looked different then. Same goes for the actual baptism place - there's no water there anymore. Same goes for the Jordan "River" - it's basically a sad, stagnant brown trickle of water now (although not really its own fault). The best part were the sweet mosaics - scroll down to check 'em out. 

Baptism site of Jesus

Mosaic of how the site looked 2,000 years ago. Note the plug for the website -

A huge mosaic next to the site featuring the late great Pope John Paul II .... in a golf cart (seriously??).

The  Jordan "River"

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Touristing: Ajloun Forest Reserve

Some friends and I headed out early Saturday morning to hike at the Ajloun Forest Reserve. Ajloun is located about 70 km north west of Amman. The Forest Reserve has several trails; we hiked the Soapmaker's Trail, which is about 6 km. The forest is mostly evergreen oak, but along the way we saw pistachio, olive, and wild strawberry trees, poppies, and a bunch of other flowers and plants whose names I don't remember. We also saw lots of mole hills, a gross-looking bug, some deer(?) tracks and goats. The hike wasn't too challenging and our guide didn't even break a sweat, but I'll be honest, my legs were like jelly at the end. We had a great time though - just nice to be out enjoying nature. Afterwards we checked out two workshops in the village of Rasun - one for soapmaking and another for calligraphy. I bought some pomegranate and cinnamon soap and got a card with my name written on it in Arabic script. Afterwards we headed back to Amman but stopped along the way in Jerash for some lunch. I was beat by the time we got back but overall a nice little Saturday!

Our tour guide, whose name may or may not be Sariq, pointing to what may or may not be Palestine.

Wild strawberry tree! This was very neat to check out - the tree gets its smooth bark and bright color from the fact that it sheds the bark each year, like a snake.

Trail marker that doubles as a mole's front door.

Goats enjoying some lunch.

Checking out the view from the top of the mountain (hill...?).

Young goatherders we ran into at the top. The rapscallion on the left tried to abscond with my camera.

We ordered the*small* vegetable platter for lunch. Two reactions: 1) if this is the small, how big is the large?? and 2) I have to cut the vegetables myself ... with a bread knife?

Elaborate vegetable presentation destroyed by voracious hikers.

Mixed grill carnage! One kilo of meat for five people is a lotta meat, but we managed. 

How to pass the time on your next Jordanian roadtrip

We took lots of car trips when I was younger, and therefore played innumerable car games. There was the license plate game, the word game Ghost (which is phenomenal, yet 99% of people refuse to play with me, you know who you are), and others - but none so truly Midwestern as The Silo Game. Pitting the left side of the car against the right, the rules were simple -- you counted the silos that passed by on your side of the car, and if you passed a cemetery you lost all your silos. Whichever side had the most silos when you arrived at your destination was the winner.

Some friends and I took a road trip to the Ajloun Forest Reserve today, and as we were driving along I was inspired to adapt this to the Jordanian context. Just as silos are ubiquitous throughout the Midwestern countryside, so pictures of King Abdullah II are ubiquitous throughout Jordan. And when I say ubiquitous, I mean ubiquitous -- they are everywhere, of all shapes and sizes, on the side of buildings and in shops, featuring the king in all manner of poses, outfits, and situations.

After some debate on how to replace the cemeteries, we selected the trucks that drive around delivering cooking gas, with ice-cream-truck music announcing their presence. Some special scoring is still under debate, regarding what bonus points should be awarded, if any, if His Majesty appears in the photo: 1) engaged in an activity (playing soccer and using the computer were spotted); 2) with a member of his family, such as his father the late King Hussein, his wife Queen Rania, or his son the Crown Prince Hussein; 3) in a keffiyeh and/or full military regalia, etc. A discussion regarding whether waving qualified as an activity also generated some heated debate, which I had to settle by playing the I-made-up-this-game-what-I-say-goes card in favor of it not being an activity (clearly).

We started the game as we set out from the reserve, and before we had even reached the city of Ajloun 6 km away, each side of the car already had more than 25 Abdullahs. (This should illustrate just how many of these pictures there are!) But we each then promptly got our Abdallahs wiped out by the unfortunate passing of gas trucks on both sides. I'll skip the back-and-forth along the rest of the hour's journey to the part where we got back to our neighborhood in Amman and each again got hit by a gas truck. The timely appearance of His Majesty's picture in two adjacent shops gave the left side of the car an edge over the right, ending the game at 2 to 1. It's difficult to estimate a total of pictures we passed due to the occassional do-over caused by a gas truck, but I'd conservatively guess we spotted more than 200 pictures combined.

So next time you are roadtripping in Jordan and need to pass the time -- try the Abdullah Game, it's fun for the whole family!

Touristing: Jerash

A former colleague of mine from the States came to Jordan for work and luckily Tuesday of that week just happened to be a national holiday. Score! (I've previously discussed my love of unexpected holidays.) So we decided that we would go that day to Jerash. Jerash is about 45 minutes north of Amman and I had a vague idea that it was an interesting tourist site with some Roman ruins. I was not prepared for how amazing and extensive it is! When I went to Italy, for example, and saw the Coliseum, I was fascinated by the structure and enjoyed wandering around the site. But I had previously seen pictures it and knew what to expect; it was an awesome site but I was not in awe of the site. I feel like I enjoyed Jerash all the more because it was a surprise to me.

I went to Jerash once more after my initial visit when a couple of friends came through town during a tour of the Levant region -- Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. Unfortunately for them, Syria would not let them in without visas (they thought you could get them at the border) but fortunately for me, that meant they had extra time to spend in Jordan!

Jerash is the site of the ancient Roman city of Gerasa. Read more about it here. Among its attractions are the towering Hadrian's Gate; a long, colonnaded stone street; two amphitheaters; and numerous temples and churches.

The Hippodrome - home of chariot racing

Hadrian's Gate

Plaza and colonnaded street

Nick, I think you're too close to the ledge. Might wanna step back.

Oops, you should be more careful next time, Nick.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mind your P's and Q's

In English, politeness is pretty straightforward - you say please, thank you, excuse me, and you pretty much have it covered. Someone says hello, you say hello back. If someone gives you a compliment, you say thank you.

Not so in Arabic.

In Arabic, when someone greets you, your reply must always be MORE polite than the greeting you recieved. When someone says "good morning" to you in Arabic, you reply "sunny morning" or "flowery morning" (or Egyptians might reply "honey morning"). If someone says hello (marhaba), you reply marhabtain ("two hellos") or if you really want to lay it on, "meet marhaba" (one hundred hellos).  If you give someone a compliment, for example on their clothing or the cuteness of a baby picture, you must always follow it with "Mashallah" - God wills it - to show you have no envy and ward off the evil eye. After you share a meal and someone wishes you "sahtain" - that it brings you health - you reply "a'ala albik" - "health for your heart, too". 

They are all very beautiful phrases, I just wish it was easier to be as polite as I would like to be. It would be nice to just say thank you (shukran) and have that be it - khallas! But since it's not, I think I have some studying to do....

Thursday, January 20, 2011


I got this gem in my inbox from A.Word.A.Day.
Think of it during your next episode of lateness-induced stress and just chillax.
It ought to be plain / how little you gain / by getting excited / and vexed. / You'll always be late / for the previous train, / and always in time / for the next. -Piet Hein, poet and scientist (1905-1996)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Proceed without Caution

When I found out that I would receive a complimentary rental car during my time in Jordan, I was equal parts thrilled and horrified. Thrilled not to have to depend on public transportation, but horrified by all of the potential pitfalls of driving in a foreign country -- what would I do if I got in an accident or got lost? What would the traffic be like? Which side of the road do they even drive on?  I needn't have worried ... mostly. Driving in Jordan is easy ... mostly. I'll provide some tips for those situations not mostly covered.
For today's tip we'll start with an easy one: lanes. There really aren't any. Yes, there are often some faded lines painted on the road surface that you might occassionally feel compelled to pay attention to. But basically a road is as wide as the number of cars that can squeeze into it. So if the paint says there are two lanes, there's really probably three or four. Now you might think that coming from the U.S. where lanes are respected that this would be frustrating to deal with and for some drivers I'm sure that's the case. For me, I find it freeing. The trick is to not fight it, just embrace it and use the lack of adherence to lane division to your advantage to manuever your way through the traffic. The car in front of you has left space on the shoulder? Go on, squeeze on by. Looking for a store and not sure  it's on the right or left? Easy, just drive down the middle.  Basically it's like you are constantly driving as if you have just left a toll plaza, in the big expanse of space before the road pares down to marked lanes again, trying to keep tabs on cars coming from all sides while jockeying for position.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Metaphorical Sailing

Hopefully when you were in high school your English teacher made you read Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. Spoon River is a collection of poems that are epitaphs of denizens of a fictional Midwestern small town. I enjoyed reading it in high school and still do. I'm not gonna lie, it's pretty depressing, but it just sucks you in like an early 20th century version of 'Jersey Shore'. But in between some sad lines, I have found glimpses of inspiration. One in fact, was the inspiration for the blog title - the epitaph of George Gray. Here's his story...

"I HAVE studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me--
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire--
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid."

So here I am, sails unfurled, leaving behind restlessness and vague desire, catching the winds wherever they drive the boat....

...although ironically I'm not a big fan of sailing. But I still love this poem. I suppose I can just be a fan of metaphorical sailing, so there's that.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

This doesn't exist in Jordan: Make-up holidays

You know how if Christmas falls on a Saturday, like this year, you get Friday off? Not so here in Jordan. When holidays fall over the weekend you just get screwed out of them. There is no make-up! No make-up? How can they do this to people?! I am not a fan.

One thing I am a fan of however are all of the unexpected holidays. I'll just be sitting in my office and one of my coworkers will say, "you know that this Thursday is a holiday, right?". Oh what joy, what bliss, I did not know that it was a holiday. It's like a snow day without the snow! In the U.S., one knows all the holidays and when to expect them. Sometimes the minor bank holidays (I'm talking to you, Columbus Day) creep up on you but usually it's a countdown to that auspicious day, with the pleasure of anticipation for special plans made to take advantage of the three-day weekend. (But then of course there's the pain of waiting for the next one to come around; President's Day is the worst, because you know it will be 3.5 long months until Memorial Day!)

The dark side of this new-holiday-feeling however is that it comes at the expense of the usual holidays. Thanksgiving? Nixed. MLK Day? No way. Can't I just have both, pretty please?

I love animals ... they're delicious!

I can't take sexy food pix but trust me it was delish.
Oh maaaaan did I make some good lamb chops the other day. I'd never made lamb chops before, but I had a bunch of fresh mint I had to use up. And what goes better with lamb than mint? Not much. And what goes better with lamb chops and mint than good company? Not much. So I invited a couple friends over and we delightfully chopped, marinated, sauteed, and boiled away our Thursday evening. End result: lamb chops marinated with garlic, thyme and rosemary then seared and roasted; (storebought) gnocchi with (homemade, hand-chopped) mint-basil pesto; and sauteed swiss chard with onions. Mmm boy! (There was also a chocolate-date pudding but let's not talk about that ... not good, too datey.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Road Rage

Why is it that traffic is so incredibly soul-crushing? Maybe it's the uncertainty regarding the cause of the issue and how long one's trip will now take. Perhaps it is the monotony of sitting and waiting, then moving forward by inches. Or it could be the frustration of the time that is being wasted. Whatever it is, I can't handle it. Traffic is my nemesis and one of my biggest fears. This is the reason I chose an apartment so close to my office. When the weather is nicer, if I can make myself get up early, I can even walk there. It takes me 5 minutes to get to work in the morning and 10 minutes to get back. But last night, it took me FIFTY MINUTES. Apparently there was a rally or protest of some kind outside of Parliament and so they rerouted the traffic. Unfortunately, I live a stone's throw away from the Parliament building. Basically I wanted to be on the wadi road and got rerouted to the jebel road, so I was perched above looking down to where I wanted to be. It was torture. In retrospect I guess it wasn't too bad --- I got home at 5pm instead of 4:10 -- that's still 1.5 hours earlier than I would ever get home in the U.S.! But seriously, traffic is the devil.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Money, it's a gas....

You might think this is a 20 JD note .... but it's not.
The larger grocery stores and some other businesses in Amman have a black light at the checkout. When you give them a bill of 20 JD or larger, they scan it under the black light. It's the equivalent of those brown pens they use sometimes at stores in the U.S., but perhaps more prevalent. I had noticed this before but didn't think much of it until New Year's Eve. I went to the store to purchase some beverages for the evening and my 20 JD note was REJECTED. Further observation showed it to be COUNTERFEIT. It is slightly smaller than the real note, but you can only tell if you hold it up to a real one. Also the color was off, but only so much that it looked like a worn bill, not a fake one. When you put the bill under the black light, a silver security strip glows in the middle of the bill. Mine was revealed to lack the silver strip - it was painted on! When examined, it looked like shiny silver nail polish - totally fake. I can't be sure, but I'm almost positive I got the bad bill when I used a 50 JD note to pay for gasoline earlier in the day. Twenty JD is about 28 USD so this is no small loss --- an interesting but expensive novelty at the New Year's Party I attended later! You can be sure that I will check my change better in the future.

UPDATE: Turns out apparently I can take the counterfeit bill to the Central Bank and they will give me a new one. I have to report where I got the counterfeit bill and then they will send an auditor to check it out. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

This doesn't exist in Jordan: Safety and emissions tests

Sometimes here in Jordan I realize that something very commonplace in America just doesn't exist here. This happened once when I was sitting in traffic while driving home from work one day. I realized that vehicle and safety emissions tests do not exist in Jordan. (Most of my epiphanies happen whilst sitting in traffic, but coincidentally this one was actually driving-related.)

Since 2008, I have had to register my car twice - first in DC and then when I moved to Virginia. Both were horrible experiences, mainly due to my driver's side window which would not reliably go up and down on demand, resulting in trips back and forth between the mechanic and inspection stations. If the DMV existed in the 14th century, Dante would surely have included it as one of the rings of hell. If I were in Jordan however, I would have never had these issues, because as far as I can tell, any and all vehicles are acceptable for driving here.

In DC/Virginia and other U.S. states, vehicles must meet certain safety and emissions standards to be considered road-worthy. No so here in Jordan! I see vans without brake and taillights, trucks trailed by sooty fumes, and clunkers that look like they will crumble into 1,000 pieces at the next sudden stop. The public surveece buses are some of the worst offenders - chugging out thick, black smoke so bad you need to close your windows then clean your windshield. I even saw a taxi once with no trunk - he must've been rear-ended because the back was folded up like an accordion - but he was just going about his business, picking up passengers.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Tips for America from Jordan

I am an American living in Amman, Jordan. In these situations, there is often an expatriate inclination towards comparison between one's place of residence and one's birthplace. On occassion I experience something that makes me think "America could really learn from Jordan by [fill in blank]". I had one of these moments not long after arriving while still learning my way around. In general, finding places here is a complicated affair, as no one knows street names and directions are given by landmark, BUT once you make it to the right street, identifying a building is a breeze. All of the buildings, commercial and residential, have large blue street numbers. Aesthetically speaking of course, I will concede that this is not particularly attractive. But this is easily outweighed by the convenience. America: Learn from Jordan! Put big blue street numbers on all of your buildings and houses! That is all.