Hooked

Last summer when we first arrived in Amman, Eric and I gamely set out for a run in the 35 degree heat, in a hilly city 1000m more elevated than the place we had recently departed. That adventure lasted about 10 minutes and wasn’t repeated for months.

In Baghdad, though, there wasn’t much else to do besides work and exercise. I was also able to run a flat, traffic-free kilometre loop on the compound, and so started getting up in the mornings for runs – short ones at first, then gradually longer, until I was considered the weird Canadian nursing a single beer at the Thursday night parties so that I could get up at 7 for a long run before it got too hot. But I also ate more pudding than the Brits and never felt guilty, so I’ll let you be the judge of who was weird.

Back in Amman, now, I’ve stuck with it despite the challenges. The sidewalks make every run a bit too much like parkour for my liking, and I could do without the stares, catcalls, and honks I get… although Eric had a firecracker thrown at him, so I guess I’m getting off easily.

But those things are worth putting up for in exchange for faster starting to feel easier, for further seeming more in reach every week. We’re googling destination races for the fall. Every time I hit a particularly steep hill (which is often in Amman), I tell myself how much easier this will make a flat course seem.

Obviously, getting to eat everything in sight is a big perk. I love the fact that I basically need giant brunches, extra cookies, and spoonfuls of peanut butter to function.

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Cucumber, cool as a

Traveling anywhere in Latin America, I’ve always felt an immediate click with the country and the people. The mountains and scenery, colourful hats, and fried dough dipped in chocolate speak to me. I’m still waiting on that feeling with the the Middle East, and have resigned myself to the fact that it’s probably never going to happen for me. But arriving back in Amman after two months in Baghdad has made me appreciate the city more than I had when I left. The driving may be crazy, but at least I’m allowed to go places!

Spring in Amman is beautiful. The normally bleach-white-and-beige city is awash in green, with lilacs spilling over walls and brilliant wild poppies splattering the road side like wed paint. The weather is perfectly crisp and sunny, and the first of the summertime produce has started to appear on the back of pick-up trucks parked on the highway.

I realized that even though I’m not in love with the city, that’s no reason not to fully live our lives here. Since I’ve been back we’ve started exploring again – the new Thai place, the cool artsy neighbourhood downtown, more ruins. I’ve said fuck it to the hills and the catcalls and started running seriously again; with the view to maybe signing up for something biggish in Europe this fall.

The posting lifestyle is teaching me to make the best of things, instead of waiting until things are perfect. Life lesson: things will never be perfect, so just get going.

Becoming a manager at the same time as I was learning the ropes to my new job was highly intimidating. I’ve had to deal with some pretty serious issues with my staff, but I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with the role. People mostly seem to want the same things I want as an employee – a degree of autonomy, but direction when it’s required; a challenge and the tools to meet it successfully; clients to not be mean to us. I can’t influence the last one but I can do my best to give my staff the first two (and for anyone in the same shoes, I highly recommend the Ask a Manager archives for invaluable managerial advice from a smart lady).

Acknowledging that my sphere of influence is very tiny has also been helpful in managing my stress about my job (the physical manifestations of which, luckily, turned out to be my very first parasite). I love that my job amounts to solving problems, but I’m learning that there are a lot of problems I can’t solve on my own. I can offer advice but I don’t get paid enough to carry the burdens of others.

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No fixed plans

My mother is visiting us in September, and is already sending me draft itineraries. She considers me little more than a vagabond in terms of how late I leave things, but by any objective measures I’m a planner (as evidenced by ye grand olde to-do list you can link to up there). I like certainty, I like the ticking off of things accomplished, I like goals.

So I don’t find it entirely hyperbolic to call The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking quietly life-changing. I haven’t torn down the to-do list and thrown out my calendar, but I have taken on a new perspective on planning my life out in too much detail.

I tend to hide behind an ironic little facade at times, but I’m usually sheltering some sky-high hopes; when things don’t go as planned I can be crushingly disappointed. I’d love to claim I’m a roll-with-the-punches kind of girl, but the punches often leave me ugly crying at how my daydreamed-in-intricate-detail expectations weren’t met.

So the idea of ditching five-year plans and bucket lists, of recognizing that we don’t control 99.9% of what happens in our lives and it’s better to just experience the road as it unfurls beneath our feet, is not one I’d given much thought to before, but made my heart do a little skip at the idea of just being free to meander.

This tiny, obvious revolution won’t completely upend my life – I’m still required to set yearly objectives at work after all – but it’s a refreshing wake-up call that I probably spend rather too much time planning to do things and not enough time actually doing them.

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Complaints ahead

I’m starting feel the kind of full-body exhaustion that a dog sleeping under a patch of shade in August seem to convey. One of the national identity lies Canadians like to repeat is that we “punch above our weight” in the diplomatic world – that despite our relatively small population we get things done and are of import on the world stage, that we’re cool-headed peace brokers in a world of superpowers and upstarts.*

And I don’t even have the energy to discuss how true this is, the punching and relative weight classes, on an international-policy level. But so far in my time here I’ve counted 11 Americans  and 6 Brits in Jordan and Iraq who would be considered my counterpart. The resources that other countries assign to what has been handed to me as my job are simply mind-boggling. The same goes for my full-time colleague in Baghdad – she’s more or less a one-woman embassy. This would be difficult in, say, Paris or Berlin, but here in the land of corruption index champions this cheery “look what we’re doing with so few resources!” back-patting coming from headquarters is bruxism-inducing.

Really the worst part, though, is the fact that I set what I now realize were unreasonably high expectations for how much I would accomplish while in-country and now need to devise more reasonable “how can we slog through until we sort this out?” plans for our operations, and that’s discouraging. Nobody likes to concede defeat, but try to get a Type A foreign service officer (redundant) to do it. Go on, I’ll wait.

Anyways, though, in the other Great Canadian Stoic Tradition: things could be worse. I’m learning a lot, and am fairly certain that unless I’ve screwed up something major and not noticed as of yet, this will probably translate into good news for my career. I’m running every morning and the cafeteria’s Sri Lankan night is amazing. I’m here for three more weeks, and should be able to check a few more boxes before returning to Amman and my old two-embassy juggling act… and then will be counting down to mid-May, when we’ll ditch the desert (and my Blackberry) for a well-deserved vacation.

 

* I say this out of the purest patriotism, the kind that involves looking unflinchingly at my country and saying, yes, this place is great, but let’s be honest guys we could make some improvements; and also acknowledging that surely every country does the same thing, repeating myths about national identity until they become more or less bedrock of the national psyche. The other big one being how nice we all are, as evidenced by our constant apologizing, which, personally, having experienced my fair share of apologies from Canadians (and having delivered a number of them myself), I can assure you these apologies are for the most part delivered in a saccharinely passive aggressive fuck-you-very-much kind of tone and are not nice at all. 

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this opinion will change

I’m slowly discovering more gray hairs, glinting silver in the mirror when I brush my teeth and floating, almost invisible, in front of my glasses when my bangs grow too long. Perhaps because they number in the dozens, I’m finding myself charmed by them rather than distraught. I like the way they look; in my otherwise hazelnut hair they catch the sun and, I fancy, lend me an air of seriousness to offset my otherwise goofy youth, always standing awkwardly akimbo in my blazers and heels.

I imagine being so startled one day that I grow a glamourous shock of pure white, streaking around to frame my face and prove that I have history, I have cred. I try to measure the new grays, imagine they are like rings in a tree trunk – if hair grows x millimeters a month, you showed up precisely then – what storm did I weather that day?

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Cooped up

I get a grim sort of satisfaction from the fact that I can’t stand to be stationary for long. It’s a perverse kind of pride to feel as though I’m unique in my inability to stay, to hold still, to just root in and stabilize – my reared-in-the-90s special-snowflake psyche is pleased as punch but my frontal cortex worries about the ramifications. Action is satisfying, but at what point does it become destructive? A foundation won’t set if you start to build before it dries; painting over wet drywall causes mold.

I wasn’t made for hotel rooms and bunkers. I already knew that, but this seems to be a lesson that this job is drilling into me again and again. I thrive in places with a build-in safety net. If I stayed here for any length of time, my cabin fever would start to override my sense of self-preservation – anyone’s would.

For now, though, I’ll try and keep the big picture in mind – a few months of close quarters for an as-yet-undetermined potential future payoff. Who could refuse?

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more books

I would have thought being so busy at work would mean less reading, but if anything it’s meant more – maybe because the last thing I want to do when I finally get home is look at another screen; I’d rather wedge myself into the tiny space on the couch not occupied by the dog and dive into a book.

Life After Life, which was good and surprising with a wistful, enigmatic ending which normally would irritate me, but didn’t?

The Goldfinch, which, if it were a movie, and I was the Oscars, people would be calling it a “major contender for best movie of the year” or whatever Oscars are called. So good. Go buy it now.

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, which I reread before going to see the movie, which was so awesome. I remember before reading these books being all huffy that the premise was clearly ripping off Battle Royale and the author had the gall to deny she had ever heard of the Japanese masterpiece. I still think that, but I don’t care anymore because Katniss is so cooooool, you guys.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was another one of those it-all-unfolds-in-a-day stories that I love.

I read The Maze Runner, which I randomly downloaded while looking for other dystopian fiction. It was okay, but I’m probably not going to bother with the sequels.

Yesterday I finally read Gone Girl (#123), and was blown away by how good it is. I’m normally not that into mysteries (too impatient), but this was so well-written that I tore through it while sitting beside the pool in Baghdad, and now I might go back to savour some of the amazing lines.

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Type A

One early summer day a few years ago, a work friend held a party. About thirty people from our department, plus spouses and a few babies, crammed into their charming apartment and sweated as we drank chilled rosé, ate homemade pizza, and yelled over each other in several languages.

As we were leaving, Eric said to me, “I have never in my life been in a room so filled with Type A personalities before.” I hotly refuted this, insisting that I was clearly a relaxed and contemplative Type B, until my arguing proved his point.

Of course, psychologists have refuted this whole concept, but it’s such a convenient shorthand for so many things that how could it not have slipped into the general lexicon? What I don’t understand though is how, in my circles at least, Type A has become the desirable trait, when the original use was to describe how Type As were at greater risk for heart disease because they need to fucking chill.

All my life, though, my communities have been heavily A-focused: heavy on achievement, used to winning. Up against some people I know (and love), I’m comparatively laid-back, but I know  that on an absolute scale I can be kind of intense, even when I’m not particularly interested in the prize. A longtime friend and I just had a lengthy Skype conversation about how our whole circle of friends consisted of ambitious, active women accompanied by laid-back, mellow husbands and boyfriends.

Types, fits. For all the talk of individuality, of trailblazing and uniqueness, we all seem rather eager to pigeonhole ourselves.

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Book update

I keep forgetting to update my list of books, and have subsequently forgotten some of the books I read, but I mean to try and keep writing them down. I read The Luminaries, which was beautiful but had an unsatisfying ending, and I read Americanah, which was terrific.

I convinced Eric to read The Dinner, which was one of those amazing takes-place-in-one-evening stories, because when I read it I knew he’d love it.

I read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, which was very good, but couldn’t get into Dissident Gardens.

I also reread Notes from a Small Island, MaddAdam, the Wolf of Wall Street, and Ghostwritten (again). That brings me to 116 books, although I think I’m forgetting a few.

I’ve been reading a lot more since we moved overseas (slow internet and lots of transatlantic flights!) so I’m going to step it up and try and read 100 books in 2014. We’ll see how that goes!

Year in Revue

I rang in 2013 with my husband (accidentally) spitting a mouthful of water in my face at a party. I had said something hilarious at the exact moment that he took a big gulp of water, and he simply couldn’t hold it in. We were standing with a group of friends, and everyone stayed completely silent as I took off my glasses and wiped my face with my sleeve. Then we all burst out laughing – except for Eric, who started apologizing profusely.

That’s basically been my year. Raucous, unexpected, and ultimately something we can look back on mirthfully.

I drank lots of wine with great people, discovered I love oysters, and raised my iron levels to an acceptable range. I scored 100% on Baby Got Back at karaoke and made a tiny cookie jar and a bunch of lopsided mugs.

I moved to Jordan and brought a great dane and an economist with me. I rode a camel, ate sheep intestines, went to Iraq, and drove through a blizzard to a friend’s wedding. I am now the proud owner of 7 silver hairs and a matching hatchback.

It’s been a good year but it fairly flew by. It feels like we just arrived in Jordan, yet we’re already a quarter through our posting. Tonight, we’re staying home and watching movies, eating parmesan popcorn and drinking cava. It’ll be a slow, quiet evening, and I’m hoping that this might set the tone for 2014.

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