Sunday, April 30, 2006

Tibs What?

Someone dusted the cobwebs off my Ethiopian goatskin lunchbox.

But no one knows who did this good deed.

Who could have been so efficient? Who was such a good houseguest? I don't know.

I'd been collecting cobwebs there, mostly because I was too lazy to go get a ladder since I couldn't reach them (11-foot ceilings in my old Victorian). But someone removed them. Maybe Sean from Oz, or Babc0ck or Kraiger went into a cleaning frenzy while I was busy microwaving Peeps.

I accosted Yancey first. He'd stayed three nights in my place last week (having left JC for San Francisco when his fiancée got a job out there). And he'd worked at the drawing table, right under the offending cobwebs.

"Wasn't me. Try the sweeping Swede."

I emailed the eSwede. He'd been here too. He didn't even know what a goatskin lunchbox was. And when he googled it? It turned up… me.

"Not very informative," he said. "What's an Ethiopian goatskin lunchbox anyway?"

It's not really a box. More like a goatskin coconut that is sliced in half and then the top is tied back on. If I were to use it for its genuine intended purpose instead of just hanging it above my drawing table, I would fill it with injera (a spongy Ethiopian pancake style bread) and tibs wot (spicy pieces of meat) or pureed spicy lentils or chickpeas. And I'd lug it around Manhattan, then find a nice park to open it up in when I got hungry.

I don't know what possessed me to carry an Ethiopian lunchbox out of Ethiopia, then onto the ship from Israel to Italy, where I posted it home. I just thought it was a cool idea, this goatskin lunchbox.

Anyway, I use it as much as I use my drawing table these days.


My mother and her husband, who live in the mountains of Virginia above the Shenandoah Valley, are looking for a larger house in the area. They have a beautiful wooded chalet near Bryce Resort.

I was really traumatized the first time she moved, leaving the house I grew up in--though it was undoubtably for the best as the neighbors were insane--but since then it's turned into no big deal.

Each time my mother moved, more and more of my useless junk got jettisoned. Which was for the best, as I obviously didn't need it or I would have taken it with me to New York. (I am still jettisoning my own stuff, but for some reason I seem to acquire at a more rapid rate than I shed, even though I'm not a big shopper.)

Mom did rescue my early 70s acrylic painting of Spotsy—my childhood dog—during the first move. I think this is the only thing I ever painted that didn't involve superheroes or paint-by-numbers.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Jumping the Gun

Do you think I could buy this book and
save myself the trouble of writing it?

I'm kind of disturbed that they're selling it for $5.70 when it's not even published yet.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Downtown for Sale

Something is amiss in downtown JC. There's 8 houses or condos for sale on my block alone. I saw dozens of "For Sale" signs today when I went to have coffee with my pal Jessica over in Van Vorst Park (I live in the Hamilton Park area).

But I only saw one "Sold" sign.

Is it the rise in property taxes? That's what squashed JC's last run-up, in 1988. Interest rates? Or is it just that the insane value increases (my place tripled in value since I bought it in late 2002) that has everyone trying to take profits? No one knows. There will probably be some kind of shake-out over the next several months and we'll have some answers by autumn.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tangible Results of Kuwait

I went to the gym today, for the first time since I returned home.

While I was living in Kuwait, I never went to the gym. They were really expensive there and I didn't have a reliable method of transportation to get to and from the gym. I really only worked all day, or worked freelance all evening. And then I slept. Not much of a life, but I did have a lot to get done.

Today, the helper at the gym weighed and measured me. I knew I'd gained weight, but now I have the tangible results of what sitting still for three months in Kuwait means to me.

7 pounds overall
1.25 inches around the waist
1.25 inches around the hips
1 inch around the abdomen

I guess that'll teach me to sit on my butt for three months.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Ro's Opening Begins At 40

I turned 40 yesterday and it wasn't so bad after all.

More importantly, my pal Roberta has an art installation in a show that opened yesterday up in The Heights. Her piece is displayed outside, so we're hoping it can handle today's rain. The medium is paint, wallpaper, and electrical tape.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Goodbye from Kuwait

One of the guys from my Kuwait office posted this on his blog. His blog is anonymous, and he sounds off about plenty on it so I can't link directly to it, but he said I could reprint it here. It's a really sweet goodbye. I have serious doubts that I did all these things he credits me with... mostly I just stumbled around blindly, but that doesn't matter so much. It's still a lovely piece. And I don't really look like an elf.

Thursday, April 06, 2006
And just like that

And just like that, things went back to the way they were!

Three months ago Marie came to work. It's always difficult to tell how you're going to get along with Americans in your workplace. Kuwait is quite overrun with them like ants on sugar - and for the most part they haven't done the country any good. But my first impressions of Marie were quite different -- surreal actually. Why is she always smiling? What does she know that I don't? Is it me or does she look like an elf? (Note from Marie: Elf in question here.)

It was difficult for the folks at work not to take a shine to her. She seemed so out of her element - single american female out in the big bad world. So out of her element and yet still in control.

She had come to Kuwait to help us come to grips with the not-so-fun side of comic book production. She's sort of like a reluctant comic book geek/world traveller/editor type person. And here she was in one of the most life-sucking deserts in the world and already she wanted to take a bus, go to the post office and see the camel races.

She's insane!

And so we boys and girls of the comic book industry in the middle east - set to work creating a universe. Characters were born and then surgically altered. At our whim their loved ones lived and died. The planets were set to spin, rules were set, the animals were named and on the seventh day we rested - although my suspicion is that marie never really did!

It wasn't long before Frankie would take me aside and say "Marie knows her s*it doesn't she!?" and i would be quick to agree.

Any fight that broke out at work (and in our little dysfunctional company there were plenty to go around) it was always decided that Marie would know the right answer. And so it was that this insane person brought some sanity to the workplace.

It was more than that though. I remember when the company was made up of 4 people and it wasn't divided up into editorial, creative and financial. It was made up of four neurotic, psychologically disturbed individuals - one who always came late and drunk, one who was always trying to jump off the 28th floor of our old office building, one who would disappear to the stairwell to steal his 24th smoke of the day and one who did the filing. well it's obvious which one i'm NOT.

And then we grew into this big massive self hating organism. Friends became co-workers, and some even became bosses. And it was all lost in what was 'good for the company'. And then Marie came.

On the last day Alec, Muneer and myself took her out for dinner. Thai food. I recommended the place cus i knew the food was top notch and everyone would like it. I'd taken my sister and closest friends there but always made sure i never brought it up in front of other ppl. It was after all, a safe haven for me away from work and home. Anyways we had a great time and there was a little sadness in the air because well the three months were up and she was leaving. Chicken in green curry, vegetable soup, pad thai, squid and an amazing dish which was made simply of chicken on toast covered in sesame seeds. "This stuff is so good," i said and munched away as the others nodded their assent vigorously.

We shot the breeze and we laughed and it was all-in-all a great night. And then the next morning, Marie got on a plane and left for Barcelona.

The office was kind of dead and people realised that the most important things were once again deadlines and paychecks. The workload never stops and it only takes a little effort to just throw yourself into it.

Oh well I'm sure the office will never quite be as much fun as it used to be.

Alec and Muneer went for lunch the day after Marie left while i was neck deep in writing an Iron Man character profile for the website. I was so tense and engrossed that i didn't look up when they came back. "We have a present for you," said Muneer, smiling. Alec was smiling too.

Why are they smiling i said to myself. Do they know something I don't know?

Alec placed something on my table, wrapped up in kleenex. "it's a rat isn't is?" i said. "Something like that," says Alec. After unwrapping several layers, i saw what it was - and i was quite touched.

Chicken on toast with sesame seeds.

Sure the office won't be as much fun as it was when Marie was around. But it will also never be the same.

Thanks Marie!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Peep Show

I'm not much for celebrating Easter. But I had a houseguest--Sean from Sydney--and I felt that I should do something other than my usual holiday celebration, in which I work late before collapsing into bed.

I called up Michael Kraiger and Jon Babc0ck and we (well, Kraiger) made an Easter dinner.

When we went to buy the supplies in ShopRite, there were blue Peeps on display at the front of the store. They don't have Peeps in Australia, as far as I know, so I tossed them in the cart.

"Ever put a Peep in a microwave?" Michael Kraiger has a 7-year-old daughter and knows all kinds of kid games.


So we microwaved a Peep. Then we tried to get one to absorb dregs of wine. The former got better results than the latter.

No one would eat even an uncooked Peep. They ended up in the Jersey City landfill.

Monday, April 17, 2006

End of an Era?

Leaving Spain turned out to be something I wasn't really interested in doing. I only went home because I didn't want to be alone on my 40th birthday, which happens next week.

"Should have stayed longer," I thought, and it wasn't just because I hated waking up at 4 a.m. to get to the airport for the 7:25 flight.

After the beige, sunny desert landscape of Kuwait, everything in Barcelona seemed incredibly colorful. Green was made greener by the absence of greenery in my previous three months. The bountiful richness of the corner shops, with their piles of fruits, was made richer by the lack of these things in my Gulf winter. The importation of good company after my deliberate isolation in Kuwait made the city all the more enjoyable.

Normally, I would have caught the subway to Barcelona Sants and transferred to the airport train there. But the airport train had quit running directly in November, so I hoofed it up to the airport bus stop on Plaza Catalunya. I'd thought I'd avoided overpacking, as I'd been aware of new airline luggage limitations, but suddenly my two bags seemed ridiculously heavy as I walked through the empty alleys of the old city.

That's the problem with getting an apartment in the old city. The only practical way out is by foot. Not a big deal for the visiting pal with his compact weekend-sized suitcase, but for me with my three months worth of multi-season wear and office documents (not to mention sample copies of Spider-Man printed in Arabic), it was less-than-ideal.

Flew easily from Barcelona to Heathrow, then had to collect my bags, go through Passport Control, and catch the National Express to Gatwick for my Continental flight to Newark. Arrival at 8:40 means I should easily make the 12:30 flight, right?

Er… no. My Barcelona-Heathrow flight arrived late. The bags took forever to come up. Had the motorway been clogged, I would never have made it.

I was a public menace as I raced along with my cart through Gatwick, dodging the other carts and meandering-people as they moved in fits and starts after gazing at departure screens. I didn't hit anyone with my cart, but only due to luck.

"The check-in for flight CO29 closes in five minutes," said the Continental agent, cheerfully. I'd made it, though barely.

Seven hours later, I emerged into Newark Airport. The industrial landscape that lines US 1/9 and the New Jersey Turnpike doesn't look so bad from the train instead of from Yancey's car when he'd dropped me off at Newark in early January.

Home. Home again. What now?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Fast Food Spanish Style

One of the first things I did in Barcelona was try to buy some clothes. Kuwait has a lot of shopping malls but the prices are pretty high. So I headed to the outlet block (on Girona) and hit the Mango Outlet, as well as scoured the shops along Portaferrissa in the Old City.

A pretty pointless exercise, since, as I've mentioned here before, the clothes in Spain are generally too small for me.

So I could buy size Large clothes, but I didn't. I am not much of a shopper, and by the time I finish trying a few things on and discovering they are too small, I'm just bored and ready to not shop again for another six months.

So I guess the question is WHY are Spaniards so much thinner than Americans. WHY did I come home from Spain last time ten pounds lighter than when I'd arrived? I hadn't even gone to the gym while I was there.

It's got to be diet and lifestyle, of course. Fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil, and good-for-you stuff are all readily available on the Mediterranean coast.

Even the fast food is better in Barcelona. In most of the world, fast food is about fried things—burgers, fried chicken, and… well, more burgers.

In Barcelona, when I'm too lazy to make something and too uninspired to look for a sit-down restaurant, I run to Bocetta or Pans and Company. They're just fast food chains, but they're Spanish fast food chains. Instead of serving up fried foods, they sell bocadillos, which are skinny baguettes on crusty bread.

Of course, having just been in Kuwait, it's not enough for me to get the chicken or turkey baguette… I get the ham or the chicken with bacon. Yum!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


When I moved from Diagonal to El Raval during my first Barcelona visit, the housewarming committee consisted of a lunch delivery man—one plate covering another as he buzzed each building doorbell in his search for someone to let him in—and a dead mouse astride the building threshold.

Streets are cleaned with both sweeping machines and great jets of water in old Barcelona, with frequency that reminded me of when I'd watched old ladies diligently (and constantly) sweeping the streets in Siberia.

On the second morning, the mouse corpse was gone.

No, wait—it had only been pushed across the alley by a jet of water.

On Day Three, the mouse was back in my building's doorway. And so it went back and forth for a week, until Mr. Mouse was no longer recognizable.

Mice aren't the only things infesting the Old City. In the morning, the cobblestoned streets are peaceful, beautiful in the gentle sunlight, and wet from recent hose-downs. As the day progresses, the number of tourists multiply, to where they're wall-to-wall on main streets like Ferran or Portaferrissa.

That's all right. I'm a tourist too. It's only a problem when I'm in a hurry to get somewhere and even then, I could usually hop on a subway train to avoid the crowds. No, the unpleasantness of this infestation begins with evenings, and something my UK friends call the "Brits Abroad" syndrome.

I loved being able to go to and from Barcelona for two pounds on Ryanair, and apparently so does everyone else. By day, British kids mob the streets. By night, drunk British kids mob the streets. The Swedes do their part too, as Ryanair flies from near Stockholm direct to Girona, though you won't hear of Swedes being famous for their inability to hold liquor. That's an area they get a lot of practice in during their long winters.

When H.M.'s university class came down to study the sustainability of Barcelona in late 2004, many of the other students (who were a bit younger than my then-38-year-old BF) spent each evening in a state of inebriation. One of them was even mugged at four in the morning, right outside their hotel.
Drunk frolickers are perhaps to be held responsible for the puddles of urine and vomit that adorn the main arteries of Barcelona's old city arteries each night.

I guess there's a reason that street cleaners are so zealous here.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Barcelona Images

The eSwede sent me some photos from his weekend with me in Barcelona. They looked so good that I had to post them here.

Vespa City

The first time I moved to Barcelona, I didn't go for the climate, the celebrated creative lifestyle, or the fantastic atmosphere. No, I went because, in 2004, a friend got divorced.

"I need a place to live. Fast." He surprised me. I thought he'd been happily married.

"How about Jersey City? I wouldn't mind getting away for a while."

Off I went. Why Barcelona? It was a quick, dirt-cheap Ryanair flight from Herr Marlboro—my then-beau that I'd met in Sudan in 2001 during MariesWorldTour—who was studying in Portsmouth, UK. And my pal Lynne had just relocated to work near Barcelona at Velcro Europe. Finally, the weather was right, the prices not too awful, and my Spanish was less disastrous than my French, Italian, or Greek.

I rented a flat off the Internet. It was well-situated in an upscale area on Diagonal, and looked amazing in the photos. The reality of the little penthouse was quite different.

The flat had been sporadically—if at all— maintained. The walls showed old leaks that needed paint. The bed was a fold-out Ikea bed with missing slats. The kitchenette was filthy, the water heater ancient, and the shower a handheld. But there was a nice view of the city from a tiny terrace, and H.M. hadn't stopped smoking then, so he'd lounge there and enjoy the view. The real problem wasn't the aging structure though—it was the noise.

The owner had run a cable out of the window, so it didn't completely close. Diagonal is a main artery of the city. And was it ever loud.

I lived on Avenue B in New York for nearly a decade. The M9 bus roared by ever 20 minutes. People talked below my window, sirens wailed, and cars honked. Once or twice, someone was mugged under my third-story window. But the noise was nothing like the engine sounds that carried up the canyon-like walls alongside Diagonal.

In Barcelona, it's all about the motorbikes.

The motorcycle rules in Barcelona. So does the moped, the Vespa, motorscooter, and anything involving two wheels and a two-stroke engine. They whirr, roar, whine, zip, and sometimes moan along when they need servicing. At rest, they huddle along the edges of the sidewalks, occasionally bracketed or chained to a post. Pedestrians in Barcelona need keep an alert eye out for Vespas that might come barreling down the sidewalk in hunt of a parking spot.

Parking is more an issue in the old city than the new, because there are not wide boulevards with bike lanes and sidewalks in the old city. There's cobblestoned alleyways and some footpaths. There's nowhere to keep a motorbike.

Last night, I saw an old man zip up Calle Gignas on a Vespa. He stopped across the street from my building.

He got off the scooter and took a padlock off of a bracket on a metal roll-up grate. He rolled the grate up, opened the door beneath… and then pushed his Vespa into his living room.

I tried not to stare.

Kuwait Again

When I first got to Kuwait, I decided to ask random people (such as taxi drivers or janitors) where they were from and what they thought of living in Kuwait. I lost interest in the project quickly, but here are a few of the answers I got.

Omani: "No. I am only here to get work experience."
Egyptian: "No. I am here to work. I like Jimmy Carter."
Filipino: "Only five percent of Kuwaitis are really nice but this is my home. My children grew up here."
Syrian: "Of course. Kuwait is my home."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Caffeine Setback

I am sorry to report that here in my little studio in Barcelona's Old City, I have broken my coffee travel mug.

Which doesn't sound like a big deal, but I use it daily. It's a clever device that I have never seen for sale in the US. There are larger, cheaper styles for sale in the States, but nothing quite so ingenious as this well-designed one, which I think is from the UK. I bought mine in Australia, though I've heard there's a shop in Hong Kong where people buy them as well.

It's just an insulated mug—in itself, a useful item for traveler's as you can have soup in it or brush your teeth with it while camping—but it's got a coffee plunger that fits neatly into it, via a little slot. Hot french press coffee anywhere you can boil water, yum!

This one has made it through two years, which is also about the shelf life of my last one. I break off the little tabs on the plungers. Oops. My mother has done the same with one or two of hers.

Fortunately, I'm in Barcelona, and actually have no business making my own coffee inside when I could be in a café having a morning espresso. I've sung the praises of Rentalona before, and I'm doing it again; what a great deal they offer. I have my own tiny studio near George Orwell Place for 56 euros a night, and a visiting friend got an entire apartment just 50 meters away for 72 euros a night. Wow.

Barcelona is lovely. I was stunned when I got off the plane from Kuwait. Even the airport seemed so colorful after the beige desert. I went straight to a sandwich shop and had a bacon sandwich.

Pig meat never tasted so good.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

On the Way Out

Kuwait sneaks up on you.

Just when you're convinced that it's just an uninspired desert dressed up in Pizza Huts, you start to like it.

At least that's what happened to me.

When I'd arrived, I saw tan concrete buildings on beige ground, broken up by ribbons of asphalt. I saw a strange society of wealth made of oil, that runs on the backs of Indian and Filipino laborers. I saw shopping malls, American chain restaurants, and ridiculously bad drivers.

I wasn't wrong. Just superficial.

Sure, there's 40 McDonalds, 32 Starbucks, loads of Pizza Huts, KFCs, and Chili's. There's also a handful of Costa Coffees, Fuddruckers, Burger Kings, and a few TGIFriday's, Chi-Chi's, and Coffee Bean & Tea Leafs. One of the most anticipated openings in town is not an art or theater opening—it's the opening of the Salmiya Dunkin' Donuts.

And that, I figured, was all right. I wasn't looking for a party. I was hiding out in Kuwait, seeking an escape from distractions where I could write my book while earning an income, and also looking for near-anonymity, where I could lick my leftover wounds from 2005 in peace before I faced the world again.

For a while, I just operated on automatic. I worked at Marvel Comics for 13 years and not being at the top of my form wasn't really a hindrance. I can traffic comic books in my sleep. Funny skill to have, I know.

Then, somewhere along the way, I made some friends. Tired old jokes I'd make in the work minivan evolved into funny jokes. The office helper would smile with genuine delight when I'd tease him. I flirted with a designer ten years younger than me once in a while (innocently, I assure you). Who'd have thunk it? I even got him to wear his seatbelt.

Even more surprising? I developed enthusiasm for our company product. We're flawed, no doubt, but our goal is to put out superhero comics based in this Middle Eastern/Gulf world, not in the world of New York or Gotham City. In a time where most people I know cynically assume our villains will be Israeli, positive role models from the Gulf are sorely needed. I bet most readers out there are not even aware that in Islam, suicide is forbidden. Most readers probably have some pretty negative stereotypes about where I live, in Kuwait. So many people expressed concern for my safety in Kuwait. In fact, it is much safer than being home, where readers maybe recall I surprised a burglar in December. The biggest danger in Kuwait is auto accidents.

My co-workers charmed me with their multi-culturalism and good humor. The women I shared an office with—Lama, Maya, and Lena—were hilarious and good-natured. I never tired of explaining comic books to them, and laughed when Lama and Lena complained about having to translate old X-Men comics (very wordy). When our first Marvel posters came in, they put them up on the wall and practiced naming every character. They got stuck on Gambit. We haven't featured him anywhere yet.

Most of the people at my office reminded me that work does not have to be filled with hot air, with blustering and stepping over others on their way to the top. I had special relationships with Kutub—our Indian-Muslim-scholar-webmaster—who was so wise and patient and always reminded me to aspire to be the same, Nabeel—our staff writer/jack-of-all-trades—who patiently took my lessons on em-dashes and how to spell the word separate ("two a's two e's") and learned them to the point where he was throwing them back at me when I'd bend the rules, Alec—our genial and incredibly talented Filipino art director—who burns the midnight oil and freelances without spare time in a way I can relate to, and Muneer—an Omani designer who started working for the company only a week before me and who took all my teasing with a laugh instead of a frown. Did you know that Oman has beautiful mountains? I didn't, but now I know a lot about Oman.

Sven is my old friend who brought me to Kuwait, and Naif oversees us all. Frankie—Mr. Fixit—is the backbone of the organization, ably assisted by always-smiling Hector. Without Frankie, I am sure our business would not exist. He is Hong Kong British, and is one of those people who can do about 18 things at once. Sven has a calming influence on chaos and has a great skill in diffusing tension.

Two days before I left, Naif took us all out for Lebanese food at Mais Alghanim. There were about 20 people there. We had less than half that number at the first company-wide meeting I'd attended in early January. The food at Mais Alghanim was delicious—kebabs, hummous, babaganoush, lots of things I can't recall the names of. Nabeel made me try some kind of interesting juice. I think it was pomegranate juice. Alec spent most of the time playing with Naif's oldest son. Lama cracked jokes at her end of the table, and Naif congratulated Maya on her (obvious) pregnancy, which I think was a secret until that moment.

The next day, Naif brought in a Kuwaiti feast in my honor.

"I should leave more often," I said. I'd never had so much respect accorded to me in 24 hours.

I went around and said my good-byes that afternoon. Hector arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 5:30 in the morning. Muneer, it turned out, had split without saying good-bye. I couldn’t believe it.

"He just left?" Alec nodded and smiled.

As I was packing up my laptop and gathering my papers (I'll be freelancing for the company from Jersey City), Nabeel came into the room.

"Will you be home at seven?"

"Uh… yeah. Why?"

"Alec, Muneer, and I are coming over. You don't have a choice."

With that, he left, leaving me to wonder what they were up to for my last evening in the country.

They showed up later and showered me with gifts and cards. Then they took me to dinner at a great Thai restaurant that I'd never heard of. Alec told me that he sometimes played pool in my building lobby with the guy who'd looked for DOS on my Mac.

As we shot the breeze over Thai food, I realized I had a social life. That's pretty much the last thing I expected when I'd accepted Sven's offer to come to Kuwait.

And actually, it was pretty great. Kuwait had become more than a way station. It was a place where I'd accidentally carved out a life when I'd been in no shape to do so and had least expected it.

Marie Jerky

"Watch this," I said to Sven and the staff writer on the morning work shuttle.

I pointed my hands down towards the floor. The veins on the back of my hands swelled up.

"Now look." I tipped my hands up, pointing to the ceiling. The blood ran out of them and the veins returned to normal.

"Gross," said the writer. Sven, even though he'd seen this parlor trick the night before, wasn't that enthralled either. I'd been pretty freaked out yesterday, but Sven had told me that I was just dehydrated.

"Are you sure?" I asked him. "Or are you just trying to calm me down with the simplest answer?"

"No, it's real. Long-term dehydration makes your blood thicken."

Okay. I was happy to believe him. I certainly didn't want to suspect some sinister disease, perhaps caught in the Nile or in the Ugandan bush.

Anyway, dehydration fit with my other symptoms—thirst and frequent headaches. I'd drunk water often enough but certainly not in the volumes I needed to live in the desert. I was dehydrated like a piece of jerky that's been sitting in the sun.

Bottled water is cheap in Kuwait, but I sometimes find myself conserving it for use in my morning coffee, when I should just get off my butt and go down to the bakala—that's corner store or bodega back home—for some new bottles.

I used tap water in my coffee until people warned me not too. I'm still not entirely convinced, but it's probably best not to second-guess when I have no concrete information.

Tap water in Kuwait is desalinated from Gulf water, then kept in massive mushroom-shaped striped water towers. They look like they belong to the circus, or like the faded entrance to some 1970s amusement park. "In Tomorrowland 2000, we'll all live in high-rises shaped like mushrooms."

The desalinated water is fine for showers but is not tasty. I assumed that boiling the deasalinated water made it safe to cook pasta in or boil for coffee. Then everyone except the writer told me to be more careful.

So I was more careful and only consumed bottled water in my coffee, though I couldn't face boiling pasta in something more expensive than petrol.

But I was still slacking off on water-guzzling. And I wasn't eating a lot of snack food either—not much salt or sugar. I think I probably have been slowly drying myself out for three months.

My self-medication has so far been to eat a few aspirin a day to thin the blood, drink a ton of water, and eat some snacks. I got great results when I started drinking Coke and Sprite. Orange juice seems good too. I'm looking forward to getting to Spain. I'll get some Gatorade. Isn't that supposed to help?

I guess I should consider myself lucky. The other women in the office told me the climate makes their hair fall out.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Saloon Visit

There's a couple of shortcuts to local culture, ways of immersing yourself instantly without fussing around with assimilation or genuine cultural understanding.

One fast track is public transportation. Get on the most crowded, incomprehensible buses or minivans in the country of your choice, and suddenly you find yourself competing with locals for a seat instead of staring at them from the top deck of a tourist bus. You wanted to see how locals live? This is it. Friendliness optional. Note: Remember how you are when you commute to work in the morning back home. The last thing I'd be looking for when taking the N/R from World Trade to Prince Street was cultural interaction with a tourist. Be forgiving. The friendly locals you are so keen to interact with need to be gently approached so they don't snap at you before they've had their morning coffee.

The other express lane to immersion is the salon, called saloon here in Kuwait. I think it's different for men, who go to barbers and probably have their own experiences to relate. I know Sven has a cultural adventure every time he goes to the Salmiya barber with the giant Paul Mitchell sign outside--last time he had his eyes rubbed. But for women, going to the saloon is a day-pass into a hidden world.

I don't have a clue what most Arabic-speaking women are saying to me in Bneid Al-Gar's La Rouge saloon, but the conversations I have with them are usually accompanied by a lot of smiling, nodding, and laughing while I pretend to understand. The Filipino and Indian women are much more in-depth, as their English is usually better than their Arabic. Last night I learned that Dolly from the Philippines was rubbing my feet while Melanie from Kerala washed the tint out of my hair. Melanie is the hair color apprentice to Salwa, my Lebanese hair colorist that sealed my loyalty early on when she gently teased me about my nervousness. "Um, you can do blonde, right?" She'd giggled and patted my knee.

Dolly spent an hour giving me a pedicure (which kind of freaked me out as she sawed away with a giant file at the tough spots on my feet, leaving a disturbing pile of shavings on the floor) while Salwa and Melanie worked on my hair color. When I wasn't amusing the staff with uncontrollable giggling (I have ticklish feet), I was watching the clients come and go.

A woman would enter, totally covered in black cloak and headscarf. She'd start slowly, first removing the scarf, then the black cover, then hop a little as she'd pull off the loose-fitting black trousers beneath. I giggled to see one woman reveal leopard-print pedal-pushers and matching top underneath, with tiny high-heeled sandals topping off the outfit. She looked like Rizzo in Grease. There are no men in the saloon, not even tea-boys, so women are free to comfortably let it all hang out. And they do! Kuwait has one of the highest per capita rates of obesity in the world, thanks to the invasion of fast food and the car culture. Lovely eye-batting Rizzo was easily equal to at least two Stockard Channings.

Kuwaiti style is way more formal than US style—that is, what we consider a little make-up would not even register here. Magazines show photos of women with Elizabeth Taylor eye makeup and carefully sculpted hair. Leopard-Rizzo had a series of small mountains on her hair that finally cascaded down to flowing tresses. It seemed a shame to me when she covered it all up to leave. And as for hair, the saloon's staff are always trying to get me to do more.

"Surely you want a few stripes?" They'd ask.

"No, please. Simple. No stripes."

"Some layers then?"

"No layers. Simple. I am very lazy. Nothing that takes work."

Last night a wise-cracking Arabic woman with a cigarette advised Salwa at length about how she thought I needed highlights. I fled in the end, saying I'd think about it. But I won't. My hair is damaged enough from years of coloring it. The last thing I need is more damage. People can see that my hair is dry and flyaway just with a casual glance.

Maybe these women who cover up are onto something.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Why I Like the Bus

Just Now:

Sven and I called a taxi from The Palms Hotel in Salwa, where we'd just had dinner. He does this all the time as he goes to the gym at Palms. It's always 2 KD* for him to go home to Salmiya from there. Sven got out at his place and told the driver to take me to Bneid Al-Gar, about ten minutes down the road. He gave me 2 KD towards the fare.

"One KD more to Bneid Al-Gar, yes?" Sven addressed the driver.

"Two KD to Bneid Al-Gar. Four Salwa to Bneid Al-Gar."

"No. ONE KD to Bneid Al-Gar."

"Two to Salmiya. Four to Bneid Al-Gar."

"It's all right, Sven," I said. "I'll pay the extra two."

"You sure? Okay, see you tomorrow."

We drove to Bneid Al-Gar. I thought that I should have taken the bus instead but I'd splurge just this once.

When we arrived, I didn't have 4 KD so I gave the driver a 5 and waited for change. He looked at me.

"2 to Salmiya. 4 to Bneid Al-Gar. 6 KD."

Now I got angry.

"Are you crazy? Even 4 is a rip-off!"

He insisted on 6. I got really angry and yelled at him that he was crazy. I told him to give me back the 5 and he wasn't getting anything. After a few minutes of him insisting on six and me angrily berating him, he gave me back 1 KD. I got out and called him a "Bad Muslim" and slammed the door.

Earlier today:

I boarded the bus in Salmiya and paid 150 fils.

"Salwa?" I asked the driver.

"Yes, Salwa." I was on the right bus.

An Indian woman patted the seat next to her and I sat down. The man behind us was laughing as his granddaughter squealed over the giant dog we saw in the pick-up truck next to the bus. The driver laughed at her apparent delight.

"That's a huge dog," I said to the little girl. Her eyes danced.

The driver let me off right across the street from The Palms Hotel.

*1 KD=$3.40