Thursday, September 26, 2013

Stone Mountain

It's a strange place, Stone Mountain, exactly like it sounds: a stone, as large as a mountain, just sitting there, in the middle of an otherwise pretty flat landscape. We went there to hike up to the top - it's about a mile - but the whole place has kind of been turned into a theme park, with a cable car, a picture carved into the mountain, a large playground, etc.

It was packed - a beautiful Sunday - but it's a big mountain and we didn't have any trouble finding private spots for photos. Here you see Abe with a view of downtown Atlanta in the horizon.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Past illnesses (insha Allah)

Our rigorous lice treatment paid off; we have not seen a single louse or nit since my last update. The staph infections all cleared up too, sans doctor visits. We thought that was it - as far as illness goes - for a while. Usually we are all healthy, however it seems that when there's one thing, there's always another. Last week the entire family got some kind of stomach bug. Not too violent, but just enough to throw us off a bit, and then during our hike last weekend, I got stung by a bee, which caused an allergic reaction for which I took Benadryl, which knocked me out for an entire day. 

I hope this is it now, because I'm anxious to continue our exploration of this exciting part of the world. It's raining today, so we will not go on a hike, but we need some groceries, and the boys and my husband have some kind of science project in mind, which warrants a trip to Radio Shack and possibly Target for supplies, as far as I understand.

Hiking and exploring Northern Georgia

One thing that we have been looking forward to experiencing in the US, is the freedom a car carries: to be able to go on day trips, visits, hiking or just to a special park somewhere. Combined with the large number of parks in and surrounding Atlanta, we are very excited to have begun our exploring in this department. So far, impeded by illness at the beginning of our life here in Georgia, we’ve only managed to go on a couple of hikes, but we look forward to many miles more. I borrowed a couple of books from the library on hiking in Georgia, and the internet, of course, has an abundance of information and pictures on interesting hikes.

Last weekend we hiked six miles in Sweetwater Creek State Park on Saturday, and went to the zoo on Sunday. The hike was exhausting, but oh, so enjoyable. The boys complained a bit during the last two miles, mainly because we ran out of water, but I had a really good time. It was sunny in the low 80's with a nice cool breeze, and the woods were green, the creek vivid, rushing past next to us throughout most of the hike. There's something about being out in nature like that, that makes you feel great, don't you think?

The zoo was busy, not as large as we had thought, but nice. The animals seem well cared for (last time we went to a zoo was in Cairo, Egypt, and let's just say that we are all still scarred from that experience), and the park was fun to walk through. We got a yearly family pass - it was the same price for our family as entrance for one day - so we can come back as much as we want, whenever we want.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The food! Oh, the food!

We are a family of food snobs; my intention here is not to give you the impression of arrogance, but rather illustrate our genuine interest in food. We love exploring new foods, cooking with strange ingredients, from scratch, and I mean really scratch, as in make your own curry powder by use of a spice grinder scratch. I have talked about this a little before. By living in other countries and through our travels, we have tried, explored and learned to cook some great dishes from every corner of the world. Recently, as you might figure, we’ve been eating and cooking quite a bit of Lebanese and Mediterranean food. The ingredients for this kind of food are cheaper than other ingredients in Lebanon. It’s often easy and quite tasty, and so, I enjoy Mediterranean food. Restaurants and grocery stores in Beirut are certainly a step up from Cairo, however you can’t usually decide on making something and then go out and buy the ingredients – there’s always going to be something missing or that is imported and way too expensive. Coming to the US is always fun too, and we eat things in Indiana while visiting family there, that we can’t enjoy in the Middle East, but we don’t make very complicated food since it’s not our kitchen.

Atlanta, we have discovered however, is playing in a whole different league entirely. Oh my, oh boy! The farmers markets that we have explored so far, carry ingredients for most dishes that we could ever come up with. There’s everything from Swedish pickled herring and Italian specialty cheeses, to any spice imaginable and kimchi by the bucket. The first time we entered the De Kalb International Farmers Market we walked through the doors and just gasped. After a few minutes of running around like a kid on Christmas morning, exclaiming, “Look at THIS!” and “Oh, honey, check this out!” Courtney said, “I think I’m going to have to go sit in the car for a while and calm down. It’s too much.”

Culinarily speaking, this is going to be a great year.

Evil, lying GEICO

As soon as I got the keys to my van, I called GEICO and got a car insurance. Although I thought perhaps the fact that I don’t have a US driver’s license would be an issue, it was quick and easy; “That’s no problem at all,” the lady told me. 

A few weeks later I got a note from GEICO asking me to send them my US driver’s license number. I sent a note back explaining that I don’t have one and will not have one for a while, since I was moving from IN to GA anyways, and well, these things take time. 

I got a note back saying this was OK. 

Then, a few days later, I got another note from GEICO telling me they were about to cancel my insurance because I had not provided a US driver’s license number. I called them, and the man I spoke to told me I had to give him a US license number or he couldn’t help me. I called again, and was told the same thing by a lady. 

I might have raised my voice a bit, telling them that they should have told me this when I signed up. Of course, none of this is the fault of the representative that I was talking to, so I also wrote an angry letter to GEICO, explaining what I thought of their service, requesting my money back. 

Then I shopped around for insurance, and got Progressive instead. They are much more tolerant towards foreigners, although I have to pay a little extra for it. But at least they didn’t lie about it. 

Today I saw a commercial for GEICO on television starring a pig as a driver. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but to me, it’s just insulting, as if they’re saying, “Look! We’ll insure pigs before we insure you!” 

Effing discriminators!

Fighting a staph infection

Just when we got to Atlanta, one of Abraham’s itched mosquito bites got infected. Or – we thought – maybe it was a spider bite. It got so infected and pus filled, in fact, that I decided it would be best if I picked the scab off and drained it. As soon as I did, along with applying Neosporin 24/7, it started healing. Still, it was fairly large, swollen and red for several days. 

Then, August got one too, or actually, two of them, much bigger, about ½ inch in diameter, yellow large abscesses, that even after we drained them and treated them like we had treated Abraham’s, didn’t get any better. When August started developing a fever, we gave him antibiotics, and he soon got better. 

In the meantime, William also got one, and this is when we started thinking that perhaps it wasn’t a spider biting them (we cleaned their rooms every night before bed and had them sleep in the middle of the room) because really – what were the odds that they - all three - got bites around their knees (where they all had scabs that they kept picking) and that they all got infected in the exact same way? A little research brought to our attention the fact that perhaps it was an infection being passed around, and more precisely, a staph infection. William’s case was more serious than the other two boys’, with more difficulty to drain, higher fever and actual flu like symptoms, so we gave him antibiotics as well, and it started clearing up. 

Then I got it, and I got it worse than anyone, on the back of my thigh. With only less than half a dose of antibiotics left and a really nasty looking abscess, I would have gone to the doctor in a heartbeat if we had still been in Lebanon. Here I am however, in a place where I don’t know any doctors, but more importantly with an insurance that carries a $2,700 deductible, and without any money at all. And it’s not like we have some money left but don’t want to spend it on a doctor’s visit: we are completely broke (for a couple of weeks). So I limp around, drain the pus when I can (it’s not easy and very, very painful) from the quarter sized crater that looks worse than most things I’ve seen. I took the rest of the antibiotics, which cleared up the fever, chills and flu like symptoms, however now I have to rely on ibuprofen to get through the day, and hope the infection doesn’t get worse again – or spread (let’s just say we’re using A LOT of alcohol based hand sanitizer). The red area covers the entire back of my thigh. When our money comes in I will go to the doctor, I tell my husband, unless I die first, of course. Ha ha.

The lice story

So; our van was all packed up and we were ready to leave on our big trip early in the morning. We wanted to be in Oxford, OH around lunch time. 

As the boys were going to sleep and Courtney and I were packing up the last, I noticed that they were itching their heads in their sleep – a lot. I realized later that I had noticed them itching before, but with all the mosquitoes, I figured they had been bit. 

On a hunch, I walked over to the bed and checked August’s hair. Oh. My. God. He had lice! We were about to leave in the morning to drive for 4 days, stay with friends (the first night) and our children had lice! 

Courtney ran over to the drugstore and bought all the strongest products he could find, and I – I woke up the boys and started combing. It was 4 am on the night before our big road trip, and we were awake, treating our boys for lice. I treated myself as well, just to be safe. Abraham practically slept through the whole thing, and the boys got through it because they knew they could sleep in the car the next day. Courtney and I got through it because we can’t stand lice. When we were finished, there were no live lice left, although probably a few nits. We warned our friends who made sure to wash all our bedding well after we left. 

When we got to Atlanta we combed through everyone’s heads and found some nits and a couple of more lice – tiny and newly hatched - and went through a second treatment. 

A week and a half later, Courtney went through his hair and found a whole bunch, so we treated everyone again. 

Every treatment involved me washing all our sheets, bedding, and spraying anything that didn’t fit in the washer with anti-lice spray, and combing – lots and lots of combing. 

Then yesterday we went through everyone’s hair again, and guess what? There were a couple of newly hatched lice in everyone’s hair, including my own! Aaahh!! We’ve probably spent well over $300 on lice treatment products and followed the instructions to the point, but still there are lice?! I’m starting to think that the lice shampoo and the crème treatment are just very expensive bad hair products! So this time, we did it the old fashioned way – the way we got rid of lice the one time we had it before, in Cairo, where we didn’t have access to fancy lice treatments: the helmet. You cover your entire hair in conditioner, like a helmet, and leave it on for 3-4 hours, preferably until it almost dries, and then you comb it out. The lice and nits are stuck in the conditioner. 

This really should be it. If we go through everyone’s hair in a couple of days and still find lice, I’m buying a hair straightener to use on everyone. Surely the lice will not be able to withstand such heat?

Can you believe this?! What’s your secret recipe? Brush cuts are not an option.

Starting to settle in

Apart from picking through used furniture here and there, we also found lots of amazing groceries at the farmers markets around town (more on this in a separate post). We met our landlord, ran into problems with our Geico insurance (turns out, they don’t like foreigners – more on this later), hit the bottom of our wallets, got bit by mosquitoes A LOT, treated staph infections that the boys somehow got in bites on their legs, and went through a lot of head lice treatments (more on this later too). That first entire week and a half is a bit of a blur in fact, kind of like that first week or two weeks after you’ve given birth to a baby. You’re really just doing one thing – in our case, settling in – but it takes up all your energy, thought process and time.

Furnishing a house from scratch

It may seem silly to you, but figuring out what you need for a complete bed in the US is not as obvious as it seems. In Europe, you buy a bedframe and a mattress, whichever quality you can afford, and that’s it. Here, it took us a while to understand the concept of a “box spring” and to find a combination of all the parts that we needed to make a complete bed. The boys’ beds were easier, as they could be purchased just like that: frames, slacks and a mattress. We also got a few cheap chairs, a desk, a lot of kitchen ware, and in the As-Is corner we found a perfect couch and a rug for a bargain.

We were done just as IKEA was closing, and had thus missed our chance of a same-day home delivery. In fact, we could not get anything delivered until the beginning of the next week. So we stuffed what we could and things we absolutely could not live without (mattresses, for example) into our van, and went home. Since our king size mattress did not fit in the van, I spent the next four nights sleeping on a pile of soft materials, such as our rug, an extra blanket, a mattress cover, etc. which was fine, but when our furniture finally arrived, and it turned out the delivery company had forgotten one thing – our king size mattress – and said they would bring it the next day, I was not fine. I made many phone calls that day, some in a little more agitated state, and had almost given up when at around 9 pm that night, a truck pulled up outside our home and delivered the lost mattress.

Over those first few days, we also managed to find a table and chairs at a consignment shop, which we fixed up with sandpaper, stain and new upholstery for the chairs, another arm chair, an ottoman on craigslist, some shelves and a few other small things at a yard sale. 

There are still some things missing but nothing that can't wait until we run into it at a good price.

Road trip, day 4: from Bryson City, NC to Atlanta, GA - arrival

This day was our last drive (170 miles), and we were eager to get to our new house, so we started early, however the drive was slow, as Max had had his fill of sitting in a car seat and uncomfortable, insufficient nursing breaks. He cried, and I stopped to hold and nurse him, but it barely helped, as he would start crying again as soon as he was back in his seat. Not even Bob Dylan’s Jokerman, which had helped soothe him to sleep throughout most of the trip, worked. It was a beautiful but stressful drive. Thankfully, our GPS found its signal again, and guided us straight to our house, which we had rented online. What a feeling, coming up on our address and hearing, “Your destination is on your right. You have arrived.”

Renting a house online is probably not a good idea, but what choice did we have? We were a bit nervous about the whole thing (worst case scenario: we had been completely ripped off), but when we arrived, the house and everything was there, exactly as in the pictures, keys on the kitchen counter. The only thing pictures or Google had not prepared us for was how hilly it was. Our house is on a big slope. Perhaps the name of the area: “Druid HILLS” should have turned on a light in our little heads – in any case, we were quite relieved, happy and excited to finally be here. We had a house! Yay. But no furniture. So after we had managed to bring all our stuff into the house, we set the GPS to IKEA and spent the next 6 hours trying to figure out the best way to get what we needed without going completely broke.

Road trip, day 3: from Hazard, KY to Bryson City, NC

We spent the night in Kentucky in a hotel. The next morning we went to visit Courtney's aunt in Viper, who fixed us a fabulous Kentucky breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, fried bologna and gravy, and then we went to the family cemetery where Courtney’s grandma and grandpa are buried, among other family members. 

It’s a peculiar experience, to drive through such small communities. At one point we got really lost and stopped to knock on someone’s door, to ask if they knew the exact location of the cemetery: a random house, but sure enough, not only could they happily direct us, but they also remembered Courtney’s uncles and grandparents. The man at the door, yelling back into the house where his old grandpa and wife were sitting, “Yo'all remember them Fugate boys that lived up the creek?” As we drove off, following directions like, “take a right at the end of the corn field,” we imagined they were still exchanging stories about our family, stories that we would have loved to hear.

Our drive that day went through four states (260 miles). Courtney was determined to photograph all the signs, welcoming us into each state, but guess what? It’s really hard to take pictures of road signs that you pass on a highway!

We arrived quite late at our motel in Bryson City - tired, exhausted  - and crashed right away. 

Road trip, day 2: from Oxford, OH to Hazard, KY

On our second day we drove to Hazard, KY (240 miles) where Courtney has an aunt and a couple of cousins. Somewhere between Anywhere and Nowhere, our GPS signal disappeared and we got lost a few times, but finally found our way. Kentucky really is beautiful as well: so green! The people are very friendly, and oh – the accent! I love it! We ate dinner at a Ponderosa and our waiter could have been a movie star in one of those quirky movies, like Elizabethtown: [looking at Max] “Weeell, ain’t them the purdiest little eyes the Lord has ever seeean? You sure have a purdy baby theire, mam!” Actually, you know what? I can’t transcribe it – it’s too unique and when I try to write it out, the beauty is lost. You are just going to have to go have dinner yourself, somewhere in the middle of the Kentucky mountains.

Road trip, day 1: from northern Indiana to Oxford, OH

We packed up the van the night before. Not only did we have the five suitcases of clothes and things we had brought from Beirut, but since we had already spent well over a month in the US, we had accumulated quite a bit of additional stuff. We stuck it anywhere we could. When we pulled out of the drive way on a bright Sunday morning, waving good bye to grandma and grandpa, the bottom of the van hit the curb. As we kept driving a bit, the van got higher, and we decided a full tank was probably out of the question for the remainder of our drive.

We drove about 165 miles that first day, to Oxford, OH, where good friends from our Cairo days live.

We stopped several times on the way, mainly to nurse. We had brought sandwiches and drinks that we ate in Berne, a very cute little town, apparently quite proud of their Swiss heritage. There were a lot of Amish settlements along the way as well and several times, we ended up behind a buggy. We had not seen our friends for a couple of years, and the reunion, although brief, was happy: good dinner, lots of catching up, kids play, a good sleep and a shower, and we were on our way again, the next day, quickly leaving Ohio behind.

From Indiana to Georgia: getting ready to move

I love Indiana. Of all the states I have visited and lived in, it’s my absolute favorite. OK, every time I’ve been there, I’ve been on holiday, and our family is there, which makes it a wonderful place, but even disregarding this, northern Indiana is pretty great:
  • There are lakes everywhere, with nice little beaches and docks, and swimming is free!
  • Things are - in general - a little cheaper, people are more down to earth and relaxed, very friendly, less pretentious, and care more about comfort than appearance.
  • Although it’s pretty flat, it’s quite beautiful with fields and little forests. One night we were on our way back from South Bend and the sky was clear. We pulled into a country road in the middle of nowhere, drove through a huge corn field and parked the car. Oh, the silence! Or rather, the sound of nature at night. It was so still and crisp, and absolutely pitch dark. Looking up, we could see the Milky Way more clearly than I have ever seen it, and the sky was absolutely beautiful, completely surrounding us. We saw several shooting stars, and stood just still and quite, admiring the sky, until our necks hurt and the mosquitoes had eaten our legs.

As much as we love Indiana though, and as much as we love spending time with family, we were quite excited to start our drive from northern Indiana to Atlanta: the trip itself, although tiring, was going to be exciting, and we couldn’t wait to move into our own space and stop living out of suitcases for a while. Also, we were very curious at the prospect of discovering a new place, new work, new food and meet new people.

Because we have a nursing five month old, and I, the nursing mother, is the only one who can drive, we decided that four hours a day was all that we would be able to handle. We also decided that we didn’t mind driving a few extra miles if it entailed something fun or special, like a site or a visit, and that our trip would take four days.

The things that can happen in a month

Yes, it has been a month since my last entry! When you hear all about what we’ve been through, you will understand why, so keep reading: road trips, Smoky mountains, head lice, car insurance trouble, staph infections, IKEA purchases, Emory… There’s a little something for everyone here.