A slope beyond the back fence of my home in Denver has housed, for many years, a family of foxes. (Literal foxes, not pretty girls from the 1970s.) Or at least, that’s my best guess of what was going on. Foxes all look alike to me, so I don’t know whether the place was available on a first-come-first-served basis or I was seeing the same nesting pair and a fresh batch of kits each spring. I don’t know whether foxes pair off for life. I don’t know how long the gestation period is, how long Mom is in the den with the new babies, how old they are when they come out, how they’re weaned… Really, the scope of my ignorance is pretty embarrassing when you consider how little effort it would take to read the “North American Red Fox” article in Wikipedia. But it was fun watching the babies play and grow up and count how many there were.
I’m in pretty much the same boat here in Saudi Arabia. I observe Saudi society in the same way I watched the foxes through the window. I haven’t been invited into the den to get to understand what’s going on or why they’re doing what they do. I watch, I wonder, I engage in a thousand expat conversations where inevitably, at some point, we end up discussing some puzzling or maddening behavior we’ve encountered.
So if you really want to know about foxes, I’d suggest finding out what the foxes have to say. Or at least talk to a naturalist who has made a career out of studying them in depth. I’m just the neighbor at the window, drawing my own conclusions.
But I saw something striking this past week. Or perhaps I should say something ordinary that struck me now because I live in Saudi Arabia. We were traveling in Italy, dining like kings (because all you have to do in Rome is walk up to a shop window and point to get something delicious), exploring (because around every corner in Rome is something surprising), and at the end of a long day of walking, settled down for a rest beside the Trevi Fountain near our apartment. You know, the one from Three Coins in the Fountain where, according to the movie, you’re supposed to throw a coin in to ensure that you’ll be back.
Saudis (remember, I’m the through-the-glass observer) are a homey bunch. Not homely, mind you–there are a lot of very attractive people here. No, homey, as in, they like to be home. Family and tribe are everything, and recreation takes place at home, behind walls. Men go to football matches, and…that’s about it. (Women are not allowed.) In place of the movie theaters, playhouses, concert halls, art galleries, bars, nightclubs, indoor skydiving, bowling lanes, pottery studios, libraries, rock-climbing walls, arcades, bike paths, boat ponds, community potlucks…there are malls and mosques. Well, just malls, if you allow that mosques are only for men.
You can find rather grubby playlands for children inside the malls, but otherwise children play at home, behind the walls. There’s no culture of “going out” for fun. Weddings are the main social events, where women gather in one venue to dance and eat together, and men eat in another, somewhere else in town, and…mostly sit around. Beyond that, women have parties together at someone’s home, not out in public. When I see women shopping together they’re restrained–no goofing around, no laughter, no silly or giddy behavior. The only public recreation I see is women dining together (generally young, well-off, Western-style women in trendy restaurants with their faces uncovered) and men dining together in restaurants or hanging around outside mosques.
At the Trevi Fountain, I realized how much I miss public warmth, in all its forms. Seeing people embrace, laugh together, take pictures to capture a moment, cheer for a child, call out to a friend across the street… so many forms of human connection that either don’t exist in Saudi society or take place only behind walls.
So I sat by the Trevi Fountain last week, appreciating what used to seem ordinary as I never have before. People from all over the world–young and old, proud and simple, shy and bold, young lovers, old friends, singles, families–taking selfies, throwing coins, just taking joy in being alive, treasuring a moment they’ve anticipating sharing for a long time. My Beloved, bless him, with the big-boy camera, caught it all. It delighted me. I hope it does you, too.
Human emotions are contagious. There’s a reason people still go to movies, even though they can see the same thing at home less expensively and more conveniently. A funny movie is funnier shared with an audience, isn’t it? An exciting one more intense. So I counted it a privilege to sit by the fountain for an hour and absorb so much delight and wonder and happiness and hope. People may have been treating the ritual as a bit of a joke (part of the charm), but underneath the laughter I saw the same emotion that moved the people of Bali with their carefully constructed offerings.