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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

How to Unpack Four Tons of Stuff

Tuesday morning was hot.  Seeing as it's Tashkent in July, that wasn't surprising.  Every morning is hot in Tashkent when it's July.  Around 10:15 my doorbell rang.  It was the movers here with all my stuff - 8,000 pounds of it - sitting in their truck, waiting.  I wasn't sure whether to shout for joy or just start crying right there.

Unpacking is one enormous, giant, excruciatingly long, sorting process.  Packing is the process of un-sorting everything that you've carefully spent the previous two or three years finding the perfect place for and then strenuously enforcing that place for everyone in your house.  "No, the games go in the game cupboard, not in the bookshelf.  And go put your shoes away!!"  The hours and days I've spent arranging and re-arranging the things in my house for higher perfection are destroyed in a few short days when the movers pack it all up.

We usually have four or five movers who come.  Those four or five men sweep through the house like locusts, tearing down everything in their path.  Carefully sorted toy drawers are ripped from their places and unceremoniously dumped into waiting cardboard boxes, hopelessly mixing up food items with puzzle pieces with stuffed animals with Legos.  Long-items-used-on-the-stove utensil holders are emptied into boxes along with short-items-and-mixing-things, miscellaneous items, and jar lids.  Winter clothes are ruthlessly mixed in with summer clothes.  Baby clothes are dumped on top of high-heeled shoes which are thrown in on top of the contents of the nightstand.  Nothing is sacred in the drive to get everything boxed up, crated, and sent away to somewhere else.  Nobody cares as long as it goes in a box.

Recovery on the other end comes slowly.  First there is the unloading.  We had six wooden lift-vans, plywood and 2x4 crates that contain all the cardboard boxes.  Each lift-van has to be unloaded piece by piece, in an endless ant-trail stream of men walking past me as I tell them where each and every box, bin, and cardboard-wrapped mystery goes.  Most are labeled, but some cryptically.  What does "desk items" mean?  There isn't enough time to follow each box to its exact destination, so a few general areas are defined.  The kitchen, the living room, the basement, and the second floor landing soon each accumulate their own towering mound of boxes waiting to collapse on any child who wanders too close looking for the box with their favorite toy in it.

Next is unwrapping.  Once I told the movers I could unpack myself, and then I spent the next two weeks hauling my seven-month pregnant self in and out of boxes and unwrapping every single glass, plate, canning jar, knick-knack, picture frame, pencil, bed frame, mattress, toy, and bike in our shipment.  And that was only a 2,500 pound shipment.

The movers move through the house like a wave armed with box cutters as they unswaddle mystery cocoons that turn into diaper genies, treadmills, electric pianos, pictures, mirrors, bunk bed frames, and memory foam mattress toppers.  They wade through drifts of packing paper and tape, opening every single box (that gets real old after the fiftieth box you have to open yourself), and unpacking most of them.  As the drifts recede, leaving with the movers as they shift to the next room, there are piles of plates, glasses, games, toys, vases, book-ends, kitchen appliances, sleeping bags, school supplies, and mixing bowls.  Narrow trails mark the safe places to walk.

I always organize the kitchen first.  Everyone has their preference, but the kitchen is my workspace, and I can't sleep until everything has found its place.  This kitchen is smaller than our last kitchen, so I was worried that everything would fit in.  As the movers unpacked items, I raced around the kitchen, anxiously finding a place for everything.  Would there be enough room for the dishes in two shelves, or would I need three?  Is one cupboard enough for the random food that always needs a home?  Should the wraps go in that drawer or the washcloths?  Every place requires a decision and that decision is crucial.

After the kitchen is settled, the real work begins.  The movers are long gone by now and so all the work must be done by me and the children.  This is the first time I've had a number of useful children while unpacking and so I've invented a game called 'Mule Train.'  It goes like this: Mom gives you stuff to put in another location and you put it there.  You keep playing until Mom forgets about you and you can run off to play with your toys.  Each box that is labeled 'kitchen' inevitably has three or four things that don't go in the kitchen.  Things that used to go in the study now go downstairs in the storage closets.  Somehow the games ended up in the same box with Brandon's clothes.  Slowly each thing makes its way to the general location of its home in this house.

And last is organizing.  By this point I am so tired of making decisions that I can hardly make any useful choices.  But if I don't do it right, I will only have to return in six months when the general chaos of my medicine cupboard overwhelms me in the middle of an ordinary day and I can't do anything but set it to rights instead of my normal work. 

It is also during this stage that I discover all of the organization tools I'm missing.  We had shelves in where our extra toiletries were stored and now we have cupboards so that will take $75 worth of bins to fix.  There isn't enough space for the pots in the kitchen cupboards so now we need a peg board.  There is nowhere to store towels or pool toys in the pool house and so let's add $60 of towel hooks to the Target shopping cart.  I burn through money at a rate only equalled by consumables shopping.

This stage has a bonus feature called "Oh shoot! That didn't get packed up!" So far I've discovered that we no longer own ice bins, refrigerator magnets, the base to my ice cream freezer, a wooden desk chair, a console table, and two ottomans.  But, we did get the clock this time.  I always forget the clock. 

At the end of organizing there is always one last bin or box that defies categorization.  In it are things that have wildly differing purposes - drawer dividers that are too small or two large, plastic bags for clothes storage, a flute that I haven't played since Edwin was a baby, and a box of old photo albums from my youth.  That gets shoved into a deep, dark corer and is unearthed the next time we move.

And then one day, I am done and life begins its rhythms again.  I cook dinner every night, the children bathe on a regular schedule, the house is tidied daily, and everything has a place.  When I open the silverware drawer, there is only silverware.  When I want a new pen, I go to the pens bin.  The children don't have to ask me where their piano books are.  Brandon comes home to a functional house where all the stuff is hidden in its proper place. 

I find unpacking to be similar to traveling and childbirth.  When you are in the middle of the disaster nightmare, it seems that it will never end and your life has always and will always be filled with boxes or pain or airplanes.  But when it ends, you forget that it even happened.  There was this time when you were squeezing a baby out or flying for over twenty-four hours on two hours of sleep, or deciding the best possible place for the pastry blender, but it is a vague and distant memory, best not thought of.  You almost convince yourself that it wasn't really that bad.  And so it wasn't.  But when it happens again, all the memories come rushing back and you wonder how you could ever have forgotten something so terrible.

But still, you do it again anyway.  Because that's life. 

For now, I'm glad that I'm almost done unpacking, I don't have to fly for another year, and there aren't any baby-squeezings in my near future.  It's the simple things that make life wonderful.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

One Week

It's been just over a week since we landed in Tashkent.  The trip was uneventful, other than William acting like a typical 17-month old baby and keeping everyone around him awake with his fussing.  I'm very glad we're not flying with him for another year.

We were able to take a direct flight from Frankfurt to Tashkent, which meant we only had two flights total.  The last time we got to post in two flights was in 2011, so it was pretty amazing, especially when getting to Dushanbe often took four flights.  Also amazing was landing at ten o'clock the day after we left.  After spending three and a half years arriving at 4:30 on the morning of the third day, ten o'clock at night on the second felt like an absolute luxury.  It was beautiful to go to sleep and be able to sleep for eight or nine uninterrupted hours.

Our first impressions of Tashkent were immediately good.  Just like in Dushanbe, we arrived to a terminal so new that it still smelled new.  It took five minutes to get through passport control, all nine of our bags arrived, and our sponsor met us at baggage with two embassy vans waiting for us and all our stuff.  The city seemed to be clean and reasonably (for Central Asia) well-kept, and we were only a twenty-minute drive to the airport.

We had gotten pictures (that I had spent hours poring over) of our house, so we had some idea of what to expect, but found it to be even better than expected.  The pictures managed to make it look somewhat small and poky, but it's enormous (maybe even bigger than our last house), well-lit, and - most importantly - it has a POOL.

Summer in Tashkent, like in Dushanbe, is long and hot.  The embassy doesn't have a pool, so having one at our house was our highest priority.  According to everyone we've talked to, our pool is the largest in the housing pool, so we have been put on notice that we have a community obligation to host at least one party before the end of the summer.  Along with the big pool, we have a nice large yard with lots of space, so hosting a party shouldn't be too hard.

Since our stuff was coming all the way from Dushanbe, it arrived in Tashkent before we did.  Brandon arranged to have it delivered Tuesday, so I've been digging out ever since.  In between unpacking I've gone grocery shopping, visited the embassy for briefings and my badge (last time that took six months), and even attended a birthday party.  I've already turned down a lunch invitation and skipped an ice cream social, so I think that we'll have plenty to do here once we get settled in.

The children have already started making friends, and Kathleen was thrilled to find another newcomer who is only two weeks younger than her, making this the first female friend her age she's ever had.  I know of another family that has girls Kathleen and Sophia's ages, so they should have some friends, which they are happy about.  I've made friends, too, and my sponsor also homeschools, so I don't think anyone should be lonely.

Our neighborhood is quite nice, very quiet, and within easy walking distance of a nice supermarket.  We have a neighborhood milk lady who brings fresh milk (so fresh it's warm from the cow) twice a week.  Brandon has found a stable that's two miles away.  I've already hired a housekeeper and a pool man, and have gotten recommendations for a Russian teacher, piano teacher, and and swimming lesson instructor.

Judging by the first week, this is the easiest transition we've ever had.  It helps that we've only moved one country away and it's pretty much the same culture and the same way of doing things.  Some of the stuff in the grocery store is different (I can tell we're back in Turkic-land because there's lots of plain yogurt), the signs are in Uzbek instead of Tajik, but everything else makes perfect sense.

But now we've moved to, as Brandon put it one evening, "the Germany of Central Asia."  Everything works a little better.  Our house has 90 degree angles instead of 92 degree or 88 degree angles.  The molding is plaster instead of styrofoam.  There are screens on the windows.  We can turn on all of our split packs at once.  There aren't any backup water tanks or generators.  Our pool as a functional filter system.  There are specific neighborhood garbage pick-up days.  Our road has no potholes (it helps that we live down the street from the president's daughter).

So I think I'm going to like Tashkent just fine.  The DCM already brought up extending with Brandon and Brandon told him that we'd like to extend.  When the DCM assured him that he could think about it, Brandon assured him right back that he'd already done the thinking.  As far as I'm concerned, we can stay here as long as the State Department will let us.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Down to the Wire

Right now I'm sitting in Frankfurt at the McDonalds playplace, home to the Breakfast of Champions - french fries and milkshakes.  And despite arriving at 5:30 AM (11:30 PM east coast time) with only a few cat naps to sustain me, I'm feeling a lot better than I was 24 hours ago.

Yesterday at this time I wasn't sure if we were even going to have the privilege feeling like absolute trash in Frankfurt this morning.  I wasn't even quite sure we'd make it to Frankfurt at all.

It all started with me not doing my job.  In the midst of our hasty departure from Dushanbe in March, I didn't renew our family's medical clearances.  I knew that I wasn't being responsible, but those clearances were lower on my priority list than other things like booking plane tickets and getting CT scans. 

I had time to work on them when the crisis turned out to be nothing and I just sat around my parents' house for five weeks, but I didn't.  I told myself that it was because I didn't know how to get the forms, but really I was just lazy.

When Brandon joined me and we saw everything and everyone we didn't do them either. 

So finally when we got to DC, less than four weeks from our departure, we filled out the forms.  Stupid, I know, but unfortunately I have a gambling streak and I figured that we'd probably be okay.  It had all worked out before so why not why?

After some phone calls and emails, we got the clearances put at the front of the line (umm, so we're leaving in two and a half weeks so could you get those done for us? Please?) and everyone was granted a clearance within a few days.  We all got our usual Class 1 (world wide cleared) except for Sophia, who got a Class 7.  I suspected that we might run into problems with her, since she'd been put on Ritalin last year, but I still hoped that it wouldn't be a problem. 

It turns out that Class 7 means that our form-filling days were not over yet and we had a whole new round of filling, submitting, and waiting.  Which was followed by another round of desperate, pleading emails and calls (We have tickets to leave this week so could you please look at our paperwork??). 

The climax happened Thursday morning (twenty-seven hours before our flight) when we were told that Sophia wasn't going to post until we figured out a definite plan for how she was going to get her Ritalin refilled.  Brandon started making phone calls, I sent out desperate pleas on Facebook for advice, and we both wrote emails to everyone and anyone we could think of to help us out.  At one point Brandon asked if we should cancel the tickets, but we decided that it wasn't going to be any more expensive to change them in the morning. 

After a lot of strategizing, we hung our hopes on talking to the nurse practitioner at post who was currently sleeping as it was 1 AM in Tashkent.  So to pass the time we acted like we really were going to get on the plane the next day.  We finished packing, we cleaned out the apartment, we finished off the leftovers in the refrigerator, went swimming, and watched a lot of HGTV.  Most of all, we tried not to think of having to resort to plan B which involved moving to a hotel via a fleet of Uber cars, changing plane tickets, and hoping that someone would be sympathetic to our plight.  It wasn't a very attractive plan B. 

Tashkent is nine hours ahead of DC, so we planned to give the embassy a call around eleven and present our case to the nurse practitioner and see if she could help us.  By ten-thirty, not only had she contacted us (Facebook plea for the win), but so had the HR officer.  By one-thirty, fifteen hours before our flight out of DC, our problems had been solved and the suitcases stayed packed.

Next time, I'm filling out that paperwork six months before we leave. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Cousin Party

Last week Brandon had to attend a training course in West Virginia, the Foreign Affairs Counter Threat course, also known as Crash and Bang.  He got to spend the week learning about exciting things like surveillance, first aid, security, and defensive driving (where the Crash and Bang title comes from - Brandon got to crash cars at the end of the course).  I was technically supposed to go with him, but we didn't have anyone to watch the children, so I stayed here.

And since Brandon was gone for the whole week, my sister came up to visit.  She are I are the only ones with children in my family, and thankfully her children's ages line up neatly with mine, so our children are best friends.  We always try to get together whenever I'm in town so they children can wreak total havoc spend time together, so we decided to take the party up to DC and enjoy a week together without any adult supervision husbands. 

Her children have never been to DC, so we spent the week exploring the sights.  Well, some of them.

We started by meeting them at IKEA because, well, IKEA.  I have never taken six children to IKEA before, and I'm probably never going to do it again.  Four children who have been in the car for five hours + six children who love to see their cousins = a lot of noise, activity, and stroller races.  It was a really good thing that we went on a Monday afternoon when the crowds were pretty low.  The high/low point of the afternoon was when William wouldn't stop screaming while everyone was trying to eat their dinner.  There's a reason I avoid feeding my children in public.

The next day we went to the National Mall.  I started out the morning by scraping the door on my parents' two-year old minivan.  It turns out that seven children in a car is kind of distracting.  My sister and I did the smart thing and reserved spaces at a parking garage before we left, which was a good thing because it turns out that a lot of downtown garages can't park minivans.  Who knew?

The day started out hot and promised thunderstorms in the afternoon, so we dropped by the national archives to see the Constitution and then headed down to the Lincoln Memorial, stopping by the Washington Monument and the WWII memorial.  If you've never been to DC, then you've never appreciated how long a walk it is (according to Google Maps, 1.8 miles) in ninety-plus degree weather with ten children in tow.  It wasn't until the next day that we noticed the Circulator Buses driving around the mall.  Oh well.

We started seeing clouds gathering while eating lunch next to the reflecting pool and so hustled everyone 1.2 miles to the nearest museum, the American History Museum, getting there right as the severe thunderstorm warnings hit.  Everyone was reasonably soaked, but the water dried as we took in a few select exhibits (a gunship, the first lady dresses, and the flag) and made it over to the natural history museum to see the shiny gems and taxidermied animals. 

My sister's children had never ridden a metro before, so we took the metro in to downtown the next day for some more museum time.  They had a great time trying to stand up while the train stopped and started and everyone loved having their own card to pay the fare with.  I managed to lose both Eleanor and Sophia at the natural history museum and we instituted more frequent head counts for the rest of our trip. 

We made a whirlwind trip through part of the art museum where just about everyone we encountered gave us dirty looks and we managed to get out without actually breaking anything (but there was some touching).  Our last stop was the air an space museum, a perennial favorite of all little boys.  Nobody got lost and nothing got broken, so it was a good time.

We spent the final day at the zoo, making it through most of the zoo (a personal record with my children; usually they quit after half) before everyone decided that lunch and swimming would be more fun.  Even though they had walked over three miles that morning, the children played in the pool for over two hours before we made them come in for dinner. 

Friday morning my sister left.  All the children protested that they wanted to spend another week together, but my sister and I had definitely had enough of ten noisy, energetic, occasionally quarrelsome children being stuffed into a three-bedroom apartment.  But it was fun while it lasted!

Friday, June 22, 2018

William Finally Decides to Get With the Program

I love babies who walk.  Babies that walk don't have to be carried everywhere.  When you're traveling through an airport, babies that walk can entertain themselves by walking around and looking at things without getting thoroughly filthy.  Babies that walk can follow you around the house more quickly instead of crawling desperately while you walk away, crying like their little tiny hearts are going to break.  They are much happier, almost as happy as babies that can talk.

William was the earliest crawler in our house, starting to crawl at six months.  I was so happy, eagerly looking forward to him pulling up on furniture and walking soon after that.  He started pulling up on furniture a few months later, but stubbornly refused to walk.  I had high hopes that he would learn to walk before we left Dushanbe, but was thoroughly disappointed and instead had to bodily haul him through security instead of letting him happily toddle through the metal detector by himself.

When we arrived in Raleigh, he started walking from person to person when we set him up between two people.  I thought that he would definitely start then.  The rest of my children were fully mobile within a few weeks of those first few footsteps, but William didn't seem to care to try anything on his own.  He is very much his father's son and quite safety-minded.  After he fell off the bridge over my parents' pond, he wouldn't go near it for weeks.  And evidently walking didn't look very safe to him, so he stuck to crawling.

But finally he started to take a few steps between the things he was holding on to, between the chair and the wall or the table and a person.  After a week or so, he would walk down the hallway while holding on to the wall.  And then one day, nine months after he started crawling, while my brother and his wife were visiting, he decided that walking was okay.  I watched him walk back and forth on my parents' back deck for almost an hour, moving from family room door to kitchen sliding door and back again.

Now he is a full-time walker.  He toddles around the house in the high-stepping never-standing-quite-still way that newly walking babies do, the way that is even funnier when they're stark naked or only in a diaper.  When we went to the aquarium last week, I forgot that strollers weren't allowed and didn't bring the baby carrier.  But William was perfectly happy to wander through, just walking around in a new space for the sheer joy of being able to choose all by himself where he went.  After we came home from the park yesterday he had completely clean knees.  Now when I walk away from him, he follows right after, happy to stay in my orbit.  It really is great.

And next time we fly, all six of my children will be able to go through that metal detector all by themselves.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

How to Grocery Shop When You're Only Temporary

This past week we stopped at the penultimate point on the itinerary before out final and long-awaited destination.  Brandon has training in DC for three and a half weeks and we're stuck here with him.  We have lodging money and could have stayed in a hotel, but three and a half weeks is a little too long to be stuck in two rooms while eating out every night.

Luckily DC has lots of people like us and corporate housing companies to take care of us during our temporary stays in DC.  We were able to find a nice furnished three-bedroom two-bathroom apartment within walking distance to the Foreign Service Institute so we could have a little more space, a full kitchen, and a washer and dryer.

The kitchen is furnished along with the rest of the apartment, but only furnished with basic cooking equipment (although we do have a wine bottle opener and a coffee maker).  We've had this same situation before while in DC for training, but we've always had an air shipment to supplement the kitchen tools.

In addition to having limited kitchen supplies, we are also starting the pantry from scratch.  I always hate starting from scratch because there is always something you forget. It usually goes like this: go to the store and buy salt, pepper, flour, eggs, butter, oil, baking powder, sugar, carrots, potatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, bananas, peanut butter (in America), jelly, bread, beans, chicken stock, pasta, canned tomatoes, saran wrap, napkins, paper towels, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, and trash bags.

Then you go to bake cookies and realize you have no vanilla or baking soda.

So you go back to the store and get baking soda and vanilla.

Then you realize that you don't have toilet paper.

I once went to Target three times in one afternoon because I needed chocolate chips, then cumin, then trash bags.

And when you leave, you have to get rid of everything, finding a home for your half-used bottle of olive oil, one cup of lemon juice, three sticks of butter, mostly full jar of peanut butter (turns out the children don't like sandwiches too much), full box of cereal, two cans of tomato sauce, two frozen chicken breasts, and half bunch of cilantro. 

At the end of one move, we had at least a gallon of homemade pesto in the freezer that Brandon insisted we throw away.  I just couldn't stand leaving it, so I stuffed it into our suitcases and pulled it out, over twenty-four hours later, still slightly frozen.

This time, however, we are here for an uncomfortable amount of time.  It's too long to go out or order out for every meal (we got fast food for lunch the other day and it was $45.  I'm trying to block out how much the matinee showing of Incredibles 2 cost), but not long enough to justify stocking a full pantry.  I'm not going to buy a full range of basic ingredients just to turn around and ditch them less than a month later. 

So when I went to the grocery store on Monday I had to think very carefully about my meals.  Any kind of blended soup is out because there's no blender.  No cookie making is going to happen because we don't have a mixer or a cookie pan, and I don't want to stock flour, sugar, vanilla, and baking powder.  Indian food is right out because I don't want to buy the twenty spices that it would take to properly make my curries. 

So instead I'm having an experience in how the other half (or everyone else in America) lives.  I've stocked up on chicken pot pies, frozen burritos, pre-made quiches, frozen skillet meals, Indian simmer sauces, just-add-chicken Thai sauces, bagged salad kits, sandwich bread, and yogurt.  Lots and lots and lots of yogurt.  In less than a week, we've gone through more than two dozen cups of yogurt. 

If the meal takes anything more than some chicken or rice, I'm not buying it.  No salad dressing, no flour, no chocolate chips, no olive oil.  I thought I would be clever and buy a muffin mix for breakfast one morning and then realized that I don't have a muffin tin and I didn't want to buy Pam.  I considered a pancake mix but then remembered that I'd have to buy syrup. 

I've informed the children that we have a no-leftovers policy.  We don't buy any more food until we're entirely out of the food that we have left.  If you don't like potato salad, too bad, because we'll be eating it until it's gone.  If you prefer peaches to apples, then I'm sorry when the peaches run out because now we only have apples to eat.  We are having oatmeal every morning because I bought ten pounds of oats at Costco; I don't care if you hate it. 

This kind of cooking is the polar opposite of what I do overseas.  Everything I cook there is from scratch.  You want enchiladas?  Better start making those corn tortillas from the masa flour that you put in your consumables shipment.  I make all my bread from scratch, from wheat that I ground myself.  I can my own pizza sauce every summer when the tomatoes are cheap and ripe.  My definition of convenience food is canned tomatoes that are already diced for you.

The other day one of the children asked when I was going to start making bread again.  They held out the piece of sandwich bread (which was even the good kind that I paid over four dollars for) disdainfully, "This bread is so gross.  Why can't anyone make good bread like you make??  Would you please just make a little bit of bread while we're here???"  I reminded them that I don't have yeast, flour, gluten, honey, or bread pans so they'd just have to wait.

I do have to admit, however, that I can see the appeal of this convenience food cooking.  The other day I opened a bag, dumped it in a frying pan, poured in some water, and had a half-decent pasta dish less than twenty minutes later.  Meanwhile Brandon had opened a bag of chopped greens, slit open a packet of salad dressing, and sprinkled in another bag of pumpkin seeds and craisins to make a salad.  And when we were done, all I had to clean up was the frying pan.  No washing, no chopping, no measuring, no seasoning.  Just dinner, in less than twenty minutes.

So, I guess I'll enjoy it while I can.  And maybe next week I'll try out refrigerated cookie dough.  I might even cook it, too.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Catching Up

Last time I checked in, we were waiting at my parents' house for Brandon, who was still in Tajikistan, to finally join us in America.  It's been awhile.

Brandon finally made it at 11:45 pm on May 3rd.  He successfully packed out the week before, where we barely squeaked by with our weight, much to my relief.  After the movers had boxed up all of our things and counted the boxes (258), Brandon did some multiplication (258 times 35 pounds per box = 9030 lbs) and freaked out.  But thankfully some of the boxes were pretty light and we came out okay


Our original plan, before mysterious medical circumstances intervened, was to visit Brandon's parents in Missouri before making our way to North Carolina.  We decided to stick with that plan, and so at 5 am on May 5th - after celebrating Eleanor's birthday the day before - we started driving to Missouri.  Seventeen hours later, we made it.  Even though driving that far in one day may be unpleasant, driving that far in two days with a stop halfway through is even worse. 

We had a fun time visiting, managing to get in a hot dog roast with cousins, a carriage drive with friends, a visit to Arkansas to see the Crystal Bridges art museum, an overnight trip to Kansas City to visit the temple and Liberty Jail, a ride in the tractor running the baling machine on the farm, and many, many trips down to Shoal Creek (where one of Joseph's flip flops decided to abandon him for somewhere better).  Much fun was had by all.

The next week we loaded everyone back up in the car and drove eighteen hours back, bypassing Raleigh and going straight to the North Carolina coast, to Topsail Island.  Since we are going to miss the annual family beach week, my sister and I hatched a plan to rent a house for a long weekend so that the kids could get together and have some beach time.  We finally made it to the house at 2 am (time zone switches are not your friend when you're driving east) and were very happy to wake up at the beach the next morning.

We stayed through the weekend and on Monday morning my dad and Brandon loaded up the four oldest to take them camping at Bear Island, a state park about an hour north of Topsail Island.  The entire party canoed out to the island and spent the night camping on the beach before paddling back the next morning. 

We also celebrated Sophia's tenth birthday.  Usually Kathleen is the one who gets her birthday at the beach, so Sophia was very happy to be the one to celebrate her birthday with family.

The next day Brandon flew out to Utah to celebrate his fortieth birthday with most of his brothers.  They had a great time fly fishing, watching movies, and hanging out without any spouses or children to ruin the fun.

The weekend after Memorial Day, almost all of my siblings came to Raleigh for a short family reunion.  My youngest brother and his wife are having their first baby (hooray!) in September, and my other brother is sailing his sailboat back from Hawaii (rough life), so they won't be at the beach week this summer either.  We had a fun time catching up, swimming at our childhood pool club, going out to eat, and learning a new game (Codenames) that I am really, really bad at. 

Monday morning Brandon and I abandoned the children to the tender mercies of my parents and left for a five day vacation to Charleston, South Carolina.  We had a fabulous time sleeping in, eating lots of seafood, admiring the beautiful houses and their gardens in the historic district, visiting Fort Sumter, attending an organ concert at the cathedral, taking a carriage tour, looking at art galleries, browsing antique shops, touring house museums, and visiting a plantation.  The Raleigh temple is closed for renovations (fist shake), so we ended our trip with a session at the Columbia temple. 

Saturday we packed up all the detritus of over two months' on-and-off residence at my parents' house, trying to find every little sock, toy, earring, and book that had worked its way into the every single corner of their dwelling.  The text messages from my mother with pictures of forgotten items started showing up about two hours after we left to drive up to DC on Monday morning.

We moved in to our temporary apartment that afternoon and I reacquainted myself with how excruciating grocery shopping is.  And then when I looked at the trunk full of food I had (it turns out that eight people eat a lot of food) and thought about hauling it all across the parking lot, up the elevator, down the hall, and into my apartment, I remembered why I really hate living in apartments.  There are some really great things about living in a place where you can pay someone to magically make food show up in your refrigerator and your car is parked right outside your front door.

This week Brandon has been doing some consultations and chasing around all of the tasks that seem simple until you start doing them.  We neglected to renew our medical clearances in the rush of leaving post early, and are now paying for it with daily calls to the MED offices to beg them to get ours done quickly.  Brandon also missed the email back in April where Tashkent sent him paperwork to get visas and accreditation done early, and so we're sweating that (30 day turnaround) too. 

In between paperwork battles, phone calls, meetings, and consultations, we have been getting together with friends who are also in the DC area.  The children and I met a friend from college at the National Aquarium, we met friends from Cairo for a pleasant evening at the park, we met up with other LDS families who are also going to Tashkent this summer, and we went out to dinner with my cousin and his wife.  Brandon is about ready to declare himself a hermit.

In three weeks we will be settling in to our new life in Tashkent, ready to finally stop after three and a half months of nomadic life.  We can unpack our suitcases and leave them unpacked, set up a routine and stick to it, hang some pictures, and go back to normal life. 

But not quite yet.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Party Party Party All the Time

The children and I have now been camping out at my parents' house for five weeks.  After an initial round of despair about what I was going to do with my children for five and a half weeks, we've settled down to a routine.  I am a person who can't function without a daily schedule that has all the slots filled with things, and so I had to make a schedule that was labeled in my brain as 'The Schedule for When We are Not in School But Still Need a Little Bit of Something to Keep Children Busy."

Because it turns out that I still have stuff to do and the children needed something to keep them busy while I was doing stuff that did not have me teaching them school.  Six unoccupied children at my parents' house is way too much chaos for all adults who had to live with it.  So I ordered some new math books (and accidentally had them shipped to Dushanbe.  Oops), found a typing program, hauled them to the library, and found art tutorials.  It is just enough school to keep them from getting into too much trouble but not enough that I have to chase them around to get it done.

We have also been spending a lot of money on medical care.  I did something to my back while I was packing suitcases, and so have been visiting the chiropractor three times a week.  Sophia has needed her adenoids removed, so she got those removed, in addition to her tonsils and inferior turbinates (I didn't know these were a thing until it cost $3600 to reduce them).  Everyone of school age got their eyes checked, and Joseph joined the ranks of four-eyes in the family.  Kathleen went back to just two when she got contacts.  I got a yearly exam because hey, why not?  We still have teeth to get done and I have to get my skin checked for anything suspicious.  We will all head back to Central Asia tuned up and ready for another year away from decent medical care.

In between the medical appointments we have been partying with friends.  My parents live in the same house that I grew up in, so a lot of friends from church and high school are still in the area.  I've gone out to dinner multiple times (thanks, Mom!), we've had park play dates, and I even ran into a friend that I hadn't seen since my wedding while at my local elementary school playground with the children.  I really love meeting back up with friends every year and catching up while staying out much, much too late. 

The children have enjoyed being back in a real ward where they have things like Activity Days and Cub scouts.  Kathleen keeps bemoaning the fact that she just missed being able to go to Young Women, and I am sympathetic to her.  But, Brandon's still not going to quit his job so we can move back to America.

My parents are being great grandparents and taking the children shopping, bike riding, and to their cousins' house to visit.  Their neighbor recently got rid of a swing set that had two slides attached to it, one being a large curly slide.  My parents have their own swing set with one slide on it already, but my dad spent one afternoon attaching the two new slides and rechristened the whole affair the Monkey Palace.  One warm afternoon the children tested out their functionality as water slides and declared it 'a very fast ride.'

But, just as we've settled into a routine, it's about to come to an end.  Brandon oversaw the packout of all of our stuff last week, and despite his fears, we came out underweight - by 275 pounds.  The house is now empty and he attended three farewell events in two days this weekend.  He has three more days and then he will be on a plane heading our way.

And then the real party will begin!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Shopping in America

A week ago, I went to Target.  For ex-pat American women, Target is almost a religion.  When we get together and hear about someone's recent trip to America, one of the first questions that gets asked is how many visits there were to Target.  We all fantasize about one day living within ten minutes of Target.  When we are in America we take photos of ourselves at Target and post them on Facebook.

My parents live 1.7 miles from the closest Target.  And 3.5 miles from Costco.  And 3.5 miles from Trader Joe's.  But the other day I was at Target.  I only needed a few things - some groceries, diapers for William, a pair of pants for Sophia - but I decided to browse just because.  My children were all at home without me and I was alone at Target without a fixed return time. 

I never browse stores in Dushanbe.  Mostly because the only store I ever go to is a grocery store, and those aren't very exciting after the first few visits.  I shop for everything online because it's easier and faster and most things I couldn't find in Dushanbe even if I wanted to.  So browsing is something that I've fallen out of practice doing.

First I visited the clothing.  After looking through a few racks, I found a couple of shirts that looked promising.  Then I looked at the prices.  And considered the sizes.  And thought about trying them on.  When I reached the third step, I panicked and put all the clothing back.  Next I tried the children's clothing.  Was this dress really worth $16.99?  Would Sophia actually like these pants?  How many shorts does Joseph have that look decent? I took a quick exit from the children's section.

I always enjoy browsing home goods, so I fled there.  Picture frames were on sale, and I picked up some I liked.  Then I thought about putting them in my suitcase and hauling them to Uzbekistan and put them down.  I looked at lamps and wondered how much they cost online and if they were too big to ship to the pouch.  I looked at furniture and knew that it was definitely too big to fit in the pouch.

Then I noticed the time and headed over to the groceries.  When I saw the avocados, mangoes, ice cream, bacon, fresh orange juice, Oreos, and candy and didn't put any of them in my cart, it was an amazing moral victory.  It was also difficult to put only three gallons of milk in my cart instead of eight.  Target is only 1.7 miles away, I reminded myself.  You can come back in a few days for more milk.

When I finally went to check out, the total came to over a hundred dollars.  While I was busy resisting the clothes, groceries, home furnishings, and delicious food, a couple pairs of earrings, shirts for William, shoes for Eleanor, mini chocolate chips, flavored cream cheese, tasty yogurt, and other very necessary items had snuck in.  I shook my head and promised myself that I would stay away from Target for a whole week at the minimum.  At this rate my suitcases wouldn't have any more room and my Target card would be in serious trouble. 

Good thing I have a whole other card for Costco.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

Last Friday afternoon, while gathering children together for an Easter egg hunt, my phone rang.

"Hi Ashley, this is Dr. F-.  We just got your CT results this morning and it looks like everything is clear.  I hope your have a good Easter!"

And with that phone call, the next five weeks changed from a medical emergency to five weeks of... waiting.  When I told the children, their first question was if they had to fly back to Dushanbe.  I laughed and told them that no, they didn't have to go back because we would have enough time to get over jet lag, pack up the house, and then fly right back.  And also, I didn't have a spare $16,000 to spend on plane tickets.

So now we are squatters in my parents' house, eating their food, driving their car, and messing up their house.  They have been very gracious and keep insisting that really my kids aren't bothering them - too much.  Better parents have never existed in this world.

We didn't bring any school books with us - I didn't think that I would have time to run school while dealing with whatever - so there's a lot of spare time on our hands.  My mother has borrowed four bikes from various friends and Kathleen has had a taste of the delicious freedom of being a child with a bike in suburbia.  We have gone to several parks.  We've gone to the library.  We've gone to visit friends - twice.  We've helped my mom with yard work.  And we still have four more weeks to go.

I've told my parents that we are happy to take an educational trip when seven other people in their house gets to be a little much, and they have left us this week to spend time in the Outer Banks, so hopefully we can make it through our togetherness without any permanent loss of good feelings.  But still it is a long time to live with someone else. 

I can't help but wish that we were back in Dushanbe - a thing that a friend still there couldn't believe - and in my house and with my husband and finishing up the last week of school before getting ready to pack out.  Brandon tells me that my flower beds are really starting to bloom and the apricot tree has leafed out.  I wish that I could be there to see them.  I'm sad that we missed spending a week in London with friends.  May is a nice time to be in London. 

It's funny how great it is to be in America, but I'd rather be in Dushanbe looking forward to America instead of idly filling my time here.  I think we can never be quite satisfied.

But the important thing to remember is that I'm filling my time and not looking forward to surgery or something even worse.  And that I'm grateful for.