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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Summer Vacation

It's that time of year again, the highlight of everyone's summer combined with the worst part of everyone's year - time for the annual trek back to the motherland known as R&R.  The children and I finished the last day of school this past week, we finally got tickets, and I've started going over my packing lists.

This year we've added an extra level of difficulty.  Due to Brandon's leave issues, I decided to take the bold/suicidal/brave/foolish choice and travel with all six of the children alone so we could have an extra week at my parents' house.  I had various reasons, the good one being doctor appointments for everyone, the okay one being a grandparent rafting trip for the older kids, and the selfish one being my desire to have extra time to spend with friends.

This year is the Sherwood reunion and we (meaning me) were put in charge of planning the whole thing.  And for those of you counting, that means planning a week long family reunion for nineteen adults and twenty-five children.  From halfway across the world.  We got to choose the location, so I chose the beach.  My family goes to the beach every summer, so to make things easier for us I just rented the same house for two weeks in a row.  I was in transports of joy when I realized that I could go in and out of the exact same airport.  No twenty-hour drives or 5:30 AM plane rides, just three and a half weeks in one state.  It's almost mythical.

Also, I decided to come back earlier than Brandon because I'm pretty sure I don't want six children de-toxing from twenty-eight hours of traveling while at a family reunion.  It's bad enough doing it in the privacy of my parents' large house where everyone only shares a bedroom with one or two siblings, but crammed into an overstuffed room with four or five other cousins?  I'm just going to pass on that.  Also I don't want to be shopping for breakfast and lunch food for forty-four people, feeding forty-four people (because we're cooking the first night), telling forty-four people forty-four times (let's be honest, it will probably be more than that) where their rooms are again, and trying to get my own children to sleep in the middle of all that while getting over crazy jet-lag myself.  Pass on that, too.  Just sayin'.

This means that on Thursday morning at five AM, I will board the first of four flights that will eventually land us in North Carolina by way of Istanbul, London, and DC.  We have assigned seats on the first flight and last flight but not the two middle flights.  Also the flight from Istanbul to London is late by an average of thirty minutes (that's average) and we have a two-hour layover.  It ought to make for some interesting stories when we've all recovered from the trauma in a few years.

The children are, of course, ecstatic.  Kathleen is looking forward to seeing her cousins and going whitewater rafting.  Sophia is the same.  Edwin is looking forward to flying on airplanes and visiting Grandpa's frogs.  Joseph is looking forward to eating as many snacks and watching as many movies as he wants for twenty-eight hours straight.  Eleanor is looking forward to seeing her grandparents.  William will probably be scarred for life.

Beach week was always the highlight of my childhood summer and so it's no surprise that the same is true for my own children, especially when you add in the excitement (why they find it so exciting is completely beyond me) of international travel and the magic of returning to a country that has things like sidewalks, grass, parks, and Krispy Kreme.

And, if you subtract the pain (oh, the pain.  Let's not dwell on it.  It turns out that the pain of traveling is kind of like childbirth.  Each time it happens you remember ever more clearly exactly what you're getting yourself into) of the opening and ending, it's the highlight of my summer too.  I can't wait to see my cousins and siblings and friends and Krispy Kreme.  I can't wait to stay up way, way (way) too late catching up with some of my favorite people in the world and playing all day on the beach.  I can't wait to go to absolute dissipation sleeping in, not exercising (once or twice a long time ago I exercised on R&R.  Ha), eating garbage cereal for breakfast every morning, reading books, eating dessert every night, and partying until I'm so exhausted that coming home to my regimented life actually sounds like a good idea.

Packing starts tomorrow.  T-minus three days until vacation party time.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Living in Dushanbe - Summer

It is summer here in Dushanbe and we are deep into it.  It has been hot so long that the sensation of being cold or wearing pants or shoes or socks or jackets is a vague memory that resides in the same part of reality as the tooth fairy.  The high here a few days ago was 107 degrees.  One hundred and seven degrees is so hot that it is ten degrees hotter than ninety-seven degrees and twenty degrees hotter than eighty-seven degrees.  It's so hot that a few of my plants outside have to be watered twice a day or they will be dead by morning.  It's hot enough that the waterslide deck burned Sophia's feet pink the last time we went to the water park.  It's just hot.

There are some good things about summer in Dushanbe.  Summer is the time when there is all the produce in the world for cheap cheap cheap.  Right now you can go to the bazaar and get watermelons, yellow melons, peaches, nectarines, blackberries, apricots, cherries, apples, plums, raspberries, strawberries, and deliciously perfect tomatoes, in addition to all of the rest of the vegetables.  We spend all summer here in a fruit coma, packing in all of the fruit to last us through the winter.  Occasionally the children will ask if they can bring fruit outside while they are playing and I'll find two or three apricots rattling around in the bottom of a bowl that held two kilos that morning.  One of Eleanor's favorite things to do is sit and eat raspberries with a spoon, putting away at least a pound of them in one sitting.  I've told the children that one day when they grow up and live in America they will go to the grocery store and about die to see how much raspberries cost there and realize what they had while living in Dushanbe.

Normally the summer is also a great time for swimming.  The embassy has a pool and we have spent a lot of time there.  But it hasn't been working since the first day of summer (ironic, I know) and we've had to find alternatives.

Most days I send the children to play in the yard.  It's a scientific fact that children who spend all day in the house fight more than children who have been kicked out for a couple of hours.  At least it's a fact in our house.  We have a sprinkler (thanks, Dad!) and so the children will put on their swimsuits so that they can try and spray each other with it.  Sometimes they just use the hose.  And until I banned the practice for the sake of the umbrellas, they used umbrellas to keep the very cold hose water off themselves.  This option isn't the children's favorite way to deal with the heat, but I don't care.

There is also a local waterpark which actually isn't that bad.  It is also very popular and getting there close to opening time, especially on women and children day (no men allowed, including lifeguards), is a good idea.  A few weeks ago I went with a friend to swim in the afternoon and we showed up only to discover that the place was so full that they were only letting people in as patrons left.  As it was going to be a long time before ten left, we gave up and went back to the sprinkler.  The children were only pacified after we promised cookies and root beer.

Thankfully we're leaving for three and a half weeks to go back to America where it isn't quite so hot (and this is North Carolina!) and there are things like central AC.  In my mind, summer is over after we come back from R&R because that's when school starts.  But evidently Tajikistan didn't read my mind because summer is definitely not over in August - or September.  I always think of September as the month of disappointed expectations.  I spend the whole month waiting for the first breath of cool air, the promise of reasonable temperatures that mean we can start going outside again in something other than swimsuits.  But it never ever comes until October.  And then finally, summer is over.

I still like summer, even after spending three of them in Dushanbe.  I like wearing flip-flops and shorts and swimming and eating good produce.  I'd still rather be here than in Moscow.  But I will say that one day (and I'm not sure when that will be - I'm looking at you, Tashkent) when I live in a place where 100+ temperatures are an anomaly instead of a regularity, it will be a little nicer.  I'm not planning any moves to Canada, but I think I'm also going to stay away from Arizona too.  Maybe somewhere nicely in the middle.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Fourth of July

This past week we celebrated the Fourth of July.  Celebrating the Fourth overseas is fairly analogous to celebrating Christmas in a Muslim country.  Instead of being part of a nation-wide party, it's more of a private affair that happens on a random day of the week.  I actually mind this less for Christmas than I do for the Fourth.  For us, Christmas is a family holiday anyway while Fourth is something you celebrate with your community.

And we did have the opportunity to celebrate with the community the Saturday before, but we didn't.  Brandon had spent seven hours at a conference that Saturday and he just wasn't up to spending a few more hours away from home out in the heat while shepherding all six (really five) children around to get their food, play the games, etc.  Add to that a five-month old baby and it equals thanks-but-no-thanks.  Instead we watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire while eating amazingly delicious Chinese food.  Seriously.  If there's one thing you can get here, it's really tasty, really cheap ($18.32 to feed the whole family) Chinese food.

The actual Fourth itself was on a Tuesday and Brandon had work off.  Since it was a holiday, we had to follow the Sherwood Family Holiday Rule (no work and all play).  Some friends invited us to go to Delphin, a local waterpark, so we spent the morning riding waterslides and swimming in the pool.  Delphin is actually one of the best-run institutions I've seen in Dushanbe and the kids love going and riding all of the big waterslides.  The three oldest have perfected the art of arguing (I'm not sure how I feel about that) and badger the lifeguards into allowing them to ride all the slides even if some of them technically aren't old enough to ride.  All can swim, so that's good enough for me.

While Brandon and I were lounging in the sun by the pool (yes, it's a hard life sometimes), we both developed an intense desire for french fries and then hamburgers and finally chocolate malts.  One of the best things about being adults is that when those cravings strike, there's nothing but responsibility to stop you from indulging in all of them at once.  Luckily, we didn't let responsibility stop us this time.  After all, it's a holiday, right?  And 'merica! And deep-fried potatoes! And charcoal-cooked meat! And ice cream!  After all, we would be neglectful parents if we didn't teach our children about their heritage.

This being Tajikistan, we had to make almost everything from scratch.  Luckily, the local grocery store had hamburger buns so that part was taken care of.  Also we live around the corner from an ice cream factory so we didn't have to make the ice cream either.  Okay, so we had to make the hamburgers and french fries from scratch.

But a few hours later we had our feast assembled and settled down to watch Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert in Drums Along the Mohawk.  As we watched the couple battle natives while various farms burned down, we all enjoyed our feast and the warm glow of appreciation for those who gave birth to the nation that we're proud to be a part of.

Patriotism is becoming somewhat unfashionable these days, so I guess I'll just have to be unfashionable and say that I love America, and I love it more than any other country in the world.  Which I should, seeing as I am an American.  God Bless America!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Year Five Wrap-Up

We are almost done with the school year, although 'done' is somewhat of a relative term.  Some children have finished some subjects (Sophia has finished language arts and history but not science), some have finished none (Kathleen) and some have finished all (Edwin).  But everyone has two weeks left and then we're off for a month before starting the whole rodeo again in the fall.

This year has been somewhat of a difficult one.  I added another child, Edwin, to the mix and started Kathleen on the next stage, the logic stage, of her schooling.  It took quite a while to figure out how to do all of the new curriculum with Kathleen, how to organize it, and how to grade it.  Edwin had a difficult time starting out because he wasn't fully literate.  He could read, but only slowly, and it took awhile for comprehension to kick in (sometimes it's still not all there for math problems).  Then, right as things started getting into a good rhythm, we picked up and left for three months, having a baby for fun in the middle of things.

Homeschooling is always a balance between what the children need and what you are capable of giving them.  When I started homeschooling I wanted to do all of the everything, and be the best homeschooling mother ever who only had brilliant children who knew all the things in the whole wide world.  I think that's pretty standard for homeschooling parents.

Now I've become someone who wants to make sure her children are perfectly adequately schooled.  Extra projects?  Maybe if they want to do them in their free time, but I'd rather take a nap.  Extracurriculars?  Russian counts for that, right?  And swimming occasionally at the embassy pool (when it's not broken) totally counts for PE.

I always make sure that they get the basics - math, language arts, science, and history are all covered - but it turns out that I just don't have enough time to get too crazy about the other stuff.  The girls do study Latin and Russian, but not in any kind of serious way, and that's just fine for me.  I had wonderful plans for starting Kathleen in some serious drawing study, but somehow those never quite panned out.  It may have something to do with the five other children I have.  Yes, I do feel mom guilt about not doing all of those things, but no, I don't let it interrupt my nap time.  We all have the right to a little sanity.

I'm happy to be through with this year and am looking to next year, which is an off year.  I have managed to have all my children (except William, who spoiled the pattern) two grade levels apart, so right when one is starting first grade (kindergarten has never been real school), the one just older than them is starting third grade.  Third grade is when they do almost all schooling independently and mostly I am involved in checking and correcting work.  So that means that the off year is when the youngest is in second grade, which is pretty much exactly like first grade except they can already read and work some things independently.  It's the payoff for surviving first grade again.  Seriously, I have all of those poems memorized down cold along with history up to the end of the middle ages, all the prepositions, and counting in whatever pattern you like.  I'll probably be able to recite all of the lessons from memory by the time William gets to first grade.  He'll be so impressed.  But probably not.

But for now, I (and all of the children) am counting down the weeks until break time.  Because it turns out that when you're the teacher you're even happier than children are about summer break.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Best Laid Plans

Friday morning I got a phone call from Brandon.  "Bad news," he started the conversation out cheerfully, "I just got an email tell me that my language waiver got denied."

Way back in November of last year, Brandon got his assignment to Tashkent.  Since we were out-year bidding, this meant that Brandon had to know Russian already to get the job.  The State Department scores language ability on a five point scale, assessing both speaking and reading skills.  For most languages, the department requires a 3/3 proficiency.  Brandon retested here at post and got a 2+/2+, which is not quite a 3, but pretty darn close.  When we were bidding, Brandon let Tashkent know that he didn't have the 3/3 and they, after hearing that he's been using Russian at the last two posts, decided that a 2+/2+ was good enough for them and they extended a job offer to Brandon.

As part of completing all the formalities required to get paneled, or formally assigned, Brandon had to fill out an application for language waiver.  This stated that he understood that there would be financial penalties and other bad things if he didn't have the required score, but he signed it anyway.  The plan was always to get his score up before going to Tashkent because he gets paid extra money to have his Russian at a 3/3.  And I like money.

We assumed everything was just fine - after all Tashkent was fine with his score and the regional bureau were fine with his score - until Friday.  Then I guess somebody else (I honestly have no idea who decided to deny the waiver.  There are levels of bureaucracy I have no desire to understand) decided that it wasn't fine and he'd have to get his score up - or else (I'm not sure what 'or else' means either).

After some time on the phone and an appeal for advice on Facebook (sometimes it's very useful), Brandon and I came up with plans A,B,C, and D.  Plan A involves taking an online course offered by State's language institute and retesting while in Dushanbe, but the rest of the plans involve spending more time in DC getting the required training.  The plans have a variety of inconvenience - one has us leaving early and throwing our school situation into havoc, leaving our current post in the lurch, and losing $13,500; one has us showing up to post six months late and once again throwing the school schedule to the dogs, while squeezing into tiny housing - and none are that great, mostly because we had expressly tried to avoid going back to DC.

Three or four years ago would have seen me breathing into my favorite paper bag (just retired after pouch service was reestablished).  I am a Planner and any time the plan goes wrong is a cause for great anguish.  I invest a lot of time and emotional energy into making sure everything works out just right and I am subjected to a minimum of disruption while saving and/or making the most possible money.

And on Friday I gave that paper bag a long, hard look.  After all, my carefully planned plans with the perfectly executed timing were just making some serious noise that presaged everything falling apart.  I've been looking forward to having a seamless post-to-post transition for literally years.  And let's not even talk about the possibility that Brandon would actually lose his handshake and have to start the bidding process all over again.  Everything was all bad.

But, after considering the freak out for a bit, I decided to skip it.  It was just too much trouble.  After all, what I felt about the situation wouldn't actually change anything, and I had other things to think about.  I even found myself, while discussing that large sum of money that we may be kissing goodbye, telling Brandon that it was just money after all.  And I really meant it.

I think that I have been completely broken down by this lifestyle.  It has taken me, the type-A perfectionist planner who works out airline seating charts months before the plane takes off, and made me into someone who just doesn't care any more.  Sure, I'm happy to get my plane tickets bought six months in advance.  That's nice.  But if I still don't have those tickets 2 1/2 weeks before we leave (which I don't), it's really not that big of a deal.  If we aren't seated together, we will be.  And if we don't get seated together, we'll still arrive at the same destination.  After all, it's just a day(ish) of traveling, right?  Not worth getting worked up about.

Sometimes I'm proud of my flexibility.  I can take a situation that would have sent me into panic spirals and just laugh at it now.  That's good.  It saves me (and Brandon) a lot of emotional turbulence.

But sometimes I wonder if I'm pretending that my uncomplaining (mostly) acceptance is resiliency when really it's just... giving up.  That's not good, right?  I don't think Uncle Winston would be very proud of me giving up.

But either way, it still doesn't change our present situation.  Hopefully Brandon will get things worked out and we can stick to our original schedule.  Or we won't.  And then we'll just make a new schedule.  Because what else can you do?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Starting Early

We have a lot of stuff.  I'm not quite sure how we got all of the stuff, but I imagine my Target and Amazon order histories would give a reasonably accurate picture of how all of this stuff ended up in my house.  Regardless of how it got here, however, it is a lot of stuff.  I suppose that's what happens when you couple eight people with homeschooling, a reasonable amount of disposable income, and being in a place where online shopping is a viable form of self-therapy.  There's no bad day that can't be made a little better by some retail therapy that brings a happy box of America to you.  Don't judge until you've been here.

Almost all of the time I like this stuff.  I love it when I sit down in my living room and it looks so pretty, I enjoy it when I'm cooking dinner and I have all the right tools, I appreciate it when I feed thirty-five people and everyone has real plates, silverware, and cloth napkins, I am grateful for it when the children spend hours playing with their toys instead of bothering me, and I like it when I can have a pretty dress to wear to a party.  All of these things I have accumulated help me out in some way or another.

But there are two times when I do not like everything I have accumulated: 1. When I have to have it packed up and weighed, and 2. When Brandon reminds me that this will happen.

When we first joined State, we packed out with 2,500 pounds of household goods.  We had two children and not much disposable income.  After Baku, we had more income and more children (working on five) and more than double the weight.  If the trend line continues, either multiplicatively or additively, we are going to be in trouble.  This is something I get reminded of at least once a week.

And so, I have started getting down to work.  Usually I like to do things in the bare minimum amount of allowable time.  If the plane leaves at 9 am, I like to stroll up to the gate at 8:40.  Then I have time to get other stuff done.  Also true with packing.  When Brandon starts talking about suitcases two weeks before leaving, I look at him like he's insane.  Why pack everything when you're just going to take it out and use it all again before you leave?  I don't like duplicating efforts.  It's not very efficient.

Usually Brandon and I spend a week or so of agony-inducing sorting the month before we pack out.  If you've never considered sorting agony-inducing, you've never sorted enough things.  According to the LA Times, the average American has about 300,000 household items in their homes.  Now imagine looking at every single one of those items (yes, every single one.  Even the crayons.  Because it makes no sense to move little bitty crayon stumps.  I have sorted our crayons multiple times) and deciding whether to toss or keep that item.  Times 300,000.

The first several hundred aren't too bad.  It's kind of fun, when you've got someone to do it with.  Brandon and I will closet ourselves in some room and the children will quickly grow bored with us and wander off to their toys (approximately 10,000 of the total number of items).  Then Brandon and I can spend hours talking and sorting.  It's very companionable.  But by about the third hour, you start getting tired.  The talk becomes less cerebral and more commentary on what is being sorted.  By the sixth hour you're just grunting, having used up all the words, and the children have started eating each other.  By the ninth, you never want to make another decision again in your entire life.  Then you eventually give up, chase the children into bed (or pick up the ones that have fallen asleep where they played), and crawl into bed yourselves.  Then you wake up and do it again.

And so this time, I've decided to wise up and start early.  Brandon and I have a long-standing disagreement about how much stuff we have.  He thinks that we are at least a thousand pounds overweight (which adds up when you pay overweight fees by the pound) and I think we still have about five hundred pounds left in our allowance.  Last time we thought we were overweight, sold off a lot of our consumables, and then ended up with a thousand extra pounds in our shipment.  Then we just had to buy everything all over again before we came to Dushanbe.

One of us (I'm not sure who) came up with the brilliant idea of making a spreadsheet of everything we own and then weighing it.  Both of us like the idea of definitively proving the other person wrong and then keeping/purging (depending on the results) what is necessary to be kept/purged.

A few Saturdays ago, the house was struck down with sickness (it is summer and that means norovirus season).  Brandon had to take Sophia in to the embassy for IV fluids and so I decided, after being irritated about spending my Saturday at home, that I might as well do something useful with my time.  Because I'm responsible occasionally.  Four or five hours later my nightstand was cleaned out, the top of my dresser was cleaned off, my wardrobe was organized, and I had cleaned out and weighed one half of our upstairs storage room.  My spreadsheet had the weights of most of our household linens recorded (queen sheets sets, 3, 3.5 kilos) and there was a pile of things for my housekeeper to distribute.

The girls have Friday chores that I assign each week based on what I need done, so last week I started them weighing the items in my living room.  They each weighed forty or fifty items, and a hundred items and a hundred kilos were added to my list, named The List to Rule Them All.  I figure if everyone does that for nine or ten months more, we should have everything cleared out and weighed. Then Brandon and I don't lose all will to live in another long, horrible week of sorting.

But we'll have to see.  Sometimes I think I'm clever and it works out really well and I make sure that everyone knows how clever I am.  Sometime I think I'm clever and it works out horribly.  Like that time we took a rest stop in Frankfurt.  But you never know which idea is a good clever idea or a bad clever idea until you try them both out.  I'll let you know which kind this is next year when we pack out.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Party Saturday

According to the calendar, summer started this past week.  According to Tajikistan, summer started last month.  And so by now, a month into summer, it is hot.  We have hit the upper-nineties, low hundreds weather that characterizes Dushanbe's long, hot summers.  I water my outside plants every single morning so they don't die by evening, the air conditioner never stops running, and I don't go barefoot in my courtyard past ten in the morning.

Summer also means the end of adventuring.  My family is less than enthusiastic about hiking at best, and when you throw in ninety-degree weather, hiking is just out of the question.  So this means that we spend our summer Saturdays at the pool.  I've gotten lazy, so this suits me just fine.  There's nothing that makes you feel rich like spending hours under a sunny blue sky enjoying a nice cool pool.  Work?  That's for other days of the week.  I'm going to go for another swim.

That worked really well for Saturdays right until the pool got closed.  The embassy spent a week switching the pool from chlorine to salt water and somebody managed to hook up the pump incorrectly and kill it.  With the sketchy mail situation, this means an undetermined time before the pool is operable again.  Everyone is very sad.

So this past Saturday, we went for another adventure.  A good friend is leaving soon and wanted to finish off her time in Dushanbe with some fun, so she invited us to come with her family (I know, I know, I was shocked too that anyone would voluntarily spend their Saturday with all six of our children) to a little 'resort' about an hour out of town.

Tajikistan has lots of these little resorts, or 'rest areas,' scattered throughout the countryside.  The canyon north of Dushanbe, Varzob canyon, is littered with them.  Usually they have a pool, tapchans, a restaurant, and occasionally a hotel.  They look very inviting when you drive past them.  I always construct an ideal scenario where we spend all day swimming, lounging, and enjoying the good life every time we pass them.

But every time I bring this up with Brandon, he comes back at me with reality.  "There will be bunches of locals staring at you, the food will give us diarrhea, and the facilities will be filthy.  No.  Stop asking."

My friend had been to this particular resort earlier this summer, and so was able to vouch for it.  After a minimal amount of badgering, Brandon agreed to come, and so Saturday morning we packed a pool bag and headed south.

Everyone, especially Brandon, was pleasantly surprised by how nice the resort was, with nicely kept grounds, a decent pool, and even curtained tapchans to put William in while he took a nap.  We had a very nice day swimming, eating, lounging, talking, and watching the children play.  It was just like all of the daydreams I've been having for the past two and a half years.  By the time we left around five, Brandon (Brandon!) was making plans for our return visit.

We made it home around six, and having just spent the day relaxing, none of us were in the mood to make everyone do their Saturday chores.  So we didn't.  And then we weren't in the mood to make dinner.  So instead we watched the very last Harry Potter movie while having popcorn and ice cream for dinner.

Most of the time I like to make sure my children are learning to be responsible members of society by contributing to the running of the household, learning the reality that very rarely is life all play and no work.  But every now and then it's fun to just wallow in the decadence and throw responsibility to the winds.  And Saturday was one of those days.  It was fantastic.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In Which I Solve a Problem Entirely on My Own

Last week we ran out of water.  It was, as always, on laundry day.  We have four 500 liter water tanks in our utility space/room/closet/area and so theoretically we shouldn't run out of water.  Dushanbe usually has a pretty decent water supply (until they turn it off to work on pipes and then tell everyone on Tajik television but nobody bothers to tell us) that doesn't go out for days at a time and so we should be fine.  But it turns out that a household of eight people and all their showers, hand washing, toilet flushing, laundry washing, dish washing, and milk pasteurizing takes a lot of water.

I never know that we have run out of water until I turn on a faucet and nothing comes out.  It would be nice if we had some sort of low-water alarm or I even bothered to check the tanks on a frequent basis so I could know that we were getting low and institute water-saving measures.  But we don't and I don't so this means that I don't know we're out of water until it's... out.

The first few (ten or fifteen) times this happened, I would go and check the tanks and realize that it wasn't entirely out, just coming in at a very slow dribble that would never fill up all four of those tanks in any kind of speed that would let me finish washing my laundry before next week.  I just figured that the local water pressure had gotten low and waited around until it filled back up.

After this happened a few times, I got savvy, ordered another garden hose, and just stretched all three of my hoses (real hoses, with threads and everything.  I think I'm the only person in the entire country with a threaded garden hose, and only because I jury-rigged my Tajik hose so that I could put a real hose on it) through the yard, up the front stairs, through the front door, across my living room, through my storage/coat room, and into the mysterious concrete space where all four of my water tanks hide.  Then I just filled the tanks up from our yard water supply that was working just fine.  And then I was okay until the water got low again on laundry day.

Then the water meter on the outside water tap broke and we had no outside water for five months.

So I had to call Facilities Maintenance to come and fix my problem.

One of the great things about living in embassy-provided housing is that you never have to fix your own problems.  Lightbulbs need replacing?  Put in a work order!  Need to hang pictures?  Work order! Washing machine broken?  Put in that work order and they'll bring a new(ish) one the next day.  Your four year-old colored on all the walls with a Sharpie?  That's what work orders are for!

But one of the downsides about living in embassy-provided housing is that you can't fix your own problems.  We have had power issues since we moved into our house over two and a half years ago, and they still haven't been fixed.  One of our kitchen lights started smoking while we were eating dinner.  I put in a work order, the FM guy came when I was out, and insisted to Kathleen that there was no problem.  See?  No smoking lights right now!

So when the water is out, I have no choice but to call FM to come and fix it.  And until they come and fix it I don't have any water.  After this had happened for the thirtieth or fortieth time, Brandon made me sit and watch the entire process.  "Look," he told me, "it can't be that complicated.  They come, they do something, and ten minutes later you have water again.  Just watch and see what they do.  Then you can do it instead."

So I watched.  I watched as they fiddled with one part of the elaborate filter system that was installed last year and then updated a few months ago.  I kept watching as they fiddled with another part, removing things and washing the cake of dirt that had built up inside, and then watched as they backwashed the sand filter.  As the FM guy finished up, he turned to me.  "See," he shook his finger at me, "it is very difficult.  Very hard to do."  I nodded.  Sometimes it's easier to nod then argue.

Last Tuesday it happened again.  I came downstairs from school to find a trickle of water and not clean clothes where clean clothes should have been.  As always, the water coming into the tanks had slowed to a trickle.  I considered calling FM.  Then I considered pulling all of the hoses through the house and just filling it up and getting on with my day.  And then I put on my big girl pants and pulled out my wrench.

First stop was the incoming water pipe.  I turned off the water supply (very important!), wrenched open a side valve, and cleaned out the screen that had filled with miscellaneous gunk.  Then I put it all back together.  Next I moved on to the first filter bolted to the wall.  I managed to wrench the plastic wring holding a clear plastic cup assembly up to the water supply, but was stymied when the cup itself would not come off.  I wriggled and pulled, but it would not budge.  I had visions of pulling everything off the wall and THEN having to call FM and explained how I had ruined their elaborate set up.  I backwashed the sand filter to release the water pressure, but it still stuck fast.  As a last attempt, I got a butter knife (a very useful tool) and managed to break the seal.  The whole thing came off.  I washed out the screen in the yard, scrubbing as much silt as possible off.

I came back inside, put everything back together, and turned the water on.  Still a trickle.  So I moved to the next filter assembly, two large blue cylinders further on in the system.  Once again I wrenched and wrestled but this one would not come off.  I wrenched some more to visions of ruining the system again and it still wouldn't budge.  One more time I attacked it and finally, with a flood of muddy water, it came off.  And was empty.

Some time ago, I had noticed what looked like a big roll of paper towels next to the tall blue filter cylinders.  After a long while I realized it was a filter core.  Then after another while, I noticed a second filter core.  Evidently last time the water stopped, somebody got the bright idea of just yanking the core instead of replacing it.  It's just a little silt after all, right?

So I moved on to the next filter, yanking this one off a little more easily, and found a filter core inside plugged up with mud.  It turns out that water in Dushanbe is really silty.  The mud in this filter had made it through two other filters before being stuck in this one.  I looked at the back-up core, looked up at the muddy one, decided that the back-up one looked cleaner, and plopped it in.  Then everything got screwed together, the water turned on, and the system charged.  I waited a minute or two and then, miracle of miracles, water came gushing into my big, white, plastic water tanks.

Then I did a happy dance and told myself how awesome I was.  I had fixed a problem entirely on my own without anybody helping me.  I told the children how awesome I was and they were kind of impressed, but not really.  After all, mom's job is to fix problems, right?  So I called Brandon and told him what an amazing wife he has.  He said that yes, I truly am amazing, and thanks for fixing the problem.  I hung up and gave myself a few high-fives and watched the water run into the tanks at a breathtaking speed.  I felt the sense of accomplishment that comes from overcoming impossible odds.  I did another dance and told the children (again) that their mom is pretty cool while listening to my imaginary theme song playing to crowds cheering.  I did a few fist pumps.

And then, I went back to doing laundry.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Story Time

Right now Brandon is reading to the children.  Last month he finished the last of the Harry Potter books, and since he's already read all five of the Fablehaven books and also the Wrinkle in Time series, he's started reading The Lord of the Rings.  Old Man Willow just trapped Pippin and Merry in its tree trunk but luckily faithful Sam will rescue them as he does every time.

I remember being Sophia's age and rushing to get ready for bed on the nights when my dad was home so that I could listen to my own father read The Lord of the Rings.  He had an infuriating habit of reaching a point of extreme suspense and then, while stretching his arms and yawning, announce that it was time for us to all go to bed.  We would groan in disappointment and then beg for just one - only one! - more chapter and then we would go to bed like good little children.  Sometimes he would relent and sometimes we just had to go to bed.

The memory of being tucked into my parents' warm waterbed, bobbing up and down as one of my siblings wiggled, is one of those ones enshrined in childhood remembrance as the Best Times, the times where everything was right and good and perfect in my own little world.  I was safe and warm and listening to a good story read by my perfect, good, loving father.

Some evenings in our house are good evenings.  Brandon comes home from work to a tasty dinner and children bathed and ready for bed.  We've had a good day at school and everyone has finished their work and we've had a nice afternoon together.  All is right in the world and we spend dinner discussing the evolution of germ theory or the fall of Constantinople before the children cheerfully (or at least willingly) help with the dishes and then brush their teeth quickly without any fighting.

Some evenings in our house are not good evening.  Brandon has to work long and the bureaucracy has not given him a break and the traffic has been possibly worse.  The children and I have had a day of wrangling, where nobody wants to get their work done and everybody wants to fight with each other.  The house is a mess, dinner is late, the dinner conversation is largely centered around telling various children to stop fighting, spilling things, burping, making noises, reprimanding each other, or complaining.  Getting ready for bed takes half an hour and a lot of shouting.

But every evening, whether it is a bad evening, a good evening, or an in-between evening, ends the same way.  After everyone is ready for bed (whether quickly or slowly) and we've prayed together, Brandon settles down for story time.  Sometimes it's long because they've gotten to one of the good parts of the story and sometimes it's short because Brandon has read himself to sleep.  But it is always there.

Once I asked Brandon why he read to the children every night.  By the time story time comes around, I am completely done being a parent.  I have spent twelve hours with all six of my children and we have seen enough of each other.  All I want in the world is to get their little bodies in to bed as quickly as possible so that I can finally be off the clock.  My job is not done until all of the monkeys are contained.

"I like it," he told me, "It's one of the best parts of my day.  I don't have to make anyone do anything and we can just enjoy being together.  I always look forward to coming home and reading to the children.  My evening isn't complete without reading to them."

I was floored.  My husband spends all day at work.  He leaves for work right after breakfast and comes home sometimes right as dinner starts, sometimes later.  While we have been going to the pool or playing at the park, while I have been napping and the children playing, he has been working.  No naps or parks or pool for him.  Just work all day, doing whatever everyone else wants of him.  Then he comes home and it is more work, shepherding everyone through dinner and then helping with the dishes and getting children ready for bed.  And then finally, when all of his responsibilities are over and he can do something of his own choosing, he spends his precious free time reading to his children.  And not only does he do it because he knows it is good and right, he does it because he likes it.  He likes spending time with them, sharing his favorite stories and inviting them in.  He would rather be telling the story of Frodo and Sam than surfing the internet or watching TV.  It's enjoyable.  

When I think about Brandon and my father and nightly story time, I am struck every time by the unselfishness of fathers.  They go to work all day (and for my father, sometimes all night) at jobs that most of them don't particularly enjoy.  Some of them work in jobs that are downright dangerous.  And while they are digging ditches and writing cables and delivering babies and fighting wars, everyone else is at home, in the house they pay for, enjoying the fruits of their labor.  I remember waking up around nine on one lazy summer morning and realizing that everyone in my family was going to spend the day at the pool while my father spent the day at the office.  His labor was supporting the six of us in our laziness (well, my mother wasn't all lazy).  

Fathers don't complain.  They don't come home and tell everyone how great they are because they made it possible for everyone to eat dinner that night.  They don't ask us to tell them how wonderful they are.  They don't whine when somebody else has taken the last drumstick and left them with only a wing.  They don't require homage.  

Instead, they play with their children.  They make sure that if there are seven people and six cookies, everyone else gets a cookie.  They listen to tales of everyone else's day without once interrupting with tales of their own.  They are happy we have gone to the pool.  And they read their children stories.  Because they like to.

Because they are fathers.  And that's what fathers do.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Slowly, Slowly Learning Russian

The girls and I have now been taking Russian lessons for almost two years.  If I were a diligent, active Russian student who did things like homework and flash cards, I would be doing pretty well.

But I'm not a diligent student.  My Russian practice consists of 1. attending our 45-minute lessons three times a week and 2. (somewhat) daily Duolingo practice.  I could claim that I don't have time to do all that other stuff, but I could make time if I wanted to.  I just don't want to.  My daily need for Russian language skills is often nonexistent and when I do use it, it's more of a bonus than anything else.  It's pretty easy to live in a foreign country without knowing the language when you have other people to do everything for you.

But nonetheless the girls and I persevere.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Albina shows up at our house (and when she can't make it we all silently rejoice) and we go through another forty-five minute session of language learning.  We are reasonably proficient in the tenses, being able to conjugate according to several different patterns (but nothing too complicated) and have discussed the idea of aspecutal pairs.  There is a conception of the fact that there are cases floating around in our lessons and recently we have done some work on understanding them, but I'm pretty sure none of us have a handle on all of them.  Sometimes we work on prepositions and their case, but I don't think we know all of them.  I do know that there are a lot of words we don't know but we can do some basics.

I surprised myself a little while ago by translating one of Brandon's phone conversations for my parents.  To my own (and everyone else's) shock, I understood about 75% of what he said.  It wasn't a terribly complicated conversation, but I didn't know that I was that capable.  It was a nice feeling.

But I'm not in a very big rush.  We have almost a year left here in Dushanbe, followed by at least two and probably three years in Tashkent.  By then I should have more Russian than I do now.  And that will be just fine.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Earning That Thirty Percent

All posts in the Foreign Service are not created equal.  Some places, like Paris or London are in nice, first-world countries.  Other places like Lagos or Luanda are not.  Since this is not the military where people sign over the ability to choose where they will live, there has to be something that evens up the playing field at little.  Money.  This comes in the form of various incentives - airplane tickets, large housing, SND, and differential.  So if you live in London you get paid the basic salary (plus a cost of living adjustment). However, if you are willing to give up things like lines, street signs, rationality, and not sticking out like a store thumb, the State Department will compensate you with a bonus on top of your salary.  This is how we have ended up in places like Cairo, Baku, Dushanbe and Tashkent.  I like nice places but evidently I like money more.  Even when it means putting up with an inherent inability to understand basic traffic rules.

Dushanbe, as I have mentioned before, is a 30% differential post.  This means that you take Brandon's basic salary and then put 30% more on top.  It's pretty great, I won't lie.  I like looking at our retirement accounts every few months and seeing more money every time.  Magic!

When we first moved here I felt like that extra money was a little like taking candy from a baby.  Dushanbe has things like power, running water, grocery stores, traffic lights (that people follow!), and housekeepers.  When I go out, nobody bothers me and the traffic is pretty nonexistent.  There are much worse places in the world to live (I'm looking at you, Luanda).

Then Eleanor got sick.  It was nothing life threatening, just diarrhea and vomiting that left Eleanor reasonably dehydrated.  If we had been in the States (or even in Europe), Eleanor would have been hooked up to an IV, rehydrated, and sent on her way.  Instead we stayed up all night feeding her fluid by sips every half an hour or so.  That night I felt the lack of local medical services that are part of the reasons for our 30% differential.  I won't lie, I don't mind getting non-emergency situations resolved in London, but it's those emergency ones that make you wish you didn't care for money so much.

But for everyday life, Dushanbe still really wasn't that hard.  After all, I spend most days living in my enormous house that I don't clean.  Then we started having problems with travel.  But at least, when we had to cancel and re-book tickets, we weren't paying for them right?  But then we did.

It's summer travel season again, and this year I learned my lesson and made sure to not fly a single leg of our flights on Turkish.  I had all of my flights lined up and was bugging Brandon about getting his leave request signed when our new airline - Somon - started having troubles.  Fuel here in Tajikistan has gotten very expensive (about $500 a ton more than anywhere else in the region), and Somon has been getting around the problem (and their unpaid fuel bill) by making unannounced stops in Ashgabat to fuel up before heading on to Germany.  Sometimes people make their connections and sometimes they don't, so it's back to Turkish again despite my promises that it would never happen.

And also with summer comes electricity problems.  Our house has had a bad connection with the city power since the day we moved in two and a half years ago.  Whenever there's too much of a power draw (like drying clothes and running the air conditioning), the generator turns on, turns off all the power when it switches on, and then turns off.  Endlessly.  So when it's 105 degree outside our play/school room gets hot enough on laundry days to melt crayons.  Literally. I found half-melted ones in their box last summer.

But still, thirty percent is a lot of money.  I'm willing to put up with quite a few things for money, especially as the SND (15% on top of the 30 if we stay three years) has kicked in.  We all have our price, and it turns out that I'm pretty easy to buy.  Dushanbe may have major airline issues, poor (very poor) house construction, and hot endless summers, but it is still not Africa.  And also money.  I like that part.

Then.  But then.

Tajikistan is a very poor country and hasn't been getting any richer.  One of the solutions that the government has pursued is getting money out of those that have it, including foreign businesses.  This hasn't affected me - I live in a bubble created with US tax dollars - and so I haven't paid attention.

But last week, those depredations hit home when the government revoked the licenses of foreign courier services, including DHL.  It turns out that our mail - the magical thing that brings Oreos, J. Crew, Target, Amazon, and Synthroid to my house - is delivered by DHL.  The same DHL that is no longer licensed to operate in Dushanbe.

We got an email from the management section at the embassy informing us that no more mail would be coming.  The pouch facility in Virginia would hold everything already sent, but anything else ordered would be sent back if it showed up.  So, make sure and hoard the Oreos because no more are coming until further notice.

It was then that I decided that Dushanbe and I can no longer be friends.  I can put up with its spotty medical services as long as everyone stays healthy.  I will forgive the insane driving because everyone in these countries drives like that.  As long as the pool is open we can survive two months of one-hundred degree heat.  I will just not cook any recipes that use avocados, asparagus, bacon, blueberries, boneless skinless chicken thighs, or plain yogurt.  When I'm in America I can binge on Mexican food, Krispy Kreme, and Wendy's.  I know by now to not even bother streaming my favorite TV shows.  Constantly rearranging airline travel is frustrating, but doesn't happen that often.  I can even learn to turn on the just the right number of split packs that will keep the house just cool enough without turning on the generator.  And we've even learned to deal with GI issues - the carpet cleaner is an essential tool in that fight.

But pouch.  That is just too far.  Mail days are like Christmas, the kind of Christmas that brings you things you really need, like medicine and clothes for the children, and things you really want, like a new purse or Instant Pot.  It also brings things like toilet paper, school books, and sanity.  Could I get some of those things here?  Maybe (Okay, probably not the sanity).  But I don't have the time, inclination, or language skills to borrow the car from Brandon, find a babysitter for the children, drive down to the market that has no signs or anyone who knows enough to tell you where to find the safety pins or pair of shoes you desperately need are.  That's what Amazon is for.  But not now.  I feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder buckling down for that long, endless winter in North Dakota where they started eating the seed corn so they wouldn't starve.  Don't eat all the Triscuits, kids.  We don't know when we'll get more.

While I was breathing into a paper bag, Brandon did point out that there are plenty of people in this country that are suffering a lot more from the bad conditions than I am.  It's not Target they're missing, but things like food and jobs, and that made me feel not quite better, but at least contrite.  Then I went to another room so he wouldn't see me keep breathing into that bag.

This issue affects more than my new running shoes (official pouch is also affected), and so I know it's not going to last forever.  But until then I'm going to be really careful with those Triscuits.  Two crackers apiece and not a cracker more.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Willam Update

Last Saturday we were getting ready for the pool.  The kitchen was cleaned up from breakfast (on the menu that morning: cake.  Because cake and muffins are pretty much the exact same thing), I had on my swimsuit, the snacks were packed, the children were re-installing car seats, the pool bag had goggles, sunscreen, diapers, wipes, and William's swimsuit.  All eight towels were piled up next to the door and I made sure I had my badge and sunglasses.

Mid-sentence in my conversation with Brandon, I remembered something.

"The baby! I forgot about William! Let me go get him!"

And that is life in a nutshell for the sixth child.

Or at least it is if you are an agreeably easy-natured baby like William.  Most of the time William watches the circus go by with a bemused expression on his face.  'How did I get stuck here with these crazies?' he seems to say.  'But at least they're pretty nice.'  And when he gets fussy, he takes a nap for a couple of hours.

He started smiling a few months ago and hasn't stopped since, smiling at anyone who pays attention to him, waving his little fist and wriggling his whole with joy.  Kathleen likes to say that William is the best anti-grouch medication in the world - if you're in a bad mood it won't last more than a minute when you're with William.  I think she's right.  Every night when we put William to bed Brandon and I stand over his crib, smiling at him and telling each other how cute that baby is.  You'd think it would have gotten old by now - after all, we've had five before him - but it seems that it never does.

William hasn't exhibited any precocial behavior - no teething, rolling over, crawling, sitting up, or playing with toys - and is pretty much a chubby agreeable lump that is perfectly happy being held the whole time he is awake (which still isn't much longer than forty-five minutes at a time).  Which is good because he gets held by a lot of people.  A few weekends ago we were at the pool following an embassy event.  William, who had been sleeping through it all in his crib, started fussing.  I was in the pool so a friend picked him up.  The next time I looked over someone else had him until he had been passed around to pretty much anyone who wasn't swimming at the time.  He attended Ladies' Night last month and was past from lady to lady until he had made his way around the entire table.  

His siblings all love him, fighting over whose turn it is to bathe him or feed him or dress him or play with him.  A few days ago I caught Joseph trying his hardest to figure out how he could rig up some sort of seat arrangement so that Joseph could push William around in their little red play car.  The children reported to me that Eleanor has now been kicked out of the kingdom and William crowned the new monarch.

I've always been anxious for my babies to grow up past the stage where they need special treatment - extra naps, early bedtimes, special meals, strollers, cribs - and they can join the rest of the crowd.  But William, he can take as much time as he likes growing up.  I'll keep the squishy baby around a little longer if I can.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

T minus one year

It is now June.  Our departure date for Tajikistan is May 2018, so that means we now have less than one year left in Dushanbe.  For most people at hardship posts, one year left means that you have halfway finished your tour.  But when your tour is three and a half years long, one year left means that it's practically time to start packing the boxes.

I'm a planner at heart - the kind of person that loves to research hotel options for a trip that might happen and secretly looks up flight schedules while they're supposed to be doing useful things like reading their children bedtime stories.  This means that, with only a year left until we pack up every single thing on the earth that we own (except for that crate in Haagerstown, Maryland full of things that I no longer remember) and move it aaaaaaall the way to Tashkent, a 260-mile drive away, it's time to start planning.

Last week I rearranged one of our storage rooms.  This happens periodically as we get more consumables (we got a supplementary shipment last summer and a layette shipment last month) and I have to rearrange everything to store it neatly.  While I was rearranging, I weighed my canning jars.  We packed out of Baku with 1,000 pounds left in our weight allowance (7,200 pounds, which sounds like a lot until you weigh everything you own and then suddenly it's peanuts), and the Amazon boxes haven't stopped coming for the past two and a half years.  Our plan this time around is to try and weigh all our posessions and then enter it into a spreadsheet so that we can know the exact weight of everything we own on this earth except the unknown items in Maryland (okay, I could find the manifest and find that out too, but I'm too lazy).  I'll let you know how that goes.

After I weighed a few representative jars and counted the rest, I took stock of my jam supplies.  I still have mango jam from Cairo, a few jars of blackberry jam, three or four of mulberry, and a lot of jars of persimmon jam.  I added 'no more jam making' to my mental list of things to remember.  Then I looked over the rest of my food and wondered how we were going to eat it all in the next eleven months.

After that, I added sundried tomatoes and cranberry sauce to my consumables list.  Because even though we have to get rid of all the food we own before we leave, we will be buying two years' worth of consumables during the one-month home leave we will have next spring.  Every time I open up something from our consumables store, like shampoo or wheat or toilet paper or pad thai sauce, I write the date on a list (of which there are several), with a note of the size.  I've never judged our consumption rate very well in the past, which has led to buying way too much food for our first post (who needs 100 pounds of popcorn?!?) and too little for this last post (I'm not sure how I feel about using six gallons of canola oil in nine months).  So this time I'm determined to get it just right.  I'll let you know how that goes, too.

Following the reorganization of our storage room, I cleaned up the kitchen a little.  Over the years and various moves and temporary stays, I've collected a lot of different storage containers.  Some are the cheap throwaway kind that I've never gotten to throwing away, some my sister gave me over a decade ago before I got married, and some have just drifted in on the wind like those cheap plastic toys that accumulate in the corners of your toy bins.  I have daydreams of replacing them, but it's not happening until we move.  Because I can ditch the storage containers here and mail the new one to our next post.  Save weight and get them there faster.  Brilliant!

When I was done with the kitchen I headed out to the yard.  When we moved in our yard consisted of 1. two bare dirt areas by the windows and 2. a dirt patch with some struggling grass.  Now we have two fruit trees that are almost fifteen feet tall, pots with mint, sage, chives, thyme, lemon balm, rosemary, four o'clocks, snapdragons, portulaca, and vincas.  The dirt patches have become a thriving wildflower bed and a very happy snapdragon bed.  I bought most of the pots in Baku, making my friend's poor driver scour half the city to get the things, and the current internal debate is whether to leave them and buy new ones (money!) or dump all of the plants and dirt out and pack them again (weight!).  I'm still not sure about that one.  Also, my grass could probably do with some reseeding, but heck, we're leaving next year so why bother?

By then it was lunch time, so I went to our third floor and called the children down.  All of the children's toys live up there and every time I look at their extensive collection, I imagine the Tajik children who will love playing with the toys that will get abandoned as we leave.  My fingers itch to pull out the garbage bags now and start the ruthless purging that brings the sweetest feelings of moral purity, but I leave them for now.  After all, we do have almost a year left.

One day I won't walk through my house seeing things that need to be gotten rid of, or put off purchases until the next move because of weight, or simply give up on improving my house, or have to track my usage rate of brown sugar.  I'll just move in somewhere, unpack, and buy what I need from Target when I run out.  I'm not sure what that will be like, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Happy Birthday, Sophia!

This month, Sophia turned nine.  Since my parents were in town (and the weather forecast called for rain), we decided to play tourist for her birthday.

We started out at the national tea house, a large beautiful building that, incidentally, doesn't serve tea.  It does have multiple lavishly (the picture we're standing from is made entirely from stone) decorated meeting rooms, a gift shop, a pool hall, a bowling alley, a movie theater, and a supermarket.  But no tea.

After that we went to that national antiquities museum.  Where they did not have any tea, but they did have a very large reclining Buddha statue.  Along with a lot of other old stuff, like bones and spears and pottery.

That evening we had cake and presents for Sophia, following the now-traditional birthday dinner of Eggs Benedict.  

Brandon's grandparents gave her a Barbie doll, Kathleen gave her a coupon book, Joseph gave her some money, Edwin gave her a drawing of a dinosaur, my parents gave her a dress, and we gave her a book and a bike.  It was a pretty good birthday.

The next morning, my father put the bike together.  Which was is good thing he is an avid bike rider because it was much more complicated than anything I could have handled.

For Sophia's birthday Saturday, we went swimming and then had dinner at a local Arabic restaurant, Al Sham.  Nobody spilled anything, nobody cried (not even William), and everyone ate their food, so it was a fantastic meal.

After dinner we went to the amusement park and the children rode all the rides until they had had all of the fun they could stand.  This year Kathleen and Sophia were tall enough to ride a bigger ride, the swings, and I went with them.  Edwin and Joseph, who were too short, were much disappointed.

Sophia had a great birthday, most of all because her grandparents were in town to celebrate with her.  Kathleen always has family around for her birthday (it's always during R&R), and Sophia was happy to finally have family for her birthday, too.  It's strange to think that next year she will be hitting double digits - and that will make my second child in double digits.  She really has come to be a (mostly) pleasant child to be around and is a cheerful and happy addition to our family.  Happy Birthday, Sophia!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Another Visit

Tajikistan is not a country that is on very many people's bucket lists.  Maybe not on anybody's bucket list, or at least not the lists of anybody I know.  We knew this when we moved here and so haven't expected any visitors.  And we haven't had many in the two and a half years we've been here.  When anybody asks if they should come visit, I tell them that they should probably save the money and hassle and go somewhere nice, like Paris.  Or Venice.  Or even Moscow.  But probably not Dushanbe.

And most people have taken my advice.  We did have some friends come visit that we met almost twelve years ago during our first stint in Cairo.  They came from their current post, Moscow, with their three boys for a long weekend and were rewarded with horrible sickness almost as soon as they got here.  Every single one, all five of them, came down with GI issues during the four days they were here.  Like I said, you really don't actually want to visit Dushanbe.

My parents, however, did not heed my advice, and came to visit anyway.  They got back from a three-year mission in the mountains of Peru last summer, so that must have helped them out because nobody got sick the entire visit.  And they flew on Turkish without a single delay.  It was a miracle.

While they were here, we:

Went to the local Olympic training park,

took a walk in our neighborhood,

had a picnic at the botanical garden (and had to walk home in the rain),

visited Hisor and had Hisor chicken (and didn't get sick!),

watched the children play in the yard,

went hiking,

braved their lives on a rickety platform (held in place with a few boulders) overlooking a 115-ft waterfall,

had a picnic at Iskanderkul,

took a tour of the national tea house,

and the national antiquities museum,

celebrated Sophia's birthday,

helped out around the house and yard (including fixing two ottomans and Eleanor's tricycle),

went out to eat several times (and still didn't get sick!),

went to the amusement park,

went swimming multiple times,

and had dinner at my housekeeper's house (and still no sickness.  These people are amazing).

After two weeks they went home claiming to have had a fun time with all the delights that Tajikistan had to offer.  The children enjoyed spending more time with their grandparents, and I had a great time with my parents.  The children declared this year 'grandparent year' as they will get to see their grandparents three different times.  

I'm grateful for my parent's visit and now we can put away the nice new guest linens that I bought for their visit because I'm pretty sure they are the last guests that will come visit us in Dushanbe.  But, it was fun while it lasted!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Perks of Living in a Small Community

Last week I got an email from Brandon.  "Looks like we're going to get the time off this summer.  Make sure to say your thanks in your prayers tonight."  I did a little happy dance and then told the children who shouted for joy.  "Daddy's coming! Daddy's coming to the beach!!"

Later that night when Brandon came home I asked him what had happened.  He told me that he had an opportunity to explain to his management why we really needed to have that one specific week in July - if it was any other year we would be happy to take a few weeks in the fall instead.  In the afternoon, he got an email telling him that leadership had found someone else to fill in for the vacancy that Brandon's section chief would have had to do.  This left the chief in the section, which would let Brandon leave.  He was welcome to take as much time as he needed, they told him, as long as the section chief was okay with it.

And that is why it's great to live in a small embassy community.

Our first post was in Cairo which had, at the time, about seven hundred direct-hire Americans.  Add in the family members and that makes for a very large community.  Housing was scattered throughout the city and the embassy itself was made up of several multi-story towers.  I never knew anyone outside of Brandon's section that wasn't Mormon, and I never remember going to any Christmas parties, Easter parties, or Halloween parties.  The community was just too big.

When we moved to Baku, a family moved in shortly after we did.  While discussing previous posts, Brandon discovered that that we had been in Cairo together almost the whole two years and never once had we seen them the entire tour.  I've had lots of people ask if we knew someone that was in Cairo at the same time as us and I have almost never heard of the person they are asking about.

Here we have less than seventy direct-hire Americans and I know just about everyone in the entire community.  When just about any child in the embassy community has a birthday party, we're invited.  If somebody new moves in, we all know about it months before they move in.  Doughnut nights are an open invitation to any lady that wants to come.  We celebrate holidays together.  We go on trips together.  We camp together.  We party together.  The embassy community is our family.

In Cairo I saw the ambassador once, at the newcomer's orientation where we had finger food in her garden and then all herded into an auditorium to watch a presentation about life in Cairo.  I don't know how many times I've seen the ambassador here, talked with her, been to her house and had her come to my house.  Just last week while I was hanging out at the pool, she came down from the front office (which looks over the pool) just to hold William, who she hadn't met before.

And so I shouldn't have been surprised at all when Brandon was given his leave.  Leadership was willing to listen to his plight and do some shuffling and then suddenly I wasn't flying alone and Brandon was spending a wonderful week with his family on the North Carolina coast.

Management here didn't have to care if I flew alone or Brandon missed siblings he hadn't seen for years.  It wasn't their problem, especially for the ones leaving this summer.  Leave is always conditional and dependent on staffing availability.  That is the reality of this job.

But here in Dushanbe they do care if I fly alone.  They want Brandon to be able to see his family.  Our happiness matters to them.  Because the embassy community is our family.

So you can have Paris and it's wonderful sights and magnificent food.  I'll pass on London and all the amazing history.  I can even give up Thailand and its fresh mangoes and amazing beaches.  Those places may have great things, but here in Dushanbe we have great people.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day

Sometimes I get a little grumpy on Mother's Day.  This morning was one of those days.  My parents are in town and we've been partying a lot, going hiking and swimming and out to dinner, and I knew that Brandon hadn't had time to go out and get me flowers.  We were gone almost twelve hours yesterday and I knew the children hadn't had time to make me cards or plan a special breakfast.  And I hadn't intercepted any packages with contents more exciting than twenty pounds of brown sugar.  I knew that Mother's Day this year was going to be a bit of an on-the-fly affair.

Last year I was in London and didn't get a Mother's Day either.  Sure, I didn't have to make dinner or anything, but I also didn't get the adulation that I had certainly earned by squeezing five children out and then keeping them alive for nine years.  So I was a little grumpy this morning, irritated that - for the second year in a row - I wouldn't have the picture-perfect Mother's Day I deserved.

As I showered alone (brownie points to Brandon for taking care of breakfast this morning) I lectured myself.  "Mother's Day is not about flowers or cards or presents or breakfast in bed or any of those things that you post about on Facebook to let everyone know how great your husband is.  It's about letting your family be grateful for you.  Not stuff.  Gratitude."

By the time I came down for breakfast, I was almost entirely not grumpy.  So when Sophia presented me with the creme brulee toast she made me and I saw the vase filled with flowers Brandon had picked and he apologized for not having a card, I was able to graciously thank Sophia for the toast and tell Brandon that it had been busy and not to worry about things too much.

We had church this morning and for our speaker, we watched an old conference talk by President Monson about mothers.  The boys made cards in their class (well, Joseph did.  Edwin told me that it was too much trouble to write).  My Dad and Brandon made dinner and cleaned it up.  Sophia made my mother and me several cards.  Kathleen told me what a great mom I am.

And sometime during the day I stopped being resentful about what things hadn't been done for me and I started being grateful that I get to be a mother for Mother's Day.

I'm grateful for my children, the ones who make me a mother.  Often they drive me crazy - like when someone forgets to put a top on the milk and half a jug is spilled on the floor.  Sometimes they make me mad.  Every now and then they make me sad.  But I would never ever trade the crazy and mad and sad for the tranquility that comes from being childless.

When the house is loud, it is because it is filled with people.  When it is dirty, the dirt comes from little feet and hands.  When it is quiet and clean, it is a blissful break from loud and dirty.

I am grateful for my husband, because without him I wouldn't be a mother either.  Sometimes he drives me crazy.  Occasionally he makes me mad.  And every now and then he makes me sad.  But I would never trade those things for the autonomy and independence that comes from being single.

When my room has three suit jackets hanging over the chair, they are the suit jackets of the person who goes to work every day to keep me and my children fed.  When I fold pair after pair of socks, they are the socks of someone who reads stories to my children every night before they go to bed.  And when I make the bed every day, it is the bed where I sleep next to the man who still finds me beautiful after twelve years and six children.

And so, in the end, Mother's Day isn't really about spa days or jewelry or flowers or brunch (as nice as those things can be).  It's about being a mother.  This job has lots of crazy and sad and angry and messy and exhausted and frustrated days, but those are the price we pay for having a life that is, in the end, full of happiness and joy and love and beauty.  And children.  Lots and lots of children.