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Thursday, September 30, 2010

20 Questions, Round One

Without further ado,

Will Brandon be able to use his Russian there?

Will more language training be necessary?

Is the primary language spoken in this area Arabic?

Is it in the Eastern Hemisphere?

Is It considered a third world country?

Is it in Asia?

Is the food delicious?

Is it a nuclear country?

Will you have a villa with a pool?

Did the apple originate in it, or a contiguous country?

Do you get to have a maid?

Is it in the Mango Belt?

Or the Nanny Belt?

Does it snow in the winter there?

Have I been there?

The next round ends October first, 12 AM EST, so keep guessing!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Where are we going?

This evening, while Brandon was getting the girls ready for bed, I checked our email.  Waiting for me was an email from Brandon's CDO, labeled "Congratulations!"  In it contained a few lines, and our future for June 2012-June 2014.

But what was in it?

That's for me to know and for you to guess.

In a shameless bid for comments, I am now hosting 20 Questions on my blog.  The first session is open from now until 12 AM EST on the 30th of September.  Here are the rules:

1.  Only yes or no questions
2.  I will answer all questions from one round before proceeding to the next
3.  No specific city or country names for the first two rounds
4.  The game continues, with 24-hour rounds, until someone guesses where we're going
5.  The winner gets an all-expenses paid trip (excluding airfare and personal expenses) to our next post!  Valid 6/2012 - 6/2014

I will enable anonymous posting for those of you who prefer to remain... anonymous.  Have fun with questions!

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Lesser of Two Weevils

I wish I had known about the oatmeal canisters when I bought them at the Commissary.  If I had not trusted in the right of anything bought from a USG facility, I would have looked more closely at the seals on my Quaker Old-Fashioned oats before putting them in my pantry cupboard.

Perhaps if I had investigated even more thoroughly than I already did, I would have found where all of those weevils mysteriously wandering through my cupboards so nonchalantly had come from.  I thought that I had caught them in the pasta and they were dead in the freezer.  The crackers didn't seem too suspect, but you can never be too sure when dealing with the weevils.  Hopefully they won't be too soggy from their time frozen.

Unfortunately, I didn't check and didn't look, and so this morning when I went to my cupboard to find more oatmeal for breakfast, I found more than oatmeal.  Brandon suggested I make oatmeal cookies - with raisins.  For now, the oatmeal has joined the pasta and crackers.  I'll think of what to with it after I've dealt with the laundry, the dishes, Edwin's diapers, and of course the children.

I'm hoping the rest of my week will be better.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bribery is such a harsh word

Last month Kathleen turned four.  One of her birthday presents was a bank.  And with the bank came the promise of allowance attached to the responsibility of chores.

Chores were never popular in my house growing up, and I remember (and now regret) innumerable occasions where my mother would ask me to sweep the floor/set the table/feed the cat/vacuum the floor and I would respond with a (I imagine to be maddening) whine, "Mo-om, I know," and then try and hide to read twenty more pages of my book before the scenario was repeated half an hour later.

And so, with the arrogant resolve of a young parent, I have set out to Do it Differently With My Children.

On the kitchen counter sits three jars.  One is full of marbles, and two aren't.  Every time Kathleen does a chore (and Sophia thinks that she has done one because Kathleen did one), she (and Sophia) get a marble.  If she declines to do the chore, she has one marble removed every five minutes until she decided that the chore wasn't such a bad idea in the first place.

At the end of the week, each marble gets exchanged for 25 piasters, ten percent goes to tithing, and the rest goes to her bank where she will save up buy wonderful things like clothes for her mother (her idea, not mine), toys, and a microwave if she breaks ours.

So yes, I am bribing, ahem, paying my child to do chores.  The list as of yet is fairly nebulous, but usually involves cleaning up her room, putting the clothes in the laundry after bath, helping to unload the dishwasher, cleaning up the toys, and whatever else I need help with.

Which is where allowance starts to look a little sketchy because at this point, she can be paid to do all sorts of things, and if I'm busy it's worth 25 piasters to have Kathleen feed Sophia the rest of Sophia's oatmeal that she has decided she's tired of feeding to herself.

I suppose of all of us, Brandon should be the most concerned as it's his salary that I'm using to have my work done for me.  I wonder if she'll take checks?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Saturday night

Back in the bygone-days Saturday night was a time anticipated all week.  As a youth there were stake dances, dates, movies, and parties.  When I was in college there was more of the same, but at later hours and lasting into the wee hours of the morning.  I have nodded/slept my way through many a sacrament meeting after a night of whatever my Saturday nights used to consist of.

Now that I have children and the workweek has changed to Sun-Thursday, Saturday night has calmed down considerably.  However, I still like to enjoy my Saturday night, and so last Saturday after the children had been put to bed after a long afternoon of swimming, and were asleep (or at least quietly reading), Brandon and I set to enjoying our evening.

It was my turn to choose the activity, so I chose one of my personal favorites: Scrabble.  The game started out well for Brandon, aided by the soothing songs of Nate King Cole, Kathleen's favorite singer.  His first word garnered him twenty points, and mine a mighty four.  This trend continued until, after the first several turns, Brandon had made it past one hundred and I was up to an impressive twenty.

The tide turned, however, when I engaged in an unapologetically amazing act of cheating that involved tile-switching (completely legal by house rules), creating a new word, and using a foreign word.  After garnering a house-record 104 points for Squeezeur (noun: a French male who squeezes), I owned the game thereafter.

My lead was only further cemented by continued cheating (tile-switching, removing a letter present on the board [questionably legal], and making two words into one) to create pinecone (with the 50-point bonus for using all tiles: 72 points).  By the end of the game I ran out of scoring capability on our counters which means that my score was over 400 points, also a house record.  My cheating was of such a degree that Brandon didn't even try to protest my score on grounds that I had cheated.

His wounds, however, were soothed with the McFlurries that were delivered to our door (after ordering them online), even if they were half the size, not mixed, and twice the price of something comparable in the States.  The game wrapped up at 9, and we were in bed by 9:30.

I've heard that Cairo some nice cultural offerings, but who needs the ballet when you can have a Saturday night like ours?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Living in Cairo: Holidays

As I've mentioned before, one of the perks of the Foreign Service is dual holidays: American Federal holidays, and whatever holidays the host government wants to spring for.

For those of you not aware, Ramadan ended this week.  One of the best thing about Muslim holidays is they all last for a minimum of two days, sometimes three.  This year Eid, the feast to mark the end of Ramadan was scheduled to fall on Friday and Saturday, the weekend around here.  And so we made no plans because there was no work off.

Until the week before Eid, when the Embassy gave up the ghost and gave everyone Thursday and Sunday off because nobody was planning to show up to work anyway.  We had no idea that a four-day weekend was coming up, but evidently everyone else in Egypt knew about it because all beach hotels within a reasonable driving distance were booked solid.

So this past weekend, we had three days of fun to look forward to.  The only problem was that everyone else in Cairo had three days of fun to look forward to also.  Despite what the National Geographic may lead you to think, there isn't much to to in Cairo if one has little children.  There is a mall, but it's a long drive away and everyone else will be there too.  The zoo is... interesting.  Al-Azhar park is pleasant.  If there are no Cairenes.  But of course on an Egyptian holiday, there are Egyptians everywhere.  There are already Egyptians everywhere, but on holidays all of the ones that had been in hiding or put up for the summer come out too.

As a rule, I'm not agoraphobic.  I enjoy large cities, the anonymity that crowds bring, the feel of being part of a huge swirling mass of humanity.  But here in Cairo, the crowds bring less anonymitynot more.  I'm not bothered by having one person nicely ask to take my picture, take my children's picture, hold the baby, scare my girls by kissing them, but having fifteen ask in half an hour starts to grow old.

And so holidays, which on anticipation promise so much fun and adventure, turn into anti-holidays.  Instead of going out, we hole up in our apartment, hiding from the camera and kisses.  The only refuge is Maadi House, and so that's what we did all weekend: go swimming.  The children were perfectly happy, and I suppose that's what counts.  I am, however, looking forward to some holidays in the US again where nobody cares who I am.  Which is the way I like it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dear Commissary People,

Imagine my surprise recently when I visited my local commissary and found a drastic change in your milk packaging.  The noble eagle which has graced my breakfast table every day for the past year had been replaced by an obscene dancing cow.

Our morning oatmeal will no longer be served with a side of patriotic feeling and a reminder to support our forces and help in the maintenance of American freedom.

My daughter Kathleen will no longer have reading material to repeat, stars to count and long-vowel sounds to practice every morning.

Those who come after me will not know about the optimum storage temperature for dairy products which may lead to unintentional milk spoilage.

And without your gentle reminder, I may not remember my basic oral hygiene.

However, the change in packaging has convinced my daughters that their milk is somehow better because it has a dancing cow shaking its hips on the front.  And for that, I thank you.

Ashley Sherwood

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It's bidding time, it's bidding time

When Brandon joined the Foreign Service, we all signed up for a peripatetic lifestyle for the next few decades.  We've now been in Cairo for slightly over a year, and now it's time to find out where we're going next.

Brandon is a Junior Officer and has guided bids for his first few tours.  What this means is that everyone in a particular bidding cycle (which is based on when you got to post - 'summer' or 'winter') gets a list of available jobs, and has to pick 20 jobs that they'd like to do for their next post.

These jobs have various components to them - when they're open, what language they require, where they are, and what actual job they are.  All four of these components are very crucial to what 20 jobs go on one's particular list.  There may be a position open in Vienna, but if it's consular opening in August of 2011, you don't speak any German, and are a political officer, that job in Vienna is not only useless to your career but isn't going to happen anyway because German is not a language that can be taught in no months (sigh).

Everyone's situation is different and is defined by what particular pieces they have fulfilled/are lacking.  By then end of two tours all JO's need: 1. at least one year in a consular position 2. functional knowledge (according to their tests) of a foreign language and 3. something in their particular field because when the third tour comes, they have to get a job based on who they know and what skills they possess because the magic wish list no longer exists.  

Brandon is currently serving his consular tour, and so now we're looking for a political job for the next time around.  Political officers are often counseled to stay in two geographic regions, and so we'd like to stick to Arabic/Russian speaking posts.  But that is where all of that nice theory starts to break down.

Before receiving the bid list, we had a nice little plan to go somewhere straight from Cairo - surely there are enough Arabic and Russian speaking posts that something would come up, right?  What we didn't factor in was an enormous hiring surge that would leave the HR people scrambling for enough jobs for all of the people coming out of initial training.  

So when we got the list, all of the political jobs that had any language except English and Spanish had dates that included 2012 in them - some of them as far as December 2012.  And we're done with this post in 2011, which leaves a very large gap of time to be filled between summer 2011 and (at earliest) April 2012.  Since State doesn't pay us to sit in DC while we're waiting for a job to open up, Brandon gets to have language training, any language training really, as long as it takes time.

Which leaves Brandon in an incredibly odd position: too much language capability.  He knows enough Arabic that he doesn't need trained for those jobs opening up in 2012, and the same goes for Russian (although I'm not that disappointed to be missing out on Moscow).  He also has just too much French for any of the French posts as he only would need a top-off course which wouldn't take long enough.  And his Spanish is not enough and too much at the same time: not enough for Spanish posts opening up soon (I'm not sad about Mexico City either), but too much to need a full language course.

Brandon's top pick is in another strange language never-never land: it's a either/or language post and Brandon has one of the two.  His CDO got back to him the other day and said that they would only consider him if the other language was the one they wanted.  Essentially they'd rather train someone else in one language that Brandon already speaks rather than have Brandon trained in the second language and speak both of the languages [insert derogatory remark about government healthcare here].

And so the last few weeks have been spend researching posts, making a list, having half of it disappear to the early bidders, researching posts, making a list, having half of it struck down because of timing issues, researching posts, and making yet another list.  At this point I really don't care where they send us, as long as I don't have to make any more lists and make any more decisions about housing and household help.

But, you ask, where are all of these places we could be living in two years?  I'm not telling; that's for when we actually know.

I have, however, been using the last few issues of National Geographic to do some looking into where we could live.  So I'll give you one hint: we're not going to Australia.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

R&R part III: Frankfurt

Our return flight took us through Frankfut, an airport I am beginning to become very familiar with.  Our connections coming back weren't great, and we had a five-hour layover in Frankfurt.  This layover came on the heels of a transatlantic redeye that never quite made it into the night.  We skipped that part.  It took off at 2:30 and landed eight hours later which turned out to be 5:45 AM in Frankfurt, but only 10:30 in Chicago.

Five hours in an airport with three small children who have only had, at best, five hours of sleep in the feels-like-middle-of-the-night-but-is-actually-morning, is at least the third circle of hell.  Maybe the fourth, depending on the day.

And so I decided that we would burn up the five hours by going into downtown Frankfurt.  Far away from my carefree and fancy days of irresponsible youth, I looked up the details and made note of the schnellbahn trains and promising stops.  I even made sure of how to buy the ticket and checked the weather.

So when we landed, after using the restroom one and all, finding a baby changing room, filling Edwin's bottle, and realizing that the passport control we were standing in line for was not the way out, we were on our way.  A lot of walking and a quick stroller-fold to get through the smart-cart-proof poles found us at the correct and completely empty passport control by 6:30.

The very bored man at the window let us through and then we were in Germany.  We found our way to the entrance of the terminal and located an ATM.  Unfortunately, our checking account was empty, but fortunately there was an internet access computer right next to the ATM for such emergencies.

With the 50 euro bill tucked safely away, we went in search of elevators down to where the signs pointed for railways.  The elevator worked for the first floor down, but not for the second (where's the World Association of Persons with Disabilities when you need them?).  Unfortunately the 50 euro bill didn't work in the ticket machine, so Brandon watched the children while I went to McDonald's for a small bag of apples,two grapes and a lot of change.

The tickets bought, we went down another elevator (bringing the day's total to 35) and found ourselves finally on the schnellbahn platform.  Unfortunately it was the wrong platform, and so another trip up the elevator and a trip down an escalator led us to the correct platform.  Where Kathleen announced she had to go to the bathroom.  Back up the escalator, into the bathroom, and back down before we got on the schnellbahn headed for Frankfurt.

The sight of beautiful, well pruned green trees greeted us as we emerged from the last set of escalators in the Konstablerwache station.  Nothing else greeted us, however, as I had forgotten that it was Saturday.  At 8 am.  And 55 degrees outside.  And my children were wearing summer clothes.  Edwin at least had the benefit of a blanket, but he cheerfully insisted on kicking it off every time we tried to tuck it around him.

Not ones to waste a perfectly good opportunity to spend the last hour in civilization however, we gamely pushed on.  Brandon and I admired the shiny, sparkling windows and Sophia tried to push the stroller with Edwin and Kathleen (50+ pounds) over the cobblestones.  I enjoyed the sun sparking on the river, silhouetting the arched bridges.  Kathleen wanted to go for a swim.  We got freshly-baked buns from a heavenly-smelling bread shop and Sophia broke down in tears because she was too cold to eat it.  And so we left, bidding adieu to the last sight of order and cleanliness that we will encounter for the next year.

Back in the airport we reversed our crabbed route of escalators (did you know that a Joovy Caboose will fit on an escalator without folding it?) and elevators, split up at security so that Brandon could dump apple juice the girls hadn't drunk, and made our way to the 'short' passport control line.

While standing in line seven people back, we heard the boarding announcement for our plane.  I could see Brandon's eyes starting to bulge as a wheelchair-bound woman was let through right as we were supposed to go to the window.  After getting our own stamps, we dashed through the crowded plaza, trying to understand the incomprehensible signs pointing to A62.  A mistaken elevator ride up (number 63) had to be reversed (64) and we finally found another elevator down (65) to A62, a bus gate.

We rushed through the gate area, breathlessly checked the stroller, jumped on the bus... and waited twenty-five minutes.  Finally, after telling the girls to sit down and be quiet for the fiftieth time, we snaked past every single terminal and one in construction to find our plane which was still there despite Kathleen's fears that it had left us.

Thankfully everyone fell asleep almost immediately because I was stuck with all of the children in the row behind Brandon, who had a seat by himself.

Brandon asked me if all of the trouble was worth it, and it was.  Even though we had to ride every elevator in the entire airport, never once did Kathleen or Sophia complain of being bored.  And that is priceless.

Friday, September 10, 2010

R&R Part II: Missouri

The second half of our R&R was spent in Missouri where seventy-five percent of Brandon's extended family - on both sides - lives.  Oddly enough, his parents didn't meet in Missouri, they met in Arizona, where both of their families were living at the time.

His parents live in almost the polar opposite of Egypt.  The sun rises and sets, it gets warm, and it has has trees in southwest Missouri as well as Cairo, but that's about all of the similarities between the two places.  The Sherwoods live on a 180-acre farm.  Five people, two dozen cows, and a lot of corn inhabit what in Maadi can comfortably hold twenty to fifty thousand people.

Driving seventy on Highway 60 gets one to the closest Wal-Mart and stoplight in about fifteen minutes and the nearest stoplight in the other direction is also another fifteen minute drive.  That they do share with Maadi: no stoplights.  

One afternoon we went to Jolly Mill, a former gristmill turned public park.  A meandering stream with bridges and wading places with a playground had been built, and we took the girls and Edwin.  Three of Brandon's brothers that were home for the summer came along to go craw-dadding.

The girls' enjoyment of wading was ruined when Kathleen spotted a 'crab,' their picnic was ruined by rancid peanut butter (which was discovered only after I tried to force the issue), and their morning was finished off when I found and caught a blue-tailed skink.

They went back for a nap, after which Brandon and I came back to enjoy the craw-dadding.  The combined efforts of all involved produced a stock pot full of live crawdads and two cups of shelled crawdad meat.  The étouffée was delicious.

Brandon's brother and sister flew in from BYU to visit, and we twelve all piled into a twelve-passenger van for the 4 1/2 drive to St. Louis and the nearest temple.  We won't be able to attend for another year, and I felt the loss more sharply than I had realized I would.    The ones in Cairo just aren't the same.

And then a few days later, our visit was over.  We had spent many long evenings into nights talking with family, enjoyed several evening walks through the cornfields and cow pasture, caught up on our movies, and then it was time to go home.  Back to Cairo.

Springfield, Missouri airport

Thursday, September 9, 2010

R&R part I: North Carolina

Brandon has been with State for less than 18 months, and so still has limited vacation time.  When we were planning our summer travels, we decided to use Brandon's small allotment of days in Missouri seeing his family.  And so I spent two weeks in North Carolina as a single parent, an occurrence that I'm working on keeping to a bare minimum in the future.  Taking care of three children under four is a lot of work at home with Brandon around to run intervention in the evenings, but on vacation it's a whole new level.

As a yearly tradition dating from the time of my birth, my family has gathered at the beach for a week every summer.  The beach has traditionally been the apex of the summer, falling shortly before school began.  We have all mostly scattered now, and the beach serves as a dedicated family get-together in lieu of Christmas.  My parents' house is barely big enough to contain everyone at this point, and when we run out of space at the beach, we can just rent more houses.

Not only does my immediate family attend the beach, but my father's brother's family always comes with us, missing only one year of the last twenty-nine.  This year not only did they come, but so did three of his sisters and their children and their children.

The girls had a wonderful time at the beach, taking as much time from their unmarried male uncles and cousin-uncles (anybody who is related and older than twenty is classified as uncle or aunt) as they possibly could.  I think that they would have been happy to go home with them to Alaska, California, Idaho, Maryland, or England without a backwards glance.  Unmarried uncles are the best fun in the world that a little girl can have.  They're strong, they're funny, they seem to have unlimited energy, and have no children (or wives) of their own to distract them.  I am very much grateful to Sam, Mike, Greg, Stephen, JJ and Robbie for all of the tending of my girls.

Edwin unfortunately never quite hit it off with the beach.  Unless he had a chair strap or goggles to chew on an distract him from the sand, he cried nonstop.  I did take him swimming a few times, but usually the girls wanted come too, and three children who can't swim on one mom is two children too many.  When we got inside, however, he was content to spend hours developing his new-found crawling skills.

The beach for me was a reminder of all of the family that I miss living overseas.  When we were younger, every night would be spent watching movies.  My first viewing of Star Wars occurred at the beach.  This year, however, the only movies that got watched were in the day by the children (usually to distract them so we could get something done).  Every night we all sat around and talked and talked until much much too late at night.  It was a reminder that no matter how far across the world I move and how often I make and say goodbye to friends, I'll always have my family.  They never go away.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Recently, I found a picture that Kathleen had drawn.

When I asked her what it was, she explained that it was a flotation vest in the event of a water landing.  I was pleased to note the level of detail she had included, down to the tubes in the shoulder to inflate the vest by blowing into them.  I think, although I didn't ask, the object in the flight attendant's hand is the seatbelt also used in the presentation.

The other day I found the girls with their toy box empty.  The had propped up the lid and were sitting inside.  I asked them what they were doing, and Kathleen cheerfully replied that they were in the airplane, it had made a water landing, and now they were going to slide down the slide into the water.  I made sure they were wearing their flotation vests.

We're home and through with airplane rides.  I was grateful to have Brandon along for the return home, as it was much more of a hassle than the trip to the US had been.  We flew from Missouri, through Chicago and Frankfurt and were finally home.

Kathleen and Sophia (who fell asleep before the plane to Cairo even took off), were both thrilled to be awakened in Cairo, home sweet home.  "We're in Cairo!" Sophia kept exclaiming, "we're home!"

In the airport we waited for everyone to get situated and Kathleen spied some Egyptians in a waiting room, asleep.  She wanted to know why they were asleep, and so I explained to her that it was Ramadan, and so they stayed up all night partying and so were sleep the next day.  "Oh," she exclaimed, eager to apply knowledge recently gained, "they must be nocturnal."

We're back in Cairo and happy to be home.  For as long as Cairo continues to be our home.