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Monday, December 31, 2012

Living in Baku: New Year

Azerbaijan is kind of a strange place, culturally.  It's even strange geographically.  If you're trying to book a flight on Lufthansa, it's in the middle east.  According to State, it's in the European bureau.  But if you look on the map, it's really in Asia.  Since Istanbul is supposed to be the city on two continents - Asia and Europe and it's a four-hour flight east of Baku, Azerbaijan should definitely be in Asia.

Culturally it's just as confusing.  The place was originally settled by Turkic people, and the language is very similar to Turkish.  However, it also shares it's language with about a quarter of Iran, and the country is 98% muslim.  Owing to the Soviet influence, however, nobody here is very religious.  In Egypt it was pretty hard to find pork, or alcohol, at any restaurant but that isn't much a problem here.  So in Baku you get a little bit of everything.

There is a side benefit to this cultural mishmash - the holidays.  Ancient Persian holiday complete with jumping over a bonfire?  Check.  Ramadan?  Definitely, and the other feasts thrown in for good measure too.  Christmas and Thanksgiving?  If you're a U.S. Government employee, yup.  And to finish off the year, we get a Soviet Holiday thrown in too, New Year.

We have New Years in the U.S., but it's not like the New Year here.  Since the country is Muslim, nobody celebrates Christmas.  And in Russia, Christmas is celebrated according to the Orthodox calendar - January 7.  So they take all of the western Christmas traditions and transfer them to New Year.

Over the last few weeks the whole town has become covered with Christmas New Year trees decked in lights, ornaments, and occasionally watched over by an enormous blow-up frosty the snowman figure.  All of the stationary stores in the bazaar are converted to Christmas New Year shops with stacks and stacks of glittery ornaments.  The grocery stores have Christams New Year-themed candy displays, and bottles of bezalcoholiz sparkly drinks - evidently quince is the thing, not apple cider.

There is even Santa Claus Shakhta Baba (Ded Moroz) and his helper, Snegurochka, Snow Maiden who made an appearance at the embassy holiday party.

The best part about New Year however, is the best part of all non-American holidays when you're overseas with the government - the extra time off.  Monday is off for Azerbaijan's Day of Solidarity ("I can have solidarity with Azerbaijan any time they want!" a friend enthusiastically exclaimed when they heard about the day off).  Tuesday is off for U.S. New Years Day, and Wednesday is off for Azerbaijan New Year Holiday.  Combined with last week's two days off, we've been partying non-stop here in the Sherwood Family Residence.  We have very big plans to go over to friends for New Year's Eve and party until about, oh, seven-thirty or even eight o'clock if we're feeling extremely festive and Joseph is cooperating.  

Of course there's nothing like holiday envy to get you down.  I was feeling quite smug until I heard about Moscow - eight days off for New Year and Orthodox Christmas.  Maybe we'll have to look into Russia for the next post.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

One Year

It's official.  We're now been here one year.  One year ago yesterday we landed at the Heydar Aliyev Airport, took the short diplomat line through passport control, and stumbled into the amazingly small baggage claim area.

After meeting our sponsor, and almost next-door neighbor, we sleep-walked out into the cold, slightly fuzzy Baku night and drove through the city to home.

I'm very happy to be on this end of 2012 with a year-old baby, a lived-in unpacked house, and a whole year to go before I have to uproot again.

So, in summary, one year into Baku.  I still like Baku and I'm not dying to leave.  The traffic can get incredibly insane sometimes, but I don't have to deal with it.  The people here are nice, friendly, and seem to see foreigners as a cute, faintly funny joke.  It's like they think someone dressed up a little monkey and taught it to say 'salaam.'  

The mission here is great, and we have made lots of wonderful friends who have lots of children for my children to play with.  If there are nasty things going on, I'm blissfully unaware.  There are lots of fun things going on, and plenty of people to do them with.

So, here's to another year in Baku!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas 2012

I have a long and troubled history with Christmas.  Well not technically with Christmas - I love Christmas, I love the sweets, I love decorating, I love listening to Bing Crosby until I don't want to hear him for another year, I even enjoy the holiday parties.  But Christmas dinner is something else.

One of my favorite memories of Christmas is sitting around all morning, watching a movie, and then gathering in the kitchen to cook a delicious dinner that was enjoyed over candle light with enough Martinellis for everyone to drink their own bottle.  Those three things defined Christmas (the secular part) for me: lazy morning, a movie, and tasty dinner.

Then I got married.  My first Christmas with Brandon was on our way back from Cairo to school in Utah.  I was pregnant with Kathleen and not very interested in food.  Which was fine because we were mooching off Brandon's parents so I didn't have to cook anyway.

Our second Christmas was in Utah with a small Kathleen who didn't care a fig about neglect, so we had a dinner that I don't remember much about other than it included lamb.

The third Christmas I bought everything for another delicious dinner and then got so caught up in lazing around reading a good book that I couldn't bring myself to cook the lamb.  Instead we had leftover Chinese food.  It was that Christmas that I realized that yes, a good dinner is an integral part of my Christmas experience.

The fourth Christmas was in Raleigh at my parents' house, ten days after Edwin was born.  Once again, I was off the hook for cooking.  There's nothing like post-partum sleep deprivation to get you out of almost anything.  We were back in Cairo for the next one, with three small children, recovering from the Thanksgiving disaster a month earlier.  I attempted to go 'easy' by making as much as possible ahead of time, but there was a little too much cooking and not nearly enough lazing around.

Last Christmas we were getting ready for a packout in two days and it was on a Sunday, so we had leftover lasagna.  Almost as bad as leftover Chinese takeout.  But hey, it worked for dinner two days in a row and I was postpartum (again) with nobody to mooch off.

So this Christmas I gathered all of my years of expertise and planned ahead.  I had two requirements: a tasty dinner with as little preparation as possible.  Brandon pointed out that I could have someone else cook it for me, but the truth is that food isn't nearly as tasty if I didn't cook it.  Hubris?  Probably.

So instead I just moved the preparations a day in advance and cooked food that could sit overnight without any ill effects.  Thankfully Brandon was given Monday off, so he was able to help cook beef bourgignon, bavarian creme, croissant breakfast ring, vegetable dip, a cheese ball, salsa, guacamole, and corn chips.  As we cooked and washed dishes and cooked and told the kids to watch The Grinch another time and washed some more dishes I kept telling myself that it would be worth it the next day when I got to laze around reading books and eating candy.

And you know what?  It was.  It was a perfect Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Johnny Cash teaches my children about relationships

My children live an incredibly sheltered life.  Nobody goes to school, we don't have a TV, we can't listen to American radio, and there are no English-lanugage movie theaters.  So when it comes to American pop culture, they know nothing.  Which doesn't bother me because I know only slightly more than they do and I'm okay, right?

Of course when they go off to college in the US, they are going to have some pretty funny moments when somebody realizes that instead of watching [currently popular US children's show] Kathleen was reading The Epic of Giglamesh.  Parents are cruel sometimes, especially when they find their cruelty mildly amusing.

Our car is old enough to not have an iPod adapter, so we're stuck with whatever music happens to be in the six-CD changer, and the music in the CD changer is music I choose because the children have no knowledge of anything different.  There are radio stations here, and Brandon listens to them, but I refuse on the grounds of taste.  So for the first six months here we listened to ABBA.  Theoretically I could have switched the music out but usually I realized that we only had ABBA - again - when we had been sitting at the Rashid Behbudov traffic light for fifteen minutes and another round of ABBA was better than crying/whining children.

And the kids liked ABBA too.  Every now and then I would catch Kathleen singing to herself.  'So I say thank you for the music For giving it to me,' and I realized that perhaps I might need to change the music some time.  But I was grateful she sang that line for me - I never could figure out what they were saying.

So in a momentous move a month ago, I changed the CDs - Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash, Children's Primary Songs, some more of the same, and of course, ABBA.

Last Friday we took Brandon to work and while sitting at the Rashid Behbudov traffic light on the way home, Kathleen asked for some music.  I explained her options, 'you have primary songs, ABBA, Johnny-'

"CASH!! CASH!!!! CASH!!!!!!  I want CASH!!!!!!!!" Edwin demanded from the back seat.   "And you have Johnny Cash," I finished.  After some debate, everyone wanted Cash except Kathleen, we put on the mellow sounds of the Man in Black.

As I piloted through morning traffic, I explained to the children, again, that porter is a job description, not a name, and how people used to ride trains and porters helped them with their baggage.  I tried to explain what rhythm is, and mangled a description of what 'getting rhythm' mean.  We talked about shoe shining.  Then "Cry, Cry" came on.  "Mom," Kathleen asked after listening to the song for awhile, "what is a sugar daddy?"

I remembered previous Johnny Cash sessions and Kathleen's questions - why is the lady going to cry, and was she bad, and why the lady is breaking hearts, and was it the same lady who was going to cry and what was running around with other men?

Were these really questions that six and four year-olds needed to be concerned with?  Do I really need to discuss the reality of bad relationships yet?  Maybe Johnny Cash isn't the best way to bring these questions up; after all it's not like he was exactly a shining example of good marital relations.  The songs are catchy, however.

"Well," I began carefully, "it's a man who gives a woman money and the woman only pretends she likes the man so she can have money.  And he's usually older," I finished lamely.

"Oh," Kathleen replied, "so the lady is bad.  Okay."

I breathed a sigh of relief when the discussion moved on to what exactly a Tennessee flat-top box was, happy to move to safer ground.

Maybe Johnny Cash is going to have to get replaced with something with a little less relationship angst.     Or at least someone that can't be understand quite as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Smart Parenting

For Mormons, Sunday is a day of rest.  Theoretically.  We don't participate in sporting events, go shopping, or various other rest-of-the-week activities.  It is a day set apart to rest from the labors of our week, or in reality, as many of the labors of our week as possible.  Because really, when you have four small children the only rest you get from your labors is when you pay someone else to do them for you.

So Sunday is usually combination of high-intensity work (quick! everyone get your shoes on already we're going to be late!  What do you mean you can't find your shoes?!?) and endless afternoons and evenings (sweetie, it's six o'clock; can we put the kids in bet yet?).  Some Sundays can be quite pleasant; we talk to my parents in Columbia, Brandon builds things with the children, we all have some tasty dessert before story- and bed-time.  Other Sundays are less so, more like a continual series of breaking up fights with crying spells in between.

This past Sunday was a mix of the two, with the mix leaning more towards the latter.  'It's okay,' I kept reassuring myself when Edwin was standing in the corner again after smacking Joseph while we were attempting to video chat with my parents, 'not all Sundays are pleasant.  It's just the numbers catching up.  Maybe next week will be better.'

I've realized after some years of crowd control parenting small children that one key to keeping the crazy as minimal as possible is having a series of activities, so after talking with my parents we went downstairs to make snowflakes.  The last time we cut out snowflakes for Christmas was 2010, so none of the kids were very excited about it.  They didn't even know how to use scissors.  So Brandon and I put the kids to bed after a few demonstrations and then had a great time cutting them out ourselves.

This year, however, Kathleen and Sophia have both started using scissors, so we had some company.  Joseph, after smashing blue Lucky Charms marshmallows into his hair, got put in bed.  Edwin insisted on having a chair up close and personal to watch the process, grew disinterested, asked for a pencil and paper, scribbled for twenty seconds, and wandered off to do something.  After twenty minutes of entertaining himself, he started doing what any three year-old boy would do who has been stuck inside all day after being forced to sit through two hours of church: he started driving everyone nuts.

I mentioned to Brandon that maybe we should make him run stairs to burn off the excess Sunday-evening-everyone-is-going-crazy energy.  Edwin wasn't interested.  We suggested that he run circles through the kitchen and living room, and he thought maybe that was a pretty good idea.  After watching Edwin have a fantastic time, Sophia decided that hey, running really was much more fun that mangling cutting out snowflakes.  Kathleen watched Sophia running and laughing and suddenly lost interest in her own hack job snowflake and joined in the fun.  All three galloped through the kitchen door, rushed past Joseph's stroller parked in front of our Egyptian kilim, and crowded back through the other kitchen door laughing hysterically the entire time.

I was reminded of a story where two fathers on a beach trip convinced their sons that a pile of rocks really really needed to be moved from one side of the beach to the other.  The boys had a great time, the fathers sat and enjoyed their day, and no fights had to be broken up.

The children began tiring, and I asked if they were ready for some leftover birthday cake.  Yes! Yes! they all cried.  Brandon, not ready to give up his own snowflake-cutting, interrupted, 'How about you have a contest?  Keep running and whoever runs the longest gets the biggest piece of cake!'  Without even waiting for her siblings, Sophia dashed off.  Edwin squirmed as Brandon put his underwear back on, and almost ran away with it between his knees.  Kathleen left her new snowflake mid-cut and got back to running.

Brandon and I enjoyed the peace.

After seven or eight minutes, we set the timer for five more minutes and declared that if Kathleen and Sophia, the ones still in the race, could both hold out until the timer beeped, we would declare a tie, and both would get the biggest piece of cake.

Five minutes later, both completed an extra victory lap and sat down with flushed cheeks and bright eyes to their well-deserved cake, happy with the good work they had done.  'Mom,' Sophia explained when I asked her why she wasn't eating her extra-big piece of cake, 'I'm just so tired.'  Brandon looked at her with a smile, 'Well then you should have no problem going to bed tonight, right?'  She nodded in complete agreement.

I think maybe we'll have to start a Sunday evening tradition.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Edwin's Third Birthday

Saturday was Edwin's third birthday.  Since we don't have birthday parties, we try and do something fun for the birthday child to make it an exciting day.  And the more children we have, the more fun days we have, so everyone wins.  For Sophia's birthday this year, we went swimming with friends, Kathleen took us on a trip to Amazing Caverns, and Joseph took us to the park.

For Edwin's birthday we went to Zoom Zoom, a Discovery Zone-style play place complete with ball pits and tacky-weird pictures.  Edwin and his siblings had a wonderful time getting lost and jumping into pits and sliding down slides.  Brandon and I enjoyed not being outside in the thirty-eight degree and cloudy weather.

After a long nap, we had dinner, watched A Christmas Story (sorry Edwin, but that's what you get for being born ten days before Christmas), and then had raspberry chocolate cake for dessert.  Edwin picked out the raspberries and refused to eat them.  He finished with presents - a book, a car from Grammy and Grandpa, and a United Airlines airport set, all of which went to bed with him.  

Happy Birthday, Edwin!  We're happy you're part of our family!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Right now Brandon's in the Ankara airport, waiting to go to Istanbul so that he can get on a plane and come to Baku - at 3 am tomorrow morning - and rescue me from the six days of single parenthood I've had to endure while he's been gone.

All things considered - considering that braver women than me with more children than me do this longer than I've had to do it - it hasn't been too bad.  Not that I'm asking for any more separation, but I can confidently say that no children have been harmed in their father's absence and today when I went to go find Edwin during dinner and discovered him busily cleaning up an amazing large puddle of pee on the floor, I didn't even yell at him.  I'm not sure if that is a sign of my emerging ability to handle being the person who has cleaned up every mess, changed every diaper, spanked every bottom, led every prayer, and read every book, or just because I've run out of energy to yell.

I've tried to keep the time while he's been gone fairly full of things to keep us all busy while he's been gone - today we went swimming with friends, yesterday some other friends came over to play, on Sunday we had church, and Saturday afternoon we attended the embassy holiday party.

When I told Brandon that I was planning on attending the party, all by myself, with all four children he asked if I insane or just overly optimistic about the behavior of our children at public events.  I shrugged  in response.  "What else are we going to do?  At least we can get out of the house and spend a few hours in a place that has unlimited cookies."  In the middle of the party as I was trying to shepherd Edwin and Sophia clutching heaped plates of cookies through crowds while holding their glasses of lurid-green apple juices sufficiently far away from the one year-old strapped to my front so that he couldn't grab them, I reconsidered my plan.  It was fun to see friends, however, and I got to enjoy the pity of being stranded - with all four children! - for a week by myself.

The week previous to Brandon's departure, I made sure to cook dinners with larger leftover-potential and so have managed to cook only one meal - pizza - the entire time he's been gone.  Luckily we've had a large variety of leftovers, so the children have been fairly patient, but today Kathleen asked hopefully if I would be cooking dinner tomorrow.  Yes, I assured her, there would be hot food tomorrow since Daddy will be here.

I've also made liberal use of movies, feeding everyone dinner at five, and then sending them upstairs to watch movies until bedtime while I work on Sophia' christmas present, a tutu.  Since Kathleen can read and turn on movies, I just let them loose and they choose whatever they can agree on for the night.  Deep in the throes of gathering and sewing tulle Saturday night, I wandered upstairs to find them all sitting in the completely dark toy room, lined up on chairs placed as close as possible to the computer screen.  They were in the middle of some Rankin-Bass Christmas special (abomination), so I told them when it was done, they should go downstairs and go to bed.

But everyone needs a little neglect now and then, right?

Thankfully, however, the weeklong-feast of leftovers and movies comes to an end tomorrow and we can return to normal lives that include things like family interaction and hot meals and both parents and mom being much more cheerful.

I'm not sure how you other ladies, the superpower-posessing ones, do it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Road Construction... continued... still...

So, back in June, backhoes started digging a large ditch on the road outside my neighborhood.  After a month(s?), it got filled in.  The next day they started digging a new one.  When coming back from our beach trip, we actually had to drive under the arm of a backhoe as it paused while digging the trench.  It was a pretty tight fit.

A few months went by, the trench was filled in, the road became drive-able, although not paved, it started functioning as a road again, and one day I left to take Brandon to work and came back to find the road blocked off.  I parked in the other side of our neighborhood while the road was finally paved - four months after the digging started.

I enjoyed the freedom of finally driving on the road in front of my house - for about a week.  Then the road was shut down again so that the section preceding ours could be paved to join up with our section.  And on a momentous day in November, the entire road was open, the whole thing from beginning to end, all paved and edged by shiny granite curbs and watched over by curving ornamented black-and-gold light posts.  It looked lovely.  It even had stripes that drivers occasionally recognized as marking discrete lanes.  I didn't have to play pothole slalom as I made my way home, or stop suddenly behind drivers who were unsure about the true depth of that puddle.  And when I gave people directions, I just had to tell them the road we live on and a few other identifying marks.  It was great.

And then a few weeks ago, I came back from grocery shopping to yet another new traffic pattern.  Starting at the light past my house, the other side of the road was closed and all traffic was now on the road just in front of my house, sharing road space with cars parked along the sidewalk (since the curbs are now too high to park on the sidewalk), creating backups for blocks.  A thirty-second drive took me ten minutes as we had to wait for cars to back into their parking spaces, buses stopping to let passengers of, and large trucks stopping traffic entirely.

I commented to Brandon how it has been six months since they started repaving outside our house and it still isn't done.  At this rate, it might be done by the time we leave.  Maybe.

It's probably a good thing I don't like leaving the house much anyway.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Breaking in the New Help

This week is the third full week that our new housekeeper, Asli, has been working for us.  My last housekeeper was actually a cook that had just started her career in housekeeping to earn some more money.  After it became pretty obvious that she had little to no idea what she was doing, I walked her through the basics of what cleaning a house entails.  After observing the snail-like trails of the vacuum cleaner on our carpets, I made special care to show her how to vacuum a carpet so that all of it, not just the specks of visible dirt, got vacuumed.

She was a willing pupil, and very nice, but cleaning was never her forte.  After some time of the little, OCD tasks, like washing down the dishwasher seal (because, you know, those things get really crusty after awhile) not getting done, I just gave up and did them myself.  "I can hold out for two more years," I would tell myself when I watched the grime build up on the shower, "after all, it's not my house.  It's not my house.  I can't wait to have the time to clean my own blasted house.  That's mine."  All of you who clean your own houses can now laugh at poor, helpless, clueless me.  But I swear, having four small children makes me miss the days of being able to do something like clean my house all of the way through with no interruptions.

So when Naila walked out, I wasn't too sad.

And when Asli came and cleaned my whole house, took the boys for a walk, and ironed nine of Brandon's shirts in eight hours, I was silently thankful for Naila's departure.  She's really nice and I like her a lot, but I also like having my house cleaned in a timely and professional manner.  When Asli came to me looking for a sponge to clean the hard water residue off my glass shower door, I wanted to kiss her and weep for joy.

However, there's still the initial break-in period that we have to work through, the time where she figures out that those are my socks and they don't go in Joseph's drawer (okay, really, I can hear the eyes rolling.  Yes, I know that I have someone who folds and puts away my socks for me.  But still, if she's going to put them away, why not have her put them away in the right place?).  Today Brandon came downstairs with Joseph dressed for bed.  I looked at his pajama pants hanging several inches over his toes.

"Those aren't Joseph's pajama pants," I told Brandon (nicely.  After all, he just got the baby ready for bed).
"They were in his drawer," Brandon shrugged.
"Yes," I sighed, "But that doesn't mean that they're his pants."

Tomorrow Asli and I are going to sit down and sort laundry together.  I'm going to explain to her what size labels mean and when I tell her to leave the girls' clothes on their bed, I mean 'leave them on their bed until they put them away,' and not 'leave them on their bed for twenty minutes and then put them away.'

I recently was part of a discussion about how people like me get their children to do chores when there is a housekeeper around who is happy to do the chores for them.  Most people's complaint wasn't about the children's unwillingness, it was the housekeeper's willingness even after being told several times not to do them (no really! The eye rolling has to stop!).

Another thing I have to learn is Asli's version of Housekeeper Language.  Since I'm paying her, she has a vested interest saying 'Of course!' with a huge cheerful smile when I ask her to fold my towels into swans and paint a pond for them to swim in.  After all, I'm the boss.  But as a boss, I have a vested interest in keeping my requests reasonable.  Because if they're too unreasonable, I'm stuck finding another housekeeper to fold those swans for me.

But there's no way to get her to tell me that she thinks I'm crazy and ridiculous for asking her to watch all of the children, cook dinner, and clean the house.  So instead I have to learn to read what the subtext is and learn her limits and when she isn't happy.  It's very tricky.

But the last, hardest thing to figure out with a new housekeeper is where they are most likely to put all of your things when they are cleaning up.  Naila had a special talent of putting away things that I didn't want put away, and putting away in completely illogical places that changed every time.  So at 5 am when I was looking for my workout clothes I didn't know if they would be in my underwear drawer, pants drawer, in the laundry room, or maybe in the nightstand.  After six months, I figured out most of her hidey-holes, but sometimes she'd stump me for twenty minutes.  With Asli, I got smart and hung hooks on the back of my closet door.

Last week we were putting the children to bed and couldn't find Edwin's green blanket.  He has two blankets, knit by my wonderful aunt, and neither could be found.  He won't sleep without them, so Brandon and I were searching up and down the house at 8:15 looking for the dang things.  We started with the obvious places, Brandon going upstairs to the third floor, me downstairs to the first floor.  We met in the middle with empty hands.  So we switched and I got some more time to work on my creative thinking in the messy toy room.  Sill no blanket.  I went downstairs to start looking in the coat closet, and Brandon went back up to look in the consumables closet.  I'm starting to understand why old people like one-level houses - if you couldn't remember where you put things, you could spend all day looking for your missing items in our house.  Once I emailed Brandon at work and asked him to call me because I couldn't find my phone and didn't feel like looking for it.

Finally Brandon called down triumphantly down the stairs, "found it!!"  I climbed back up to give Edwin his goodnight kiss that has to be wiped off immediately afterwards, and asked Brandon where he had finally found the blankets.  "In the toy cupboard."  That's right, because of course children's blankets go in the toy cupboard.  Silly me.

But all complaining aside, I'm liking Asli very much.  We'll eventually come to an amicable state of understanding and we can carry on our business without much consultation.  And then of course I'll move and start over again.  Sigh.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Living in Baku - Pomegranates

True story: When I was a child, I loved to read Greek myths.  I think every child goes through the myth stage, when the lure of those stories pull you into a magic world where Gods change into bulls and ride across the sky in golden chariots and make scared ladies turn into trees.  They're awesome.

Whenever I read the story of Demeter and Persephone, I always wondered had how stupid Persephone had been.  Why would anyone eat the seeds of a fruit?  Didn't she know that the seeds are the part you avoid?  And who would mistakenly eat four seeds?  Maybe one, but four?  If she hadn't been so dumb, we could have avoided winter altogether!

Fast forward ten years to a late-night hike with my boyfriend in college.  We had hike to the top of a local mountain and had stopped for pictures and a snack.  After gulping down some water, he pulled something round and strange-looking out of his bag.  "Want some pomegranate?" he asked.  I turned to him in wonder, "You mean they're real? Pomegranates actually exist?  I always thought they were something mythical, like golden chariots that pull the sun."  He laughed at me and broke it open.  "Nope.  Not make-believe.  Real, and kind of a mess to eat."  After having my first taste, I realized why Persephone had eaten all of those seeds.  Maybe she wasn't so stupid after all.

Fast forward, again, to Baku.  I hadn't done much (any) research into the available produce here, and so my first few trips to the grocery store were an exploration into what I can and cannot find here.  I was disappointed to find no sweet potatoes, but was surprised to find pomegranates here.  Oh, I thought to myself, don't they grow in warmer places?

Little did I realize that I had moved into pomegranate country.  About half of the businesses have some sort of pomegranate motif worked into their signs and one mobile network is just named nar, or pomegranate.  Bizim, one of the local supermarkets, dots the 'i's in its name with little pomegranates.

While at the embassy for Sophia's four year-old checkup, I noticed something growing on the trees surrounding the parking lot.  When I looked closer I realized that all of the trees were growing little pomegranates.  And every time you get eggplant appetizers or french fries at the restaurants around here, pomegranates are sprinkled over them.  

At the height of pomegranate season this fall, they were selling for sixty cents a pound and so I bought a lot of pomegranates for eating.  After all, when pomegranates cost less than pears, wouldn't you eat pomegranates too?  I didn't think the children would like them - they're a little bitter and have all of those seeds inside that got Persephone into so much trouble - but they all love pomegranates.  After I've broken the pomegranate apart to pick the arils out, Edwin will sometimes snatch a section and chomp the seeds straight out of the rind, corncob-style.  Joseph spits out grapes and oranges, but begins demanding loudly as soon as he sees me crack open a bright-red pomegranate.  

So one evening a few weeks ago while I was in the depths of Marine Ball dress alterations, I had Kathleen and Sophia fry some eggs and pour cereal for dinner.  And to assuage my nutrition-conscience, I cracked open a pomegranate.  Then I left the children to go do something upstairs (I would like to say it was important, but it wasn't).  While reading what all of my friends were up to, I heard Sophia noisily climbing up the stairs.  Half a flight down, she started yelling.  "Mom! mooom!  Edwin has a pomegranate seed stuck up his nose!!  Come help!  We can't get it out!!"  

I mentally smacked myself for leaving my children alone with something dangerous... like a pomegranate... and headed downstairs to assess the situation.  

"Lean back," I instructed Edwin once I got to the kitchen.  He obliged, and I looked.  I couldn't see a thing.  I turned to the girls, quickly losing my calm.  "Now tell me what happened.  Who stuck the aril in Edwin's nose?"  Sophia, the forthright one, looked guilty.  "I did."

I rounded on her, "And why did you think it was a good idea to stick a pomegranate seed up your brother's nose??!!"

Starting to cry, Sophia managed to choke out, "K-k-kathleen put one up my nose and it-it-it tickled and I b-b-blew it out.  It was f-f-funny, so I d-d-did it to Edwin," before completely breaking down in screaming sobs.

I took in the three children sitting amid the wreckage of their dinner and put on my deepest, most forceful Mom Voice.  "There is a new rule in the house.  If you break this rule, you will be in trouble.  So listen carefully.  No putting pomegranate seeds up your nose.  No putting pomegranate seeds up your brother's nose.  No putting pomegranate seeds up you sister's nose.  No pomegranate seeds up anyone's nose.  POMEGRANATES ONLY GO IN YOUR MOUTHS.  DO YOU UNDERSTAND??!"

Then I called Brandon.

We decided to attempt a home removal before seeking professional help.

After consulting with Brandon, I attempted to fish the aril out using a hairpin with no luck.  I tried to flush it out with a bulb syringe and water and only succeeded in making Edwin cry a lot.  After a few more hairpin and water attempts I gave up.  Everyone went to their rooms with a book and I retreated to my sewing to wait for backup.

Brandon came home, and we went at Edwin again with a flashlight and hairpin.  Still no luck.  The aril was lodged so high that, even with a flashlight, nothing could be seen of it.  After half an hour of prodding and crying and prodding some more, we gave up.  If it didn't come out in the morning, we'd see what the embassy doctor could do.  Edwin was happy to go to sleep with a pomegranate seed in his nose if it meant he could avoid any more hairpins up his nose.

The next morning we inspected his nose, and found the pomegranate seed in full sight, waiting to be pulled out with a pair of tweezers.  It came out beautifully, and Edwin was saved a trip to the doctor.  Everyone was happy.

So next time you have feed pomegranate to children, watch them carefully.  Those seeds can be very tricky to get out.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

This year I attempted another Thanksgiving dinner at home.  My first me-cooked Thanksgiving went pretty well, as Brandon's sister and brother came and were my sous-chefs for the day.  The food was really good, the company better, and our teeny-tiny kitchen a disastrous mess.  Kathleen and Sophia were young enough to be ignored the whole day so everyone had a great time.

The second me-cooked Thanksgiving was in Cairo.  We had a much bigger kitchen, but very sadly, no family to come keep us company and be pressed into service.  The kitchen was just as much of a mess, and there wasn't any company to drown out the complaints of the children who were old enough to resent being ignored.  We did, however, had plenty of leftovers, which somewhat made up for the complaining.

So this year we invited company with children, and once again I cooked the Thanksgiving dinner (with some help from Brandon on Thursday and Asli, my new amazing housekeeper on Wednesday) myself.  This year, however, I had the added joy of preparing the classic American holiday feast without the help of America being anywhere near.

So I got to improvise.

Luckily potatoes are found almost anywhere in the world, so the mashed potatoes were safe.  Same with flour and yeast.  But I started running into problems with stuffing.  Bread I had, and raisins too, but celery?  It turns out you can get it here, but it will cost you - about $10.  Sweet potatoes are nowhere to be found, so I cobbled together an orange-colored alternative of local pumpkin/squash/thing with baked potato mixed in for consistency.  Luckily, as Brandon noted, streusel topping covers a multitude of sins.

I was smart and packed pumpkin in our consumables shipment, so the pie was safe.  And since pecans don't exist here, we opted for apple pie instead.  I made ice cream as it's hard to find once the weather cools down.  For cranberry sauce, I hunted some vague rumors about carnelian cherries being a good substitute, but wasn't able to find any.  So instead we went for an analogous taste - pomegranate sauce - made up on the spot.  It was actually quite tasty.

And for the turkey, I was planning on goose, having been assured by Naila that they are available locally.  But then she disappeared.  And when I asked Asli if she knew where to find goose, I just got a blank look.  The honking didn't help either.

The BEA had a turkey order earlier in the month, but I laughed at their expensive turkeys, feeling smug in my fresh local goose.  I wasn't so smug Wednesday morning when I called my friend Alison, desperately asking if she knew where any turkeys could be found.  She had just bought the last turkey at a grocery store in town, but a friend had ordered on extra turkey and they had bought it, but would be happy to sell the turkey to us.  And at the low, low price of $57 I was grateful to have something more than roast chicken.  I even managed to fit in in our tiny Euro-oven.

After two days of cooking, the meal came off beautifully.  The children enjoyed playing with friends, we didn't make them eat anything they didn't want (everything but the rolls and ice cream), and we had a great time with friends.

An no, I am not making turkey for Christmas.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

In Which I Get Abandoned

Warning: this post contains complaints about housekeepers.  If you don't want to hear the whining of an over-priveledged and under-worked housewife, please go read something of moral value instead of this blog.  And if you stay and read anyway, keep your snarky comments to yourself.

So, I have a housekeeper.  I think I might have mentioned this.  It's not exactly a situation that I ever imagined I would end up in - after all, isn't the Brady bunch supposed to be a fictional TV show - and one that happened in the Seventies?  However, it's not a situation that I'm one bit sad about, despite the fact that I've now become utterly incapable of running my life without outside help.  I like it.  Wouldn't you like not having to scrub five toilets every week?

This week started out perfectly normal.  Monday was Veteran's Day, so Brandon had work off.  We enjoyed sleeping in, and around nine when we were finally getting up and dressed and feeding the children, Brandon asked if I had told Naila to stay home for the day.  I had thought about it and intended to do it, but with the Marine Ball and Joseph's birthday, I had forgotten.  I sent her a hasty text, "I forgot about the holiday.  Please stay home and enjoy the day off.  See you tomorrow!" and got down to making breakfast.  

Tuesday morning I started school with the children, trying to make up for the sewing-related academic neglect of the previous week.  Naila usually comes around 9:30 or 10 to take the boys off my hands so that I can discuss Mohenjo-Daro in peace with Kathleen.  When she hadn't shown up by 10:15, I called her phone.  A very polite lady told me something in Azeri that I didn't understand.  When Naila's phone was still off by 11:30, I started worrying.  Had she been hit by a bus?  A domestic accident?  Maybe there was a metro explosion?  Naila has only missed one day of work, and is never late.  And why did it have to happen on laundry day?  I resigned myself to an afternoon of folding clothes.

I emailed Brandon.  Maybe she just decided that I had texted her on the day of a holiday one time too many and had quit with no notice.  I didn't think he was funny.

When I didn't hear anything from the family that has her in the afternoon, I figured it was something that they must know about and be okay with.  I started thinking of how I would diplomatically ask her what she was thinking by not showing up without even a warning.

Later Brandon asked me if had heard anything from her other family.  Nothing.  He decided to take matters into his own hands and go ask the mom, who works at the embassy.

A few hour laters, he called back.  "She's gone," he told me, "left the country on Friday night.  Some sort of problem with her husband.  G doesn't know when she's coming back, maybe a few months?"

I grabbed a paper bag to breathe into.

"What?!!?  So you're telling me that she left the country four days ago and nobody bothered to tell me??!?  And now I'm left without a housekeeper?!?!  I had to FOLD MY OWN LAUNDRY today!!!"

Brandon told me to put my face back into the bag.

Instead I pulled up the embassy newsletter and set up an interview for the next day.  After that I called my friends for support, enjoying their commiseration - how could she do this to me? didn't she know that I needed her? that I couldn't handle life on my own?  I finished each conversation with a desperate plea that they send any news of someone looking for work along to me.  There was no way I was going to fold my own laundry two weeks in a row.  

After a failed first interview - a little young thing wanting 50% more money for four hours less work than Naila - I was able to find a lady through a friend whose friend's housekeeper's sister was looking for work.  Never underestimate the power of the expat network.  She started on Friday so I was able to avoid the horror of dirty toilets over the weekend.

My first housekeeper was amazing.  I took her from friends who arranged the whole thing before we even got to Cairo.  She worked from the first week we came in until the day before we left.  She cleaned well, was cheerful, and loved my children.  I was spoiled.  

Now I've gone through the opposite story - two housekeepers quitting out of the blue in less than a year - and I miss Rere even more.  Don't think, however, that this will cure me of my addiction.  I can quit any time I want.  I just don't want to.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sewing Projects Gone Bad

Last Saturday was the Marine Ball, or for those overseas, Diplomat Prom.  Once a year everyone gets dressed up, goes to a fancy hotel, and pretends that we are High Class and Swanky while we eat a fancy dinner and stand up for the entrance of the Marine birthday cake.

As every woman knows, however, the important part of the Marine Ball is getting dressed up which means of course getting a dress.

When I was a child my mother hated taking me dress shopping.  She was (and is) always conscious about money, but by the end of our tortuous experience she would throw her hands up in complete frustration, exclaiming "I don't care how much it costs, just find a dress that you like!!"

When I got older, I felt guilty and sorry for subjecting my mother to so much trouble over a dress.  But I've now realized that she only had to deal with me for eighteen years, and her sweet revenge is that I now have to deal with me - forever.

I started looking early for a dress, trying to find the absolute most beautiful and stylish dress in the whole world.  After weeks of looking through every single website that might have a dress on it on the entire internet, I just wanted a dress that had sleeves, was long, would make it to me in time, came in my size, and cost less than $300.  It's surprising how few dresses there are that meet those requirements.

After another frustrating week or so, I dropped the first requirement.  "I can sew," I thought to myself one day, "how about I just add sleeves.  And because I'm clever, I'll get one in black so that I don't have to worry about matching fabric colors."  So I ordered this dress:

Easy peasy, I though.  Just cut off the bows, order some chiffon-stuff, and make an overlay.  No problem!

A few weeks later, the dress came.  A week after that, the fabric came, and I realized the beginning of my troubles.  The fabric wasn't at all what I had anticipated, and there wasn't enough time to order some more.  I had already conferenced with my friend, The Amazing Sewing Lady, and she had agreed to help out on my crazy project.  "I love projects!" she enthusiastically told me.  Thank heaven for friends with talents.

After pinning the dress for hemming (four different layers), we conferenced about the bodice fabric problem.  Neither of us liked the fabric, and being OCD (me) and fashionable (her), we decided to go shopping for fabric that was similar to the bodice fabric.  That night, in a wave of inspiration, I decided that I would use the fabric to create the same pleated fabric from the original, and make the top the way I liked it.  I went to sleep feeling very pleased with myself.

Our shopping trip went off perfectly and I came home with two yards of black net almost identical to the fabric used for the dress.  Brandon and I were taking the family out of town later that week, so Angie and I decided to get together the next week to plan out the bodice.  

The next week was busy and we didn't get together until Saturday - the third of November, one week before the Marine Ball.  Brandon looked at me askance when I assured him that I would be fine, but I ignored him because, well, he usually looks askance at me when I discuss about half of my life with him.

So, to recap: strapless dress made into dress with sleeves, using fabric made from 1-cm pleats, one week to do it in.  

Monday morning I started out with high expectations.  We had school, I fed the children lunch, took a nap, and started sewing.  By dinner time I was in high dudgeon and Brandon was going to be home late, so I told Kathleen to feed her siblings cold cereal and eggs.  Tuesday I started sewing around eight, and when Naila showed up, I told her to take everyone for a walk, give them lunch, and put the boys down for their naps.  Oh, and could she make some borsch for dinner?  My conscience, although failing, couldn't handle making everyone eat cereal for dinner again.  Brandon might rebel.

Wednesday I didn't even get a nap, and sewed from 8:30 until 10 with a few hours' break to take the children for a walk and feed them borsch again for dinner.  Naila gave them lunch.  again.  Thursday Naila took pity on me and made dinner in between playing with the children, feeding them lunch, and cleaning the house.  We had run out of normal bread, so the children and PB&J on tandir bread.  Evidently it's not so bad.  Friday I sewed until we had to leave to go to the grocery store, followed by the embassy fall festival.

Saturday morning I sewed, took a break to get my hair styled and buy some jewelry (at the local bazaar, complete with coiffed hair), came home, and finished my dress around four o'clock.  I had enough time to iron Brandon's clothes and put on my makeup before the babysitter showed up at five.  

When we got into the car, him in his nice black suit and me with my grandmother's fur wrapped around me, he looked at me.  "You look nice," he told me, "I doubted, but you managed to pull it off again.  Was it worth it?"  I considered for a minute.  "No," I told him, "next time I'm just going to buy something, anything, even if it's a flower-print mumu.  Just as long as I don't have to alter it!"  He laughed and replied, "No you won't.  You'll do the same thing again next year.  Just you watch."

He's probably right.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Joseph Turns One

Friday was Joseph's first birthday.  Friday was also the embassy Fall Festival (rescheduled because of rain last week) and the day before the Marine Ball and I was immersed in a sewing project with a firm deadline.

Saturday was the Marine Ball.  

So today we celebrated his birthday.  First birthdays are, I think, supposed to be a big deal.  Due to my laziness, Brandon's agoraphobia, and a desire to keep the lid on birthday parties as long as possible, we decided to keep things low key.  

I did bake a cake, but we didn't exactly wrap his presents.  Joseph, however, was perfectly happy.  And he's the one that counts, right?

Happy Birthday, Joseph!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


We just turned on the heat last week.  Our house has a heating/cooling system that Brandon and I like to call The Coolerator.  It's a forced-air radiator that runs hot water in the winter and compressor-chilled water in the summer.  As the system has only hot OR cold water, you have to make the decision to switch it.

The air conditioner... broke... or had its pump taken out... or something, so we've been without air conditioning since mid-September, and the weather finally cooled down enough to need heat.

And when I say 'cooled down' I mean "dipped into the fifties at night and mid-sixties during the day."

When we went on our trip to Guba last week, I had to rummage around for actual shoes that weren't flip-flops because nobody has worn shoes around here since April.  Unfortunately for Edwin his winter shoes hadn't made it here yet, so he got to wear Sophia's old, pink shoes.

The weather forecast for the next five days:

The weather here started out pretty rough, but right now I'm enjoying the flip-side.  This is the type of fall I can enjoy.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

How I miss the libraries

I really like living in Baku (really, I do!).  The city is fairly modern (for non first-world countries), not that big (compared to Cairo), not too trashy, and the people are nice.  I really don't miss that many things about the U.S., and especially when I throw in a housekeeper to sweeten the deal.  Sure, I can't find blue cheese... anywhere or go to Target when my stash of diaper genie liners unexpectedly run out or get celery for love or money (it's okay anyway because I never used it much in the first place), but I don't mind that much.  I like it.

The one thing I miss, however, is the public libraries.  Oh, the libraries.  Shelves and shelves and shelves full of books just waiting to be checked out and read and enjoyed - all for free!  While in the US we went to the library every week, filling my bag with stacks of books, each one a brand new story just waiting for someone to read it.  While driving home from the library, the car would be silent as each child dove into their pile of unopened treasures.  Library day was the highlight of their week - and mine.  The silence in that car was golden.

The curriculum I use for Kathleen's school is very literature-intensive.  For each subject we read a chapter in her textbook and then read supplemental books about that particular chapter.  In addition, the reading "assignments" are correlated to the history text.  This year she's studying the ancients so she is reading fables and myths and epic stories from all over the world.  It's really quite fun - she (and her siblings who always gather round for story time) gets to read about the Odyssey and the Illiad and Beowulf and Gilgamesh.  Did you know that there are picture books about Gilgamesh?  Very entertaining.

I have a secret love for buying books (okay, well really for buying anything) and so I've spent a lot of money on Amazon finding children's adaptations for all of the great stories.  Just last week The Ramayana came in the mail.  The children, who love anything that comes between two covers and has pictures have been thrilled.  It's like Christmas when Daddy brings home packages every few weeks filled with new stories to be read and hoarded and bickered over.  I also get the secret satisfaction of feeding the classics to my children under the radar.  To them, they're just fun stories.  Only later when they're old enough to realize that classics are things that everybody wants to have read but nobody has, will they realize my deception - and then it will be too late.

However, I can't ever buy enough books to keep ahead of the children, so we have another source.  The local American-run international school has been kind enough to let us use their library, so once a week I load everyone up and we make the trek to the library.  The selection is... slim... (at least when it comes to Gilgamesh-type things or books about ancient Sumer) so we use it more for supplementary fun literature.  It's a good thing for Kathleen's education that the internet exists.

The school also has a playground and so we make an outing of it, checking out books and then playing afterward.  This week library day was Wednesday, so I loaded everyone in the car, drove twenty minutes through traffic that included the obligatory road construction back-up, unloaded the ambulatory children, put Joseph in the baby-carrier to navigate the stairs up to the library, got everyone safely across the road, through the gate, up the stairs, down the hall, and to the library.  I opened the door to find the lights darkened and a dozen or so teacher-looking people huddled around the director of instruction.  Meeting.  Evidently the library is the only non-classroom space in the school large enough to accommodate a meeting.

So we went outside to play and wait out the teachers.  Kathleen, Edwin, and Sophia had a great time swinging on the swings (downside of living outside of America: Kathleen is six and can't pump her own swing), sliding down various tall slides, and going down the fireman's pole.  Edwin decided to throw the dark grey sand about and Sophia decided that shoes really weren't necessary.  It was all very fun.

Joseph, however, wasn't happy with anything.  He had been fussy for the past few days and apparently being strapped to my chest wasn't doing anything for him.  I tried letting him crawl around the equipment, play horsie on my knees, be bounced on my hip, and slide down the slide, but nothing was working.  I couldn't bring myself to let him grub in - and eat - the sand, so I strapped him back on and tried to ignore the increasingly frantic cries.

At 4:07 I gave up and trooped everyone back to the library, which was still closed.  Hoping to keep Joseph quiet - let him scream at home is one thing, public something else entirely - we wandered the hall looking at various displays.  Blessedly, the door opened a few minutes later and we rushed in to return the old books and select some new.  I knew already that elementary-level books on Mesopotamia were nonexistent and knew not to even bother to look for anything on Assyria so continued on to the life science section.  Nothing on ants or termites, but hopefully there will be something in that DK Insects book?

My stack ready and Joseph slowly increasing his volume and insistence, I looked for the librarian.  Gone.  I looked at the clock: 4:17.  I put Joseph on the floor.  He cried.  I tried to read him a book.  He screamed.  I bounced him.  He wailed.  I shuushed him.  I fretted.  I covered his mouth.  He whined.  I put him on my head.  He pulled my hair.  I realized, too late, that my only coping strategy for crying babies is putting them in their beds, and I had no idea what to do with him.  I looked at the clock, 4:21, and announced that we were leaving at 4:30, books or no books.

We drove home that day with no books.  Thankfully Joseph was quiet.

So next time you go to a large, free, well-stocked public library with plenty of books about Assyria and Hammurabi and termites and ants and Gilgamesh and dolphins and hours and hours of access time, where the librarians just sit and wait to check your books out for you, think of me.

And when I'm eating a dinner that I didn't cook in a kitchen that I didn't clean I'll think of you.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

Different year, same costumes

It's 5:31.  Edwin is in the bath, sitting in the dark watching the LED tub light change color (I know you're jealous).  Joseph is sitting in bed, hopefully going to sleep.  I'm upstairs, enjoying a little bit of peace and silence after running errands this afternoon with the children.  Naila is downstairs cooking dinner (now I know you're really jealous).  Brandon is at work.

And the girls?  They're out wandering the neighborhood dressed as princesses, the same thing they were dressed as last year, knocking on people's doors and asking for candy.

So yes, that sums up me as a slacker mom.  Someone else is cooking my dinner, my baby is crying himself to sleep, the two year-old is in the bathtub alone, and my six- and four- year old are wandering the neighborhood by themselves asking strange people for candy.

Sometimes I feel like a walking advertisement for birth control.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Facing My Fears, or How the Squat Toilet Got Me in the End

Warning: This post is about bodily functions.  If that grosses you out, you've been warned.

I don't consider myself a fearful person.  I will squash a cockroach if necessary.  I've ridden that ride at King's Dominion where you drop several hundred feet.  Mice, as a concept, don't bother me.  I'll try most new foods that don't include eyeballs or rotted shark.  I homeschool my children.  I've lived through an evacuation, and traveled internationally solo with children more times than I like to think of. I live overseas.  I've birthed four children.

I have done lots and lots of scary things.  Not much scares me - except for using the bathroom.

Okay, not using a regular, western bathroom - the kind that involves sitting on a seat.  I can handle that.  It's the other kind of bathroom-using that scares me, the kind that doesn't involve a nice comfy seat.  The kind that is done in the woods and in strange places like China.

I've had this fear since I was a small child.  I remember being locked out of the house one afternoon when my mother was running errands and wasn't home in time to let me and my sisters in from school. One needed to use the bathroom and couldn't wait.  I remember thinking at the time that I would rather have my bladder burst than go anywhere other than a toilet.

My father loved to go camping to amazing places with waterfalls and hiking and horses on remote islands and swamps.  I would look at the pictures of the great campouts he had taken his scouts on and think about how much fun it would be to go to those beautiful places.  "Dad," I would ask, "do they have toilets there?"  When the inevitable answer was 'no' I wished that I could just face up to my fears and go along, but I never did.

When we were assigned to Cairo, I found out that squat toilets were not just in China so I made plenty of preparations to avoid ever having to use one.  When we went out sightseeing, I planned excursions that lasted as long as I knew my bladder would.  I avoided drinking lots of fluids.  I planned strategic restaurant stops that included known western toilets.  

Once when Brandon and I were waiting for a train in the Alexandria station, I went to the restroom.  The ever-present bathroom attendant waved me over to a stall when I asked for the restroom, and was very confused when I turned right around after seeing the toilet and marched right back out again.  A two hour train ride in semi-agony was worse than using a squat toilet.

All of the time I knew I was being irrational - after all, how bad could it be?  Millions of people have never seen a western toilet.  My sister goes hiking all of the time in places that don't have toilets for miles.  Even my mother went on those backpacking trips with my father.  It would be okay.  I could do it.  If I can birth babies, I can use a squat toilet.

Here in Azerbaijan they are called 'Turkish toilets,' and I had my first run-in on Victory Day on a CLO day trip to Beshbarmag.  Thankfully the trip only lasted into the early afternoon and so with careful fluid intake I was able to survive the trip with no other new cultural experiences other than watching people hack sheep apart with (probably dull) axes.

The next reckoning came at the beach this summer.  We went with friends who had been before and recommended the little beach club since it had bathrooms.  When Kathleen announced that it was time to try out the bathrooms I accompanied her to the hut next to the parking lot.  We both made an abrupt u-turn as our bladders suddenly didn't feel so full at the sight of the (always stinky) squat toilet waiting for us.  Kathleen later shamed me by being the first Sherwood to successfully acquire the art of squat-potting.  I, on the other hand, drank nothing for the rest of the day and survived again.

But when we planned our trip to Guba this past weekend, I knew that my number was up.  Azerbaijan and the Turkish toilets had outmaneuvered me.  The first day of our trip was a CLO day trip to Guba and environs.  We left the embassy at seven in the morning and our hotel check-in wasn't until the evening.  There was no way my bladder could last that long and absolutely no way there would be a western toilet between seven am in Baku and Long Forest Resort that evening.

We started the morning off early and were waiting outside the gates by 7:15.  Our departure was delayed somewhat, so by 10:15 we were in Guba.  Our trip started with a visit to a waterfall a distance outside of town.  The further we got from Guba the bumpier the roads became, paving turning into potholes, potholes turning into patches of asphalt, and patches finally dying horrible deaths, giving way to rocky unpaved road.  As we bumped over rocks and through holes and over mounds I had a new empathy for pioneers crossing endless prairies on wooden wheels as their teeth jarred out of their heads.  And as each mile passed I grew a mile farther from my last bathroom stop early that morning in Baku.

Sophia piped up from behind me.  "Mom, I need to go to the bathroom."  Kathleen chimed in "Me too. When are we going to stop?"  Since we were caravanning to an unknown destination, I confessed that I had no idea.  "We're just going to have to wait.  If we stop, we will get lost and not know how to find the waterfall.  Can you hold it?"  Ahh, the joy of being a mother - when you have more than your own bladder to be responsible for.

The endless rocky road stretched on and on and on, each rock bouncing the seat belt against my lap, each drop pushing me and my full bladder painfully into the seat.  How long was this going to last?  Were we going to go on forever, bouncing our way into eternity with my bladder screaming at me over every. single. rock.  At last we came to the entrance of a canyon.  Finally, almost there.  At least we could stop and find somewhere and save my seats - good thing they're leather - from ruin.

The lead car stopped.  We all waited, no knowing what had happened - had we gotten lost?  Was the road closed?  Did we forget someone?  Then it backed up and turned around.  Everyone else dutifully turned around one at a time, narrowly avoiding the rock wall on one side and drop into the river on the other.  We retraced our route and pulled up to a handsome, half-finished hotel.  The girls perked up.  Hotel?  Lovely?  Surely this place would have bathrooms - the right kind of bathrooms.

We all hopped (well unbuckled and climbed) out and made our way over to the group standing near an empty doorway.

"What's going on?" I asked the CLO lady, the obvious authority figure.

"Bathroom break," she smiled. "We still have ten kilometers to go before the waterfall, and we thought it would be a good time to stop."

"Oh thank heaven!!" I breathed in relief.  "Where are the toilets?"

"Well..." she continued, starting to look distinctly uncomfortable.  "Here's the thing.  There's only one toilet.  And it has no running water.  Or lights.  So you kind of have to keep the door open.  And... well... it's a Turkish toilet.  Sorry.  It's the best we can do!" she tried to finish cheerfully.

I thought of my bladder and ten kilometers more of bumpy, rocky, jarring, bone-rattling road and smiled back at her.  "Well there's nothing like new cultural experiences is there?"

So when it was our turn the girls, Edwin (who had steadfastly and stubbornly refused to pee in the scrub surrounding the hotel) and I hiked across the rocky, weedy ground to a small door in the back.  Edwin walked in, looked around and hastily retreated shouting "Never mind! Never mind!" as he left.

Kathleen, who was a Turkish toilet pro because of her experience this summer, volunteered to go first to show Sophia and I how to get things done.  After seeing her sister Sophia made her mother proud and added "using squat pots" to "counting in Azeri" and "knowing not to drink the tap water" to her list of accomplishments gained while living overseas.

And then it was my turn.

When I stepped out of the door a few minutes later (with dry shoes and pants I might add), the girls were proud.  "You did it, Mom!" they smiled at me.  "Good job!  Don't you feel much better?"

And I did.  Much, much better.  Now I can go on all those camping trips with my dad next time he asks.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

In which we travel to rural Azerbaijan with all four children and everyone survives

I'm not much of a traveler.  Those of you who live in the U.S. can now laugh.  But really when you don't include all of the back-and-forth to the U.S. traveling and moving traveling, I haven't traveled much.  Well, for someone who lives overseas.  While in Egypt Brandon and I made it to the Red Sea twice and Istanbul once.  I slept in the Athens Sofitel for two nights while I was being evacuated with the kids.  And I've been through the Frankfurt airport countless times, but that hardly counts as travel.

All of my travel while we were in Egypt was travel without the children.  Because traveling with children is not a vacation - it's just work in a more difficult, more public place.  It's a nightmare, a waste of money, and when you're done you need a vacation from your vacation.  The only reason we take the children with us in the summer is because at this point everybody actually wants to see the children more than us.  Otherwise, they'd be left at home and save the taxpayers thousands of dollars.  I don't. travel. with. children.

This weekend, however, was a first.  Brandon had two days off for Gurban Bayram, and so in a temporary bout of insanity I suggested we take all four children (that seems like a whole lot when it's written down) on a trip to the mountains.  

And then in an extended bout of insanity I had my housekeeper call and book a cabin at the Long Forest "Resort" for two nights.  The booking wasn't very formal - she talked to Ismail and told him that George was coming for Thursday and Friday nights - but I figured that if I'd already bothered to do that, we might as well bite the bullet and get out of town.

And so we did.  

It was quite lovely and I don't think I even caught myself wondering why exactly I had thought this was a good idea.  I won't vouch for Brandon, however. 

Now pictures, to convince all of you who were undecided about visiting Azerbaijan that the country here really is very scenic.  And some children for the grandparents who read this blog.

Friday, October 26, 2012

I really know how to party

One of my least favorite things about Brandon's job is the evening events he has to attend.  When Brandon got hired, I went on a dress-buying frenzy so that I would have appropriate attire for when we went to all of those fancy, glamorous diplomatic events.  I envisioned myself swanking it up with other high-class diplomats like myself, laughing at... something funny... and having a great time.  You know, because life lived at events is somehow more exciting because those things show up on movies.

The first time I attended a cocktail party with Brandon I realized fifteen minutes into the night that Hollywood had sold me a bill of goods.  All everyone did was talk to each other.  Nobody even really got to eat the food because there wasn't a time where stuffing your face with shrimp fritters wouldn't look bad.  So I spent the whole night hanging on to the same fried piece of food, watching it grow cold and nasty as I wistfully clutched it in my hand and nodded at the Greek GC's tales of travel around Egypt.  And my feet hurt.  A lot.

I still find myself, however, being tricked into thinking that maybe if I attended some other event I would find that glamour that video cameras give to a crowd of people chatting with each other.  Fall is apparently Ball Season around here, and I realized that I could attend the Black and White Ball, the Poppy Ball, and the Marine Ball all in the space of a few weeks.  "Oooh!"  I thought.  "How much fun!  I could get all dressed up and pretty and get my hair done and eat tasty dinner and dance with Brandon and... spend the evening making small talk with people I don't know."

So now when Brandon tells me of something he has to attend, I fight the urge to be jealous with the memory of that agonizingly boring cocktail party and wish him a fun time passing out business cards.  Thankfully Brandon is not my friend's husband with several events a week, and he only strands me a few times a month, leaving me to the mercy of the children and a dinner eaten with only eyeball questions to keep me company.

This past week Brandon announced that he had something to attend at the Jumeirah hotel.  The stab of jealousy poked me a little as I asked him, "The Jumeirah?  That fancy seven-star hotel?"  If glamour could be found anywhere, it is at seven-star hotels owned by rich Arabs.  Hotels are the last bastion of glamour, and everyone likes an excuse to poke around one that you never have the nerve to afford.  "I bet the food will be tasty."  Because if the talking is boring, at least the food should be good.

That evening I served up grilled cheese sandwiches and discussed exactly how many horses is really too many horses for one person.  Five?  Six?  How about thirty thousand?  Lacking the energy to discuss what exactly a thousand means, I put everyone to bed at 6:45.

With the children safely contained in their rooms and all rebellion quashed, I looked into the long, open, empty evening.  I had hours of my own to do whatever I liked.  I considered my options.  There was always sewing, with several projects needing attention.  I'm sure I could find a good book to read.  How about calling one of my sisters?  Surf the internet for hours finding things to buy?  There was always Pride and Prejudice and chocolate to keep me company.  Finally I made a decision, put on an audiobook, and got to work.

When Brandon crawled into bed after midnight I asked him how the night was.  "Oh, you know.  Lots of talking.  We ended up spending some time with these guys from Dagestan.  And you were right - the food was good.  How was your night?"

"Mine?  Oh fine.  I decided to clean the carpets.  They were really filthy.  It felt great to get all of that dirt out."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kathleen's Mom

Sometimes I feel like I've been a parent forever.  My memories of life before Kathleen arrived are retreating into that part of memory that is shadowy, indistinct and maybe a little dusty.  In a way my life didn't really begin until I became a mother.

I have been dealing with small children for over six years now - changing diapers continually for six years, feeding someone else for six years, battling wills for six years, trying to keep people from crying for six years.  As soon as one child becomes reasonably self-sufficient another one arrives to take its place in a long succession of unending needs.

On the good days, it's the joy of continuing to welcome new children to our loving family.  On the bad days it's like Groundhog Day, with more poop and less Rachmaninov.

My life has always consisted of beautiful, needy, loving, infuriating, amazing small children.  It feels like it will always consist of them, with no change, for the rest of my life.

But while I've been changing the diapers and cleaning food off the floor and rocking children to sleep, Kathleen has stopped being a small child.

First she started dressing herself.  A little later she learned to read.  Then she was able to clean up her own toys.  And now in the morning after doing her chores she waves goodbye to me as she runs outside to ride her bike around the neighborhood.  When did my little baby become responsible enough to be trusted outside my supervision?

The first time I let her go outside by herself, I worried the entire time.  Would she be okay?  What if a car hit her?  What if a gardner tried to bother her?  What if someone stuffed her into a sack and whisked her far away from me?  Then I thought about our neighborhood - we have twenty-four hour guards and security cameras around the entire compound.  If I can't let my six year-old walk alone here, where can I let her?  Eventually she's going to have to go to college and I'll have to let her out of my sight then.

So most days she goes outside by herself, sometimes taking Sophia with her.  Some afternoons she'll run into friends while we're out walking and when it's time for me to go inside for Edwin and Joseph's bath, she and Sophia will stay outside and play, roaming the neighborhood climbing trees and trying to coax unsuspecting cats into staying in the baby seat on Sophia's bicycle.

Recently she's been bringing some of her friends home, breezily announcing that they will be up in the playroom as everyone bolts up the stairs to despoil the just-cleaned toy room.  Busy with dinner or bathing Joseph or dressing Edwin, I watch them run past and listen for any loud crashes.  I know the children and I know some of their parents, but not all of them.  They wave as they go by, shy of this strange woman who lives in Kathleen's house.  I try and make small talk.  Some talk easily of what games they've been playing, some answer in the shortest sounds possible.  Mostly, however, I leave them to their playing.  They have important things to do and I have a standing date with dinner.

I remember my friends' moms from my childhood.  They were always there in the background, doing whatever it was that moms do to keep constantly busy.  Some were nice, some were nicer, but they all mostly just left us alone to play.  I didn't consider them much; they were vague shadows in the background that occasionally gave me treats.  But they weren't who I had come to see, they were just a fixture of my friends' lives.

And now it has come full circle - I am now Kathleen's mom, keeping quietly in the background as I busily move around the house.

I knew that one day my children would get older.  I hoped that they would have friends.  I was excited to live in our neighborhood because of the readily available friends.  I just never thought about the new role I'd get to play.  Kathleen's mom.