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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.