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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.