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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Degustation for six

A few months ago Brandon got a phone call at work.  "So this is going to be really great.  We're going to have lots of people, and it will be fantastic," a German-accented voice told him without any introduction.  After a few minutes of backtracking in the Jimmy's Boa style, Brandon was able to figure out that he was being asked to round up some Americans for a taste test of baked goods.

When people (all three of them) ask what Brandon does, I usually scratch my head and helpfully answer "...stuff?  With businesses?" if they're looking for something more in depth than 'diplomat.'  That stuff varies widely - just a few days ago he visited a clean room, a few months ago he helped with a promotional event for a window company, and he gets to eat lunch at a nice hotel every month to meet with an American business group.  And now he can put 'taste tester' on his list of accomplishments for his EER.

Unfortunately he didn't get as much notice as he would have liked and the scheduling got confused, so in the end this great event with lots of people ended up being six: me, Brandon, a friend from the mission, Kathleen, Sophia, and Edwin.  It almost included Joseph, but my housekeeper showed up just as we were walking out the door and rescued him.

When I thought of taste test, I imagined a room with food.  Our German friend, however, had other ideas.  We were all ushered into a room filled with business men looking very important and not at all used to dealing with three very wiggly children wanting to climb over the couches, tap on the glass of the fish tank, point out the horses in a tapestry, ask when we were going to get some food, talk loudly, occasionally quarrel with each other, and generally act like small children that have no business being at what was looking to be a big event after all.  A nice secretary tried to make it better by handing large, caramel-filled chocolates around, which of course just made everything messier.  

After a nice long explanation of the company and its goals working here in Azerbaijan, the children were relieved to get on with the promised doughnuts and cookies.  Thankfully there was enough noise to cover Edwin's "Oh good! The talk is over!" and "Excuse me.  I passed gas," as everyone headed out.

We all got to put on hats, shoe covers, shirts (including small ones cut down especially for children.  Thank heaven everyone here loves children) before getting a tour of the factory.  I have a secret love of factories and could have watched the roll-cake roller for at least an hour more than we got.  Brandon had flashbacks of hauling pans of lasagna noodles for ten hours a day.

After the tour we got down to the business at hand: food tasting.

When Brandon first brought up the event, I was excited.  "You mean they want me to come and taste forty-five different baked goods?  I can do that!"  They kids were excited too because what child doesn't dream of being allowed to eat as much cake, cookies, pastries, doughnuts, brownies, and pie as they want?  

It started off well with the breads.  We got a bite of rye, 50% rye, whole wheat, pretzels, hot dog buns, hamburger buns, Texas toast, rolls, white bread, and about five other types.  That sounds like fun in theory, but after four or five breads, the crumbs all start feeling the same, and the taste is... okay.

The children had lost interest by the time we got to 50% rye, and wandered  down to a table that looked much more promising: the dessert table.  They were followed by their usual fan club/group of nervous adults and got fed doughnuts, brownies, cheesecake brownies, crumb cake, plum cake, chocolate pastries, nut-chocolate pastries, and apple pastries before they gave up and called it quits.

I, however, did not get to call it quits before tasting everything the children had plus about seven or eight more things.  I think I might have extrapolated the taste of the chocolate pastry from the taste of the chocolate-nut pastry and marked my sheet accordingly.  Maybe.  

I love dessert.  A lot.  A whole lot.  My Sunday assignment as a teenager was to make dessert for my family.  In college I would bake three cakes every Sunday and often not eat any dinner except cake scraps, and maybe have cake for lunch the next day.  I never turn down dessert when I go out to eat because I'm too full - it's usually how I judge restaurants.  

But by the end when I had to taste one more type of cake, I thought that there might actually be too much of a good thing.  I had never imagined that eating desserts baked (and cleaned up) by someone else that I didn't have to pay for could be so painful.  I could feel the diabetes threatening by my last bite.

At the end when the helpful staff loaded up several bags and boxes of goodies to take home, I told Brandon to distribute them among people at his office because I didn't want to see another baked good for at least a day or two.  It really is possible to have too much of a good thing.  I think we might have have just salad for dinner that night.

And so I have attended yet another strange experience brought to me by life as a diplomat.  Taste test food intended for thousands of American recipients?  Sure, I can do that!  Act like I'm classy and belong with the stiletto heel crowd who drink coffee out of tiny cups?  Definitely me.  Have a whole taste test with distinguished visitors engineered just for my family  Of course.  Because we're that important.

Usually my life is normal - I take care of children, change diapers, and feed my family - just like any other American housewife mother of four.  But every now and then, we like to spice it up a little with something different.  Or sugar it.  Whichever.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sophia Birthday Fail

Saturday was Sophia's birthday.  This means that I now have not one but two, almost-human children in the house (it's at age five that they can be expected to be reasonable most of the time).  One part of me wonders where the time went - wasn't it yesterday that Kathleen was dumping diapers all over newborn Sophia?

But the other part is heaving a sigh of relief that those crazy, stressful days are long gone.  Babies are cute when they're sleeping and cuddly, but when they aren't you wish that you had a five year old that could be sent to their room when they're being unreasonable.

Since we had a friend's goodbye party to attend Saturday evening, Sophia had her birthday in two parts.  Yesterday morning we all went to an activity of her choice (that could cost money! Kathleen was quick to point out) following the breakfast of her choice (doughnuts).

But we saved the dinner of choice, cake, and presents for today.  She was surprisingly okay with delaying presents for a whole day, in fact being much more okay with it than Kathleen was.

Sophia asked for Eggs Benedict for dinner - again, and Strawberry Cream Cake for dessert - again.  Only this year, since I had make the cake last year, I didn't look at the ingredients before going to the store yesterday.  After all, we had strawberries, we had cream, we could make cake, right?  Maybe the recipe should titled "Strawberry Cream (the liquid and cheese kind) Cake, so that next time I can remember the eight ounces of cream cheese that is supposed to go in to the whipped cream.  Since it was Sunday, I had to improvise.  I think the Italian meringue mixed in worked just fine, and I don't like cream cheese much anyway.  

After baking the cake, making that meringue, and slicing and macerating strawberries, we turned to dinner.  Brandon started by slicing up a pineapple.  Pineapples here are somewhat expensive, as they are imported from places far away, so we don't buy them very often.  But since it was Sophia's birthday and she loves pineapples, I had a fit of good-mommy and got her one, proudly showing it to her when we got back from the store just so she could know how lucky she was to have a great mom.  

When Brandon picked it up for slicing, he wrinkled his nose and turned to me, "Um, I think this pineapple might not be edible anymore.  When did you get it?"  After cutting about half of the outside off, it was edible, barely, and I might regret having given half of it to Joseph later this night.  Sophia, however, was perfectly happy with her half-bad pineapple, sharing the other half with Edwin.

Next was eggs benedict.  I managed to pull off the hollandaise sauce without curdling it - unlike last time - which was good because we only had ten eggs left for poaching, and not enough to waste three more on another attempt at sauce.

When Brandon went to the freezer for the english muffins, I got the worried voice again, "Ummmmmm, sweetie, where are the english muffins......?"  After digging through frozen bags of unidentifiable food, I resurfaced with our remaining english muffins.  Two.  

"It's okay!"  I brightly told Brandon, feeling the day beginning to slip, "We can have the eggs on bread!" and dove back in.  Five minutes of rummaging later I brought out the bread.  Five slices.  For ten eggs.  "Joseph doesn't need bread anyway, right?"

Sophia pulled out the cucumbers I had last-minute remembered as a side dish (I think something more nutritionally valuable than cucumbers is needed to counterbalance eggs benedict, but I was getting desperate).  "Are the skins supposed to be slimy, mommy?"  After Brandon had shaved and peeled as much bad as he could off, he gave one to Sophia for taste-testing.  "Hmm.  Kind of spicy."  I don't think cucumbers are supposed to be spicy.

Luckily Sophia was so caught up in having Her Birthday, she thought the meal was wonderful, now could we get to the presents part?

I had to assemble the cake after letting it cool during dinner, and got to slicing it up.  One layer went on the plate, strawberries lined up along the side, strawberry mash in the middle, altered whipped cream on top, next layer... hey, where's the top?!?  Only then did I remember that a two-layer cake means three layers of cake with two layers of filling.  Brandon came in while I was slicing the dome off the second half of the cake.  "What do you think you are doing?!"  

I continued slicing, ignoring haters who want to hate, and got the top off in one piece, grateful that I hadn't pulled the cake out of the oven before it was fully done.  Once in college I filled in the fallen centers of my cheesecake layers with cream cheese frosting.  It's all going to be eaten, right?

In the end, however, Sophia still had a birthday, despite her mother's inability to get it all together.  Because in the end, the only thing that matters is the presents, and those made it through okay.

Happy Birthday, Sophia!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Happy Mother's Day to Me!

I have a confession: I've always thought Mother's Day was a bit of a crock.

I should have had more appreciation for it (and my mother) when I was a child.  After all, my mother cooked and cleaned and washed clothes and made our home a wonderful place to live.  But did I appreciate it?  Not much.  So when Mother's Day came around I participated in the obligatory things, but mostly because my father (being a good husband) made sure we at least pretended to appreciate my mother.  I never felt gratitude overwhelm me as I thought of my mother's sacrifices for her children, if I ever even took the time to think of them.  Instead I just figured that she was the one who signed up for the job so she was stuck with it now.  Yes, I know, the ingratitude.

When I because a mother, and Mother's Day meant that those flowers or candy they hand out in church was meant for me, I was pretty happy to get flowers and candy.  But as any of you with small children know, Sunday isn't exactly the ideal day to celebrate mothers.  Because Sunday is the day where everyone rushes through breakfast so that they can rush through putting their clothes on in order to sit through three hours of church and then come home and feed everyone, clean up the dishes, and then try  to keep a lid on small wiggly bodies until we can put them to bed.  Not really a day to abandon your spouse to the tender mercies of small children in order to feel pampered.  Guilty maybe, but pampered, no.  And since I love my husband (and want to keep him around) more than I want to feel special on Mother's Day, we've kept Mother's Day low key, especially in Egypt where Sunday is a workday and laundry day.  Happy Mother's Day indeed.

But this year has seen a sweeping change in our family dynamics, and somehow life has calmed down a whole lot.  When feeding, cleaning up, and shoving small bodies into church clothes doesn't require every spare moment between waking and church (now that two of them can dress themselves and even help dress the others), time become available for other things.  Like breathing.

So this morning when the alarm went off, Brandon jumped out of bed instead of relaxing for a few thirty minutes like we usually attempt to do on Sunday mornings.  I tried to follow him, but he told me to stay put.  "What a wonderful beginning to Mother's Day," I smiled to myself, and then fell back asleep.

An hour later he woke me up with eggs, crepes, nutella, strawberries, and whipped cream.  Then he went downstairs and fed the children.  After a delicious breakfast I showered, went to church, and enjoyed all of the kisses my children gave me.  They tumbled downstairs at the end of Primary and handed me four cards, including a scribble from Joseph, who is now officially nursery age (happy Mother's Day indeed!).

When we got home, Brandon got to work on dinner and I took a nap.  When I woke up, the house smelled of delicious frying tamiyya, curried chickpeas, and something Indian made of eggplant.  After a tasty dinner, I chatted and everyone else cleaned up the kitchen.  Then we put together a puzzle and had dessert after Kathleen and Sophia delivered another card apiece before being ushered off to bed by their father while had some more alone time upstairs.

Obviously I didn't get into the kid business just to enjoy the adoration heaped on me for Mother's Day, but I won't lie.  It's pretty great.  The preceding six years of mothering are starting to pay off in all sorts of wonderful ways, including breakfast in bed.  Not that breakfast in bed is necessary to make all of those sacrifices worth it.  Having four wonderful, loving children are what make all of the other stuff worth it.  I could only imagine what my life would be like if Brandon and I looked at each other and said 'yeah, kids, we'll pass.  They're too much work, and we're perfectly happy right now anyway.'  I might not have to deal with multiple breakdowns at the same time during dinner and instead have a conversation, but I also wouldn't have four children all try to crowd onto my lap at once because they can't stand being any further away from me than is physically possible.  Children have opened my life up into so much more joy than I could have ever thought possible on my own.  So the sacrifices, in the end, aren't much.

However, I'll take breakfast in bed once a year for thanks, too.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Victory Day, again

Did I ever tell you about how much I love having double the holidays when we're living overseas?  Just in case you forgot, I'll tell you again.  I love having double the holidays when we're living overseas.  It's twice the fun!

This year for Victory Day, we drove past Besh Barmag (now that we've visited three times) and up to Chirax Castle.  This was attempt number two, as number one began on a rainy, cold day in March and ended in failure.

The usual route, via a sanitarium, was closed because of construction.

So we decided to make attempt number two on a warmer, and hopefully drier day so that we could try a back route that the guidebook described as "accessible by 4WD."  Good thing we own a 4WD.  Azerbaijan - a country where a 4WD vehicle is actually necessary.

The day didn't start out very promisingly - we left Baku under a dark grey cloud raining on us as as we fled the city.  But as we drove north the weather showed some promise of clearing and we headed up into the hills.

After some spots requiring, if not the 4WD capacity, some high clearance, and a u-turn through a village hosting more horses that cars, we made it to the trail head and unloaded the children for our brave assault on the castle.

The hike was quite lovely with beautiful views out onto the rolling hills below.  I think that I am a waste of a diplomat's wife because the cities hold no interest for me (I guess I got my fill during college) and now my favorite thing to do is to get out of town and see nothing but trees.

Within ten minutes we spotted the castle.

And commenced the adventure part of our hike as we scrambled up rocky hills,

Through very small holes in walls,

And finally to the top with a crumbling tower and very sheer drop-offs that made Brandon almost pass out with anxiety every time the children looked at them.  It's good to have at least one parent be safety-minded.

 Then we came back down and had a picnic.  Because no outing is complete without a picnic.  I think the children probably put up with our plans only because they involve chips, cookies, and juice boxes.

The children seriously considered testing out the mutiny clause in our car insurance, but gave up the plan when we pointed out that Brandon had all of the money.  

After we talked them back into their own seats, we drove home, put them to bed, and congratulated ourselves on another successful holiday.  Hooray for Victory Day!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Homeschooling Advantages: Time to Play

When I decided to homeschool Kathleen, I knew that some days I would think about my friends who had time for play groups and park dates while I was stuck inside on a beautiful morning discussing mixed numbers and telling Edwin to stop sticking his fingers in Joseph's nose.  On those days I would wonder why exactly I had thought that this was a good idea.  Downsides are what choices come with.  It's just part of life.

One morning Kathleen got an invitation to take Sophia over to a friend's house.  It was the friend's birthday and her mom was surprising her with a day of friends (this was during spring break).  I sent the girls over and stayed home with the boys.  As I fed only two people lunch that day, I realized that my life could be like this every single day - quiet, cheerful, manageable instead of chaos for four with a side of whining - if I sent both girls to school in the fall.  I was very tempted that morning.  Very.  Tempted.

But this week as I took the children out for walks every single afternoon to enjoy our gorgeous spring weather, I thought that perhaps crazy lunches and busy mornings were a pretty good tradeoff for empty afternoons filled with hunting down turtles in the butter-yellow spring sunshine.

I try to keep our life fairly simple to balance out having four children under the age of seven home all day.  Nobody has any lessons (other than what I teach them), sports, or 'after school' activities.  In the fall I looked into enrolling the girls into a dance class sponsored by the American school here.  The administrators were very happy to accommodate me (yes, we feel it would be good for them to spend time with their peer group [and not home with just their crazy mother to skew their world view and turn them into social outcasts]).  But when I saw that I would be spending Friday afternoons from 1:15 until 4:00 at school trying to keep two boys entertained, I asked them to remove the girls' name from the list. If I had only had the two girls, it would have been no problem.  But I don't, I have four children.  So we stay home a lot.

But this means that every afternoon when every other mom around is going to pick up their child from school, I'm finishing my nap, or reading my scriptures, or sitting with Sophia while she reads.  While the other children are attending Brownies or play practice or swim team, my children are riding their bikes around the neighborhood and creating contraptions that all three can ride on together.  When it's homework time they're helping me with dinner or playing in the bath with their siblings.

I like to pretend that I'm being virtuous when I think about not having the children in more activities.  After all, so many studies say that children are over scheduled and could do with a little more boredom. Childhood isn't the same as it was twenty years ago.  Children are losing their ability to think creatively.    All of those things make me feel better, and maybe a little smug (please don't tell anyone).

But really, I'm just lazy.  After a long morning of school, I'm ready to have an empty afternoon to recover before we enter the crazy zone of dinner- and bedtime.  And I love it.  I love not having any commitments, not having to drive anywhere, not having to help children with homework while trying to make dinner.  I love not having parent-teacher conferences (Ashley, how are you supporting your child's educational endeavors?  Oh in lots of ways, Ashley).  I love never. ever. having a school assembly.  And volunteering.  And fundraisers.  I love having my day belong to me and nobody else.

And those are the upsides.  Also a part of life.  A good part.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It's Never Too Early to Learn About Gladiators

This week's history lesson was about Rome.  We started last week with the story of Remus and Romulus and this week moved on to gladiators and Roman gods and goddesses.  As part of her school, Kathleen reads supplemental texts on the internet.  Our curriculum recommends getting various books from the library, but since our HHE shipment must consist of something other than just books, we cheat and use the internet.

Some of the websites include games which the girls play repeatedly until they can win every time.  I usually pull up the websites for Kathleen and then let them read to their heart's content during quiet time, which is Kathleen's favorite part of the week.  I guess when you're starved for entertainment, anything, including playing "Gladiator: Dressed to Kill", is fascinating.

This week I came upstairs and Sophia presented me with a paper doll she had dressed and cut out.

"It's for Joseph!" she explained "He's got baby gladiator armor!  And a fake beard!"

I looked closer at the doll Sophia had drawn and the gladiator Kathleen had just dressed in her game.  Sophia had faithfully copied the armor and gear of a Retairius (okay so she got the spear wrong and gave him a shirt for modesty) so that Joseph could be sent fully equipped to win his wooden sword in the arena.

I swallowed a laugh and patted her on the back, trying to keep a straight face, "Very nice Sophia.  I like the detail you put into the net.  Make sure and show your father when he gets home."

And who says home schooled children are weird?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Why Having Two Girls First is Awesome

This Friday we had no school.  Most Fridays we have no school.  I have had no problem getting all of Kathleen's assignments done in four days, and I only had four days of classes a week in college (with no ill effects), so we take Friday off.

Friday is my day.  Before I cut Asli down to two days, I would have her watch the children in the morning, feed them lunch, and then make dinner (yes, I know, my life is really hard) while I worked on... whatever I wanted (yes, yes, truly difficult).  But now that she only comes two days, I don't have anyone to watch the children.

So I make Kathleen do it instead.

There must be something in the blood and bones of first children, because when I suggested to her that she would be 'substitute mommy' her eyes got very large.  "You mean," she squeaked, "I could be in charge?!?  Would I get to make lunch?!?  That would be GREAT!!!!"  

When I was pregnant with my first child, everyone asked me if I wanted a boy or a girl.  I shrugged my shoulders and very truthfully answered (yes really) that I didn't care either way.  I was just happy that I could have a child.  But when the ultrasound tech announced that I was having a girl, I was shocked at how happy I felt.  I was having a girl, someone on my team, someone who would be my daughter and would fight with me and love me and give me advice about clothes and I could understand (only generally sometimes, but still more than a boy).  

And when pregnancy number two was Sophia, I was happy to have not one, but two girls.  "No matter what happens after these two," I thought to myself, "I will always have two mommies first.  Even if I have twenty boys after these girls, the girls will always be the first."

So Friday I sewed a summer skirt and a half for Kathleen (making Kathleen's entire stock of summer skirts and dresses: bad idea).  While I was sewing, the girls: 

1. Made garlic bug spray from a recipe in one of Kathleen's school books.  This included measuring and boiling water, peeling and crushing garlic (I had to do the crushing because they weren't strong enough), straining the mixture, finding a spray bottle, and pouring the mixture into the bottle.  Then they sprayed down the basil being eaten by rolly-pollies (who knew they loved basil so much?). 

2.  Sorted, matched, and sewed groups of button on to strings.  They didn't get finished with the two-pound bag, but it will give them something to work on next week.

3. Got Joseph up from his nap and played with him so that he wouldn't climb on the transformer next to me and try to press all of the buttons and constantly switch stitches while I was sewing.

4.  Made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for everyone.  I had to stir up the peanut butter because it was a new jar.

5.  Unloaded the dishwasher, put the dishes away, and cleaned up the kitchen (including wiping the table!) from lunch.

6.  Vacuumed up spilled pencil shavings from the play room carpet.

7.  Got Joseph up from his nap and played with him until I felt guilty enough to stop sewing and take everyone outside for a walk.

One day when they're older and much less interested in playing substitute mommy, they will read this blog post and become very indignant that I took away their childhood so I could pursue my own selfish ends.  I will recognize that they might have a point, and make a lame attempt to justify myself.  We will both know it is lame.  Then I will smile at them, give them a kiss, and thank them for being such helpful daughters.  And I will send them downstairs to go make dinner.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Time to Climb Back Up

I have a confession to make: I am not fit for the diplomatic lifestyle.  I don't drink tea.  I haven't had a pedicure since the Arab Spring.  I drive my own car.  And I can't stand having someone in my house all day cleaning up after me.

I have had my housekeeper come three times a day since I hired her in November.  The previous housekeeper had been coming two full days and two morning, so when I hired my current housekeeper I consolidated it into three days so that she could work for someone else the other two days.

At first it worked out okay; I had three mornings where I could have school without Edwin and Joseph interrupting.  They could take a walk and get some time outside while Kathleen and I talked about Alexander the Great.  I didn't have to fight off Edwin while struggling through a reading lesson with Sophia.  

Then winter hit and walks weren't so feasible.  So instead Edwin came down and kept us company, mostly playing nicely.  When the weather was nice, Edwin preferred to stay and join everyone else in school.  So then Joseph just kept my housekeeper company while she cleaned.  I realized after a few months that I was paying her to do twenty hours of work and she was hardly ever working more than sixteen (since I couldn't think of anything else to do, I let her go when her work was done each day).

And she was driving me crazy.  It wasn't her, it was just having someone, anyone else in the house with me.  My house is my sanctuary.  It's my own bubble that is not Baku, a place where the alien culture, foreign language, and curious looks are left at the doorstep.  

I know people who embrace living in a foreign culture and love nothing more than to go and explore the special nuances of another way of living, grow to love the people of their temporary home, and feel enriched by their experiences.  

I don't.

I once got a very nasty comment (that I deleted) on this blog that accused me (among other things) of not having cultural experiences and being a sad bitter person because of that.  

Everybody deals with life differently, and I deal with my life - four small children home every day all day - by having a sanctuary that I control.  As my children get older, that will probably change, but for now, I like it that way and no nasty comments will induce me to be a better person.

And having someone violate my sanctuary three times a week - putting my possessions up in strange places, folding my laundry wrong, giving my children candy to stop them crying, and most of all thinking their foreign-culture thoughts about me - was just too much.  As I said, everyone deals differently, and I have have come to the firm conclusion Brandon can never be Mr. Big Important in the embassy because I would have a mental breakdown after a week of having full time staff (not just one! several!) around.

So when my housekeeper announced that she had found another position for three days and could I just have her two days I could have cried for joy.  And then I thought that there must be something wrong with me.

So there you have it.  I'll never make a true diplomat.  But I hope we can still be friends.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Does your car insurance cover these events?

We got a friendly update from our car insurance provider, Clements, the other day.  It was in the junk folder where most messages get a subject line scan, if they're lucky.  But when I saw the title, my curiosity was piqued: Political Violence Coverage Added to Your Insurance Policy.  I opened the email to read exactly what 'political violence' included.

I'm very relieved to see that my car is now insured in case of mutiny.  So if the children decide they've had enough hiking and decide to take over and go to EuroDisney instead, the car is covered in case their bad driving causes problems.

Thank you, Clements.