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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

It's That Time Again

We have some news.  Quick.  I'll give you three guesses.

Okay, time's up.

Why yes, that is right!  We're having another baby!

The first time I was pregnant, I kept the secret so close it almost suffocated.  Nobody knew until we had gotten positive confirmation that there was indeed a baby in there and it was even a girl.  And when I spread the news around, everyone was surprised, delighted, and all of those other feelings you want to create when you're spreading some pretty exciting news.

The second time around, I expected the same reaction.  Of course everyone was delighted, but not so surprised.  I was a little crestfallen.  "Well," my mom explained when I asked if she was surprised, "we figured that we'd be hearing that news any time now."

And the excitement has declined steadily ever since.  When Brandon told his (single) brother that we were expecting our fifth, he was completely non-plussed.  "You call that news?" he replied, "It's more like keeping to a schedule.  It's like saying 'happy birthday.'  You know it's going to happen the same time every year.'"

If you've been keeping up with the blog, this news shouldn't come as any surprise to you, just as it wasn't much of a surprise to friends and family.  Everyone was just relieved that the fifth one was able to come.

But even though nobody else is that excited, I sure am.  Maybe I'm even more excited than when I was pregnant with my first baby.  Perhaps I had some excitement hiding somewhere in the back of my emotions - I remember putting tiny baby socks away and thinking that very soon I would have something with a foot small enough to fit into such a minuscule thing and that would be pretty amazing.  But mostly it was just a mix of dread, anxiety, fear, and overwhelming desire to get the watermelon out.

Now that I've gone through this four times, I know what there is to be scared about, how long I can expect my life to be turned upside down, and the various tricks that have worked on various children.  So that's not really on my mind.  And the excitement can now take center stage.

It helps too, having my own pregnancy fan club with me every day.  The last time I was pregnant Kathleen hadn't had first grade human body science, complete with the full story on babies.  Now we get the twice- or thrice-daily update on exactly how big the baby is followed by a discussion about who will get to feed it and change it's clothes and whether it will be a girl or a boy and what we should name it (Edwin's vote is Lightning McQueen or Edwin) and how much longer until we get to see it.  How could you help but be excited when everyone is going to be singing "Happy Birthday" for the next six months?

I recognize with the fifth on the way we have fully crossed the Rubicon into That Weird Family status. After all, who in their right mind has five children?  But it doesn't bother me; after all a major part of my family planning priorities actually don't consider how normal I am (but I do confess that I think about it occasionally).  I'm more focused on being happy and for us, that means lots of little (and later bigger) people to fill our lives with joy, even if that joy costs a lot of personal sacrifice.  When I'm eighty-five and I get at least five flower arrangements on Mother's Day (do you hear that, older children reading the archives?), I think the sacrifice will be worth it.  Even without the flowers, I'm pretty darn sure it will be worth it.

It already is.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Georgia, Part II

When we pulled into the Tbilisi train station, we were met by the usual zoo of taxi drivers looking for easy marks.  Brandon, deciding to be an easy mark in a foreign country where he didn't speak the language, accepted the assistance of one, stipulating that we first buy our return tickets.  So to the ticket desk we hustled and I stood guard over children and luggage while Brandon got the harder task of buying tickets in a language he didn't speak.  Thankfully the Russian worked enough.

After a few minutes he came back.  "They don't have any coupé tickets.  They're all sold out."  I had worried about this, since the tickets had been sold out on our journey from Baku.  I panicked, thinking about spending sixteen hours in third class.  Can you even sleep in third class?  I kept thinking of poor Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in White Christmas.

"See if they have any first class tickets," I instructed him, "just buy two compartments."

After ten minutes he came back with the good news that they had first class tickets available and the bad news that the money he had changed in Baku ($200) wasn't enough to buy the tickets.  Thank heaven for ATMs.  And so the tickets were bought, and all of the disastrous situations in our trip were finished.  I'm not going to complain when the worst thing that happens is we have to pay more than expected for a return trip.

The rest of our vacation went great.

Monday we started our day with taking a funicular to the top of the hills surrounding Tbilisi.  On one of the hills is an amusement park filled with lots of tacky rides that appeal to small children.  Very cultural.

In the funicular.

The view from the top.

On the Ferris wheel.

The Ferris wheel, which lights up at night and can be seen across the city.

Having exhausted our the rides and our funds by 1:00, we decided to walk to the botanical gardens, which looked like a reasonable hike on Google Maps.

The only problem with arial shots is that they're really bad at showing elevation, and scale can sometimes be hard to determine.  

The hike started out well.  It was a lovely day, a lovely hike, and the views were quite nice.

The only problem is that we just kept hiking and hiking and hiking.

We stopped for rest breaks, water breaks than then necessitated other types of rest breaks, granola bar breaks, picture breaks, and ibuprofen breaks for Brandon's knee, injured while he worked at Stouffer's, and no longer happy about going up and down lots of hills while carrying twenty-five pounds of Joseph on his back.

But eventually we made it to Narikala fortress, which was next to the botanical gardens, and as we realized after looking around, only separated by a 500-foot drop.  Those maps really don't show ridges very well, and no guidebook (we had three) mentioned the botanical gardens being in a side valley not connected to the city.

By this time it was 5:30 and everyone was exhausted and hungry so we took the cable car down into the city,

crossed the river, and trailed through the old city looking for somewhere that didn't ask for Joseph in exchange for dinner.  My favorite part of the March of Death for Dinner was Edwin repeating over and over in monotone while being dragged down cobbled streets past tourists, "I'm tired.  I'm tired.  I'm tired.  I'm tired.  I'm tired.  I'm tired," until we told him to quit it.  But really, it was a pretty long day for a three year-old and he took it quite well.  

The next morning, after eating a very big breakfast, we took a leisurely stroll back down to the old city to enjoy it with somewhat fresher eyes than the evening before.

We paid through the nose for two dolls that could add to our Christmas tree ornaments from foreign countries collection.

Smelled the sulfur baths.  We had brought swimsuits for bathing if we had time, but we didn't.  So we just smelled instead.

We found a trail that went past the baths and into a ravine behind the city that dead-ended into a waterfall.

We finished the afternoon with more Georgian food, for the third day in row.  "Please, no more khachipuri!! the children all begged," so we obliged.  Who knew you could get sick of khachipuri?  After a late lunch, we hailed a taxi to swing by the hotel for our bags before taking us to the train station for our night train back to Baku.  We arrived the next morning by 9:00, too early to even eat the breakfast we brought.  Whatever else you can say about this country, the train (to Tbilisi) seems to run right one time.

And that was our trip.  If you're ever in the mood to travel to Tbilisi, I recommend it.  Even if you're not, try it anyway.  You might be surprised!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

So How Was საქართველოს*? *Georgia (the country, not the state)

We're back from Georgia and I am proud to report that we still have all four children.  Nobody got lost, nobody got hurt, and most importantly, nobody got abandoned by the side of the road because we just couldn't stand them anymore.  And that is something that I'm proud of.

We've obviously traveled with our children before (otherwise, how would I be writing this from my home in Azerbaijan?), but this is the very first trip we've taken for pleasure that didn't involve seeing any family.  And it's also the very first international travel we've done with the children.  So even though we've flown across the world with all of the children, we've never gone on a trip with the express purpose of having fun.  Which is a pretty tall order when you throw in two overnight train rides, two nights in a hotel, lots of Georgian food, and a major amount of walking around a city with not much to recommend it other than old buildings.  Even the guidebook, under the heading "Tbilisi With Children," told us that it wasn't a good city for children.

Nevertheless, we still enjoyed ourselves.  So take that Lonely Planet.

We started our adventure Saturday night downtown at the Baku train station waiting to board the 8:30 train to Tbilisi.  Brandon and I had walked down to the station a week before to purchase the tickets which turned out to be a good thing as the train was sold out a few days before our trip.  As Brandon asked his way to the correct window and then chatted with the lady in Russian and explained what he needed I thanked the heavens (for the hundredth time) that I was married to someone who had lived in a Russian-speaking country for two years.  I imagine buying tickets would have been possible without Russian or Azeri, but it certainly would have been much more complicated.

Not wanting to park our car downtown for five days, we took a taxi down to the station and enjoyed the pleasant evening, having arrived too early to board.  As we waited we saw friends coming down the platform and soon realized we were next door to them on the train.  The children had a fun time running up and down the platform and wondering when the engine would come and if we would get left behind and which window would be ours and what would the train look like inside and how fast it would go and could we have snacks yet?  I think they didn't really care where the train was going, just that they were going on a train.

The inside turned out to be very clean and recently renovated; we had a coupe with four beds, two down and two up that worked excellently as clubhouse and monkey-swinging tree and something to climb.  Stored on the top two bunks were pillows and pallets to lay on top of the padded vinyl seat benches.  After we had been on the train for an hour or so the attendant brought bags of linens to put on the pillow and pallet and we made all of the beds while the children negotiated who would be sharing with whom.

I had been wondering ever since we decided to try traveling with four children how getting all of them to sleep on a train with everyone in the same compartment would work out.  When we put them to sleep at home, every night there are at least three requests for water, five bathroom trips, two fights to break up and seven injunctions (increasing in severity and decreasing in civility) to just go to sleep already.  And that is without Joseph in the room.

But either the running had worn them out or the excitement of sleeping on a train that was moving or the late hour or perhaps the Benadryl helped, as everyone actually just went to sleep after they had been pajama-ed and tucked into bed.  Joseph gave us a little trouble so Brandon pulled him up to the top bunk and wrestled him down to unconsciousness (in a loving, non-violent manner) in about ten minutes and returned him to the bed he shared down below with Sophia.

I've flown enough red-eye flights to know how to get sleep in uncomfortable places and had packed accordingly: earplugs, Unisom, and my own pillow.  So that just left Brandon, who was a big boy and had the Kindle's warm LED glow to keep him company if he couldn't sleep.

The night wasn't exactly the best sleep I've ever gotten - the room was hot until someone turned the air conditioning on and I had to keep shifting to find a comfortable position - but it certainly wasn't the worst and I didn't hear a peep from the children all night long.  Maybe Brandon did, but that's why I packed earplugs.

The next morning after dressing, waiting in line for the bathroom (we knew enough of traveling to bring our own TP, but I'm not complaining because the toilet wasn't a squat), and making our beds, we had breakfast.  When I mentioned something about a dining car to Brandon, he just laughed, "Dining car?!?  Don't you realize that this is a Soviet system?  All you get on these trains is hot water for tea.  Period."  So I had packed accordingly and we had pumpkin muffins, slightly squashed bananas, and granola bars to start the day off with.

We finished before reaching the Azeri border where we stopped for about an hour for border control and then rode for about half an hour before getting to the Georgian border where we stopped for more passport flashing and stamping.  By then we were getting close to Tbilisi and I made a vain attempt to get Joseph to sleep (and maybe catch a nap myself) which worked about fifteen minutes before we pulled in, around noon.

So in summary: train travel with kids is vastly better than air travel.  You can sleep laying down, you can shut the door, nobody has to wear seat belts, everyone can look out the window, and your children can misbehave without any witnesses.  Of course the train took longer (sixteen hours versus ninety minutes), but we spent over half of the trip sleeping.  And not once did anyone ask me to take off my shoes, empty out the liquid in my bags, or send my children through a metal detector.  The only line we had was at the bathroom.  And it was cheaper - one hundred dollars to get everyone to Georgia.

Of course, the way back was a different story.  But that's for next time.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Fourth's Time the Charm

It feels like I just finished toilet training Edwin and now it's time to train Joseph.  I've never been much of a 'wait until they're ready' parent with any kind of training, more like a 'now you're ready because I'm ready,' so this means it's time to toilet train Joseph.  My sincerest apologies to whoever gets the house after us.  I'll try and clean the carpets before we leave.

When you're a parent in this transitory lifestyle, it's all about using windows of opportunity.  And since we're leaving Baku at the end of January and Joseph will be two next month, this is a window of opportunity to get him trained.  I could wait until after we settled into Oakwood at the end of February, which would mean really April, but that would mean six more months of changing diapers.  And why have six more months of changing diapers when you can have no diaper changing for the first time in over seven years?  I have been changing someone's diapers since Kathleen was born in August 2006 and I think I'm ready for a break.

So its underwear and bare bums time around our house.  Just be warned.  If you come over you will probably be treated to some toddler full-frontal nudity.

The other day I was cooking chicken pot pie to take to a friend (never again on a weekday.  I don't know how those ladies in the fifties did it, but in our house chicken pot pie is a Sunday meal from here on out) and looked around for Joseph.  It's always good to keep free-range babies close at hand where you can see that wiggle dance and crotch-grab that precedes real trouble.

He wasn't in the kitchen, so I looked to make sure wherever he was, he wasn't on the carpet and couldn't find him in the living room. Then I happened to glance at the door and noticed it open a crack. Joseph is always trying to open the front door but we have to keep it locked so usually he's stymied since not even Sophia can figure out which way to turn the lock.

It looked like someone had forgotten to lock the door and Joseph had gotten out.  I pulled the door open and scanned the road looking for Joseph.  Then I looked down and there he was - innocently sitting on Edwin's red tricycle enjoying his jail break.  Watching him were two nannies with their charges, just standing in the middle of the street.  When looked more closely, it was more like staring at him with odd expressions on their faces.

People around here, ladies especially, are very diligent about keeping their children very warm.  When Joseph was just a little thing I got bothered so much about having his head uncovered that I finally knitted a tiny baby ear-flap hat just so I would be left alone.  That day was kind of cold and windy and I knew that Joseph hadn't taken the time to put on a coat, or gloves, or a hat, or shoes, or socks, or even pants, so I shouldn't have been surprised that those nannies had something to be shocked about.  Then I looked closer.  He hadn't even bothered, for that matter, to even put on underwear.  I suppose my boys must have some exhibitionist in them.  At least this time Joseph was wearing a shirt.

I was too far gone in children, chicken stock, pie crust, and patience to even feel ashamed.  I scooped up Joseph and the ladies kept on walking.  After I got inside, the door got locked.

So that's toilet training at our house.  After having done this three times, the fourth time barely registers as something new in the daily circus our house.  At least, however, this will be over at some point.  Hopefully.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Time to Hide the Camera Better

Every afternoon the girls have quiet time in the toy room.  The boys and I need a nap and everyone has just finished school, so the girls are sent upstairs to play, read, sleep, fight, or do whatever they want until I recover from the morning.  There are only two rules: whatever mess make has to be cleaned up before you can leave and don't wake Mom up unless there is blood or repeated (at least three in a row) phone calls.

Sometimes they tell me what they're done and sometimes I ask, but most of the time I really don't care.  I like to pretend that I'm a good mother and call it Independent Creative Time, but really it's just Benign Parental Neglect Time.

When I was uploading pictures from my camera this evening, after scanning my SD card the computer politely told me that I had forty-seven pictures waiting.  I didn't remember taking that many pictures this week and wondered what hidden gems were waiting for me.

I was right - I hadn't taken forty-seven pictures this week.  I had taken nine.  Thursday afternoon the girls decided that Independent Creative Time included work on their photography skills.  Mostly Sophia's, however.  It appears from the pictures that Kathleen was spending most of her time reviewing What to Expect When You're Expecting.  Good information to have for the very distant future.

"Baby blues are usually temporary and leave as quickly as they come"
I'm glad that these pictures didn't involve any film, but I think it's time to have the discussion, again, about what things are off-limits during quiet time.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Adventure is a Four Letter Word

I am not an adventurer.  I wasn't before I got married, and having children has made me even less so.  When you have an entire circus train to haul behind you every time you leave the house, 'adventure' really just is another word for a big old hassle that will probably cost more time, money and aggravation than it is worth.

So when the CLO sent around an announcement about a trip to Georgia for the upcoming five-day holiday weekend next month, I read it and laughed.  An overnight train?  With four children?  No thanks, I'd rather stay home and stick pins in my eyeballs for entertainment.

But when Brandon read it, instead of laughing he looked interested.  

Let me tell you something about Brandon - he's even less adventurous than I am.  His idea of the perfect weekend is coming home Friday night and leaving the house Monday morning.  After being gone at work all week all he wants to do is stay home and enjoy the castle all of his meetings, email exchanges, and cables have provided for him.  I'm the one who hauls him on our little adventures.

I looked at him, "you're not really seriously thinking about this Georgia trip, are you?  We would have to get the children to sleep on a fourteen-hour train ride twice.  And we wouldn't have our car.  And we would have to make the children eat Georgian food for four days."

He looked back and shrugged.  "When else are we going to get to Georgia?"  I was so shocked I told him I'd think about it.

I thought about it, and the deadline for signing up passed.  Oh well, we can do something else that weekend, I told myself and Brandon.  Then it was extended so I had to think about it again.  I thought about it and got busy with sick children and life and remembered it had passed the day after.  

But then it got extended a third time.  In a spasm of adventuresome spirit one day while taking the children on errands, I brought up the subject with them.

"So, your father and I were talking about maybe taking you on an overnight train ride to Georgia.  I'm not asking for your vote, just your opinion.  What do you think?"

Thirty seconds later it was decided - we're going to Georgia.  I called Brandon at work and broke the news to him.  "You had to ask them didn't you?  Of course they're going to say yes to sleeping in a train!"

So that's how we backed ourselves into taking four children on the overnight train to Tbilisi, staying two nights in the city at a hotel where there will be other people Brandon works with, and taking the overnight train to Baku.  Did I mention that we're doing this with a seven year-old, five year-old, three year-old, and one year-old?  

But I suppose in the end, as long as nobody has died, we will have taken the children on a train ride, gotten of town for a break, put Georgian stamps in our passports and most importantly, gone on a really big Adventure.  Which is, after all of the bad memories have faded, what counts in the end, right?  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

It's Autumn Time

This week fall came.  Thunder woke me up around two AM Monday morning and we had rain for the next two days.  When our preventative maintenance men came on Friday I had them switch off the air conditioning and turn on the heat.  Of course the weather says we're supposed to have eighty-five degree heat on Thursday, but everyone knows that it's just a bluff, a brief flirtation with a summer that is done.

I've grown to like fall more and more.  I used to hate it because it meant that winter was coming and I wouldn't be warm again until spring.  This is still true, and winter is even worse when you have to corral wiggling bodies into socks and shoes and coats before going outside.  But the children have worn me down or I'm getting older and more tired or maybe more zen about life, but I like the change that fall brings.  Summer has grown stale anyway and it's time for crisp air and cloudy days and tasty fall things, like pumpkin bread.

This Saturday we decided it was time to resume our Azerbaijan promotional posts and so we went up to find some real trees to walk around in and crunch leaves and feel appropriately fall-y.  Because to me, it doesn't feel nearly enough like fall when you're surrounded by concrete.

After breakfast we announced to the children our plans "we're going to go into the mountains and go hiking!"  Nobody said a word, so I continued, "and have a picnic!"  Cheers followed.

So we packed up the car, took off north, drove around in the mountains until we found tall trees to wander around in, which happened to be the Atiagach National Forest.

Joseph was very pleased.

"Look mom!  A triplet tree!"

Before we showed up, the entire forest was dead silent.  No horns honking.  No music.  No perpetual city-sounds.  The silence was deep it was its own sound.  I wonder if I could build a hideaway here?

What you don't see in this shot is Brandon hovering two feet away telling everyone they'd better not fall off the tree because he wasn't going to haul them back down the trail before driving ninety minutes into town to get any broken bones fixed.  We're very safety conscious in our family.

In the end everyone was happy with our hike.  I got out of the city into a green place, Joseph got snacks, all three of the children brought home sticks, and Brandon... got a happy family.  Hooray for fall!