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Sunday, February 9, 2014

On Being Back in the Land of My Nativity

A few days ago I climbed into my minivan (automatic sliding doors!) and pulled out onto highway 60 in southern Missouri.  I drove for a few minutes before passing a sign that stated the speed limit.  I looked down and realized that I had been driving ten miles an hour under the limit and not one car had come up behind me and flashed their lights, honked their horn, or passed me on the shoulder or the double yellow lines.  In fact, not a single car had even come up behind me the whole time I was driving too slow.  That didn't stop me, however, from checking my mirrors every five seconds.

Twelve miles and ten minutes later I pulled into the Wal-Mart parking lot.  I cruised past at least fifty open spots before choosing one a reasonable distance from the entrance.  After putting the car in park, I got out and opened my door all of the way and eased my pregnant self out of the car.  The door didn't even come close to the car parked in the next space.

I sauntered through the parking lot, keeping a sharp eye out for the no cars that crowded the lanes, not trying to run me over.  I fetched my cart from the corral holding at least fifty and cruised up and down the aisles, picking up various toiletries, looking at cell phones, and picking up some milk and cheese before beeping my purchases through self check-out line.  I think I saw maybe fifteen people the entire time I was there.

It is so good to be back in the US.

I used to be somewhat unnerved by not feeling some sense of global disconnect whenever I flew halfway across the world.  It was like being in two different worlds and I just changed in a twenty-four hour period - shouldn't I feel strange?  But I've gotten used to simply switching from non-American brain to American brain without much thinking about it.  When we were in the Chicago airport I pointed out to Sophia that it was so amazing to have everyone around us speaking English.  She turned to me, confused, "Why are they speaking English?  Aren't we in Germany?"  When I told her that Chicago is in America and Frankfurt in Germany, she laughed, "I just get them confused sometimes."

There are things I really enjoy about living overseas and I'm certainly committed to living this lifestyle long-term, but I am happy to be back in the bosom of America, if only for the next nine months.  I have already started a to-do list for when we pull into Falls Church and on the top three items are Target, Costco, and the local library.  I'm looking forward to spending time with family and going to parks and historical monuments and swimming at the pool and chatting with check-out clerks and standing in lines and did I mention Target?

I know that by the time November rolls around I'll be ready to move out of three bedrooms and onto our next overseas adventure.  The parks and pools and library and maybe even Target (maybe not) will have lost their charm and I'll be happy to get on another plane.  But for now, I'm happy to be back.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Chicago is Always Nice in January

So far in our Foreign service career we've been pretty lucky in our travels.  I have a friend with five children with the most amazing barfing stories who has set a new standard for bad travel - no matter how long and tiring and irritating travel is, it's not truly bad until someone vomits.  So considering the number of children we have and the amount of time we spent traveling, I consider myself pretty lucky to only ever have one incidence of vomiting - and my mom got to clean that one up.

We've also had remarkable luck with delays.  A few summers ago we got stuck in the Chicago airport for nine hours, but that's been about it.  Like I said, very lucky.

And so, of course, that means that every now and then you don't get lucky.

Our day started pretty early last Friday when the alarm went off at 2:30.  I had grand plans the night before that involved unconsciousness by nine o'clock, but of course those didn't pan out.  They never do.  It doesn't matter how much planning you've put into packing suitcases, cleaning out the refrigerator, making lists, gathering clothing, and all of the other assorted 329 tasks that are necessary to prepare for international moves by airplane, something always comes up that you didn't expect.  So instead of nine, our bedtime was closer to eleven than I would have liked.

Thankfully our ride to the airport showed up promptly at three because Brandon had turned both of our phones into the embassy and our house phone had been disconnected for the majority or our tour.  I had visions of frantically knocking on neighbors' doors asking to use their phone to find out where in the heck our driver was.  You don't want to miss your flight in Baku because it may be another few days before the next one comes.

We got to the airport with enough time to check in and discover that half of the family had tickets to Chicago and the other half had tickets to Missouri.  Since none of us intended to visit Chicago in January, especially without the other half of our family, some frantic clickety-clackety was in order by the nice Lufthansa agent.  Luckily we were late enough that nobody else was waiting impatiently behind us.

The tickets supposedly worked out (you'll have to get your boarding passes printed in Chicago, he told us apologetically), we made it through security and passport control just in time for boarding.  I don't like the stress of cutting timing close, but I don't mind having to wait an hour for boarding either.  But despite the airport TV system's claims that the plane was boarding, nobody was moving a muscle when we showed up at our gate.  And nobody moved for another hour and a half.

Evidently one of the engines had decided it was a nice day for electrical failure and so our plane, which was supposed to take off at 5:10 left Baku at 6:40 instead.  Thankfully we had originally had a three-hour layover in Frankfurt and cutting it in half left us just enough time to deplane onto a bus, be driven around the entire airport before unloading in the basement so we could walk the fifty miles to the train and hundred miles to our gate - the very last gate at the very end of the airport.  When we got on the plane for our nine-hour flight I sighed in relief.  We had made the two longest legs and just had one hour-long leg left.

Each time I fly with the children the trip gets easier and this time was no exception.  Brandon drew the short straw (I have to use the pregnancy card when I've got it) and so Edwin and Sophia kept me company for the flight.  I don't know how anyone flew internationally before personal video screens.  Both children spent all of the flight watching Planes, Despicable Me 2, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, (I still can't make sense of that movie), and various other cartoons before they fell asleep.  Everyone ate their own lunch, kept themselves occupied, and let me finish a book, eat my lunch, take a nap, watch a movie, and start another book (I love my Kindle).  Mothers of young children, take heart.  One day you too will be able to read a book at the same time you're flying with two children.

We landed in Chicago with no trouble (I was shocked to look out the window and see all of the world coated in white) and made it through passport control and customs without anyone stopping us.  We had another three-hour layover and so we were doing well and just had to put our bags back into the system and clear security before going to the very end of the airport for our last leg, having been up for almost twenty-four hours by that point.

I was ahead of Brandon with my fully-loaded luggage cart and encountered a helpful United employee with a scanner.  She scanned a bag, made a face, and announced "your flight is cancelled."  

And that's how we ended up spending the night in Chicago O'Hare Embassy Suites (can we stay there because Daddy's a diplomat?  Kathleen wanted to know) instead of at Grammy and Grandpa's house.  Despite having clear weather, the wind was too strong for our little 21-seat puddle jumper plane and we had to wait for the next day to finish our travels.  Thankfully we were able to rummage through our bags and pull out clothes and pajamas before checking in all three of the carseats and four of the five suitcases we had schlepped halfway across the world.

After a bath and pizza (I don't know how many times Papa John's has fed us on these jaunts) everyone including Brandon and I were asleep by seven.  Which was good because Joseph decided that midnight was a good time to wake up and bother his brother and everyone else (except Edwin) was wide awake by 4:30.  Thank heaven for cartoons.

Everyone was happy for the generous breakfast buffet before packing up and heading back to the airport for our last, uneventful leg.  We showed up a day late and several dollars poorer, but with no harm and with all of our bags.  And no vomit.  So I'm not complaining.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Top and Bottom Ten of our House

I like our house.  I really do.  Especially for being a house in a foreign country.  There was a discussion on Facebook a few days ago where someone wondered if all foreign houses are strange, and everyone assured the newbie that yes, all of them are strange.  But ours really is quite good.  Since I never, in the whole two years we've been here, took pictures of the whole thing, I'll give you a makeup tour of the best and worst things about our house in Baku.

The heated floors.  Before moving into our house, I had heard vague rumors that in some countries people heated their floors but I never believed them.  Guess what?  You can heat your tile floors.  There's nothing that warms you faster than standing around on toasty-warm floors.  This is something I firmly plan to put in my dream house that Brandon and I will build when we've gotten rich doing this diplomat thing.

See that bathtub?  It's looks nice and comfortable for soaking in.  It even had LED lights that change color.  But what it doesn't have is any kind of shower.  Which is unfortunate because that bathtub is in the master bathroom and I happen to take a lot more showers than soaking baths.  So Brandon and I shower one floor up in the bathroom next to the toy room.  Which is better than showering in the children's bathrooms because they're all in their rooms and that doesn't work so well when people are asleep.

The radiators.  It's nice having the ability to climate control each room separately because different parts of the house stay warmer or cooler.  And ours are super-special and have blowers on them.  So you don't have the heat just hanging around certain parts of the room.  If you're cold, you can turn the blowers on high and everything heats up pretty quickly, and they have (sort of) thermostats that will turn the fan on and off automatically.

The coolerators.  If you think this picture looks just like the one above, you're right.  Because in the summer the radiators are switched from hot water to cold and act like air conditioners.  Except for some reason the kind of thermostats don't work so you have two options: on or off.  And you have to turn them on if it gets hot and off when the room gets too cold because they'll just stay in whatever mode you put them in until you change it.  This leads to uncomfortable nights: either too hot or too cold.  Not going to miss that feature.

Ahh, my closet.  I will always miss my closet because I know I'll never have one like it again, especially while living overseas.  While we're discussing closets, let me show you the three other closets we have.  If you think I'm being strange for writing about closets, you've never lived overseas.  It's as if Americans were the only people on the whole planet to realize their utility.  Everyone else thinks that wardrobes are just as useful.  They're not.

This is a picture of the wall that adjoins our garage.  Do you notice something missing?  Look again.  That's right - there's no door into the garage.  It took us about three days when we moved in to confirm that yes, there's no door between the garage and the house.  So when the heaters are out (which happens twice a day in the winter), you have to open the garage door and leave the house to fix it.  Which is why I'm freezing my bum off today because Brandon took the car and there's only one garage door opener.  And I didn't even realize that Brandon took the car until all of the children were ready to go on errands and I couldn't find the keys.  Even then I couldn't know for sure until I had talked to Brandon because I had no way to open the garage and check.  I'm not going to discuss the dimensions of the garage because the car's gone and I have no way to take pictures.

The windows.  Notice there aren't any bars?  I'm pretty sure we're never going to see that again.  Benefits of living in a gated community.  You can see the whole view out of your window.  And they're such large, lovely windows to let plenty of sunshine in when Baku feels like having some of that sunshine.

Ahh, the easy-bake kitchen.  I've almost forgotten what it's like to fit four pots onto the stove at the same time.  Do those type of stoves actually exist?  We had to order a new pizza pan when we came as our normal-sized ones were about two inches too big for the oven.  Even the dishwasher is 3/4 sized.  Thank heaven we were issued a regular-sized refrigerator.

The oven.  Okay, it's small, but it has options.  Not just on or off, but you can choose to heat with just the top, just the bottom, convection (which is good since six loaves of bread are never going to fit on one rack), just the fan (for defrosting), small broiler, and large broiler.  Sure, the temperature is in Celsius (and I just realized last month that my phone will convert) and the timer is not user-friendly, but I'm going to miss all of those options.

Wall-to-wall carpeting.  I have mixed feelings about this one.  It's nice to have the whole toy room carpeted, but that's also more carpet to get nasty when the children play.  And the edges can never get quite clean.  On the other hand, it's a lot warmer when Joseph decides to sleep on the floor instead of his mattress every single night.

Our third-floor toy room.  We've never lived in a house with a dedicated toy room, and this one has been wonderful.  Not only are all of the toys in one room, but that room has a door and it's on the third floor.  Guests coming over and the children haven't cleaned up?  Not a problem - nobody's going to climb all of the way to the top our our house just to see our dirty toy room.  I'm going to miss it so much that I plan on turning one of our three bedrooms in Oakwood into a dedicated toy room.  After all, the children just sleep in their bedroom anyway, right?

One of the fun things about moving around and living in all sorts of of houses is you can make plans for that very far-off day when you actually own a house of your own.  This one has given me some good ideas and I'm pretty sure I'll miss it when we're all crammed into a three-bedroom apartment later this month.