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Monday, March 30, 2015

Hissor Fort

This past weekend was Novruz, or Persian New Year, so Brandon got to enjoy one of the great perks of living overseas - having both American and local holidays off.  On Monday we went with friends to Hissor Fort, one of the main historical sites in Tajikistan.

The entire complex is pretty old (how old, nobody's exactly sure), so there's not much of the actual fort left.  There's been some reconstruction, but pretty much it's a big grassy area on a hill with the suggestion of mud-brick walls that have melted into just mud.  

There is also a museum and an old caravanseri, but we never made it there - this time.  We have two confirmed visitors already, so we'll have at least two more opportunities to visit the museum.  

This time there was just a lot of climbing grassy wall/hills.

Making most of the parents nervous, not wanting to have to climb down the other side of the hill and then climb back up with the injured/crying child followed by trying explain to the med officer why they were letting the child climb high and dangerous hills in a country with questionable medical care.  Sometimes the impersonality of an American ER unit is nice.

But the children, of course, enjoyed the climbing because of the inherent danger.  What fun is childhood without some risks?  And bonus points for making your parents nervous!

Spring is turtle season around here, and we got found by some boys who had a turtle they wanted to sell us.  Joseph didn't understand that holding their turtle every time he was handed the poor thing only made the boys think that we'd actually buy it off them.  Eventually they wandered off to find more receptive parents.

All of the children, minus Eleanor.  She spent the day, as she spends every outing, strapped to my back.  She will have deep childhood memories of always being strapped to someone's back whenever something interesting was happening.

After we'd finished with the fort, we moved to the whole purpose of our visit: Hissor Fried Chicken.  When the weather is nice, Tajiks like to spend as much time outside as possible and every home has a big wooden platform called a tapchan.  Every possible spare moment is spent lounging, sleeping, and eating on the tapchan, which is a habit I could easily pick up.  

The Hissor Fried Chicken restaurant has an assortment of tapchans scattered throughout the complex, which is shaded by large spreading trees and has a stream running through it.  Our tapchan was over the stream, which was nice but also alarming to the parents of children who might think the stream was a good place to swim.

After we'd eaten our salad and bread, the chicken was brought out, stacked five or six high and so fresh from the frying oil that nobody could touch it for several minutes.  Everybody dug in, grabbing a flattened piece and eating themselves into a near-coma of fried tasty goodness.  Even the children stopped trying to jump in the stream to eat themselves silly.  

We all finally had to stop and head home, filled to bursting with sunshine, friendship, and fried chicken.  Who could ask for more?

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Slow-Motion Train Wreck

Life with children is always evolving and changing.  When I had one child I was able to pretty much ignore her all day long while I went about my usual business being a stay-at-home mom.  She would make noise when she got bored and need feeding, but really it wasn't too bad.  Then the second came.  There was a lot of stress involved with keeping the first from maiming or hurting the second, but there were two and so I could manage it.  Three was pretty hard because I had three babies all at once - a three year-old baby, and eighteen month-old baby and a newborn baby.  But still I was able to keep it together.  By the time the youngest started being a real factor in the household life, the two oldest were able to keep each other company.  Everything took longer, but I got used to starting bedtime routines at four in the afternoon.

Four was more work, but Kathleen was pretty independent, and so I was able to juggle everything and still keep the household running by having about sixteen hands.  I didn't have any help, but with two reasonably independent, I only had two to mind, and by that point the baby was the easy one.

Now I have five.  Well, I've actually had five for almost a year now.  Five, just in case you were wondering, is starting to be a lot of children.  Five is an especial lot when they were had over a 7 1/2 year stretch.  That means that not only do I have five, but not one of them is old enough to babysit, cook dinner, or independently clean a kitchen.

Five is enough that I physically cannot take care of every single need that each child has.  Maybe I could, but I think that it would come at the cost of my sanity and precious, necessary personal downtime.  When Eleanor has a poopy diaper and Sophia can't find her reading book and Edwin is hitting Joseph I literally can't take care of all of those things at the same time.  Somebody's got to wait or fix the problem themselves or ask someone else for help.  There are enough independent entities with enough personal problems and interpersonal interactions that at least once and hour there are two simultaneous crises.  Do I fetch Joseph off the top of the box stack or snatch the chocking hazard from Eleanor's slimy baby grasp?  Do I keep the onions from burning or stop Joseph from splashing all of the bath water onto the bathroom floor?  Do I break up a yet another fight or finish the lesson that has already been interrupted ten times?

And so, I cope.  I used to feel like a one-man juggling act, catching every singe ball just before it hit the floor, personally keeping everything in the entire household moving.  I would start dinner, get to a point where it could wait, bathe and dress the children, put the baby to bed, come back and finish dinner before setting the table and calling everyone down.  It was a moral victory because I could get this all done with only one or maybe two children hanging around and the rest would blessedly find somewhere other than the kitchen to make messes amuse themselves.

Now I am turning into a general, issuing orders as we come in from our afternoon walk.  "Kathleen, you bathe with Joseph.  Make sure to put his clothes and towel up when he's done.  Don't forget to dress him!  Sophia, you've got Edwin and Eleanor today.  Edwin can take care of his own things.  After Eleanor is dressed, come down for her bottle.  After she's done, put her to bed.  Don't forget to clean up the dirty clothes!  I'm going to make dinner.  After everyone's done with baths, clean up the toy room.  It has to be done before you eat!  Okay, everyone, go!"  Then they all scatter.

This sounds very good in theory.  I assign tasks out to children, the children complete the tasks cheerfuly, and we all meet together for a delightful evening meal with clean faces, clean pajamas, and a clean toy room.

And this will probably work out as planned in a few years, but not yet.  Because I'm assigning the lead tasks to an eight year-old and a six year-old, who sometimes get distracted or angry with their siblings or can't find the soap or can't keep the five year-old from beating up on the three-year old.  And then some of the orders get forgotten and wet towels line the path from bathroom to bedroom and dirty diapers hide in dark corners of the hallway and forgotten underwear is covered in soap suds from the bath water that inevitably gets splashed despite the daily stern warnings about no splashing.
So dinner, which should be a solitary ritual in a sunny afternoon kitchen, becomes the second day's workout as I dash up and down and up and down and up and down the stairs to put out the latest fire that absolutely needs my help.  I always start with shouting up the stairwell, but it never ends there.  And so dinner, which has been timed to start with just enough time to get it done by six, is never done by six because it always has at least sixteen interruptions that weren't listed in the cooking time on the recipe.  Prep time: 15 minutes.  Cooking time: 40 minutes.  Breaking up fights: 10 minutes.  Finding lost items: 5 minutes.  Making children pick up dirty clothes and towels: 7 minutes.  Making the baby's bottle: 5 minutes.  Staring out the window aimlessly: 2 minutes.

When I was in college I skied.  I'd only going skiing once before I got ski equipment my freshman year in college.  I was reckless and loved going fast and loved to look brave, so I took on challenging slopes that I had no business tackling as a beginner skier.  I still remember hurtling down a too-steep slope at top speed because I didn't have enough skill to carve and slow myself down.  I had enough control to keep my skis pointed downhill and could keep it together as long as I didn't run into a tiny patch of ice or rough spot.  The icy wind would rush past, whipping my braids straight out behind me and I would clench my teeth as the skis chattered back and forth beneath me.  Each run would end in a sigh of relief and dread for the next fast hill.  I was happy to give it up when I married Brandon.

My life some days feels like those runs, barely in control and going much too fast for any sensible control.  I should slow down, take some more time to get things done, but I'm in the middle and it's too late and so we just have to hold on until bedtime and rest before the whole show starts over again.  All days are not the slow-motion train wreck, of course.  Some days we hit the timing just right with enough to get everything down and everyone taken care of and everyone still speaking to each other by the end of the day.  Sometimes there's even a story.  But other days is just one non-stop ride from beginning to end and we're lucky to make it to bedtime with everyone alive.

I've never regretted my decision to have five children or to have them so close together.  Already some things are starting to pay off - I'll never trade watching all of the older children crowd around Eleanor's crib for her goodnight kiss for all of the clean houses in the world.  I have no doubt that I'll remember that in twenty years after all of the dirty towels, dirty diapers, and dirty rooms have faded into insignificant details from a particularly busy part of my life.  I will forget teetering on the edge of control and only remember the days filled with my babies and their cheerful smiles and sunny natures.  That is the magic of memories - you can redact your own life and and only keep the best parts.

And so for now, I hold on and remember that all of life is only temporary - both the bad and the good parts.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Living Off the Fat of the Land

We've been getting a home milk delivery now for over three months.  A week of two into pasteurizing ten liters a week with a boiling water bath convinced me to order a home pasteurizer.  Didn't know those existed?  Neither did I.

Pasteruizing used to mean hauling out my 21-quart pressure canning pot, filling it with water, hefting it on top of my commercial grade hot plate (evidently easy-back flat tops can't handle large pots full of boiling water), cranking in on, waiting several hours, carefully lowering a pot full of milk into the boiling water, balancing one of the pot handles on a wooden spoon (once that didn't work out so well and I lost a whole batch into the boiling water), watching the temperature, setting a timer for those pesky thirty minutes while maintaining the milk at 145 degrees, carefully lifting a very hot pot of milk out of hotter water, putting it into an ice bath in the sink, waiting for it to cool down, and finally straining it (milk skins are nasty) into bottles.

Now I just pour the milk into my two-gallon milk pail straight from the milk lady's 5-litre bottle, put it in the pasteurizer, fill the pasteurizer with hot water, turn it on, and go on my merry way.  About half an hour later it buzzes loud enough that my neighbors know it's milk day.  Then I uncork the outlet hose, hook up the inlet hose to my faucet, and let cold tap water run through until the milk has cooled down.  Then I sit it in the refrigerator until the next day before pouring the milk into bottles.

I used to skip the refrigeration and pour the milk straight into bottles.  Then I could re-use the pail for the next batch of milk and get it all done before lunch.  Then one day I ran out of cream.  Everyone has staple ingredients they keep in their kitchen, those things that get used so constantly you don't even write them down on the grocery list anymore.  I always have several pounds of butter in the freezer, a couple of containers of sour cream in the refrigerator door, and a box of cream.  Because, milk fat.  You just can't turn out a decent meal without it.

The day I ran out of cream was a friend's birthday.  I had searched through my cookbooks for recipes that 1. didn't need frosting (that means waiting for the cake to cool down) 2. could be made in two hours or less (birthday cakes aren't nearly as nice the day after your birthday), and 3. used ingredients already in the house.  I had enough time to make a cake, but not enough make a cake and run to the store for ingredients.

I settled for an apple-walnut tart and got to work.  Halfway through the crust and a quarter of the way through the filling, I reached for cream that went into both.  It wasn't there.  At this point I was already committed.  Maybe I could just substitute milk?  We did have whole milk after all.  Close enough?  I pulled out one of my recently-pasteurized bottles of milk and noticed the usual half inch of cream floating on the surface.  So I started skimming and pretty quickly collected more than the half cup I needed for my recipe.  I felt very clever and finished the tart before my friend's birthday was over.

The next week, instead of pouring the newly pasteurized milk into bottles, I let it sit overnight in the refrigerator.  In the morning I pulled off the top, ladle in hand, ready to skim.  Within a few minutes I had over two cups of cream.  Who knew there was so much cream in two gallons of milk?

I collected more cream from the next batch of milk and pretty soon I had two Mason jars sitting in the refrigerator, just waiting for me to do whatever I wanted with it.  And the best part was that it was free - I had already paid for the milk, which was already cheaper than any other milk I can buy in Dushanbe.  With the value of the cream added in, I was getting two dollars' worth of cream and milk for just sixty-seven cents, delivered.

Now that I had a weekly delivery of half a gallon of cream I had to figure out what to do with that cream.  First I made yogurt and added half a cup of cream to the quart I was making.  I really like the yogurt here, which is labeled by the milk fat percentage.  Unfortunately the higher the milk fat content, the more expensive the yogurt.  But now I had a constantly replenishing supply of cream.  No more low fat yogurt for me!

Then I made sour cream.  Why not, when you have cream just sitting around, waiting to be used before it goes bad?  Next was tomato cream soup.  I felt very homemaker-y when I used a jar of home-canned tomatoes with my home-pasteurized cream.  Then came crepes for Saturday morning breakfast - with whipped cream, of course.

The week before I went to my brother's wedding was busy so the cream just piled up in the refrigerator unused.  I knew that Brandon wouldn't be up to making yogurt and sour cream while trying to keep the children fed and his job done, so I had to do something with all of the cream sitting in my refrigerator.

So I made butter.  I cultured the butter (with my home-cultured buttermilk, of course) the night before and after the children were in bed I pulled out my Bosch.  I had read various methods for making butter online, and decided to stick with the simplest - pour cream into mixer, turn it on, and wait until butter magically appeared.  I had read that the fat content would affect the butter, and some people complained about light cream never turning into butter.  I had been greedy skimming my cream and occasionally got a little milk into the ladle along with the cream.  Would this be a problem?  There was only one way to find out.  If it didn't happen, that was a lot of slightly sour cream to pour down the drain.

So, nervous and excited about my newest adventure in food production, I poured in the cream, plugged in the mixer, and turned it on.  After thirty seconds, nothing had happened.  Would it work?  It didn't even look like whipped cream.  I turned the mixer back on for another thirty seconds.  Still nothing.  I turned it on and forced myself to clean up the kitchen from all of the other projects I had been working on.  I puttered around, putting things back in their places.  While I was in my storage room putting away canning jars, the sound of the mixer changed.  I rushed back in and turned it off.  And there, clinging to the whips in glistening golden lumps, was butter.  My very own homemade butter, made from the cream that I had skimmed from the milk I had pasteurized.  I did a little dance around the kitchen and told the air that I was awesome.  Never mind that butter is made by people all around the world every single day.  Never mind that butter has been made for millennia.  This was the first time I made butter.  From cream I skimmed myself.  I've been making bread for years and started making cheese a few months ago.  And now I've made butter.

I think I've probably reached the arc of homemaking extremism that is really possible while living in a foreign country in government leased housing.  We talked about getting a goat before being assigned a house with about six square feet of grass, but I think home dairying is going to have to wait for an African post.  But until then, I've got yogurt and buttermilk and sour cream and ice cream and butter.  Hello, milk fat.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Adventure Saturday

I've never thought of myself as crazy until I married Brandon and moved to Tajikistan.  Every Saturday I cook up another scheme to go out and have an adventure.  And every time, despite all of my careful planning, there's always one point where Brandon swears that we can't be friends ever again.  

Last Saturday was no different.  We decided to head south where the drive took us through fields of fruit trees that were, unfortunately, not bloom yet.  I had scoured satellite maps of the area for likely hiking site - canyons that were steep enough to have trees on the sides - and found a good candidate.  It looked pretty straightforward from the map.  Unfortunately, the map wasn't very good at showing elevation.

Or streams to ford.  We bought a four-wheel drive vehicle for a reason, so we made it through the village to where the "road" petered out, parked the car and started walking.  That's pretty much the recipe for finding a hike here - point your car at the mountains, drive until the road gives out, get out, and start hiking.

The country is covered in sheep trails, so just follow the sheep trails and the water and you won't go wrong.

The day was a stunningly beautiful early spring day - sunny and crisp with vividly green grass carpeting the hillsides.

We crossed streams,

looked rugged,

picked flowers,

and of course, at snacks.  And then threw rocks into the stream after eating snacks.

I was clever this time and brought our backpacking chairs and so after snacks Brandon and I luxuriously lounged in the clear spring sunshine while the children threw rocks, messed in the mud, and enjoyed doing whatever children do when they're left to themselves.  Kathleen and Sophia collected various rocks and sticks to take home with them and use in their dollhouse.

One day Edwin's going to love re-creating that face for a picture redo.

"Mommy, take a picture of me!!!"

Eleanor approves of this hike.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Non-Stop Party

My youngest brother got married last week in Utah last week.  When Brandon and I started living overseas we decided that marriages would be attended by the blood relative and the other spouse would stay home and watch the children.  Since our own wedding Brandon has had two siblings marry, but both managed to get it done while we were in the States.

When my brother got engaged to his lovely wife this summer, I immediately wondered when the wedding would happen.  Of course it would be easier if they married while we were still in the US, but it would be a lot of fun if they waited and I got a solo vacation out of the deal.  Everyone agreed that a November wedding would be a bit quick so pretty soon after we settled in here, I booked a complicated series of plane tickets to get myself literally halfway across the world and to the wedding.

I managed the whole trip in a carry-on suitcase and my purse, so I enjoyed the complete opposite experience from our move to Dushanbe - one person with one carryon instead of seven people with two carry-ons, a stroller, six backpacks, a porta crib, and ten suitcases.  I sailed through security lines, took sleeping pills with wild abandon, and enjoyed eating every single meal uninterrupted.  Even waking up in LA in my hotel after only three hours of sleep wasn't too bad when I was the only one awake.  And eating a plateful of pork sausages for breakfast while reading a book soothed my jet-lag.

I arrived in Utah on Tuesday but the wedding wasn't until Friday so my mother, who had also left her husband in a foreign country, and I had a great time hanging out and soaking in all of the wonderful goodness that America has to offer.  We went out to lunch with an old friend and reveled in things like avocados (me) and vegetables other than potatoes (my mother).  We went to Wal-Mart and my mother, who doesn't have shipping privileges, filled up her empty second suitcase with goodies.  I had lunch at a delicious French bistro with my aunt and then we went to a second for dessert.  In one day I had brunch with all of my siblings and their spouses and significant others, met friends from a study abroad for lunch, and then had dinner with all the family that had come for the wedding.  I felt like a child, being told where to sleep, when to eat, and when to be in the car for the next round of fun.  It was fantastic.

Friday was sunny and warm, the best kind of day for a wedding in early March, and Mike and Adrienne's ceremony was lovely.  There was a lot of crying and even more hugging.  Mike and Adrienne were, of course, absolutely thrilled and I'm pretty sure that their cheeks were sore that night from smiling non-stop the entire day.

I was sad to get on the plane the next afternoon in LA (after an extended layover to spend time with a former roommate) and leave such good times behind.  I am very happy in my own little world filled with the six most important people in my life.  I don't get lonely and rarely have time to miss everyone I've left behind.  My life is full.  

But then I spend a week with my close family and extended family and friends and realize that my life is even more full with them in it.  There are so many people to love, so many that I care for and could spend every day with and never get tired.  I was the last child in my own family to get married and so didn't get to party with everyone non-stop like this time.  Weddings (especially when nobody's brought their children) are one of the most fun times ever.  It's too bad that they don't happen more often - I only have one unmarried brother left.  

Now I am back in real life filled with the ones I love and care for and my week of partying is a cherished memory.  Mike and Adrienne are married and real life is starting for them.  I know that we can't all take a permanent break from real life forever, but it was fantastic while it lasted.  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Adventure Saturday

Just in case you haven't noticed, we hike a lot.  There's really not much in Dushanbe for a family with five young children once you've gone to the one park, visited the one indoor playground, and well, nothing else.  I've heard that the national history museum isn't too bad so we're saving that for a rainy day.  But after you've gone through that very small handful, then it's time to get out of the city.

Luckily there's a nearly endless supply of places to hike.  When ninety-two percent of the country is mountainous that makes for a lot of hikes.

The children aren't exactly thrilled with hiking, but they are becoming resigned.  Brandon and I made the mistake of once thinking out loud about hiring some donkeys from whatever local villager isn't using theirs and now the girls have fixated on the idea of donkey-hiking.

Every time we pass a donkey they make sure, loudly, that we know that there's yet another donkey that looks like a very likely riding animal.  Brandon tries to ignore them.

Last Saturday we hiked up the gorge behind a small town, Varzob that is about twenty minutes outside Dushanbe.  We never made it even close to the top - the range of a three year old is dishearteningly short - but enjoyed the lovely scenery and sunny day.

And rock throwing.  Always rock throwing.  It's really not a hike unless you have snacks and throw rocks into whatever body of water you're hiking along.  There is something deeply satisfying about the sound large rocks make as they splash into swiftly running water.  It's very meditative.

One day when the children are grown up and hopefully become closer to normal, they'll tell their children and friends and spouses about their crazy mother who made them hike every single Saturday for the entire time they lived in Tajikistan.  Then they'll claim I've turned them off hiking for the rest of their lives.

But until that day when they've left my house and starting running their own schedules, we're hiking.  Maybe some of them will come to enjoy it, probably some of them never will, but in the end I don't really care.  I'll enjoy the hikes and they can enjoy the snacks.  Everyone can be happy.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

So Long, America!

I'm sitting in the LAX international terminal, waiting for my second flight of the day to board and send me back over the Atlantic and back to Dushanbe.  I've had a great time partying for the last several days and now it's time to return to real life.

I'm enjoying the last few minutes of understanding airport announcements and casual conversation.  I filled up my water bottle from the drinking fountain and am enjoying free internet while I wait.

It's been a brief interlude from being a stranger in a strange land.  One day I was in Central Asia and the next I was back in the motherland eating salad for lunch and picking up a few necessities from Wal-Mart.  Usually my trips back to America are treks that require weeks of planning and logistics, but this time I didn't even pack until the day before - and I only packed a carry-on.

I first travel to Frankfurt, then to Istanbul and finally to Dushanbe.  Each stop I am further from my culture and my people and closer to my home.  I often worry how I will be able to return to a land where things don't work and I can't communicate with a passing stranger.  Will I miss being a place will I belong?  Will the irritations be more noticeable after a break?

But traveling for three days can soften anyone up and by the time I get back I'm happy to be anywhere that isn't an airplane or airport.  Traveling is a never-never land outside of space and time, a place where you wait until you're allowed to reach your destination, a neutral place that belongs to all countries and no countries at once.

My flight is boarding and so it is time to go.  Goodbye, America.  See you later.