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Friday, June 26, 2015

Living at a hardship post

Dushanbe is at 30% hardship differential post.  In the Foreign Service, some posts are declared 'hardship' (think most places outside Western Europe) and then given a percentage of how 'hardship' the post is.  Theoretically, the higher the percentage, the harder the post, although there is always a lot of room for debate over which hardship is harder - high crime vs. lack of medical care vs. difficulty of travel - and I'm glad that I am not tasked with assigning those numbers.

Our two previous posts - Baku and Cairo - were also hardship posts, twenty and ten percent, respectively.  There are very few accompanied posts that are higher than thirty percent, so we're probably going to stop chasing a higher differential after Tajikistan.  Of the six years we've been employed with State, we've spent the last four and a half in hardship posts, almost as long as I spent in college, and are firmly committed to three more years at a hardship post.

And so, my life for the foreseeable future is living in places that are definitely not America.  They're not even Europe, even Eastern Europe.  And I'm fine with that.  

Everyone has different things they're looking for in a place they live.  When I was assigned housing the first day of my study abroad in Vienna, I was crestfallen with my assignment to a house in the suburbs.  I had spent my whole life in the suburbs and wanted to be where the action was, living in the city where everything was close at hand.  I wanted that so desperately that I convinced another girl, one who didn't care so much about city life, to switch with me.  This would be the only chance I had to live it up the city life before I retired to a middle class existence in the suburbs.  

Now that I have five children and have spent much more time living in the city than I ever thought would be my lot in life, I have long, fanciful, wistful dreams of that house in the suburbs surrounded by a lush green lawn and lots of parking for my minivan.  But that's because I have five kids and my taste for outside entertainment has waned.  It's hard to get excited about opera and ballet when all you want to do in the evening is spend some time with your spouse and sleep.  I still enjoy opera and ballet, but they aren't a crucial part of my happiness anymore.  Maybe I've grown dull or lost my taste for the fine things in life or realized that happiness is a simpler affair than it used to be, but whatever it is, that's how I am these days.

And so living in places like Vienna or London or Paris have no appeal for me.  I spend most of my day, no matter where I live, taking care of my family.  When school is finished, nobody in my family wants to go visit a museum, they want to go to the park or the pool.  And all of the delicious French food in the world still can't balance out the days we would spend together, cramped in a shoe box apartment (furnished at our own expense with Ikea), cleaning it ourselves after we finished spending all morning in the same room having too much closeness for anyone's own good.

I like having my very own courtyard to park my big, black SUV that I can drive wherever I want and park wherever I want (did I ever tell you how easy it is to park here?  It's almost as good as real live parking lots).  I love unloading my groceries and just walking them into the house.  I adore telling my children to get in the car, and they just walk out the door and get in the car.  We can be as loud as we like because nobody's above or below or beside to hear the ruckus.  We have enough space that everyone can be in a separate room with one to spare if they get bored.  Our school room has enough space for two room-sized rugs, a treadmill, a TV area (with another rug, couch and chairs), two kitchen tables, and enough extra space for Joseph to drive his Little Tykes cars in laps around the whole thing.  And that's just one floor of our house.

Sure, the house has styrofoam molding and conduits running across all of the walls and no screens in the windows (and they have very very large hornets here) and bars in front of the windows, but after a few weeks those things fade into the background.  The driving has its own strange logic, and you hardly notice the crumbling infastructure or broken pipes sticking out of sidewalks.  Because life, for me, is the same no matter where I live - I feed people, school people, keep the house clean, and break up fights.  So why do it in a shoebox in London when Brandon can earn 40% more for doing it in Dushanbe?  I have made my peace with living in places where nothing is ever quite square and nobody can cure concrete properly ever.


Every now and then a friend posts pictures of their vacation to somewhere that has things like green grass, butter smooth pavement, and order.  And then I remember that there are places in the world where central air conditioning exists and generators aren't necessary and molding is made out of wood.  Then the longing comes back.  I want to be in a place like that, where everything works like it's supposed to, and public spaces are well cared for and neighborhoods exists with trees and lawns and sidewalks.  I want a house with floors that are level and all of the light switches turn a light on or off and the toilet seat stays on for years without any fiddling.  I want to be somewhere that works.  

I talk myself back from that dangerous place, the one where order is all around me with no crooked curbs and holey sidewalks, the place that has to wait patiently for decades until I can come to it.  I am a child of America and I will never stop yearning for order and beauty.  But, as in everything in life, choices have to be made and I've made mine.  And so I stuff that longing back into the corner of my mind where it hides, waiting to catch me unsuspecting, and go back to my life of crooked lights, rusting playgrounds, and lawless driving.  It's okay, it's okay.  Life is not about where you live, it's about how you live, and who you live it with.  All of these things are props to the play, just passing backgrounds.  You have your family.  You have your health.  You have plenty of food and a comfortable family.  You are rich.  

But still, I miss it those green lawns and beautiful parks and order.  It's okay, though.  Because one day, I'll go back and it will be for good.  I won't ever leave and eventually the thought of a place where sidewalks happen only occasionally will seem like a distant memory.  I will have a house that always stays the same temperature and the doors all shut perfectly every time.  Lane markers will be ubiquitous and all roads will be wide enough for two cars to pass each other without even coming close.  Order will be so normal I won't even notice it.  One day.  Whenever that day will be.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Strangers No More

Last Saturday night Brandon and I took a trip to the grocery store.  We had to pick up a few things for dinner the next day, along with staples like dried fruit, nuts, sweetened condensed milk and butter.  I never know when I'm going to the store next, so whenever I go I pick up at least four or five frozen saran wrapped logs of butter.  Because you never want to run out of butter.  I could probably get along without flour or eggs or maybe even milk, but butter is an essential.

While cruising the aisled of Poitacht at eight o'clock on a Saturday night, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" came on the tinny grocery store speakers.  I don't know why foreign grocery stores love American music, but it's been ubiquitous in every country we've lived in.  One grocery store in Cairo was having sound system problems and so every song was sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks.  I almost lost it when the Macarena came on.

Brandon and I danced past the soap and deodorant and continued to the spice aisle.  As we exclaimed over the Iranian dates - the best dates I've ever had are from Iran - a man came up to us.  "Excuse me," he asked in an American accent that matched his boots, hiking shirt, and backpack, "you look like you know what you're doing.  Do you know where the salt is?"

We showed him the salt and then fell into conversation.  Tajikistan is such a small, out-of-the way country that stumbling across another American is always fascinating.  Last Saturday we were driving back from a hike and saw a man on a bicycle loaded with panniers, wearing a Smith t-shirt.  He was so American, I wanted to stop and ask him how many countries he's been through in his cycling through Central Asia journey.  Because who else does such a crazy thing?  Once when Brandon and I were out shopping I saw several college-age girls dressed as locals enjoying ice cream cones, but just as American as me.  What are you doing here, I wanted to ask.  Because who comes to Tajikistan?

So we chatted with our fellow American and after awhile it was past nine o'clock and the store was looking like it might want to close.  After we parted ways, I sent Brandon chasing after our new friend to invite him for dinner.  He was traveling alone and trying to cook food in a practically unfurnished apartment, so I thought he might enjoyed something other than salt-less soba noodles for the next three days.  He accepted and I went home wondering what had possessed me to invite a complete stranger - one who had never been married and never had children - over to enjoy a family dinner with all five of our children.  Culture shock in Tajikistan is nothing compared to culture shock at our house.

When we got home, I realized we didn't even know his name.

Brandon and I figured it was a fifty-fifty chance that he would show up - after all who goes to dinner at the house of a random stranger that you met the night before in the spice aisle - but at 3:15, he was at our gate and ready for dinner.  We had warned the children that our dinner guest - by this time we had looked at his website and found out his name - wasn't here to watch the antics children and listen to an endless list of impossible what if questions.  Everyone sat (mostly) quietly at the table and excused themselves to play while the adults talked.

Martin had traveled to over 150 countries, so we swapped stories about traveling and driving and eating in foreign countries.  He told us of spending several days in a Georgian hospital after being beaten badly.  We told him about being evacuated from Cairo during the Arab spring.  He talked about spending four years in India growing up and how his family had never been the family anyone would have wanted.  We talked about religion and eternity.  He talked about a Great Spirit, or God, or Someone or Something that filled the world.  We both talked about existence and what we're doing here and what we can do to make our piece of the world better and more beautiful.  He watched the children play and wrestle and chase each other around the room as we tried to get them to be quiet.  We finished dinner, cleared the table, ate dessert, and sat.  Finally around nine, we said goodbye.

We exchanged contact information, and promised to help if anything was ever needed, and then returned to our normal lives.

If we had passed each other in the spice aisle of Safeway in Falls Church, nobody would have ever said a word to each other.  America is filled with Americans and nobody ever looks twice at each other, or if they do, it's surreptitiously.  We all go about our lives and our business encased in the bubble of our own existence and only let people in under the right circumstances.  Because there are so many to choose from, we have to be choosy.

But in Tajikistan, all Americans are like extended family.  We smile at each other on the street, make friends at parties, and reminisce about the things we miss most - Krispy Kreme doughnuts or large parking lots or neighborhoods with lawns and trees.  Because we are adrift in a sea of people so unlike ourselves, we cling to any accent that reminds us of home and familiarity.  It doesn't matter if we aren't the same religion or political affiliation or race or class.  We're American and so we already have more in common than with 99 out of 100 faces we pass on the street here.

And so, when we come across someone who is far from home and without family, we take him in to ours.  I don't know if we'll ever meet with Martin again, at least in this life, but he will always be part of our story.  One Sunday in late spring we will have always shared sushi and soba noodle soup, mulberry cobbler and ice cream, six hours of food and friendship and pondering on the universe.  And we will have one more person gathered into our thoughts and hearts, all because of the spice aisle on a summer Saturday evening.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Brandon Week

This week we got to celebrate Brandon's birthday and Father's Day.  I'm never quite sure how Brandon feels about back to back celebrations, but I'd be miffed about not getting to spread the joy over a little more time.  Being Brandon, however, he doesn't mind.

Brandon, of course, had to work on his birthday.  Every year I pester him about taking his birthday off and every year he replies that real adults still have responsibilities even if it's their birthday.  I'm just fine with not being a real adult on my birthday and always try to shuck as many responsibilities as possible.  But I am morally inferior to Brandon.  So.

The children and I started his morning off with a surprise tasty breakfast, overnight baked french toast with raspberries and whipped cream.  The girls had secretly made signs, cards, and a crown for him.  That afternoon I left with children with Zarifa and surprised Brandon with lunch.  We had a great time and I returned him to the embassy within the 90 minute time allotted to us by his boss.

I had planned a tasty birthday dinner - pad thai and spring rolls with raspberry pavlovas - but it had to be postponed due to a last-minute command performance at a reception.  So instead the children and came to the embassy for swimming and had dinner al fresco next to the pool.

For Brandon's birthday Saturday we had a picnic.  We hiked to a nice spot next to a small river and laid out our blanket under the sycamore trees.  After eating, Brandon and I relaxed while the children waded in the river. Several got soaked, as they always do, but everyone dried out in the end.

Father's Day was low-key, at Brandon's request.  He slept in this morning while I fried up doughnuts and Edwin scrambled eggs for breakfast.  We had chicken pot pie, made on Friday, for dinner.  This year I didn't even attempt to buy presents; Brandon has never cared much about things, so I didn't waste our money on something he really wouldn't care about.  We all just enjoyed each other's company and enjoyed a quiet Sunday.  Well, quiet until the end when Joseph decided to throw up a few times just for fun (mild concussion?  Food poisoning?).

The way I feel about Brandon is not something that I can adequately put into words.  I'm not skilled enough to express what I feel and anything less would only come across as trite.  But just in case the internet, or future posterity, is wondering, I'm pretty fond of him.  He treats me much better than I deserve (well, on my bad days) and loves his children more than they'll understand until they get to have children of their own.  None of us have any doubt about his priorities - if he could get paid to spend all day with us, he would.  He goes to work every day so that we can have a nice house to live in, plenty of food to eat, and time to sit by the pool while he watches from an office, working while we play.  He gives up the last piece of cake, his private time, and his choice in movies just so the rest of us can have what we want.  He stays up late listening to me talking about nothing, and reads the children a story every night, some nights before he even gets his own dinner.  We all know that we are the most important things in his world.  And he is the most important in ours.  We love you, Brandon.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Perfect Family Trip

I am deep in the throes of planning for our R&R this summer.   I love planning just about as much as Brandon hates it, so this is one of my favorite times of year.  The second we start to kick around ideas about trips I can hardly finish what I'm doing before I bury myself in website after website of seemingly infinite possibilities, all wonderfully fun and terribly exciting and something different than my everyday life.

This year Brandon's brother is getting married and so instead of visiting his family in Missouri, we're all meeting up in Utah to party and celebrate a new member of the family voluntarily joining the madness.  Usually we spend all three weeks of our R&R playing nomad as we try and squeeze in as much family is possible, but this year we actually have some extra time on our hands.  Theoretically we could just come home earlier, but spending anything less than three weeks in the U.S. is just too soon to face jet lag again.

So Brandon and I decided to have a little family trip - just the seven of us.  Of course that's pretty much every single day of our life, just the seven of us cozying up to each other and basking in the mutual pleasure of our company, but we decided to take the show on the road and do that somewhere different.  Somewhere where we could pay money to enjoy each other's company for days on end.

My first idea was to take everyone down to Zions National Park in Southern Utah.  Because, if I haven't told you yet, I like hiking.  And Zions is a pretty beautiful place to hike.  I looked at cabins and resorts and hotels and finally landed on a camp/resort on the edge of the national park.  It looked perfect.  There was a pool and a communal campfires and horseback riding and breakfast was included.  What else is needed for a family vacation?

When I brought the idea to Brandon for approval, he pointed out one problem: the children hate hiking.  Why would we spend a lot of money and drive hours to go somewhere that was just more of what we do every Saturday in Tajikistan?  I feebly tried to point out that it was hiking somewhere different and there would be marshmallow roasting before I gave in and realized that maybe I was confusing wishing with reality.

I moved onto the next idea.  What about a cabin on a lake?  It would be great.  We could be all alone (because we really don't get much of that) and out in the woods and there'd be water.  Who doesn't like a house by the water?  Brandon agreed that a cabin would be wonderfully scenic, but not much other than scenic.  Any lake in Utah is cold and so the children would jump in, yelp, hop back out, and then demand to know what our plans were for the rest of the day.  Brandon didn't think that 'Mom reading a book for the entire day' counted as realistic plans for a whole week.

Then I had a flash of genius.  Why not take a cruise?  After a bit of Googling, I found a boat that left LA (only a nine hour drive from Provo), sailed around Mexico for four days, and got us back in time to hop an international flight.  It would be great.  Brandon and I could drop the children off at the kid's club and we could sit around on deck chairs enjoying sitting around on deck chairs.  All of the food was included, there would be pools, and we'd have that great time that all of those Carnival ads promised us.

I didn't even have to talk to Brandon before I knew that this one wasn't going to work out.  If the object of a family trip is to relax, taking five children on a boat with 2,500 other people where all of those 2,500 people are also trying to relax - something that does not include seeing/hearing/smelling/knowing of my five children - cruising is probably the worst idea possible.  I didn't even want to think about trying to feed them all while sitting at a table with complete strangers.

So in the end I was forced to see reason.  Brandon helpfully reminded me of my own wisdom about vacations.  Of the three types - family vacation (taking family and seeing family), family trip (taking family and not seeing family), and getaways (no family involved at all) - only the the third involves relaxation.  Any misguided, wishful attempt to find a scenario that 1. entertained the children and 2. involved no stress would be beating my head against a wall.  There's no escaping the body count and age range of five children.  Those two things combined are an inevitable recipe for high stress situations.  Attempting to escape that reality is about as useful as trying to escape physics.

And so we came up with the only reasonable solution.  For our family trip this year, we will be making a tour of all the Utah county pool centers.  There are enough that we can visit a new one each day and see this particular municipality's combination of splash pad/water slides/lazy river/zero entry play area.  It will be very thrilling.

Next year, I'm going to Thailand.  Alone.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Lure of Free Fruit

When I was growing up, I hated picking blackberries.  My mother loves nothing better than blackberry pie in January - she makes pies in the summer and freezes them whole - but blackberries don't grow in January.  So that means in July, the hottest, muggiest month of the year, blackberries have to be picked.  On the dreaded Blackberry Picking Day, always around Independence Day, my mother would roust us out of bed much, much too early - like six o'clock - to put on long sleeved shirts and pants and go to whatever cow pasture she had found that had brambles and an owner willing to let us strip those brambles.

After fifteen or twenty minutes we would begin the whine, "When are we going home?  I'm so hot!  Haven't we picked enough yet?"  My mom would resolutely ignore us and keep filling her bucket, one blackberry at a time, perhaps thinking of hot pie in January or long strips or duct tape that would stop our whining.  

We have friends with a mulberry tree.  When I found out that they were leaving for the whole summer, I offered to pick their tree for them.  I'd never tasted mulberries before we lived in Baku, but I've grown fond enough of them to add mulberries to the growing list of trees in our hypothetical future orchard.  Almost impossible to get in the States, they are everywhere here.  Tajikistan was a silk producer in the the Soviet era, and the trees are still growing so in high season you can get mulberries from roadside stands for about forty cents a pound.

I watched the trees in our neighborhood for the telltale sign of mulberry season - squashed and rotten fruit littering the ground wherever a mulberry tree grows - and headed over to start picking when it was time.  And once I started, I couldn't stop.  One trip I spent two and a half hours picking and finished off the day with a gallon of frozen mulberries and six quarts of canned mulberries.  We also made jam and dried mulberries to put in granola bars.  

By the fourth trip, when the children asked why we were going over to pick mulberries - again - when we already had enough mulberries for milkshakes through the whole winter, I shrugged.  Because they were there.  I couldn't stand the idea of letting perfectly good mulberries rot when I could be there picking them - for free.  My hoarder tendencies just can't let perfectly good food just rot because I'm too lazy to go pick it.  Maybe we don't need mulberries, but if they're there, why not pick them? 

So when one of Brandon's co-workers offered to let us pick out her apple tree - here they have small apples here that come ripe in early summer - the children just sighed and hopped in the car with hardly any complaining.  The tree wasn't very large so it took about an hour to pick the apples in reach, filling four bags by the end.  There were still ripe apples on the tree, but most were too high for me to reach even while standing on the 'do not stand' part of the ladder while stretching far enough to make everyone nervous.  It was almost physically painful to leave those perfectly ripe sweet apples on the tree with nobody to pick them and take them home, destined to eventually fall and rot all alone with nobody to love or eat them.

I canned the apples, making almost fifteen quarts to add to the six quarts of mulberries.  Every time I pass my jars or see my bags in the freezer I feel smug, a squirrel hiding away nuts for winter.  I've got the blackberry patches in my neighborhood marked out and examine the tiny green berries each time I pass, planning my expeditions to gather even more free fruit to save up for the cold winter months.  I'm hoping that the locals don't have a taste for blackberries or have too much dignity to pick blackberries from the side of the road.  But just in case, I've memorized all of the blackberries patches on all of the hikes we've taken. 

I'm not sure what plans I have for all of that fruit.  Mulberry milkshakes are pretty tasty, and mulberry muffins weren't too bad.  Applesauce needs no plans; the children can polish off a quart in one sitting.  Maybe I can start enjoying blackberry pies in January.  And I am quite fond of blackberry cobbler.

Whenever I have fruit stored away for the winter, I feel rich.  I've been in a lot of places where preserving wasn't an option and I'm just too cheap to buy those bags of frozen fruit.  After all, it's not really necessary to have strawberries in your pancakes when snow's on the ground.  But now I can eat all the fruit I want in January.  Because it cost me nothing more than time and sweat.  And I've got plenty of both.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Adventure Saturday

Last Saturday we I decided to hiking on the Obigarm plateau, and area about an hour north of Dushanbe.  I head heard from several sources that hiking there was pretty nice.  According to some reconnoitering on my best friend in the world, Google Maps, there was a pretty obvious trail coming off the road to a still-operating Soviet era health spa that would lead us up onto the plateau above the spa.

After winding and winding and winding our way through the mountains on a road that didn't make Brandon happy - I tried to point out the pothole free paving - paving, not just rutted dirt tracks that had the faint memory of asphalt, and he just pointed to the sheer drop-off with randomly scattered concrete barriers that were only occasionally at road level instead of five or ten feet down the side of the hill - we made it to the spa.

So we turned around and went back to the bottom of the hill.  I saw something that looked promising, so after stopping to move a donkey out of the path, we started hiking.  Then it started raining.  The temperature in Dushanbe had been about eight-five when we left, but with the rain and altitude, it was down to sixty by the time the rain had started.  We waited five or ten minutes under a tree to see if it would stop before heading back down in the rain.  As we reached the car, the sun came out.

But we still had a picnic in Brandon's backpack, so we went in search of a good picnic-ing spot.  After some driving we pulled off by a little stream by the road and followed it back to a nice small waterfall with good wading spots.

The children, of course, were as happy as could be.  All of the good stuff - treats and wading - without any of the trouble to get there.

After eating all of the treats they stripped off shoes and socks and waded in the cold, cold water.  The only place water is coming from - ever - in this country is snow so that means that any moving body of water is cold enough to turn your legs bright red in about five minutes. 

But the children didn't care because it was a clear sunny day and who doesn't love wading in a rocky mountain stream?  I remember doing the same thing when I was about their age while visiting family in Oregon.  

By the end of our picnic, Joseph was pants-less - his shorts were getting wet because he was just too small - Edwin was soaked from the waist down, Kathleen had her shorts rolled up to her upper thighs, and I had my shoes and socks off too.  This is, of course, why we try to choose remote locations that are private.  Because if you're white trash when nobody is there to see it doesn't count, right?

Which worked just fine until someone came up the path right as Joseph had gone completely naked from the waist down.  This nice little waterfall also served as the local water source for several dachas down the hill from our picnic spot and this man was getting everything ready for the summer, including starting his water.  So after watching him fiddle and clean the rocks and dirt out of his pipe and climb the waterfall - useful information for our next trip - we cleared out and headed home.  

But I've got this spot marked for the next time we need some private wading on a hot summer day.