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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

The only picture that got taken all day.
This year we hosted Thanksgiving.  Last year we got to to sponge off of someone else's work, milking the we-just-moved-into-the-country-six-days-ago excuse.  We were so new and jet-lagged we didn't even have to bring drinks.

But we've been here for over a year (and had a turkey in the freezer for almost as long) so we had to take our turn to host.  And, as Brandon pointed out, we'll probably never get invited over again because who wants to host a family of seven for Thanksgiving?  That's a whole lot of extra food to make.  

A new LDS family moved to Dushanbe a few weeks ago, so we had all six of them on Thursday.  Half of the other family in our group had gone home early for Christmas, so we had the lonely stragglers for dinner too.  So it was like church, but on a Thursday and without all of the singing.

I've learned from the years of cooking large meals and started cooking on Wednesday.  The children had school, so I turned on an audiobook and spent the whole day making four dozen rolls, stuffing, pie crust, persimmon cake, and brined the turkey.  After finishing school, the girls fed their younger siblings, put them down for naps, and played while I cooked and cooked and cooked.  Cooking is a lot easier when all you have to do is cook.

Thursday Brandon and I cooked two pumpkin pies, made trifle from the persimmon cake, roasted our twenty-two pound turkey, baked the stuffing and rolls, made gravy, and mashed four kilos of potatoes.  The children happily played all morning, set the table, and made place cards for everyone.  When everyone gathered we had two turkeys, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, butternut squash puree, cranberry sauce, rolls, gravy, persimmon trifle, pumpkin pie, and pecan pie.

By the end, everyone was full enough to roll out the door without enough leftovers to provide at least one more meal.  The children had a great time playing together, turning the third floor into an unholy mess that took most of the next morning to clean up.  And, as happens with every Thanksgiving meal that I cook, I made a very firm resolution to keep Christmas dinner simple.

Of all the holidays to spend overseas, Thanksgiving is the hardest for me.  My childhood Thanksgivings were spent with close family, a whole weekend with my favorite cousins riding bikes, exploring the nearby bay, and making fantastic creations.  With thirteen children in the house, the weekend was noisy, chaotic, and wonderful.  I will never forget those Thanksgivings.  

I'm grateful to have friends here in Dushanbe to help recreate part of those treasured Thanksgivings.  I'm grateful for Butterball turkeys flown all of the way to central Asia and cans of cranberry sauce shipped in consumables shipments, and the randomly discovered sweet potatoes that the CLO sold to us.  I'm grateful for my family, their safety and health.  I'm grateful for our happiness and being able to share it with others.  

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 27, 2015

One Year Down, Two and a Half to Go

A year ago Saturday we stumbled off an overcrowded Turkish airlines flight into the cold, dark early morning Dushanbe air.  I remember cheerily chatting with Brandon's office sponsor as the embassy white van, filled with our ten suitcases, six backpacks, two carry-ons, three carseats, stroller, and pack-n-play, wound its way through the empty streets of our new hometown.  Arriving at a new post is equal parts terrifying, fascinating, exhausting, and exhilarating.

We were put into a temporary house for five weeks, and moved into our permanent house on Christmas Day, hastily setting up a borrowed tree to hold a delayed Christmas two days later.  We survived Dushanbe's cold, grey winter and spent the spring exploring our new country.  The hot summer days were spent lounging by the pool, and we made it back from our R&R just in time for a hiatus in hiking.

And now it's November again, back where we started.  The trees are brown and gold, starting to think seriously about giving up their hold and falling down to the ground they came from.  The sun sets just a little earlier each day, the grey November twilight reminding everyone that home is where light and warmth are to be found.  Everyone is settling in for the cold, still, quiet winter.

But this time I won't wonder if I can make it through the winter here in this country - will it be as grey as Baku?  As cold as Utah?  Will the snow stay for days on end, or melt in an afternoon?  What will we do with the children when everyone's seen much too much of our house and each other?  Where can we sled?  Can we sled?

I know all of the answers.  And now I can mark the time by our year's experience.  It doesn't get really cold until January.  When it's forty degrees and raining in Dushanbe, it's probably snowing at our favorite sledding spot.  March is chilly, but not as bad a February.  Plant beans in early April. Broccoli comes on in March and November.  July is too hot for hiking.  September is too cool for swimming.  Picnics are perfect in October, at the park next the road near the amusement park.

On Saturday we went out for our first Adventure Saturday in months.  We revisited our first spot and got stuck in some serious mud.  By the time we got free and home again, the car was caked in the stuff and I had to spray the large chunks off to keep my Sunday clothes clean the next day.  I opened the gate to spray the rivers of silty sludge down the driveway.  As I watched the world walk by, I didn't feel that I had opened the gates of my castle to an alien outside world.  I just felt at home, spraying down my driveway like any self-respecting Tajik does when it gets dirty.  Later as I was walking to the store for a quick errand, I knew every hole in the sidewalk and when the traffic was lightest for jaywalking.  I didn't freeze in the store aisles, unsure of what to get and where it was.  The curious stares didn't bother me - I've been here long enough to recognize the difference between curiosity and hostility.  I walked home in the chilly afternoon air and didn't feel that I had just braved an expedition into new territory.  I had run a quick errand, that was all.

When those we meet hear that Brandon extended not just one year, but one and a half years, there's usually some head scratching.  Most see Dushanbe as a place to get some experience that will enable them to go on to bigger and better places.  Do your time, and earn your rewards.  Why spend so long in one place when new experiences and better things are out there?

But I love feeling perfectly at home and having our departure so long away it is almost mythical - how can one even imagine that their little baby will be four years old when they leave?  I love settling in, rearranging the furniture until it is perfect, planting flowers and fruit trees, and getting wonderfully comfortable.  Friends who arrived months after us are eagerly awaiting their bid list, and we're not even thinking about ours.  Why bother when it's over a year away?

I know that one day we will leave Dushanbe and start afresh somewhere else.  But that is a far-off dream that is just hazy as those years we spent in Cairo.  What happened before was done long ago and what is to come hasn't breached the horizon yet.  For now were in the endless plane of the present with nothing else in sight but life and school and work and friends and living and Dushanbe.  One day we'll reach the end of that present and cross over into another one.  But not today, not tomorrow, and not for a very long string of tomorrows.

And that is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

And the Heat is On

Last Friday a man rang my doorbell.  He was here, he announced, to put in a new water pump for our heating system.  I quickly let him in and went back to my work.  After half hour or so, the radiators started gurgling, and not long after that they were warm to the touch.  I peeled off my jacket.  By Saturday morning the kitchen floors were warm.  My slippers went back to their place in the closet.  On Monday the sun came out and my socks came off.  By Tuesday we had to start cracking windows to let the heat out of our stifling kitchen.

When I asked for heat, I got it.

The children have started kicking off covers at night and Eleanor is sleeping in just a pair of cotton pajamas; I had to take off layers when her sheet was sweat-soaked in the morning.  I haven't worn socks for days and Joseph ran around all day today in shorts.

I know that eventually when the snow is on the ground and we haven't seen the sun for days, the heat will be necessary and I'll pull the jacket and slippers back out again, but mid November and sixty degrees doesn't require quite as much heat as we have running through our floors and radiators these days.

But hey, I'm not complaining.  I'd much, much rather be too hot than too cold.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Unrequited Love

Edwin loves his little sister.  He really really loves Eleanor.  When Joseph was born Edwin wasn't even quite two years old and had no conception of babies and siblings all of the things that are part of being a family.  Two year olds, although quite cute and reasonably agreeable, are barely human.  They don't know of much beyond eating, playing, and attempting to get their own way.

But by the time Eleanor showed up, Edwin, at the ripe old age of four and half, was old enough to realize about babies and watch as his older sisters adored, cooed over, and practically smothered baby Eleanor with love and attention.  He and Joseph had a pretty rocky relationship at that point - two year old brothers are, after all, barely human - so Eleanor, who wasn't going to take his toys, blow raspberries at him, or land him in time out, looked like a pretty good alternative to Joseph.

I remember finding Edwin's favorite toy cars carefully tucked into Eleanor's crib one afternoon as she peacefully napped.  While I had been teaching the girls' school he had quietly snuck into her (my) room and given his tiny baby sister some of the things he liked best.  Joseph couldn't even look at the green monster truck without a jealous smack from Edwin, but Edwin's little sister could get even the most precious truck without having to even ask for it.

When Eleanor got big enough to sit up, Edwin would swoop down and shower her with kisses every time he passed her.  The girls enjoyed dressing baby Eleanor, bathing baby Eleanor, building thrones for baby Eleanor, and carrying her around in a custom laundry basket palanquin.  Eleanor was the best living baby doll ever.  But Edwin just liked Eleanor.  He didn't care what she was doing or what he could do to her, he just liked her.  Every boy needs a little sister to care for, love, and protect.  They also need a little brother to fight with.

Unfortunately for Edwin, Eleanor doesn't return his feelings.  After patiently enduring his smothering love for over a year, Eleanor finally had enough and let everyone know about it.  Any time Edwin would come near, she would screech at the top of her lungs and swing her tiny baby fists at his advancing face.  Edwin, undeterred, would kiss her more and Eleanor, angrier still, would wail louder.  I finally had to put a limit on his kisses - five - and teach Eleanor the phrases 'no screaming.' and 'no hitting.'

Even after Edwin learned to back off, Eleanor, scarred for a month or two, would screech horribly any time she even thought he might be looking at her.  Poor Edwin, confused as to why his favorite person in the whole wide world was screaming so much, would sneak in and steal unauthorized kisses while I wasn't looking.  This, of course, set off the wailing and hitting all over again.

Thankfully things have calmed down in the past month.  Edwin, after being reminded that he too likes personal space, has backed off (spending quite a bit of time in the corner probably didn't hurt either) and Eleanor has learned the meaning of 'no screaming' and 'no hitting.'  Our house is much quieter these days.

One day Eleanor will be much older, much taller, more attractive.  The boys will start calling and I'll stay up nights trying to figure out how to make 'no talking to any boys until you're 25' into a reasonable sounding policy.  She'll go off to school and I'll work overtime on how to enforce that rule from 7,000 miles away.  And then I'll be glad for Edwin.  He will take good care of his little sister and those boys will think twice before messing with Edwin's baby sister because they'll have to mess with Edwin too.  Eleanor will probably think about breaking the screaming and hitting rule again.  But in the end when all is said and done, she will be happy for her adoring older brother.  And I will too.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Marine Ball 2015

After a hiatus last year for language training, Brandon and I attended our third Marine Ball.  Since we're at a new post with new people, I got to reuse my first Marine Ball dress.  This year I didn't have to alter a dress, buy a tuxedo, or alter someone else's dress.

Instead, we left the children at two in the afternoon, took a walk in the park on a gorgeous fall day, and I left Brandon reading a book while I got my hair fixed.  Then we checked into the same hotel the ball was held at and watched half of Jack Ryan:Shadow Recruit while making fun of the way Hollywood portrays certain agencies because we had nothing better to do.  We eventually got ready and made our way down to the ballroom to hang out with our friends.

It was much better than shopping for jewelry, sewing on buttons, feeding the children, cleaning up the house, kissing the children for the twentieth time on the way out the door, or any of the other things we did the hours before the Marine ball.  I was relaxed and Brandon wasn't irritated.

The ball itself was fun, of course.  We sat at a table with friends and got to listen to the Secretary of the Navy speak and watch the video and my personal favorite, the Escorting of the Cake.  I wonder how long those Marines have to practice to get the slow walk in perfect synchronization.  The food was quite tasty and our dessert was a spread of ice cream, custard, cheesecake, and mousse.  I hope they hold the Ball at the Sheraton next year, if only for the food.

Brandon finally allowed me to lead him to the dance floor and even smoothed his pained expression enough to make it almost invisible in the low light.  We enjoyed talking with our friends and taking our picture with the Marines.  By 10:30 we were tired, so we took the elevator up to our hotel room and went to sleep.  

The next morning we made it to breakfast by 10, half an hour before it ended.  We ate with our friends and weren't interrupted by any milk spills, requests for more food, or fights over eating food.  When I was done, I walked away and someone else did the dishes. 

We had some extra time before needing to be home, so we walked around the city, window shopping and chatting.  In the end, nothing was bought, but when your whole life is filled with getting things done, it's nice to occasionally do something doesn't get a single thing checked off a list.  It was a crisp, sunny fall day and I enjoyed strolling Dushanbe's wide tree-lined sidewalks holding hands with Brandon.  Even after ten years of marriage and eleven of friendship, we still haven't run out of things to talk about.

When we got home, the children were busy making paper dolls with my housekeeper and her daughter and the house was, as always, spotless.  Nobody had killed each other, nobody starved, and nobody was crying as we walked in the door.  They didn't even rush down the stairs looking for us as soon as the car pulled in.  It was as if they didn't even notice we had left.

I'm already looking forward to next year.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cold, Dark Times

It's finally thinking about being winter here in Dushanbe.  After a long, gorgeous tail end of summer, the falls rains have come and with them cooler weather.  The mountains ringing the city have snow dusting their tops, reminding me that it's not too long before that snow comes to Dushanbe.  A few days ago I made the children try on their snow boots and pants, and the hat and mitten bins have come out of hiding to be restored to their wintertime place on the shoe racks.

The drop in temperatures have also brought the bane of all Tajiks' existence - blackouts.  Tajikistan is almost entirely powered by Nurek dam, about an hour south of Dushanbe.  This country doesn't have much in the way of natural resources other than tall mountains and stunning beauty and bringing anything into the country is very expensive, so any other form of power generation doesn't make much sense, especially as the dam was already built with Tajikistan became independent.

This works really well in the summer when the meltwater comes down off those really tall mountains.  There is enough water flowing through the dam that the spillway makes a pretty impressive plume all summer long.

Everyone has plenty of cheap, reliable (relatively) power.  A friend who is here with an NGO quoted me her electricity bill for July - 50 somoni, or $7.46.  Our generator sits all summer, lurking in the courtyard unused and quiet.

But when fall temperatures hit and everyone gets cold, there isn't enough power to go around.  And after the mountains start to freeze up and the water stops flowing so well, there really isn't enough power to go around.  This used to be mitigated by natural gas flowing in from Uzbekistan.  In the summer, power would flow out of Tajikistan to Uzbekistan and in the winter the flow would be reversed, with natural gas coming her to keep everyone warm.  But the countries haven't been on friendly terms for a decade or so and nothing flows either direction.  All of the gas pipes snaking their way through the city are empty and everyone is cold.

The villagers spend all summer taking their donkeys up into the hills to cut firewood for the winter.  Trees don't grow particularly well in the arid climate on steep hillsides and so there isn't much wood larger than a few inches in diameter for anyone to cut.  Coal is shipped in from China for city dwellers to use - our house was designed for the radiators to be run off a coal stove - but coal doesn't power lights or run cooking stoves.  And so everyone keeps candles.  And blankets.  And clothes to layer.

But mostly they're just cold and dark.

Those who have enough money (and somewhere to put it) have generators, and we're part of the lucky few percent who can depend on warmth and light all winter long.  I find myself irritated by the noise and smell sometimes when it runs half a day and into the night, but then when darkness falls and the hill behind our house is black black black, I repent of my irritation and am grateful for light switches that work every single day.

As the temperatures have continued cold and our working heat has no date fixed yet, I have found new sympathy for my neighbors in the cold months of winter.  One morning I painted with a pair of 600-fill down camping slippers, pants, long shirt, pullover, and down jacket and still found my nose and fingers cold.  This, I thought to myself as I tried to quell irritation about the heat, is only the beginning of what most Tajiks have to deal with all winter long.  Even with heat, they're lucky to have a 60 degree house.  I'm used to winter being the season of coats and mittens for outside and only pants and a shirt inside.  Here, Tajik babies wear tights and undershirts and socks and slippers and pants and sweaters and long shirts inside the house.  There are more clothes for outside.

I know that  poorly working radiators and cold bathroom floors are just temporary; one day I'll have a magical thermostat that will make sure that my whole house - even the bathroom - stays the temperature I tell it.  I won't have the lights shut off on my while I'm in the shower and the water slow to a trickle (our water comes from household tanks and the pressure from an electric pump) as I count to five and wait for the generator to come on.

But for those who live here, these things are the way life is.  Sometimes the power is on and sometimes it's off.  One day you have heat and the next day you don't.  Bundle up and keep your candles ready because it's a few more months until spring.  Hold your breath and pray the winter isn't long or cold or too dark.  Wait eagerly for summer and the return of light, warmth, plently of food, and no cold in sight.  Then do it all again when the next winter comes.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Eleanor at Eighteen Months

As we got ready for church last Sunday morning, I realized that, had we been living in a regular church unit, it would have been Eleanor's first Sunday in nursery.  I remember waiting and waiting and waiting for that magical date when I could shuck Kathleen off on someone else for a blissful two hours each week.  It seemed like it would never arrive and the torture of trying to keep Kathleen quiet for three hours was almost unbearable.  Living in Utah and living a short walk from the church, I even (briefly) considered leaving her home and napping for some of the time.

This time around I've had the luxury of home-churching so Eleanor hasn't even been attending until a month or two ago.  I highly recommend it, even if nursery isn't part of the deal.

Now that Eleanor is officially old enough to attend nursery, I've realized that she isn't that little, maddeningly screamy baby that I brought home to our tiny Oakwood apartment a year and a half (and half a planet) ago.  After I checked on her a few nights ago, I sat and watched her sleep.  As she lay stretched out, deliciously soft and limp in deep baby sleep, I noticed her head and feet were only a few inches from the rails of the crib.  When, between eight pounds and now, did she get so big?

Now she can climb all four flights of stairs in pursuit of my company and slide back down them all when I've just run up to the third floor to get something.  Sometimes I'll take pity on her and carry her back down with me.  She's figured out how to open all of the kitchen cupboards and spends the hour before dinner stacking and unstacking, stacking and unstacking the brightly-colored Ikea dishes that live in the cupboard under the distiller.  Sometimes, when the dishes have lost their novelty, she'll toddle over to the dry goods cupboard and see if maybe this time dry pinto beans taste like chocolate.  And when they don't, again, she'll spit them all over the kitchen floor.

When I'm teaching the children school, she will bring all of her of her favorite treasures to me - a doll, teddy bear, toy cup - and solemnly hand them up one by one until Kathleen's desk is overflowing with Eleanor's gifts.  Then she'll rummage through the play clothes for her favorite purple sparkly size ten dress-up shoe and scream in frustration when it, yet again, falls off while she tries to prance around the room becomingly.  And scream again when my efforts aren't any better than her own.

Edwin has taught her how to make slurping noises and how to roar.  Joseph taught her to flip her tongue while yelling.  The girls have taught her 'mama,' 'dada,' 'uh-oh,' 'ball,' and 'poop.'  I taught her 'shoe.'

She has discovered the girls' hiding places for their special treasures, the ones too precious to leave in the toy cupboard.  On Halloween she learned that bright crinkly wrappers have yummy treats inside them and screaming might get you another one.  She's figured out how to eat eggs with a fork and how to smear black bean soup everywhere with a spoon and how to make Mom yell really loud when milk is dumped on the floor.  And she knows inherently, as all children do, what electronic devices are real and powered and which ones aren't.

One of my favorite times of day is cuddling her into the corner of my lap after she's zipped into a fuzzy sleeper and clutching her soft knitted blanket.  We rock quietly together as I read Caps for Sale, Noisy Nora, or Where the Wild Things Are.  Her chubby fingers turn the pages for me as I read, almost from memory, the same stories my mother read to me while rocking in another rocking chair in another place almost a lifetime ago.  Then I will sing her a song or two or three before gently putting her down in her crib and waving goodnight as I shut the door.

I've loved each of my children at eighteen months, but I enjoy Eleanor more than I've enjoyed any of the other children.  So much of the anxiety and insecurity is gone, washed away by experience so that now I can just enjoy Eleanor.  I don't have to worry if she'll potty train, or if she'll nap, or if she'll get enough nutrition.  I know that she'll eventually talk (and then I'll wish she hadn't) and dress herself and grow up to be every bit as troublesome as her older siblings.  But now I just get to enjoy a sweet, cuddly little baby.  I don't have to teach her to read or tie or shoes or not talk back to me or not hit her siblings or not fight over toys.  Those things will come soon enough.  For now, she's just my baby.  She doesn't need to be anything else.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Russian Progress

The children and I have just finished our second month of Russian study.  When I finally gave in and started, I honestly didn't expect much progress very quickly.  Russian hovers somewhere between 'clip my toenails' and 'clean out the storage room' on my priority list.  Things that will eventually get done some time, but not on any kind of regular basis (yep.  And that is why I never get pedicures).

I don't really care if the girls became bilingual or can even converse with anyone on the street.  Our homeschool program only requires letter grades for core subjects, so I make sure that math and reading really get done, science and history mostly get done, and the rest is really just extra anyway.  And Russian is really, really extra.  About as extra as art.  When there's one of you and six people to take care of, you have to choose what you're really going to get worked up about.  You'd die if you cared about everything.

So I've been pleasantly surprised at our progress.  In addition to meeting with Albina, our very long-suffering tutor (on the day we studied animals Sophia decided to declare that she didn't want to eat a pink _____ when each animal was introduced), I also purchased Rosetta Stone and set up a flashcard program.  I figure that among the three three there would be enough coverage to get at least a few words stuck firmly in everyone's head.

And things are actually starting to stick.  I remember learning German while living in Vienna and slowly, slowly beginning to understand things that I saw and heard.  A high point was understanding a passing question about the time ('Wie spat ist est?') and answering in German.  We don't get out nearly as much as I did in Vienna, but the same thing is starting to happen here.  As we drive through town, Kathleen likes to read out all of the signs to practice her Cyrillic.  A few days ago she showed me a piece of paper with names written in Cyrillic.  When we were at the embassy Halloween party a few days ago, she started eavesdropping on conversations.  "Mom!" she turned to me excitedly, "They said something about boys!"

Edwin, who watches Dino Lingo every day (I will never, ever, ever be able to scrub those songs out of my memory.  Ever), likes to sit in the window and tell passersby how old he is.  "Hey!  Hey kid! I'm пять!  And soon I'll be шесть!"  Joseph, who also has been watching the dinosaurs teach him useful words like 'giraffe' and 'tiger' will randomly turn to me and ask me what the word for желтый is in Russian.  One afternoon during lunch he decided that, because I know the words for boy, green, milk, egg, and yellow, that I am the expert in Russian.  "Hey Mom, how do you say 'chocolate chip' in Russian?  What about 'generator'?  Do you know 'booster seat'?"  When, after striking out on a few more words, he pointed to his apple and I responded with яблоко, he exclaimed happily, "There!  You do know Russian!"

When we were at the park after a lesson when 'to see' was introduced, a man came up to me.  He asked if I knew Russian and then told me that I need to watch Eleanor, who was wandering (to him) dangerously close to an unsafe part (now that I think about it, I don't think that American parks have twelve-foot sheer drop-offs in them).  I pretended that I didn't understand him because dumb is easier than smart sometimes.  But I actually understood his words and not just his gestures.

And finally, finally, I can actually tell people who ring my doorbell that I don't speak Russian and do they speak English?  I even held a very stumbling conversation last week without someone who was convinced that our house was somebody else's дом, and I assured him that no, it was definitely our дом and by the way I didn't really understand Russian.  It was all very funny and we both laughed.  But he still kept ringing the doorbell.  So I eventually unplugged it.

Despite our progress, I'm still not moving Russian above toenail clipping in my priority list.  Because why put in more effort if we're still making progress?  Eventually when the girls are older and I have more time on my hands (ha, ha) we'll probably get around to studying Russian in some sort of systematic way with a text book.  I have far future plans that involve the children taking online college Russian courses, but they're still in the shadowy, insubstantial land of 'when they're so old they can drive cars' that probably isn't even real.  But for now, we're plunking along just fine.  Which is okay with me.  Maybe by this time next year I will be able to tell my gardner to prune the fruit trees.  But I'm not holding my breath.