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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

How the Mighty are Fallen

I have always sworn that I would never own a smartphone.  I also said that about a Kindle.  And now, of course, we have four Kindles, which I absolutely love.  I can't remember the last time I actually read a paper book.  I also said I'd never get an iPad.  Now, unsurprisingly, I use my iPad every single day - and am looking forward to having it in about a week when we trek halfway across the world again.  The only moral high ground I had left - because we just had fruity pebbles for breakfast - was a smartphone.

And I just lost that one.  Sigh.

It all started when I began planning for my three-month medevac for William's birthday.  I have always used two different phones, one for the States and one for overseas.  My overseas phone - a cheap Nokia the embassy issued when we moved here - actually works in the U.S., but our charger is a European plug 220 charger.  My American phone is a Net10 phone that I just refill when we got back every year.  It's a solution that works, but isn't very elegant.

And if there's anything I enjoy, it's an elegant solution.  Which is, of course, a phone that works in the States and overseas.  Obviously.  I've thought about buying a GSM regular phone before, but we all know the most elegant solutions of all.  An iPhone.  After all we do have an iMac, a MacBook, an iPad, and iPods.  We're just missing one member of the family.

I brought up the idea with Brandon.  "You know..." I started out one evening when the children had been particularly good and we had just finished watching an episode of Poldark, "I've been thinking...."  He immediately got the wary look that inevitably follows that opening and sat up.  "What have you been thinking?"  He's been married to me long enough to know when I'm up to something.

I explained to him how I'd be going to the States and would need a phone and wouldn't it just make so much sense to get an iPhone because then he could always communicate with me and I would never miss his emails and I would take more pictures and could text with my family and friends in the US and I would have a GPS and really it would just make so much sense.  He listened, skeptical, as I attempted to justify adding one more piece of Apple technology to our stable.  I finished with the kicker, "And the B---s have several older ones just sitting around because T-- just go a 7 and gave his 6s to T---- and I'm just sure they'd be willing to sell T---s old 6 to us....." I trailed off.

Brandon sighed, recognizing the rationalization hamster spinning madly at its wheel trying to justify something that really, in the end, I just wanted for no better reason than it was shiny and cool.  He sighed again.  "I don't think it's a good idea. But you can do what you want.  However, if you put Candy Crush on that phone, I'm throwing it into the trash."  I tried to hide my delight and acted very obedient.  "Okay, thanks.  I'll talk to T--- about it."

The next day I contacted my friend, who, as all good friends do, only encouraged me in my pursuit of shiny technology.  "Of course we could sell you the 6!  I'll ask T-- about it and get back to you.  But you should definitely do it!  It's a great idea!"  She talked with her husband and got back to me with the price.  I obviously hadn't done my homework because I didn't realized how much unlocked, good condition iPhones run for.  I told her that I would have to talk with Brandon about it, which meant that it wasn't going to happen and let my shiny smartphone dreams die, murdered by penny-pinching.

A few days later she dropped by to borrow a stroller.  After chatting for a few minutes, she whipped out a few phones.  "While I'm here, I thought I'd show you the 5s we also have sitting around.  It's less than the 6.  But if you're interested in the 6, it's only $75 more than the 5s."  I thought about it for about thirty seconds, and bought the 5s.  I handed over the cash before I could change my mind.  "Great!" she enthused.  "I'll have T-- come over in an hour or two and set it up for you."  

After she left I thought about good technology and better technology and how much $75 really isn't and how really, it's easier to text on a bigger screen and how a newer phone would last longer.  By the time my friend called to to tell me her husband was coming over, I told her to have him bring the 6.  Because it turns out I'm just as acquisitive as the next girl.

And that is how I ended up doing the thing I swore I'd never do.  Principle, evidently, don't stand up very well to shiny, pretty, cool, technology.  Oh well.  Time to go get Candy Crush.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Happy Birthday, Edwin

Last week Edwin turned seven.  I always feel for people with birthdays around Christmas.  Everyone is already celebrating Christmas and oh, that's right - it's your birthday too, isn't it?  Edwin hasn't been bothered by it so far, but we always try to celebrate his birthday just as much as everyone else's.

So we started off his birthday with no school.  Because when you are homeschooled, you never have to have school on your birthday.  And your siblings get the day off, too.  Everyone wins.  For breakfast, Edwin requested that we have German apple pancakes (dutch baby).  Everyone was, of course, happy to have that instead of the usual oatmeal and eggs.

After morning chores and some lunch packing, we all headed off to the botanical gardens.

First we visited the peacocks.  Why there is a cage full of peacocks there, I have no idea, but the children love to visit the beautiful overgrown chickens.  There is something mesmerizing about watching peacocks.

Everyone was delighted to discover that peacocks, being overgrown chickens, like eating grass.  The kids spent at least half an hour pulling up grass and offering it.  Eleanor didn't have much success with rocks and pine needles, but the leftover chunks of snow were pretty well received.

Then we had a picnic lunch.  We had been snowed on the weekend before, about five or six inches, but the weather cooperated with our picnic plans and gave us a beautifully sunny day in the upper fifties.  There are some things about Dushanbe that are pretty awesome.

After lunch, everyone enjoyed playing on the random exercise equipment scattered around while I sat and read War and Peace.  

That evening when Brandon got home we had Edwin's choice for dinner, schawerma, and then dessert, lemon meringue pie.  

And then, of course, presents.  One grandmother sent him a dinosaur book.

The other a lego set.

His sister gave him a bag full of candy.

And his parents two dinosaurs, which, according to Edwin, were his "best birthday present in his whole entire life!!"  It's always great to see that you've guessed right for presents.

On Saturday, for Edwin's birthday Saturday (instead of a party we do something that the birthday child gets to choose), we went sledding up in the mountains.  I wasn't sure if we would get to go sledding this year, but the weather has cooperated enough for us to get at least one trip in, even if the snow got a little muddy by the end.  

Everyone had a good time.

We finished off the day with our traditional Christmas gingerbread house, homemade pizza, and Elf.  

After going through a rough few years (the same rough few years that every child goes through), Edwin as turned into a great child to have around.  He's great at getting the job done even when he doesn't like to do it.  Most mornings I can count on him to finish his chores while I'm stuck nagging everyone else to get them done now, and he always gets his school work done before he runs off to play.  Now that he's learned how to read, you can usually find him reading something about dinosaurs, and if he isn't reading he's building legos.  He and Joseph can usually get along together, and he's very much looking forward to his very own buddy's arrival in less than two months.  

We're pretty happy to have him as part of our family.  Happy Birthday, Edwin!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Turkish Strikes Again!

This past summer our R&R plans got changed around a bit.  We were set to fly through Istanbul on Turkish Airlines and then that coup-thing happened.  Ten days before our departure, State declared that nobody was allowed to fly through Istanbul.  Last summer was the first summer I had ever managed to get everything lined up months in advance so we could buy our tickets in the spring.  And then, ten days before our departure, we had to get everything changed.

Our departure date moved from a Thursday to the previous Saturday - and this was changed on the Monday of the week we flew out on the Saturday flight.  After a heart-stopping email listing the change fees on our non-refundable tickets as $4,000, we were assured that the embassy would cover one ticket change, especially when coups were involved.  So, after a flurry of emails and calls to my mother (yes, so you thought you had more time to unpack your house after being gone for five years, sorry about that!), all was worked out and we made it to the US a little earlier than planned.  Not before, of course, Istanbul was declared perfectly safe to fly through.

Fast forward to two months ago.  It was time to book another set of tickets to the US because flying halfway across the world with five children in tow is my idea of a good time.  As the embassy absolutely does not ever in any conceivable situation ever allow us Americans to have their babies in Tajikistan, I have to leave for three months and go somewhere with good medical care (and am I thankful to have access to that medical care!).  Because I am the primary caretaker for the children, they have to come with me.  So this means that your tax dollars (thanks, everyone!) are paying for my flights and the children's flights.  But what they are not paying for is Brandon's flights.  

The last time I did this medevac thing, Brandon put me into a cab with the girls at 2 am on a Cairo morning, and we made our way to my parents' open arms in North Carolina, very tired but intact.  This time Brandon decided that I couldn't handle flying with all five children while seven and a half months pregnant.  I disagree, but he's in charge, so we bought him a plane ticket on the same flights (and even in an adjoining seat) to the rest of our monkey circus.  And then, being the stoic male he is, he will turn around and fly back to Dushanbe so that he can work to pay off the cost of his plane ticket.

So.  To sum up, we are booked to fly out of Dushanbe the day after Christmas.  Six of our tickets are covered by the government.  The seventh is not, and more important to remember, is non-refundable and non-changeable.

Enter Turkish Airlines.  Turkish has never been known for its dependability and is prone to cancelling flights with little to no warning.  But within the last week or so, they have been cancelling four out of the five flights.  And then they just decided to stop flying to Dushanbe.  Why is this?  Nobody is quite sure.  There has been talk of a transponder needing replacing at the airport, but flights have been cancelled on perfectly clear days that provide more than the four kilometers of visibility their guidelines call for.  There is have been some cash problems for a major bank here, so aviation fuel has been in short supply.  But this is going to be cleared up, and according to rumor, Turkish is still not flying.  Also, Turkish is experiencing system-wide problems (I noticed this on my last flight when there was no Turkish delight), and maybe they're not flying those less-profitable legs - like the ones to Dushanbe.  Lots and lots of supposition with no real facts to back it up.  But what we do know is that if you want to get out of Dushanbe on a particular timeline (like one that doesn't allow pregnant women to fly after 34 weeks), Turkish isn't looking like a very good bet right now.

Brandon called and told me this on Thursday.  I, being a betting sort of girl who believes that I can bend time and space to my will, wasn't concerned.  Brandon, who factors possibility much more than probability into all his risk assessments, was.  And since he is in charge and has good sense instead of reckless belief on his side, I started thinking of options.

My first thought was of the money.  I hate wasting money.  Thankfully these days most things are irritations and not hunger-inducing, but it's still irritating to pay for plane tickets twice - especially when those plane tickets are to remote places like Tajikistan.  We are booked to go Dushanbe-Istanbul-London-DC-Raleigh (yes, that is a lot of airports), so I looked to at least salvage the last two legs of the itinerary.  

There are only a few ways you can get out of Tajikistan.  First is through Istanbul on Turkish.  Obviously if that wasn't a problem, this whole post would be pointless.  Second is through Istanbul or Frankfurt or Dubai on Somon Airlines, a podunk local airline.  This would be a good idea but for their pregnancy restrictions - no flying after 32 weeks.  Thirty-two weeks is this week, and if we want to go through Frankfurt, on Saturday.  I love my parents and they love me but I'm pretty sure that both of us don't want two more weeks of family togetherness.  And plus, we already decorated for Christmas.  Pass.  

Third is Fly Dubai through (obviously) Dubai.  So I looked up their schedule.  Oh good - they have a flight to Dubai the day after Christmas (there are very few daily flights out of Dushanbe).  And look - they have several flights a day to London.  And even better - there is a flight that gets us into London with two hours before our flight to DC.  Great.  I sent the itinerary to Brandon and got back to teaching school.

Then I started thinking about airlines and codeshares and ticketing and realized that we might have a problem.  The itinerary had us flying on Fly Dubai to Dubai and changing to British for our flight to London.  This is not a problem, as Dubai has a magical service (made operable by money, of course) that will pick up your bags from baggage claim, haul them to the ticketing desk and recheck and ticket everything for you on your next flight.  It doesn't sound that magical until you start doing math.  Two adults + five (mostly useless) children + seven bags + three car seats + one stroller + no way to get from terminal 2 to terminal 1 except a taxi = not enough hands to carry the bags or space to put them in.  Then you realize the magic.  So, Dubai layover, not a problem.

But then the same math equation had to happen again in London because once again, we were switching between airlines with no codeshare agreement, British and United.  Only this time the terminal transfer was on the Heathrow Express and we had to go through passport control before picking up our ten pieces of baggage and moving them to the next terminal to recheck, re-ticket, re-passport control and re-security before getting to our gate.  I had my suspicions, but after querying my FS Facebook group, I realized that there was no way in the world all of that would happen in two hours.  I let Brandon know.

Then I looked for anything (anything!) out of Dubai that left after 9:30 in the morning and would get us to the US eventually.  By this time I had kissed Brandon's ticket goodbye and was only looking for the cheapest way to buy a whole new one-way ticket from Dushanbe to North Carolina.  Nothing.  Turns out that Dubai is a long way from the US - just about as long as Dushanbe - and all of the flights were long gone by 9:30 in the morning.  If you want to fly to the US, you're leaving at two, not nine.

I let Brandon know.

So I started looking for flights two days after Christmas.  We always try to fly on United because seven mileage plus accounts flying halfway across the worlds adds up to a lot of miles.  I found an itinerary that went Dubai-Frankfurt-DC-Raleigh.  I sent it on to Brandon.  Then I started looking for hotels.  Because spending eighteen hours in the Dubai airport after leaving our house at 1:30 in the morning for a 4 am flight sounds like a particularly unpleasant form of torment even before you add in the children.  

Luckily, Dubai is known for having hotels and that was easily found.  And then I remembered something about Dubai: you are welcome to go to Dubai without a visa, but only if you are traveling on a tourist passport.  Brandon and I have tourist passports, but the children's expired earlier this year.  I let Brandon know.

He went to talk to our friendly consular officer while I asked around about getting diplomatic visas for the children and looked for other places to overnight.  There were other places we could overnight (Frankfurt, London), the diplomatic visa cost $150 and took two weeks, and we could get the children's passports (at $105 apiece) in 1 1/2 weeks.  We opted to overnight in Dubai where the magic service would take care of our baggage and tickets.  I spent the afternoon filling out passport applications and booking hotel rooms.  Brandon went to the med unit to get my travel orders changed so a hotel stay would be included.  I tried not to think about how much Brandon's ticket would cost.

Monday I emailed our friendly (or at least responsible) travel section and let them know of our change in plans.  They got back to me and said that would be no problem re-booking my and the children's tickets - it would just be a little matter of getting our cable changed so that MED would cough up the extra money (we're talking thousands of dollars in change fees and fare increases and hotel rooms).  But Brandon's ticket?  Completely out of luck.  The entire thing would have to be bought again, at our own expense, of course.

So Brandon trotted himself down to the travel section and signed a legally binding document promising to pay for all the tickets himself (for over twenty thousand dollars) just in case MED decides that really, there was no reason to change our tickets.  I pulled out my melting credit card and bought a whole new set of plane tickets.  Then I got out my paper bag and tried hard not to think about what I could have done with that money while thinking zen thoughts about barns and having my soul called to God that night.  The children got excited about spending five and a half hours at their favorite place in Germany - the McDonald's playplace.  French fries, milkshakes and slides!

And, of course, as always, this means that within a day of two of everything being changed, booked, and paid for, Turkish will decide to start keeping a regular flight schedule again.  Because that's the way it always works out.  

But, once again, in the end we will eventually get to the US in one piece.  It may have taken a little more trouble and money than originally anticipated, but it will happen, which is the magic of money and modern technology.  I just wish it could be a little more straightforward.

Moral of the story: Don't bother planning anything in advance.  It's just a waste of your time.

Moral of the story, 2: Pay that extra money for changeable tickets.  Especially when you're flying to Central Asia.

Moral of the story, 3: don't fly Turkish Airlines.  They may give you Turkish delight on your flight, but don't let them sucker you with delicious treats.  It won't be worth it.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Thanksgiving and Christmas!

Last last Thursday was Thanksgiving.  As a child, my family spent as many Thanksgivings as possible with my dad's brother, his wife and their eight children in rural southern Maryland.  More of my father's family live in the DC area, so Thanksgiving was always a time with lots and lots of family and my very favorite cousins.  We would usually start the four and a half hour drive as soon as my father finished work Wednesday evening and pull in to our cousins' house late at night where everyone would stay up much too late playing, talking, partying, and making lots and lots of noise.

My father loved to play with his only brother so the whole weekend would be filled with windsurfing and bike riding and canoeing and kayaking while the children rode their bikes everywhere, running in and out of the house and over the neighborhood and down to the bay while my mom and aunt (bless them) cooked away at dinner.  It was the most wonderful chaos that we looked forward to every single year.

So Thanksgiving in the Foreign Service is always something of a sad holiday for me.  We always live in a place where nobody else celebrates the pilgrims landing (and not dying) in a new world.  Children have school.  Everyone else has work.  And there are no cousins within a hemisphere.

So we do what we can.  We've always been able to get big, fat, American turkeys, even when they literally arrive at 8 pm the day before Thanksgiving.  After spending one Thanksgiving completely alone one year in Cairo, we've always had friends over or gone to friends' houses.  Thanksgiving is a holiday to be shared - otherwise it's just lots of extra cooking for another family dinner.

This year we had two families over for a nice small, quiet Thanksgiving.  Even though their children had school, everyone came over for dinner around one (because Thanksgiving) and stayed for a nice day of talking, eating, more talking, more eating, and pie.  We have known both families for some time, so it was nice to not have to ask all of the getting-to-know you questions and just have time to hang out together.  Brandon even enjoyed talking politics with like-minded men, something that isn't so easy to find these days.

We had turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash puree, home made stuffing, stovetop stuffing, rolls (over 8 dozen), fresh cranberry sauce (thanks to a wonderful friend who mailed fresh cranberries all the way from Utah), pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and chocolate chip cookie pie.  Anyone who went hungry was just picky.

On Saturday Christmas started.  When I was arranging the medevac for William's birth, I could have left early and been at my parents' house for Christmas.  But instead we stayed to the last possible day because Christmas is a season I like best in my own home.  I love to decorate for Christmas, I love to listen to Christmas music, and we have quite a few family traditions that stretch over the month of Christmas.  It just seemed kind of wrong to cut it off halfway through.

We started out the season with decorating the house and putting up the tree.  I started my Christmas planning early this year and so was able to order decorations in time for the beginning of the season. We hung garlands, put up the tree (which I didn't even touch, thanks to children and Brandon), hung lights, hung ornaments from the chandelier, pulled out nativity sets and filled lots and lots of vases and bowls with glass ornaments.   Then when it was mostly done, we finished the evening with White Christmas and mint hot chocolate.  Brandon and I stuck to tradition and fell asleep during the movie. I can't remember the last time I actually stayed awake the entire time.

The children are now busy secretly making each other presents to wrap in the wrapping paper we made last night, and counting down the days until they get to open those presents up.  We're waiting to see when the mail that is currently sitting in Moscow will make it down to Dushanbe with the presents in it.  I'm cooking dinner to Christmas music every night, and Joseph asks every day if tomorrow is Christmas.  Eleanor, who doesn't remember last Christmas, will get her mind blown when she gets a stocking full of candy and multiple presents to open.  And I am happily looking forward to not cooking Christmas dinner this year.

It's a pretty good time here in the Sherwood house.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Living in Dushanbe: Heat

It's been cold here in Dushanbe for the last week.  Today the weather finally got above freezing, something that hasn't happened for a week.  The cold weather has brought snow - at least nine or ten inches - which the children have been very happy with.  We went to the park on Monday, Friday, and Saturday to sled and play in the snow, which might be their only snow of the year as we leave for North Carolina, which isn't known for snow, in four weeks.

Usually, it doesn't snow this early in the year.  Our past snow storm usually would have just been a rainy few days down in the valley with only snow up in the mountains.  But I'm okay with the last week's freezing temperatures because the next week has weather much more fitting for early December, upper fifties and low sixties.  I can forgive a freak snowstorm when the weather returns to playing nicely afterwards.

The one unpleasant part of this whole ordeal, however, has been the temperature inside our house.  Now, a disclaimer.  I'm a very spoiled little American girl who is always used to having her house in the low seventies.  I personally know Tajiks who heat their houses by burning cardboard boxes, so I have no illusions about suffering during the past week.  However, it has been annoying.  But just annoying, and a reminder that I've got a pretty great life.

Our house is heated with radiators.  This, of course, is standard for most countries other than the U.S.  The problem, however, is that radiators only one come in two temperatures: on or off.  We're actually luckier than most of our friends and we can turn on individual radiators in different rooms.  Most people here can either have all their radiators on or all of them off.

Radiators work perfectly fine in a certain temperature range: below fifty-five or sixty and above forty or forty-five degrees.  But if it gets much hotter than fifty-five or sixty, especially in rooms with afternoon sunlight, your only option is to open a window.  And if it gets much colder than forty degrees your only option is to put more clothes on.  It's not very flexible.  You'd think that, in these days of amazing technology, someone could come up with something more advanced than pipes full of hot water.

So last week, when I was cooking cooking cooking for our party, our kitchen was sweltering.  I had already turned off the floors (yes, we have heated floors instead of radiators on our first floor) the day before, knowing that most people prefer cooler room temperatures than me.  I'm still waiting for that mythical pregnancy-keeps-you-warm thing to kick in.  I opened all the windows, which of course brought in all the flies in the neighborhood since screens are unheard of here.  Our third floor, which still had the radiators on, was giving all of the playing children flushed cheeks and sweaty hair.

The same third floor, with all the radiators and a couple plug-ins to help out, has been consistently sixty-two or sixty-three degrees during school this whole week.  So we've just worn more clothes.  And slippers.  And a blanket, when I started getting really cold on Friday.  My room temperature has been dropping throughout the week, and hit a new low of sixty-six degrees when I woke up this morning.  I know some people who consider this a perfect temperature for sleeping, but none of those people is me.  Our study, which hangs out over the front porch and under a balcony is even colder.  Thankfully we have split packs to help, but having more than two or three on at a time trips our generator because I don't know why - a mystery that still hasn't been solved after two years' residence.

Thankfully, as I said earlier, the weather is warming back up to optimal radiator usage range and so I've been mostly okay with our cold house.  And even better, we'll be spending the coldest months in the magical land of central heating where my mother keeps the heat at a blessedly warm seventy-three degrees all day every day no matter what temperature it is outside.  It's like magic.

I know that one day I too will live in a house where I can set a temperature and reasonably expect the house to always be that temperature, but that mythical day is a very long way away.  So I just tell myself that I'm glad to have the semi-magic miracle of radiators and humanity has had it much harder for most of our history and at least I don't have to burn cardboard to keep warm.  And then I put on a pair of socks or open a window.  Depending on the day.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Baby Update

This past week I finally crossed into the final home stretch of my sixth pregnancy.  It's always such a relief to make it to the viable-if-there's-a-problem stage and then supremely depressing to realize that there are still three more months before I can sleep on my stomach, wear normal clothes (well, more than three months for that one), or climb a flight of stairs without almost passing out.  Three months is such a very long time.

But, my feelings on the length of pregnancies aside, things continue to go very well for both me and baby William.  He is a very active baby, holding dance parties almost constantly and kicking his father in the back while his father is trying to sleep.  I am tired and grouchy, but that's pretty standard for most six month pregnant ladies.  I finally had to pull out the maternity clothes, but that was going to happen at some point.

The children and I will leave for North Carolina the day after Christmas to stay with my parents for three months.  They are all excited about the prospect of spending time at the house with the pond and legos.  Eleanor likes telling me just about every day how we are going to fly on an airplane and go visit grandma and grandpa's house.  Edwin is looking forward to visiting his favorite museum where the dinosaur bones are kept.  I am looking forward to driving my parents' Odyssey for three months (thanks, Mom and Dad!)

So things are going just fine.  In a good pregnancy, it's mostly just nine months of waiting around for the baby to show up, and that's what this pregnancy has been.  Which is a blessing that I'm not going to complain about.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Come Party at the Sherwood's

Way (way) back when I was in college I moved into a new apartment complex and ward mid-year.  I knew none of my roommates and only one girl in the ward, having spent the previous semester studying abroad in Vienna.  The ward had no activities on Sunday evenings, so I decided to start something of my own.  Every Sunday evening I baked a bunch of cakes and invited everyone over to eat them.  Because there's no better way to make friends than offering them food and a place to meet new people.

Unsurprisingly, it became very popular.  At times it was stressful - hosting is always stressful - but I enjoyed creating a place for friends and soon-to-be-friends to mingle and enjoy themselves.  Brandon even came one Sunday evening, but I didn't remember it at all when he mentioned it during our second (and more memorable) meeting.

After we got married my hosting days came to an end.  Having lots of children close together tends to take up most of your time and energy, leaving very little for throwing parties that take up even more time and energy.  And joining the Foreign Service didn't help, either.  It's hard to invite all your friends over when you just don't have that many.  And when you spend all your time chasing around those bunches of small children it's hard to make friends.

But when we moved to Dushanbe, I finally felt like I could begin hosting again.  The children were old enough to not need me every second of the day, the community was small enough that it was pretty easy to get to know everyone, and we had a house that worked well for hosting.

So I started out with the same formula that worked so well in college: doughnuts.  A good friend in Baku had hosted a monthly ladies' craft night and I made some of my closest friends from the group that would show up on the first Thursday of every month.  So I took craft night and added doughnuts.  Pretty soon we dropped the 'craft' part (I'm not one for crafts anyway) and just sat around and ate doughnuts.  Bribery is always a great way to make friends.

Ladies' night has now being happening for over a year now and I've found another strong group of friends to enjoy here in Dushanbe.  Brandon hates ladies' night (the kitchen is usually a mess and he has to hide upstairs with the children), but he puts up with it because he's a wonderfully nice husband who puts up with a lot of nonsense from me.  He even helps wash the dishes.

Occasionally we invite some friends over for pizza and a movie and last year we hosted a caroling party which featured doughnuts.  Once you've found a formula that works, there's no point in deviating from it.  But mostly it's been ladies' night.

That is, until recently.  First we had a visit from our mission president and a member of the area presidency.  As part of the visit we had a group pot luck for all the members of our group.  This added up to almost thirty people.  Thankfully, our house is well suited to feeding lots of people and we were able to seat everyone at a table, even if it used all of the six tables and thirty chairs in our house.

Then we started having church at our house again.  The family that was hosting church leaves this week so it's back to moving chairs, tables and lamps again every Sunday.

And this past week we not only hosted ladies' night, but also a goodbye party for the family was leaving.  Everyone was invited, so we ended up feeding dinner to sixty-five or so guests.  This time we brought in some outside tables and chairs and were, again, able to seat everyone for dinner.  It's a good thing we have such a large house.

This week we are hosting Thanksgiving, but only for ourselves and two other families - six adults and eleven children.  And I don't even have to make the turkey.  Making stuffing, rolls, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie for seventeen people is almost not even worth starting early for.

And then we'll wrap up our year with another caroling party.  Because caroling!  After feeding sixty-five people dinner, making six or seven dozen doughnuts is a walk in the park.

By the time we leave the day after Christmas, I'm pretty sure that everyone in the embassy community will be happy to see us go, if only to have a reprieve from the constant invitations to come over to our house.

But I will have lots and lots of time with friends to keep me through the long three months of medevac in North Carolina where it will be lots of family time and not so much friend time.  Enough that I'll be more than ready to have another party when we get back.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Happy Birthday, Joseph!

Joseph turned five this week.  Brandon and I were gone on his actual birthday, so he was very happy to celebrate a few days early.

We don't throw birthday parties (two reasons: I'm lazy and I don't want any more toys), so we have a birthday Saturday where the birthday child gets to choose an activity that we all do together as a family.  It's fun for everyone, a lot less stress than a birthday party, and it's a good excuse to do things we don't usually do.

Joseph started off his birthday day with cinnamon rolls, his most favorite breakfast.  And since it was his birthday, he didn't have to eat any eggs.  After breakfast, Brandon and the children built an enormous fort and he read them Harry Potter and I made Joseph's birthday cake, a triple chocolate mousse cake that looked good to me.  Turns out that five year-olds are pretty open to suggestions when it comes to cake.  Mostly because they almost never eat it.

In the afternoon we took the children bowling, at Joseph's request.  I never bowled with my family as a child, but I find bowling with the children a pretty fun activity, especially when the bowling alley has bumpers.  Dushanbe's bowling alley is, rather oddly, in the national tea house and quite nice.  And you really can't beat the price - a little over ten dollars for the whole family to bowl.  There are some things I really like about Dushanbe.

After the game (final scores: Brandon 94, me 74, Kathleen 71, Sophia 65, Edwin 61, and Joseph 59), we went out to dinner.  The last time we went out to dinner was in January, so going out to dinner together is a treat.  We had Indian and nobody knocked over any glasses of juice or broke down in tears, so it was a successful dinner.

Then it was cake and presents (and no dishes!).  Joseph was thrilled to get a Planes toy set and was so happy that, as usual, didn't actually eat any of his birthday cake.  Then we finished off the day with a movie.  If you ask me, that's a pretty good birthday day for any kid.  Everyone had a great time, which is one of the benefits of a large family - lots of birthdays to celebrate.

And now I have four children five or older, which is kind of hard to believe.  I remember Kathleen being so incredibly old at five and now Joseph is just barely out of babyhood and already five.  He would be going to kindergarten next year.  It's time for him to start learning how to read.  I'm not sure where the time went.

But, even if I'm paying attention, it has passed and now Joseph is five.  Happy birthday, Joseph!

Sunday, November 13, 2016


This morning, around five am (gotta love those random flights!) Brandon and I got home from Dubai.  Back in the spring we watched some friends' children and this past week Brandon and I took our turn to have a child-free vacation.

My parents did this every year when I was a child - usually their destination was the Carribbean - and my mother always said that mom and day getaways are one of the necessities of a happy marriage.  I'm inclined to agree with her.

Brandon and I have left the children for several days four or five times before, but the last time was when I was pregnant with Eleanor (actually, every time it was when I was pregnant) and two and a half years is really long enough.  I've never had any burning desire to visit Dubai - shopping and indoor skiing aren't my thing - but Dubai is one of the few places you can get a direct flight to from Dushanbe.  We could have gone to Frankfurt or Moscow or St. Petersburg also, but a beach vacation in Dubai was much more appealing than snow in Moscow.  I'm okay with being uncultured if there's a beach involved.

We left early Wednesday morning and were in Dubai by breakfast time.  As we got into our taxi and drove through the city, Brandon and I marveled at the stark contrast between bustling, towering, glittering Dubai and our own sleepy Dushanbe.  The roads had stripes and drivers kept to them.  The taxis had meters and they actually worked.  The weather was perfectly clear and sunny and palm trees were everywhere.  I'm perfectly happy to live in Dushanbe, but it was nice to go somewhere not still in a post-Soviet slump.

After much internal debate (it's just money!  But it's so much money!) I booked us at a five-star beach front resort.  We didn't go to Dubai to see the city or do exciting things, we just came to enjoy the beach and I decided that I wanted to enjoy a nice beach.  And a nice beach it was.  The grounds were perfectly manicured, filled with fellow holiday-makers strolling the grounds, sunning themselves, and eating very expensive food brought straight to their poolside lounge chairs.  Unfortunately I've gotten to appreciate the luxury of really nice hotels and love the feeling of crisp sheets, down pillows, and nice-smelling toiletries.

Brandon and I are, fortuitously, both very happy to do nothing on vacation but read books, swim a little, sleep in late, and eat good food, so that's what we did.  I had booked a hotel in an area with lots of shops and restaurants, thinking it would be nice to get out at night and stroll, but really we could have been in the middle of nowhere and it wouldn't have mattered as we barely left the property our entire stay.  I finished two and a half books, and and Brandon finished two.  There's nothing like the luxury of reading without any interruptions except for having to move your lounge chair when the shade has moved.  And then when you finish the day off with a delicious meal (the kind that can't be found anywhere in Dushanbe), it's almost sinful.

Every day, after a long strenuous day of moving those lounge chairs and walking all the way to the perfectly warm ocean, Brandon and I would look at each other and start to giggle, realizing that we would get to do it again the next day.  I realized that what I really want on a vacation is to have somebody else do my work for me - someone else cooks the food and cleans my room and changes my towels and makes the menu - and it just takes a little (or a lot of) money to get that done.

Now, of course, it's back to reality with school and hosting parties and work and upcoming Thanksgiving, but our Dubai vacation was great while it lasted.  I've already looked up flights from Tashkent.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Uzbekistan, Here We Come

Image result for uzbekistan flag

And the winner is... Nick!  Followed closely by Kelley and Mindy  We're either very obvious about what part of the world we like to hang out in or you guys are really good at asking questions or probably both.  Good work on the guessing!

Now I imagine that a few of you are scratching your head about why in the world we're sticking with Central Asia... again (especially after the discussion about Brussels on Facebook).  Because really, once you've done one Central Asian country you've kind of done them all, right?  In Tajikistan they've got plov.  And Uzbekistan, too.  There are mountains here and also in Uzbekistan.  The climate in Tashkent and Dushanbe are nearly identical - short coldish winters with long hot and dry summers.  We're in the same time zone, with a five-minute difference in sunrise and sunsets.  We fly through the exact same airports (I was really hoping for a break from Istanbul, but no such luck.  Sigh).  And two of the most-visited cities in Uzbekistan are actually Tajik cities.  So yeah, it's pretty much three more years of the same. 

But there is some method to our madness.  Hear me out.

We are not actually leaving Dushanbe until May of 2018.  This means that, according to the usual way of things, Brandon shouldn't be bidding until next year.  But pretty much all jobs in his field that don't use Spanish, French, or English have a year of language training built in.  So if we followed the normal way of things, we'd leave Dushanbe in May 2018, spend nine months or so in language training, and show up at our next post in summer of 2019.

We've done that twice before, and I'm getting pretty tired of it.  Our family, in case you haven't noticed, is getting pretty big.  And it turns out that finding furnished housing for a family of eight in the Arlington area isn't that easy.  State does provide guaranteed housing through various corporate lodging programs, but the largest thing they've got is a three-bedroom apartment.  If the kids were in traditional school, that would be okay.  They like sharing bedrooms and we can squeeze.  I would only have two home during the day (what would that be like?) and there are lots of nice parks in the Arlington area.  But the combination of six children + homeschooling + a three bedroom apartment with a table only large enough for six people = a lot less tenable.  And I'm not going to even start talking about buying a car, only having 1,100 pounds of stuff, not getting the forty percent or so pay bump from being overseas, and adding yet another move to our crazy life.

So if you don't want to go through language training, what do you do?  Out-year bidding.  Out-year bidding is pretty much the exact (well, exactly the exact) same thing as regular bidding.  A list comes out, you look at the jobs, determine what looks good to you (and how you would look to those making the decisions), and start the email conversations that hopefully culminate in a job offer.  But you can only bid on jobs where you already meet the language requirement.  Brandon speaks (spoke, at one point) Arabic, but he can't take any Arabic jobs without training because his score only lasted five years and is now expired.  So that takes out every place in the world but... Russian speaking countries.  Good thing the good old USSR was such a big place, because it turns out that there are a lot of Russian-speaking jobs out there.

The initial job list was a little disappointing (do you want to go to frozen Moscow or even frozen-er Astana), but when Brandon widened his job search - political officers have a lot of flexibility and can do straight pol jobs, econ jobs, or pol/econ jobs - a lot of nice places (well, in the Russian speaking world) showed up.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop.  A Russian-speaking candy shop.  We could go to Moscow or Astana or Bishkek or Almaty or Chisinau or Tashkent or back to Baku or Kiev or Yerevan or Ashgabat or Minsk.  After last round's ...or Africa choices we had a lot of options.

Brandon and I have always wanted to go to Tashkent.  In fact, it was our first choice for our second tour.  This is not for a deep and abiding love of Uzbekistan or Silk Road history (well, that did appeal for Brandon), but rather for the housing.  Tashkent is quietly known in the foreign service as having fantastic housing.  I've heard the housing described as palaces and mansions, and a lot of the houses have pools.  Combine that with a good exchange rate, easily available household help, decent weather (for a Russian-speaking post), a good-sized COLA, decent hardship pay, language incentive pay, and somewhat of a tourist industry, and Uzbekistan is a pretty good place for us.

I wouldn't have minded most of the other places on the list either (well, not you, Astana or Ashgabat), but the job in Tashkent had an odd starting date, April of 2018.  Most summer jobs start in July or August because most people leave their jobs in July in August.  So an April start date doesn't work very well, especially if you have children in school.  But it turns out that we are leaving in May and we don't have to follow regular school schedules.  So when Brandon was stacked up against the one or maybe two other candidates for the job, he looked pretty good.  He already spoke Russian (saving them tens of thousands of dollars in language training), he was already working in the region (bureaus like to keep people who already know the lay of the land), and we could actually make the wacky start date.  Everyone was happy.  Me especially because that means that we don't have to do language training and we have put off living like paupers for our inevitable two-year DC tour.  Another three years of good living and cash-sacking and children getting old enough to babysit when we eventually head back to DC.

As with all prospective posts, I'm looking forward to exchanging the things I don't like at the old post for things I don't like at the new post.  After living in a country with no tourist industry, it will be nice to live somewhere that is better set up for doing something other than driving on extremely sketchy roads looking for mythical trailheads.  I will miss our proximity, however, as the mountains in Uzbekistan are a minimum of an hour away.  Brandon and I will be able to go back to Samarkand and Bukhara and see everything a little more thoroughly.  There's even a high speed train.  The city itself is a lot larger (bad for getting around) so there are things like play places and malls and water parks and more than five restaurant options.  And there are even flights in and out every single day of the week.  Crazy, I know.  Two of the flights even get in on almost the same day you leave Istanbul.  

All of this, however, is in the hazy distant future, as we still have eighteen months left in Dushanbe - if we had done things normally we would have just arrived six months ago.  But it is nice to know where we're going and even nicer to be happy about it!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Twenty Questions, Round Two

Here are the next round of questions.  After these ones, feel free to ask specific country or city names.  And this time (unlike the last two times), you might actually want to win and come visit us.  Moving up in the world!

Does it end with -stan?

Does the country have a lake named Aydarkul?

Was the first president of this country Islam Karimov?

Does this country share a border with five other countries?
Yes (I had to look on map for that one).

Does this country have the Bande Pitaw Wildlife Refuge?

Can you drive your HHE to your next post?

Does it start with a U?

Looking forward to your guesses!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Twenty Questions, Round One

So the questions are in and it's time for some answers!

Does the name of the nation rhyme (or at least make an assonance) with the patronymic of a man who was later called Alexander VI, a name adopted as part of the new position to which he was appointed in 1492?

Nope.  I had to look that one up (thank you, internet).

Will Brandon need to speak Russian in this new assignment? 

Will the kids need to wear coats at least once during the winter? 

Is there a direct flight from this new posting to the U.S.? 
That would be really nice, but no.

Is this capital above the equator? 

Is it above the Tropic of Cancer? 

Is it below the Tropic of Capricorn? 

Is it found on the Asian continent? 

Is it found on the European continent? 

Is it found on the African continent?

Does it border a Sea?

Is the main language one Brandon already knows?

Will you qualify for the mythic clothing allowance?
Thankfully, no.

Will I be able to collect my rug from 'Southern Azerbaijan'?

Is there a DPO at post?

Does the country name start with a vowel?

Is there a post differential?
Of course!

Is the main language English?

Is the total flight time to the USA less than ten hours?
No, but it's a dream of mine to one day live in a place like that.

Is it Arabic speaking?

Thanks for all of the questions!  Submit your next round of questions on the blog or Facebook, and I'll keep answering them!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Twenty Questions Time!

So today Brandon got an magical email in his inbox today, the one that tells us where we'll be spending the next two (or three) years of our life.  I love those emails; the planner in me can finally, after months (and years) of wondering where we'll be next, know the answer to that question.  All other possibilities fall away and I can focus all my hopes and dreams on somewhere concrete.  Until, of course, we finally get there and then I start wondering about the next place.  
This doesn't mean, of course that I'm just going to tell you where that place will be.  You, faithful readers, get to guess!  I had so much fun the first two times that I'm doing it again.  So here are the rules:

1.  Only yes or no questions
2.  I will answer all questions from one round before proceeding to the next
3.  No specific city or country names for the first two rounds
4.  The game continues, with 24-hour rounds, until someone guesses where we're going
5.  The winner gets an all-expenses paid trip (excluding airfare and personal expenses) to our next post!   Valid from 4 (or 5)/2018 until the end of our tour.

The first round will end 12 AM EST on November 2 and the rounds will continue until we have a lucky winner.

For those of you who know what the list consisted of or have already heard what our posting is, don't spoil the fun.  As a bribe for your silence, I can offer you the same prize as the winner.

For those of you who prefer to remain private about your affection for my blog, I will enable anonymous comments.  If you win, however, you will have to tell me who you are in able to claim your prize (if you want it).  And if you prefer to comment on Facebook, I'll be happy to take questions there, too.

So, get out your atlases, and start the fun!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Me and the Med Unit

I have always (foolishly) prided myself in having a pretty healthy family.  We all get occasional colds and fevers and sore throats and even stomach bugs.  Moving to Dushanbe has certainly increased the incidence of these minor sicknesses, but pretty much we stick with things that can be treated with the same formula: rest, liquids, and some more rest.

We've never had strep throat, pneumonia, bronchitis, scarlet fever (common here in Tajikistan), hand-foot-mouth disease, ear infections, or even a single cavity (in the children).  Our medical interactions are usually limited to yearly check-ups.  Our insurance company is definitely making money off of us.

Or was.  Until we moved to Dushanbe.

Maybe it's just because the children are getting older.  Or statistical odds are finally catching up with me.  Perhaps it's just payback for being smug.  But really, it's starting to get old.

In the two years since moving to Dushanbe we've had stitches, an x-ray (luckily not broken), two MRIs, one CAT scan, a meningitis scare, multiple ultrasounds (on the same day), two medevacs, three rounds of antibiotics in one month for the same person, and I don't know how many late-night after hours house calls.  This last week I visited the med unit on every single day except Friday.  Currently we're waiting to see if there will be one more visit to London this year.

It's a good thing that we have a really (really) nice and patient med unit here.  Because if I were them, I'd be getting pretty annoyed with the whole Sherwood family starting about a year ago.

Thankfully none of these (many, many) visits to the med unit have been any kind of emergency, just the usual vagaries of life with seven people in a family.  But it is starting to feel a little ridiculous.  Oh, hi med unit!  It's just us.  Again.

In a few months all of us (well, except Brandon) will pack up and head to the States and the med unit will get a much-needed three month break from our constant low-level emergencies.  But until then we have a round of shots and a couple of well-child visits and four more OB appointments.  And those are just the scheduled appointments.  Like I said, its a good thing we have such a great med unit.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Homeschooling: (Finally) Finding our Stride

We just finished the second week of October.  Last week we had a holiday on Monday (hello, Columbus Day!) and then schooled for the rest of the week.  On every single day I started on time(ish), checked all the girls' work, and got all of Edwin's school done.  This is the first week I've done all of these things on all four school days.  Just in case you were wondering, we started schooling the third week of August.  So it's been a long time coming.

This school year has been somewhat of an exercise to get going.  Edwin started first grade, which meant that instead of doing an hour or so of reading each day (did I ever mention how teaching a child how to read is my number one least favorite part of homeschooling?), we have reading lessons plus math lessons plus history plus various language arts things plus science (okay, science has yet to start yet.  It's animals and plants this year.  I'm not that concerned).  With a child who is still working on their reading skills.

Kathleen started fifth grade this year.  Which means that pretty much everything she does, with the exception of math, is done in a completely new way.  And so not only does Kathleen have to figure it all out, but I have to figure it out before (and then with) her so that I can know how to answer her questions about how things are done.

Over the summer I worked on figuring it out, but we all know about how long battle plans last once the battle has begun.  So then when school started I began round two of figuring things out.  One of the very first things I did was ditch our science curriculum, which I didn't find thorough enough for my liking.  And plus, it was much too disorganized.  So that, of course, necessitated finding a new curriculum, figuring out that one, and then ordering everything for it.  And then explaining it all (at least ten times) to Kathleen.

Then we had to work out grading.  Our umbrella school requires grades to be submitted each semester, and we did a pretty miserable job of keeping things recorded and organized last school year.

 I have some sympathy for first children as they are always the test case for everything that happens.  There's a lot more angst when you go through something the first time that when you go through it the second (or third or fourth or fifth or sixth).  Which is why it's nice to have so many children - lots of opportunities to first perfect and then implement the things you learned on the poor hapless first one.

This year I decided to pay Kathleen for her grades.  She is also responsible, starting this year, for her own clothes and miscellaneous expenses, so there's a pretty good incentive to do well on her school work.  Her sneakers and church shoes are too small and it's starting to get cold.  Need some new shoes?  Well, you'd better make sure to do well on your school work! [Insert evil mom laughter]

That, of course, meant more work getting that system worked out.  Everything takes some time to learn and implement.

And then Sophia started third grade and independent work.  Which just added another layer of complexity.  It turns out that managing people may not take as much time as doing it yourself, but it still takes time.  And a whole lot more chasing people around to get things done.

But finally, after over a month and a half of working out the problems, I think we've got it down pretty well.  Which is good because in less than four months there is another wrinkle named William showing up on the scene (while staying three months at my parents' house in North Carolina).  I'm a little relieved that our original plan that called for William's arrival this summer didn't work out.  Because combining all of the above with the post-partum insanity of a newborn?  Not the best idea I've heard of recently.

So, that's school for now.  Always a little crazy (what household with five children isn't?), but much less crazy then it was a few months ago.  And I'm always happy to take a little less crazy in my life.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Well Hello, Fall

It's been summer here in Tajikistan since May.  I like summer.  It's the season where you can throw on a pair of flip-flops and leave the house without any other preparation.  No coats, shoes, hats, mittens, scarves, or socks.  In summer you can spend hours at the pool and stay out at night eating ice cream in the warm, dark night.  All of the trees are green and bazaars full of ripe, fresh produce that costs nearly nothing.  The days are long and winter is a distant memory, cold dark place that once happened to someone you knew in another life.  Summer could last forever.

But then the days start growing shorter and the light slants through the trees in that friendly way and maybe summer could actually let some other season take a break.

But here in Dushanbe, summer hasn't been taking that hint.  The weather forecast has been perfectly consistent: 92 and sunny; 91 and sunny; 93 and sunny; 90 and sunny.  And after awhile, it feels a little silly to be running your air conditioning every night when it's late September.  And maybe shoes aren't such a bad thing.  And jeans - what would it be like to wear jeans again?  It would be nice to go to the park and enjoy a perfectly crisp fall day without sweating to death.  But still nothing but nineties and sunny.

Then last Saturday it rained.  It rained a lot, enough to wash the dust out of the air and off the trees and into the cracks in the sidewalk.  It rained like it hadn't rained in months, and I enjoyed hearing the drops on the roof again and smelling the freshness that only rain brings.

When we woke up Sunday morning, it was fall.  I opened the windows and let the cool breeze blow summer out of the house, months of air conditioning and hot rooms and sweaty bodies.  I made hot chocolate and doughnuts.  I pulled a cardigan out of my drawers.

When summer starts, after months of cold and grey and socks and shoes, I mourn for the day when it will be over.  I can't imagine ever wanting to be cold again.  But then summer lasts and lasts (and here in Dushanbe lasts) and maybe sweater weather isn't such a bad thing and I'm even ready for socks again.  Time for some change.  And then by the end of winter I'm ready for hot again.

And so the seasons go.  I used to think that I wanted nothing more than to live on a tropical island in perpetual summer, swimming every day and never ever having to wear socks.  Then I lived in Egypt where you could only tell that it was winter because the winter flowers were blooming.  And suddenly winter wasn't such a bad thing, if only as the thing that brought you spring.  It turns out that having some variety in your life is a good thing.  Good to have the cold so that you can know the warm.

And so I'm glad for fall here in Dushanbe.  It's okay that the days are growing shorter because they will grow longer again.  The leaves can fall off the trees so that new green ones can come in the spring.  The snow will bring flowers in time.

Welcome, fall.  It's nice to see you again.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Top (and Bottom) Five of Dushanbe

It's bidding season right now the Foreign Service, which means that everyone wants to know what is great and not so great about all of the posts that they're considering spending their next two years at.  We've been in Dushanbe for almost two years now (our two-year anniversary is next month) and so I feel like I can tell my own story of what is great (and not so great) about this very little-known sleepy post-Soviet posting.

1.  The money.  For some people, money is not a consideration.  Why worry about money when you'll be dead some day and won't be able to take it with you?  Experience is what you're after, not money!  Most of these people, however, aren't expecting their sixth child.  So for us, money is an important consideration.  And Dushanbe delivers.  Dushanbe just got designated as a hard to fill post, which means that, if you extend to three years (which we did), you get an extra 15% on top of the 30% differential we already have.  Add that language incentive pay (about $10,000 a year) and 5% COLA, and you're talking about some serious cash.  For us that means we make 60% over Brandon's base salary.  Our financial planner is very happy with us right now.  Oh, and there are also two R&Rs for a two-year tour.

1. The travel.  Not only is it an unholy pain to get to Dushanbe, it's also a lot of trouble to leave here.  Sometimes it's nice to take a little weekend trip with the family.  I'm stuck at home all day with the children and I like to leave, if only for a long weekend.  This was easy in Egypt - the Red Sea had a selection of European resorts that offered great local rates.  In Baku we took the train to Georgia and went up to the mountains.  In Dushanbe, we've gone camping.  Twice.  There are a couple of 'resorts' on a reservoir that are supposed to be okay, but you never quite know with Tajikistan.  It's pretty likely that you'll be in local standard housing eating local food surrounded by locals staring at you.  An interesting cultural experience yes, relaxing no.  And that's it.  Uzbekistan needs a visa, Afghanistan is understandably not an option, and Kyrgystan is too far to drive to.  Want to get out of the country and go somewhere nice?  Save your pennies for a plane ticket.  And for us, seven plane tickets are a lot of pennies.

2.  The housing.  Everyone here lives in housing that is above the regulation square footage for their rank and family size.  We have a three-floor, almost 6,000 square-foot house.  Our top floor is entirely open and the children drive a little-tykes car around the space that would make for a really, really great-sized New York apartment.  Because of safety regulations, there are no apartments in the housing pool.  So you want a house?  Come to Dushanbe!

2.  The housing.  Although large, the houses are all amazingly shoddily built.  Our house is covered in elaborate molding - and all of it is styrofoam.  Five children and styrofoam molding does not mix well.  Before we moved in, the whole house had to be re-wired (aluminum electrical wiring generally isn't a good idea) and so every single room had conduits running to every outlet, switch, and light.  And they pop off the wall pretty easily.  Don't ask me how I know this.  Our main power line has a bad connection to the city power, so on laundry days we can either dry the clothes or air-condition the house.  Same for when I have to cook dinner.  I've yet to be in a house with actual hardwood floors, and some houses have plank flooring that has been painted an amazing mustard brown-orange.  Stairs are never regulation height, and not all master bedrooms have bathrooms in them.  So, you get a large house, but it will have it's terribly annoying quirks.

3. The community.  Like all small, remote posts, Dushanbe has a great community.  When there is literally nobody else, you find friends very easily.  There are regularly hosted CLO get-togethers, lots of birthday parties, soccer taught by dads, pool parties, and house parties.  If you want to have friends in Dushanbe, you can have them.  Everyone has a sense of adventure, and most people are pretty happy to be here.

3.  The schooling.  Although we homeschool, I've heard lots about the school.  As in all remote places, the schooling options are extremely limited.  Although there is an Indian-run, British curriculum school, all the children here attend QSI.  Currently they have about 100 children in K-12, and the majority are elementary-school aged.  The classes have one teacher per grade, so you're stuck with what they have, and the classrooms are small because the school is housed in several houses.  There are also not very many extra-curricular activities - Tae Kwon Do and tennis are the only two I've heard of.  If you want an amazing school with a variety of activities and an amazing campus, go somewhere else.

4.  The weather.  Yes, it gets hot in July in August.  Not enough to rival those really hot places (I'm talking to you, Dubai), but in the upper nineties and low hundreds.  But Dushanbe truly has four seasons and nice, long fall and spring sandwiching a very bearable two-month winter.  It's sunny a majority of the days and you can get out and do something most of the time here.  And for those hot days, the embassy has a pool.

4.  Shopping.  There is pretty much nothing to buy in Dushanbe.  The locals make embroidered Suzanis and you won't be able to get out of here without buying two or three, but that's about it.  The grocery stores are equally unimpressive, and the restaurant options are limited.  If you're looking for somewhere to drop all of that extra cash you're making, the most exciting place is in your bank account.  Which is probably not a bad thing.

5.  Traffic.  Yes, everyone hates the way the locals drive, but I'm pretty sure that's universal for everywhere outside of Western Europe/the Anglosphere.  Which is most of the world.  Yes, you get cut off in traffic, honked at, passed on the left over a double yellow line, and almost hit reckless pedestrians on a daily bases.  But there just aren't that many cars.  On a really, really, really bad day you may have to wait through three of four traffic light cycles - at the one busy traffic light on your entire commute home from work.  I'm pretty sure we'll never live in a place with lighter traffic than Dushanbe.  At least until we retire to rural middle America.

5.  Lack of employment.  Not that this is something I deal with, but I've heard about it from other spouses.  Your options are: 1. the embassy.  They've worked quite hard to provide as much employment as there are EFMs looking for employment (although the process can sometimes be longer than it's worth), which has definitely been appreciated.  But outside the embassy, your options are pretty much at 2. a local school.  QSI had hired a few EFMs and several local kindergartens have also hired spouses to help with English classes.  But that's it.  So if you're looking for amazing EFM employment, don't come to Dushanbe.

And, as a special bonus!
6.  The people.  Tajiks are the perfect blend of hospitable and leave-you-alone.  Maybe it's because I'm almost always out with my five children (and they love children here), but I always have someone willing to make a kind comment or help me out.  Tajiks are very happy with their relative anonymity and enjoy a pretty robust internal culture that they are proud of.  I got to attend a wedding recently, and those around me warmly welcomed me to the party, and then had a great time celebrating the bride and groom.  Nobody got a picture with me, and nobody looked at me like I didn't belong.  It's really a great place to be an expat.

And one more:
7.  The mountains.  If you like to hike, Dushanbe is the post for you.  The mountains start about 20 minutes outside the city and pretty much don't stop for the rest of the country.  If I didn't have children (and was in better shape), I would spend my weekends on one of the innumerable trekking routes (also known as sheep trails) that crisscross the mountains.  The few tourists that do come come for the trekking because it really is amazing.  The mountains are stunningly beautiful and completely uncrowded.  I never regret an opportunity to get out and explore the countryside of Tajikistan.

So, if you're looking for a high money-making post with lovely scenery, large housing, and a great community, Dushanbe is the place for you.

But, if you're looking for a city with lots of things to do and high-quality anything with lots of travel opportunities and world-class schooling, you're better off in Vienna.

It's all what you're looking for!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Me in London

One of my favorite parts about being pregnant overseas in sketchy places is going to London for an OB appointment or two.  Being pregnant isn't that great - slowly watching your waistline expand as you get increasingly exhausted and crabby isn't anyone's idea of fun - so at least I got a trip to London out of the deal.  Obviously, in the end, I'll get a baby too.  Which is probably better than all the trips to London combined.

This trip to London was my third, after a short trip while in Baku and a much longer trip with Joseph this past May.  I've stayed in the same neighborhood (and in the same hotel twice) all three times so this time it almost felt like coming home.

When I got off the plane and looked around at all the signs in English and heard it being spoken all around me, it was so nice to be back in a culture where I belonged.  No more sticking out like a sore thumb - just blessed anonymity and the ability to communicate with anyone I saw.  You don't realize what a relief that is until you spend years in a place not like that.

So I rolled my little carry-on bag through the airport, chatted with the border agent at passport control, and confidently made my way down to the Heathrow Express without any hesitation.  It's like magic, the ability to just go and do something without consulting maps, checking routes, and then crossing your fingers for good luck.

When I got off at Paddington Station, I decided to take the Underground instead of hailing a taxi to get to the hotel.  It was early afternoon, I had nobody but me, and it was cheaper.  So out came my Oyster card and a few flights of stairs later, I was riding public transportation like I'd never left.  I cannot tell you the marvel that public transportation is.  If you want to go somewhere, you can get there without depending on anything but the system and your card being topped up.  The whole city is available.  So amazing.

With a little bit of walking (I hadn't thought to check a map when I had internet access) I found my hotel, checked in, kicked off my boots, and read a book.  Pathetic, I know - there are hundreds of things to do in London and instead I read a book - but oh the beauty of reading a book uninterrupted without any responsibilities nagging me can't be denied.

Eventually, after talking to Brandon (which only made me feel guilty) I got some dinner.  The restaurant possibilities in London are endless and it took a while to decide.  Hmmm, do I feel like Indian? or Peruvian? How about sushi?  French? Fish and Chips? Italian? British?  I'm not sure if I could handle choices like these on a daily basis.  Eventually I decided that Greek sounded good.  And it was good.  I used to feel bad for people eating alone, thinking that they had a rather sad life if they couldn't find anyone to eat with.  But sometimes, it's just nice to be all alone.  Not for too long, but just for a little while.

The next morning I had the reason for the entire trip, my appointment.  Everything with the baby is going perfectly well, which is always a tremendous relief.  Even more so when problems mean leaving for the US on short notice and an even longer separation from your husband.

And then the rest of the day was mine.  I started with a little shopping.  I had a few things to buy while in London and so I got business out of the way first.  Usually I don't like shopping.  Give me Amazon any day - make a decision, put it in your cart, and you're done - but while in London I rediscovered the pleasure of shopping.  It turns out that shopping is fun when you 1. don't have children with you, 2. aren't on a schedule, 3. can walk everywhere, and 4. are in a country where there's something worth buying.

Walking around in stores with all sorts of pretty things with prices listed and nobody following you is probably something I could get entirely too used to.  Our bank account is very happy we live in Dushanbe, not London.  My favorite stores were the grocery stores.  So many good things - proscuttio! macaroons! avacados! cheeses! olives! pears! cookies!  My scale is very happy we live in Dushanbe, too.

After a nap (because, naps), I took in a little culture at the National Gallery before treating myself to dinner at the highest-rated French restaurant in London.  After all, that per diem isn't going to spend itself.  After a little bit of debate (can I really eat eight courses?) I went for the tasting menu.  Scallops, lobster, foie gras, lamb, and sea bass all found a warm home in my stomach while I enjoyed reading a book.  And after three dessert courses, I practically had to roll out of the restaurant before making my way back to the hotel and collapsing after a long, taxing day.

The next morning, it was time for Cinderella to get home to her home, family, responsibilities, and sick children eagerly waiting for her to return.  Which is okay, because it's not nearly as nice to leave if you don't have anybody to go back to.

Until next time (whenever that will be), London!