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Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Conversation, In Russian

The girls and I are plugging along in our Russian lessons.  Our long-suffering Russian teacher (Why didn’t you study the words I assigned you last time?  You’re not going to learn these words if you don’t study them! [Well, we will eventually learn them, but probably not as quickly]) continues to show up three times a week and we continue to dutifully learn what Russian she has to offer.

But still, there’s not been that much progress.  Because really, as I’ve said before, Russian is not very high on our priority list.  Which I’m okay with, because I generally need Russian to: 1. Communicate with my housekeeper.  Since she does such a good job, usually we don’t say much beyond “Good morning,” and “Goodbye.” Those are the best kinds of housekeepers.  2.  Communicate with my gardener.  This one is a little trickier.  I was very proud at being able to tell her to go buy more tulips.  There was a lot of gesturing, but I did use Russian for ‘buy’ and ‘money.’  So it counts. 3. Tell people at my door to go away and I don’t speak Russian.  Not that they listen, but at least I can know that it’s in a language they might understand.

So, Russian.  It’s not that necessary if you’re a house-bound homeschooling stay-at-home-mom who has a bevy of people who do set tasks for you and a husband who speaks Russian and works for an organization that does all household maintenance for you.  See, it’s really easy to live overseas!

I’ve lived this way at our other posts and it’s worked out just fine for me.  I live with the children in a little American bubble that follows us around everywhere we go.  People occasionally intrude to ask us if we’re British or German or to ask if those are really all my children (I love being congratulated for having a large family), but they are only brief visitors to our bubble.  Then they leave and we’re back in little tiny America-land all by ourselves.  For some people this is ‘missing out on cultural experiences’ but for me it’s what works. 

So a few days ago we went to the ‘park.’  Whenever I say park, the children always correct me with ‘jog track.’  Park is a generous word for an old crumbling track surrounding a weedy soccer field with a handful of Soviet-era workout structures off to the side.  But, it’s a place outside the children can play at, so we go.

Usually the park is either empty or host to young men playing soccer.  I don’t see many ladies here taking their children to the park.  I don’t know if it’s because they’re working and the children are in day care, or they’re busy at home doing what I pay my housekeeper to do, or it’s just not what women do, but I’ve maybe once seen another mom with her children at our park.

But that day there was a mom with her little girl.  Our children are usually the center of gravity wherever they go because there are five of them.  And when you’re one child, five children look like a pretty interesting place to be.  So this little girl started playing with the children because you don’t need to speak the same language to play together. 

And in the awkward way that happens at parks, the mom and I stood and looked at each other and smiled.  “How cute they are,” we smiled to each other, “playing so nicely together.”  Finally, after fifteen minutes of smiling, I took the first step.  Сколка лиет?She smiled back and replied, “Пяты. 

And then I had my very first actual conversation in Russian.  We discussed the ages of our children – she had another daughter, eight – who was at piano lessons.  I mentioned that we lived near the music school and she said that she did too.  We talked about families, how big my family was, but how much bigger my husband’s family was.  I told her that yes, I chose to have all of the children and how much I loved my children.  She asked when we moved her, and it turned out that she had moved to her neighborhood, in a house she was renting, about the same time we had.  I told her that we had lived in Cairo and Baku and we would be staying until 2018.  She said that they were moving to Russia at about the same time. 

Then, after seeing Joseph and hearing him talk, she told me that her house looked on our back windows.  She said that Joseph, who likes to stand in our back window and shout at all the children who play on the street, is known by everyone who lives behind us.  Her sister has three sons and the middle loves to tell stories of what Joseph has been up to and what he’s been yelling out the window lately.   We both laughed at the insanity of little boys.

Eventually she had to pick up her daughter from piano lessons and I had to go home to cook dinner and we parted and went back to our own lives.  But for half an hour we were just two moms, watching their children play at the park and chatting about the things all women chat about.

Except, of course, it was all in Russian.  Because I’m awesome.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Adventure Weekend

A few weeks ago we had a three day weekend.  This year all of our three-day weekends seem to include a Monday, which is really too bad.  When you have church in the middle, three day weekends aren't very useful for things like going on camping trips or leaving your children with the housekeeper and checking into a hotel.  Oh well.  I really shouldn't complain as we not only do we get American holidays off, we get Tajik ones, too.

For the first part of our weekend, we went sledding.  I'm pretty sure I've posted sledding pictures two other times, so you can just go here and imagine that we're doing the same thing again.  It seems, in my limited recollection, that it's snowed/rained a lot less this winter than it did last winter.  Which isn't something to complain about, but it makes for less sledding.  But that's okay, because if we can't sled we just hike instead.

This time the snow had fallen several days before and had reached the sandy stage, with four or five sandy inches of snow on top of crusty snow that had partially melted and then refrozen.  This combination made for some pretty fast sledding, which was lots of fun.  And even better, nobody got hurt.

On Monday we went for a drive to see something new.  We had never been down to Nurek, the reservoir that was one a mountain valley and now is a turquoise blue lake.  So, being in possession of a newly gassed car, we took a drive.  The lake itself was beautiful, but entirely inaccessible.  So we just looked.

Then we found a nice place for a picnic and had one.  

Sophia had complained earlier of not celebrating holidays in our stated holiday style, so we finished off our day with an extremely rare dinner out.  Taking five children out to dinner is almost always more work than feeding them, so we generally only go out to eat when we're on vacation.  But it was a holiday, so we splurged.  Twenty-five dollars bought us a tasty Indian dinner at a tasty local Indian restaurant, and even better than the dinner, it bought me a clean kitchen when we got home.

I know it's a rough life, but somebody's got to do it.  It might as well be me, right?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Mystery Hives

It's been a very slow week here in Dushanbe.  Most weeks are slow, but this week has been even slower.

So I'll tell you about Edwin and the hives.  It's a very boring story.

First of all, none of our children are allergic to anything.  I'm not allergic to anything (not even poison ivy or mosquito saliva), but Brandon is allergic to cats and I think something else plant related.  I don't remember.  So obviously the children got their good genes from me.

Edwin was allergic to high protein food (walnuts, eggs, lentils) when he was a baby, but only mildly so.  We fed him small amounts of the difficult foods and the allergies cleared up before his second birthday.  Which is good.  Because I'm not a very adaptive mother and get grouchy about special circumstances.  I'm not sure what would happen if someone showed up with a milk intolerance.  It would be very inconvenient.

So now nobody has any problems with anything.  It's very convenient for me and also makes filling out the twenty-five forms that come clipped to those clipboards any time you show up at a medical office (seriously.  It's time for doctors to hit the digital age.  Can't they store all of that information in your fingerprint or something?  Then I don't have to feel like a very bad mother every time I lose someone's *&%$*&# yellow shot card ["Oh.  You don't have his shot card?  Well we can't do a single thing until you give us that extremely important piece of paper.  It's like their permanent record but permanenter."]) much easier to fill out.

Monday was a very normal day.  We had school, went to the park, ate chickpea soup - a recipe I've been using since before Edwin was born - and had chocolate chip cookies (recipe from my freshman year in college) for dessert.  Then everyone went to bed.

Tuesday morning Edwin woke up covered in hives.  His hands, his face, his neck, his torso, his legs, and even his ears had bright red blotches covering them.  I checked his breathing and, thankfully, it was normal.  So I gave him Benadryl.  I usually keep a stash of Benadryl for long airplane rides, and this was one of the few times I actually used it for allergic reactions.  Edwin had complained of itching, and within half an hour or so it cleared right up.

The hives, however, didn't and he spent the day looking like a plague victim.  Being the responsible, concerned parent I am, I did call the medical officer to consult.  She said to call her in the morning if the hives were worse, but otherwise keep pushing the Benadryl.  That night Edwin went to bed without a peep.

By the next morning, however, he was worse.  The blotches on his arms and neck had turned to patches, and it was hard to find much white in between the red.  He still didn't seem to mind it, but Brandon left me the car so I could take him in to the health unit.

And so I did.  They, after asking about anything new or unusual in diet or exposure, were just as mystified as I was.  But, despite the mystification, they sent me home with a different type of anti-histamine, Zyrtec, and prednisone, just in case.  I started Edwin that afternoon, and in the morning the hives looked much better.

Tonight while we were eating dessert, Sophia commented that Edwin didn't have any more spots.  "Yes I do," Edwin replied cheerfully, "but they're called freckles!"

So that's the story of the mystery hives.  I have no idea where they came from and no idea what will bring them back.  So I guess that means I'll just live my life as normal and break out the Zyrtec if or when the hives show back up.  And if not?  Then I'll have Zyrtec for someone else's mystery hives.  It's always good to be prepared.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Eleanor, the Family Mascot (and the Most Favorite Child)

I love Eleanor.  Brandon loves Eleanor, Kathleen loves Eleanor, Edwin really loves Eleanor, and even Joseph occasionally takes the time to enjoy his little sister's company.

It's pretty hard not to love a wispy-haired baby that toddles around the house babbling to herself all day long.  Sometimes she gets on our nerves when she wants something desperately and can't tell us what it is, but most of the time she's just adorably cute.

All of the other children were just as cute when they were Eleanor's age, but they aren't the baby anymore and so they're no longer cute.  Which, of course, makes Eleanor the Cutest Child, the Most Beloved Baby, and The One That Everyone Wants to Love On.

It's really hard to resist the sweetly lisped syllables asking for 'mo' milk' or 'hi five!' or 'choc'lat' when they're coming out of a button mouth surrounded by chubby, pinchable baby cheeks.  My favorite is when she asks for 'up' and then nestles her little head into my shoulder for some mommy cuddles (after carefully clearing away any hair that might be on my shoulder).

To the girls, Eleanor is their living baby doll.  They dress her up, wed her to Joseph (he's the prince and she's the princess), make her box houses and thrones, take her for carriage rides, and read her stories.  At the end of Eleanor's nap, the girls vie for whose turn it is to get the baby up.  Sophia usually gets her ready for bed each night, reading her a story and tucking her in.

My little brother was like this too, acting as baby doll, mascot, Most Favorite Brother (there were only two, so it's wasn't that hard), and pet.  "We don't need a puppy," we'd say, "we've got Mikey!"  I'm not sure how my brother felt about this, but we thought it was great fun.

One afternoon, Joseph showed up with his backpack, a handful of sticks, and his blanket.  He took Eleanor by the hand, sweetly beckoning in his high little boy's voice, "Come on baby, come with me!  Come to my room and I'll take you camping!  We can build a tent together and have a fire!  Then we can roast marshmallows!"  I let them go, of course, because what mother can resist a big brother teaching his little sister about the pure joy of roasted marshmallows?

Eleanor is my little companion, busily making messes each night while I cook dinner.  Her favorite spot is the plastic dishes cupboard where she will pull all the cups, bowls and plates out before toddling over to the dry goods cupboard and dish herself a tasty dish of dry black beans.  The beans will go back and forth between the bowls and inevitably get spilled, but it keeps her happy and lets me cook dinner with some cheerful company.

Every morning when Brandon leaves for work, Eleanor climbs into the tall window next to our front door and beats on the window while he pulls out of the gate.  She beats and waves frantically, yelling "see ya! see ya!" until he is out of sight, and then toddles off to her own baby work or exploring and making messes.

I know that one day she'll turn three and the clash of wills will begin and years will pass before we can be friends again, but for now she's my sweet adorable baby.  I've always been happy when the others have grown up, less trouble and more help, but now I have plenty of help and Eleanor isn't that much trouble and so I'd be pretty okay with keeping her a baby quite a bit longer.

But of course, she gets the exact same length of babyhood that the other children had, and then it will be gone forever.  I'm not the type to mourn things passed, but I think for Eleanor, I will be a little sad.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Living in Dushanbe - Winter

Did I ever mention to you that I hate winter?  I was raised in North Carolina where, as one clever wit once put it, winter is like running through a freezer naked.  It’s uncomfortable while it lasts, but it just doesn’t last that long.  Coats acted as fashion accessories more than protection and half an inch of snow was enough to cancel school.  It was great.  Just enough winter to make spring pleasant, but not enough to make snow clothes a necessity.

Our first post in Cairo suited me perfectly, and I loved taking the children to Maadi House in February in seventy-degree weather.  It was disorienting when the plants stayed constantly green (under the layer of brown dust), but I wasn’t complaining when my Facebook feed was filled with snow pictures while I drank mango juice on the patio.

However, after two years of warm and hot as the seasons, I actually found myself liking the four seasons that our next post, Baku, had to offer.  It turns out that variety actually is the spice of life, and spring is very nice after a little bit of winter.  But Baku, situated on a peninsula in the Caspian, only ever has a little bit of winter.  Occasionally it would snow, but Baku just didn’t get that cold.  Which was just fine with me.

So when we got our assignment to Dushanbe, I was pretty sure that I was going to freeze to death.  “Most mountainous country in the world” with “one of the longest glaciers in the world” and “tallest peak in the former Soviet Union” sounds like a pretty cold country to me.  And wasn’t helped when Brandon’s Tajik teacher in FSI told Brandon how much people in Tajikistan hate winter because it is just so cold for so long.  So I did some preparing.  I bought an ankle-length down coat and warm snow boots, snow clothes for the children, down comforters for the children, and looked into space heaters on Amazon.  I considered buying a bouncy house to keep inside so that the children could have something to do during the long, cold winter.  I got prepared.

It turns out that I needn’t have worried.  Much to Brandon’s disappointment, winter in Dushanbe is much closer to winter in North Carolina than winter in Moscow.  It does snow here, occasionally.  We got four of five inches last week, the first snow since the seven or eight we got before Christmas.  But by the time we made it to the park to sled on Saturday, there was hardly enough to sled on and the green grass was poking through sled tracks by the time we left.  Most of the winter, it just rains.

The weather will flirt with full-on winter, dipping down to the low forties (you can now laugh, everyone in Moscow) for a few days, before deciding that really, fifties is a much nicer temperature.  Last Sunday it was sixty-five degrees and sunny.  We had the kitchen windows open while cooking dinner to let some of the eighty-five degree heat out.  Brandon is, of course, very much grumpy about only getting a faux-winter and makes grumbling threats that sound like ‘Astana’ and ‘Helsinki.’  I, however, take the children to the park and enjoy the beautifully green grass.

Most days my ankle-length down coat stays in the closet, and the children don’t bother with much more than a fleece for our trips to the park.  I’ve had to shut off the radiator in our room after we stifled through a couple of seventy-eight degree nights.  My housekeeper likes to clean with the window open in whatever room she’s in.  Edwin’s long-sleeved shirts still have their tags on.

I can’t help feeling like I’ve dodged the winter bullet again, which is pretty good when your husband speaks Russian.  I know that eventually I’ll have to actually face a real winter, but I also know that it won’t be for at least two more winters.  Brandon can grumble all we wants about ‘Reykjavik’ and ‘Ulaanbaatar.’  I’ll just keep on enjoying my Dushanbe winters.

Monday, February 1, 2016


I’ve been doing some decorating. 

I’m not really much of a home decorator; spending money on stuff whose only purpose is to sit around your house and collect dust has never really appealed to me.  I’ll buy artwork and carpets, but home décor accents aren’t my thing.

However, last summer a check showed up in the mail.  My grandfather, who passed last April, had left some money and my parents generously shared it with my siblings and me.  Brandon and I are in the boring but really nice financial situation that no longer needs generous checks to keep us afloat, and so the money that showed up was just an extra deposit in our advisory account.  

But before sending it off to our financial advisor, I carved off a little chunk (with Brandon’s permission) to decorate our first floor.  It just seemed wrong (or rather not very much fun) to not do anything self-indulgent with the unexpected money, and so I splurged.  I hired an interior decorator, spent several months filling out questionnaires, making diagrams, consulting, and finally ended up with a floor plan, wall elevations, and most importantly, a shopping list.

If I lived in America, I could have headed to Target, Pottery Barn, Pier 1, and all of those places that sell things whose only function is to make your home look cluttered (as the girls call it) before passing into obsolescence in a year or two.  The forays would have taken place while Brandon was at work and the things would have quietly found their places until, a month or two later, Brandon would notice that something looked different about our house and ask me what had changed.

But I don’t live in America, and the only way anything ever gets here is through personal pouch.  This means that anything I buy is delivered to a facility in Virginia, bagged up in large mail bags, and sent on commercial air flights to eventually make their way here in an undetermined amount of time.  And then Brandon has to go and sign for them at the mail room, haul them out to our car, and haul them into the house for me.  So anything I buy – whether it be dishwasher detergent or formal dresses – is brought home in a box carried by Brandon.  Which means that I can’t hide anything.  When Brandon’s Christmas present came, a set of Mucha prints, they came in boxes with two-foot high letters spelling out  So much for surprises.  When I ordered a hundred pounds of oats, Brandon got to wrangle two fifty-pound boxes of oats out to the car and then into the house.

It’s very inconvenient.

I have to be in the right frame of mind to spend large sums of money on non-essentials, so when I finally got down the ordering the Chinese vases, ottomans, lamps, console table, centerpiece, candlesticks, bookends, sculptural objects, removable wallpaper, pillows, trays, table runner, fabric, and fifty other things that are evidently essential to making your home look like a magazine picture, I did it in a few credit-card filled days of commercial glee.

Which meant, of course, that everything came in one week-and-a-half span.  This is really fun when you’ve been waiting for second Christmas to show up at your door.  This is not fun when you’re playing Santa Claus day after day (the pouches piled up and then all came at once, as they often do) and personally hauling each and every box out to the car yourself. 

The final straw came last Wednesday.  Mid afternoon, Brandon sent me an email, titled “Congratulations!”
“You have won the prize for actually filling the Pilot to capacity with packages.  We received 18.  There is literally no more room in the car.  The good news is that if I am in a wreck I will be cushioned from impact by packages.  Either that or crushed by them. “

Then he dropped the hammer.
“Having offered congratulations for your singular achievement, I now hereby invoke a moratorium on purchases via the pouch.  This moratorium will officially begin after everything that is currently (meaning as of 14:50 of January 26, 2016) en route arrives.  After the arrival of these items, I will no longer authorize purchases to arrive via pouch except under extraordinary circumstances that I vet personally.”

Looks like I’m going to have to be a good girl for the next little while.  Blast.