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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!