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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.