The views expressed in this blog are personal and not representative of the U.S. Government, etc etc etc.
Read at your own risk.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Summer Vacation

It's that time of year again, the highlight of everyone's summer combined with the worst part of everyone's year - time for the annual trek back to the motherland known as R&R.  The children and I finished the last day of school this past week, we finally got tickets, and I've started going over my packing lists.

This year we've added an extra level of difficulty.  Due to Brandon's leave issues, I decided to take the bold/suicidal/brave/foolish choice and travel with all six of the children alone so we could have an extra week at my parents' house.  I had various reasons, the good one being doctor appointments for everyone, the okay one being a grandparent rafting trip for the older kids, and the selfish one being my desire to have extra time to spend with friends.

This year is the Sherwood reunion and we (meaning me) were put in charge of planning the whole thing.  And for those of you counting, that means planning a week long family reunion for nineteen adults and twenty-five children.  From halfway across the world.  We got to choose the location, so I chose the beach.  My family goes to the beach every summer, so to make things easier for us I just rented the same house for two weeks in a row.  I was in transports of joy when I realized that I could go in and out of the exact same airport.  No twenty-hour drives or 5:30 AM plane rides, just three and a half weeks in one state.  It's almost mythical.

Also, I decided to come back earlier than Brandon because I'm pretty sure I don't want six children de-toxing from twenty-eight hours of traveling while at a family reunion.  It's bad enough doing it in the privacy of my parents' large house where everyone only shares a bedroom with one or two siblings, but crammed into an overstuffed room with four or five other cousins?  I'm just going to pass on that.  Also I don't want to be shopping for breakfast and lunch food for forty-four people, feeding forty-four people (because we're cooking the first night), telling forty-four people forty-four times (let's be honest, it will probably be more than that) where their rooms are again, and trying to get my own children to sleep in the middle of all that while getting over crazy jet-lag myself.  Pass on that, too.  Just sayin'.

This means that on Thursday morning at five AM, I will board the first of four flights that will eventually land us in North Carolina by way of Istanbul, London, and DC.  We have assigned seats on the first flight and last flight but not the two middle flights.  Also the flight from Istanbul to London is late by an average of thirty minutes (that's average) and we have a two-hour layover.  It ought to make for some interesting stories when we've all recovered from the trauma in a few years.

The children are, of course, ecstatic.  Kathleen is looking forward to seeing her cousins and going whitewater rafting.  Sophia is the same.  Edwin is looking forward to flying on airplanes and visiting Grandpa's frogs.  Joseph is looking forward to eating as many snacks and watching as many movies as he wants for twenty-eight hours straight.  Eleanor is looking forward to seeing her grandparents.  William will probably be scarred for life.

Beach week was always the highlight of my childhood summer and so it's no surprise that the same is true for my own children, especially when you add in the excitement (why they find it so exciting is completely beyond me) of international travel and the magic of returning to a country that has things like sidewalks, grass, parks, and Krispy Kreme.

And, if you subtract the pain (oh, the pain.  Let's not dwell on it.  It turns out that the pain of traveling is kind of like childbirth.  Each time it happens you remember ever more clearly exactly what you're getting yourself into) of the opening and ending, it's the highlight of my summer too.  I can't wait to see my cousins and siblings and friends and Krispy Kreme.  I can't wait to stay up way, way (way) too late catching up with some of my favorite people in the world and playing all day on the beach.  I can't wait to go to absolute dissipation sleeping in, not exercising (once or twice a long time ago I exercised on R&R.  Ha), eating garbage cereal for breakfast every morning, reading books, eating dessert every night, and partying until I'm so exhausted that coming home to my regimented life actually sounds like a good idea.

Packing starts tomorrow.  T-minus three days until vacation party time.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Living in Dushanbe - Summer

It is summer here in Dushanbe and we are deep into it.  It has been hot so long that the sensation of being cold or wearing pants or shoes or socks or jackets is a vague memory that resides in the same part of reality as the tooth fairy.  The high here a few days ago was 107 degrees.  One hundred and seven degrees is so hot that it is ten degrees hotter than ninety-seven degrees and twenty degrees hotter than eighty-seven degrees.  It's so hot that a few of my plants outside have to be watered twice a day or they will be dead by morning.  It's hot enough that the waterslide deck burned Sophia's feet pink the last time we went to the water park.  It's just hot.

There are some good things about summer in Dushanbe.  Summer is the time when there is all the produce in the world for cheap cheap cheap.  Right now you can go to the bazaar and get watermelons, yellow melons, peaches, nectarines, blackberries, apricots, cherries, apples, plums, raspberries, strawberries, and deliciously perfect tomatoes, in addition to all of the rest of the vegetables.  We spend all summer here in a fruit coma, packing in all of the fruit to last us through the winter.  Occasionally the children will ask if they can bring fruit outside while they are playing and I'll find two or three apricots rattling around in the bottom of a bowl that held two kilos that morning.  One of Eleanor's favorite things to do is sit and eat raspberries with a spoon, putting away at least a pound of them in one sitting.  I've told the children that one day when they grow up and live in America they will go to the grocery store and about die to see how much raspberries cost there and realize what they had while living in Dushanbe.

Normally the summer is also a great time for swimming.  The embassy has a pool and we have spent a lot of time there.  But it hasn't been working since the first day of summer (ironic, I know) and we've had to find alternatives.

Most days I send the children to play in the yard.  It's a scientific fact that children who spend all day in the house fight more than children who have been kicked out for a couple of hours.  At least it's a fact in our house.  We have a sprinkler (thanks, Dad!) and so the children will put on their swimsuits so that they can try and spray each other with it.  Sometimes they just use the hose.  And until I banned the practice for the sake of the umbrellas, they used umbrellas to keep the very cold hose water off themselves.  This option isn't the children's favorite way to deal with the heat, but I don't care.

There is also a local waterpark which actually isn't that bad.  It is also very popular and getting there close to opening time, especially on women and children day (no men allowed, including lifeguards), is a good idea.  A few weeks ago I went with a friend to swim in the afternoon and we showed up only to discover that the place was so full that they were only letting people in as patrons left.  As it was going to be a long time before ten left, we gave up and went back to the sprinkler.  The children were only pacified after we promised cookies and root beer.

Thankfully we're leaving for three and a half weeks to go back to America where it isn't quite so hot (and this is North Carolina!) and there are things like central AC.  In my mind, summer is over after we come back from R&R because that's when school starts.  But evidently Tajikistan didn't read my mind because summer is definitely not over in August - or September.  I always think of September as the month of disappointed expectations.  I spend the whole month waiting for the first breath of cool air, the promise of reasonable temperatures that mean we can start going outside again in something other than swimsuits.  But it never ever comes until October.  And then finally, summer is over.

I still like summer, even after spending three of them in Dushanbe.  I like wearing flip-flops and shorts and swimming and eating good produce.  I'd still rather be here than in Moscow.  But I will say that one day (and I'm not sure when that will be - I'm looking at you, Tashkent) when I live in a place where 100+ temperatures are an anomaly instead of a regularity, it will be a little nicer.  I'm not planning any moves to Canada, but I think I'm also going to stay away from Arizona too.  Maybe somewhere nicely in the middle.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Fourth of July

This past week we celebrated the Fourth of July.  Celebrating the Fourth overseas is fairly analogous to celebrating Christmas in a Muslim country.  Instead of being part of a nation-wide party, it's more of a private affair that happens on a random day of the week.  I actually mind this less for Christmas than I do for the Fourth.  For us, Christmas is a family holiday anyway while Fourth is something you celebrate with your community.

And we did have the opportunity to celebrate with the community the Saturday before, but we didn't.  Brandon had spent seven hours at a conference that Saturday and he just wasn't up to spending a few more hours away from home out in the heat while shepherding all six (really five) children around to get their food, play the games, etc.  Add to that a five-month old baby and it equals thanks-but-no-thanks.  Instead we watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire while eating amazingly delicious Chinese food.  Seriously.  If there's one thing you can get here, it's really tasty, really cheap ($18.32 to feed the whole family) Chinese food.

The actual Fourth itself was on a Tuesday and Brandon had work off.  Since it was a holiday, we had to follow the Sherwood Family Holiday Rule (no work and all play).  Some friends invited us to go to Delphin, a local waterpark, so we spent the morning riding waterslides and swimming in the pool.  Delphin is actually one of the best-run institutions I've seen in Dushanbe and the kids love going and riding all of the big waterslides.  The three oldest have perfected the art of arguing (I'm not sure how I feel about that) and badger the lifeguards into allowing them to ride all the slides even if some of them technically aren't old enough to ride.  All can swim, so that's good enough for me.

While Brandon and I were lounging in the sun by the pool (yes, it's a hard life sometimes), we both developed an intense desire for french fries and then hamburgers and finally chocolate malts.  One of the best things about being adults is that when those cravings strike, there's nothing but responsibility to stop you from indulging in all of them at once.  Luckily, we didn't let responsibility stop us this time.  After all, it's a holiday, right?  And 'merica! And deep-fried potatoes! And charcoal-cooked meat! And ice cream!  After all, we would be neglectful parents if we didn't teach our children about their heritage.

This being Tajikistan, we had to make almost everything from scratch.  Luckily, the local grocery store had hamburger buns so that part was taken care of.  Also we live around the corner from an ice cream factory so we didn't have to make the ice cream either.  Okay, so we had to make the hamburgers and french fries from scratch.

But a few hours later we had our feast assembled and settled down to watch Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert in Drums Along the Mohawk.  As we watched the couple battle natives while various farms burned down, we all enjoyed our feast and the warm glow of appreciation for those who gave birth to the nation that we're proud to be a part of.

Patriotism is becoming somewhat unfashionable these days, so I guess I'll just have to be unfashionable and say that I love America, and I love it more than any other country in the world.  Which I should, seeing as I am an American.  God Bless America!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Year Five Wrap-Up

We are almost done with the school year, although 'done' is somewhat of a relative term.  Some children have finished some subjects (Sophia has finished language arts and history but not science), some have finished none (Kathleen) and some have finished all (Edwin).  But everyone has two weeks left and then we're off for a month before starting the whole rodeo again in the fall.

This year has been somewhat of a difficult one.  I added another child, Edwin, to the mix and started Kathleen on the next stage, the logic stage, of her schooling.  It took quite a while to figure out how to do all of the new curriculum with Kathleen, how to organize it, and how to grade it.  Edwin had a difficult time starting out because he wasn't fully literate.  He could read, but only slowly, and it took awhile for comprehension to kick in (sometimes it's still not all there for math problems).  Then, right as things started getting into a good rhythm, we picked up and left for three months, having a baby for fun in the middle of things.

Homeschooling is always a balance between what the children need and what you are capable of giving them.  When I started homeschooling I wanted to do all of the everything, and be the best homeschooling mother ever who only had brilliant children who knew all the things in the whole wide world.  I think that's pretty standard for homeschooling parents.

Now I've become someone who wants to make sure her children are perfectly adequately schooled.  Extra projects?  Maybe if they want to do them in their free time, but I'd rather take a nap.  Extracurriculars?  Russian counts for that, right?  And swimming occasionally at the embassy pool (when it's not broken) totally counts for PE.

I always make sure that they get the basics - math, language arts, science, and history are all covered - but it turns out that I just don't have enough time to get too crazy about the other stuff.  The girls do study Latin and Russian, but not in any kind of serious way, and that's just fine for me.  I had wonderful plans for starting Kathleen in some serious drawing study, but somehow those never quite panned out.  It may have something to do with the five other children I have.  Yes, I do feel mom guilt about not doing all of those things, but no, I don't let it interrupt my nap time.  We all have the right to a little sanity.

I'm happy to be through with this year and am looking to next year, which is an off year.  I have managed to have all my children (except William, who spoiled the pattern) two grade levels apart, so right when one is starting first grade (kindergarten has never been real school), the one just older than them is starting third grade.  Third grade is when they do almost all schooling independently and mostly I am involved in checking and correcting work.  So that means that the off year is when the youngest is in second grade, which is pretty much exactly like first grade except they can already read and work some things independently.  It's the payoff for surviving first grade again.  Seriously, I have all of those poems memorized down cold along with history up to the end of the middle ages, all the prepositions, and counting in whatever pattern you like.  I'll probably be able to recite all of the lessons from memory by the time William gets to first grade.  He'll be so impressed.  But probably not.

But for now, I (and all of the children) am counting down the weeks until break time.  Because it turns out that when you're the teacher you're even happier than children are about summer break.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Best Laid Plans

Friday morning I got a phone call from Brandon.  "Bad news," he started the conversation out cheerfully, "I just got an email tell me that my language waiver got denied."

Way back in November of last year, Brandon got his assignment to Tashkent.  Since we were out-year bidding, this meant that Brandon had to know Russian already to get the job.  The State Department scores language ability on a five point scale, assessing both speaking and reading skills.  For most languages, the department requires a 3/3 proficiency.  Brandon retested here at post and got a 2+/2+, which is not quite a 3, but pretty darn close.  When we were bidding, Brandon let Tashkent know that he didn't have the 3/3 and they, after hearing that he's been using Russian at the last two posts, decided that a 2+/2+ was good enough for them and they extended a job offer to Brandon.

As part of completing all the formalities required to get paneled, or formally assigned, Brandon had to fill out an application for language waiver.  This stated that he understood that there would be financial penalties and other bad things if he didn't have the required score, but he signed it anyway.  The plan was always to get his score up before going to Tashkent because he gets paid extra money to have his Russian at a 3/3.  And I like money.

We assumed everything was just fine - after all Tashkent was fine with his score and the regional bureau were fine with his score - until Friday.  Then I guess somebody else (I honestly have no idea who decided to deny the waiver.  There are levels of bureaucracy I have no desire to understand) decided that it wasn't fine and he'd have to get his score up - or else (I'm not sure what 'or else' means either).

After some time on the phone and an appeal for advice on Facebook (sometimes it's very useful), Brandon and I came up with plans A,B,C, and D.  Plan A involves taking an online course offered by State's language institute and retesting while in Dushanbe, but the rest of the plans involve spending more time in DC getting the required training.  The plans have a variety of inconvenience - one has us leaving early and throwing our school situation into havoc, leaving our current post in the lurch, and losing $13,500; one has us showing up to post six months late and once again throwing the school schedule to the dogs, while squeezing into tiny housing - and none are that great, mostly because we had expressly tried to avoid going back to DC.

Three or four years ago would have seen me breathing into my favorite paper bag (just retired after pouch service was reestablished).  I am a Planner and any time the plan goes wrong is a cause for great anguish.  I invest a lot of time and emotional energy into making sure everything works out just right and I am subjected to a minimum of disruption while saving and/or making the most possible money.

And on Friday I gave that paper bag a long, hard look.  After all, my carefully planned plans with the perfectly executed timing were just making some serious noise that presaged everything falling apart.  I've been looking forward to having a seamless post-to-post transition for literally years.  And let's not even talk about the possibility that Brandon would actually lose his handshake and have to start the bidding process all over again.  Everything was all bad.

But, after considering the freak out for a bit, I decided to skip it.  It was just too much trouble.  After all, what I felt about the situation wouldn't actually change anything, and I had other things to think about.  I even found myself, while discussing that large sum of money that we may be kissing goodbye, telling Brandon that it was just money after all.  And I really meant it.

I think that I have been completely broken down by this lifestyle.  It has taken me, the type-A perfectionist planner who works out airline seating charts months before the plane takes off, and made me into someone who just doesn't care any more.  Sure, I'm happy to get my plane tickets bought six months in advance.  That's nice.  But if I still don't have those tickets 2 1/2 weeks before we leave (which I don't), it's really not that big of a deal.  If we aren't seated together, we will be.  And if we don't get seated together, we'll still arrive at the same destination.  After all, it's just a day(ish) of traveling, right?  Not worth getting worked up about.

Sometimes I'm proud of my flexibility.  I can take a situation that would have sent me into panic spirals and just laugh at it now.  That's good.  It saves me (and Brandon) a lot of emotional turbulence.

But sometimes I wonder if I'm pretending that my uncomplaining (mostly) acceptance is resiliency when really it's just... giving up.  That's not good, right?  I don't think Uncle Winston would be very proud of me giving up.

But either way, it still doesn't change our present situation.  Hopefully Brandon will get things worked out and we can stick to our original schedule.  Or we won't.  And then we'll just make a new schedule.  Because what else can you do?