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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Extended Christmas Holiday or Brandon is Not Essential Personnel

This year we got an extra Christmas present from the federal government - extended Christmas holiday!  We had already planned to have Brandon take Christmas Eve and Boxing Day off, but then the president gave everyone (well, all the federal workers) Christmas Eve off and then the shutdown gave a lot of people Boxing Day (plus two more days) off also. 

Here in Tashkent, which is part of the former Soviet Union, the big holiday is New Year's, so the embassy also has Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off.

So for those of you who are counting, that is twelve days off.  It's the longest Brandon has ever been off work without traveling or being on maternity medevac with me and the children. 

So what have we being doing with all our time off?  We spent Christmas Eve cooking and enjoying amazing Brazilian food with members of the church group here, we hung out all Christmas, and the day after Christmas we did more of the same (but without opening presents). 

I had planned on having Brandon off for three days, but not on Thursday or Friday, so he got to tag along for our regularly-scheduled activities.  We got our teeth cleaned, folded laundry, went to horseback riding lessons, and had a couple of play dates.  But everyone did enjoy not having to wake up early or have oatmeal for breakfast. 

Brandon's mostly enjoying his unexpected holiday, save for a report that is supposed to be sent in to DC in mid-January.  But, since he has been deemed non-essential, he's not allowed to go and work on it and I suppose a shutdown is a valid excuse for not getting things done.  He's had a grand time spending hours on the phone with his best friend in Utah and is making his way through last year's Christmas books.

We've always kept a very large cash reserve for expenses like evacuations, medical bills in foreign countries, home leave, and attractive carpets that we can't leave behind, so we're not in financial difficulty because of the shutdown.  It doesn't hurt either that we don't pay for our housing.  My only regret is that I didn't have a crystal ball so that I could have planned a fun vacation to take advantage of the time off.

I'm sure by the end of our time together, everyone will probably be happy to get back to the regular routine and have a little less quality time together, but for now we're enjoying it.  Merry Christmas to us!


We had a good Christmas this year.  We're not moving, haven't recently moved, having any babies, or recently had any babies in conjunction with moving, so that counts as a good Christmas.  I was plagued by a variety of random illnesses during the Christmas season, so we didn't get as festive as we usually do, but everyone was healthy by Christmas and that was great.

We started the morning with stockings, which were placed on the couches with care.  I think each year the candy total goes up as Brandon and I get older, more indulgent, and less concerned with sugar consumption.  

William got stocking candy this year (in much smaller quantities than his siblings) and thought that it was the best thing in the world.  And then when he found his siblings' stashes and was banned from eating it, he thought that was the worst thing in the world.  It may be easy to take candy from a baby, but it certainly isn't quiet.

I'm pretty sure that most of the children's candy is gone by now, with the exception of Edwin's candy.  When we moved from Dushanbe, we found years-old mummified candy in his dresser drawers, being saved for some eventual rainy day.

We supplemented the candy with pork products - bacon and sausage - shipped all the way from America via the commissary in Ramstein, Germany.  I used to scoff at paying exorbitant prices for comfort foods, but I guess I've gotten old.  Because, pork!

We also had our traditional croissant breakfast ring that leaks butter every single year.  This year I finally gave up and embraced the pools of butter; we now call it fried croissant breakfast ring.  Sigh.


After breakfast was eaten and cleaned up, children were dressed and had brushed their teeth, we got down to opening presents.

William also got his first taste of presents because he didn't know what they were until this Christmas and so I've never bought him one before.  He was very happy with his presents, a car carrier and a book.  Life is pretty good when you have candy, a toy, and a book.

Sophia used the power of the internet to find a pattern for a baby carrier that she could make for Eleanor.  She hid in her room or mine, secretly making the present, and even sewed a pocket on the front for Eleanor's baby's bottle.  Kathleen and Sophia bought bought each other the same kind of Barbies.  We don't have any policy for the children giving each other presents, so it's fun to see what they come up with.  Eleanor very kindly wrapped up some old crayons for Brandon.  He was quite touched.

My parents (with the help of suggestions from me) bought the children a big Lego set that goes with the set they bought them last year.  I enjoy building the sets with the children, they enjoy watching and helping me, and we have a fun time together for a few days.  It's a fun tradition.

The sets click together, so now they have the beginning of a city street.  The children will spend hours playing with the sets.  They've named all the people that come with the set, given them backstories, married them off, and made vacation homes for them.  Last year the children filmed a stop-motion movie with their first set.  

We spent the rest of the day after presents reading books, watching movies, putting together Legos, eating candy, and having snacks.  It had planned to order sushi (it's not a holiday here, so restaurants are open!) for dinner, but nobody was really hungry so we just had leftovers.  A younger version of myself would have been horrified, but I was just fine with it.  I don't care about the food as much as I used to, and I'd rather spend the time with the children, hanging out together as a family.  Everyone had a wonderful Christmas together.  

Sunday, December 23, 2018

School's Out for Christmas

Last Thursday I finished reading Greek myths with Joseph, put away the book, and then went upstairs for lunch.  I looked down at the (very messy) school room and bade it farewell for the next two weeks. 

When I started homeschooling, I was very conscientious about schooling year-round.  School kept the children occupied and really there wasn't any need for long breaks.  After all, the more we schooled, the more we could get ahead and getting ahead was a good thing, right?

But over the years I've gotten worn out more relaxed and have started taking more breaks.  The children are perfectly happy to entertain themselves for days on end without causing too much trouble for me and more than anything I need the break from herding cats running the circus keeping everyone on track for months on end.

Because of local holidays and when Christmas falls this year, Brandon has three days off the week of Christmas and three days off the week of New Years.  We only school four days a week anyway, so it's really pointless to school one day a week for two weeks.  So instead I just declared a two-week Christmas break.

And boy am I happy that it has started.  I remember reading a description of homeschooling with older children and the mom described it as being more like a ringmaster running the show and less of doing the actual work herself.  At the time I remember thinking, 'Wow, that will be great when I don't have to do as much work! I can't wait until then!'  [Insert hysterical laughter]

And it is true, these days I spend much less time actually teaching children, especially now that Kathleen as taken over Joseph's history and science lessons.  But I also have a lot more children to manage than I did in the days when I taught all of the school myself, and it turns out 'teaching themselves' is not the same thing as 'managing themselves.' 

When you're sitting right next to the child, helping them do all their work, they always get it done and they always stay on task because you're right beside them watching them like a hawk.  But when there are four (and a quarter) children doing school work, it's not possible to do that anymore.  Or advisable, really.  Seventh graders really shouldn't have their mother sitting next to them, helping them with all their school work.

So my day is very much multi-tasked.  I have a timer app that gets used constantly, and sometimes I have four different timers running at once, keeping track of four different children's tasks.  While I'm helping Edwin with his math corrections, I'm also testing Sophia on her spelling words and yelling at Joseph to keep practicing the piano because it doesn't count if you spent half of your time staring off into space.  Occasionally I remember that I used to sketch with my extra time while schooling the children and I wonder how that was even possible.

The insanity usually hits its maximum during lunch time when seven people are talking, complaining, crying, fighting, and getting lunch all at the same time.  I also used to eat lunch all alone while reading a book after the children had finished their own.  That was a long time ago. 

So I think that I'm more excited for this Christmas break than the children are.  I'm looking forward to sleeping in, reading books, avoiding cooking dinner for as long as possible, going horseback riding, spending time with friends, having Brandon home for dinner for multiple days in a row, and - most of all - not chasing the children around.  It's great to have a break.


Last Saturday we took the children sledding at one of the local ski areas, Chimgan.  Edwin loves snow as much as he loves LEGOs, so we took him to play in it for his birthday Saturday.  We haven't had much snow, only a dusting and a couple of inches, here in Tashkent, so Edwin was happy to go up in the mountains where the snow has been plentiful.

This was our first foray up into the mountains for sledding, so it was a bit of a discovery trip.  There are two ski areas (resort is much too strong of a word), with a third one (which might actually be a resort) under construction.  Both of the current ones were built during the Soviet era, and Chimgan, the one we went to, was a lot less organized (as in, it wasn't organized at all) than the ski resorts I skied while attending college in Utah.

Brandon and I were very happy to discover that the road to was both paved and plowed - not to mention it was wide enough for two full lanes - all the way to Chimgan.  After driving the rutted, icy unpaved road to Safed Dara in Tajikistan, it was a nice break.  We had had a few inches of snow down in Tashkent on Wednesday, so when we went up to Chimgan on Thursday, there were about nine inches of fresh, beautiful powder for the children to play in.  

The sledding was just a random hill with a collection of sleds for rent at the base of it.  Since the snow was fresh, the sledding wasn't very fast - especially compared to our own hill back in Tajikistan.  There also wasn't any rope or mechanical help for getting to the top.  Which is probably why it was free.  I did watch some people hiring snowmobiles to haul them to the top, so there was that.

But the children had a great time playing in the snow next to the hill.  They were disappointed to discover that fresh powder doesn't pack into snowballs very well (or at all), but made do with powder fights.  Brandon consented to being buried by Kathleen and Sophia, and didn't even curse when they got snow down the back of his collar.

Joseph and I took a little hike as I was getting cold and he was getting whiny, and I enjoyed the view.  The area would be great for snowshoeing, with a fairly gentle incline and lots of open land.  We don't have snowshoes and that sport isn't great for children under the age of ten, so I'll just have to imagine snowshoeing for now.

After a few hours, William decided that he'd had enough of this snow thing (I guess eating it had gotten boring) and refused to be calmed down, so we had to leave.  No children under the age of three actually enjoy playing in the snow, so I was surprised that he lasted that long.  

We all had some hot tea before bundling back into the car and heading back home.  For a first excursion, things went pretty well, and now we have a better idea of how things operate (or don't) for next time.  There are cottages nearby that we can rent, so we're planning a more extended time to come and play in the snow again after the new year.  I'm already looking forward to it!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Happy Birthday, Edwin!

This week Edwin turned nine.  I can hardly believe that my third child is nine.  Also, nine seems a lot younger than it used to be.  When Kathleen was nine, she was about ready to go to college, but now that Edwin is nine, he's still in third grade.  There's nothing like multiple children to give one perspective.

Edwin is a very low-key child, so it was like pulling teeth to find out his preferences. 

"What do you want for breakfast?" I asked him the night before. 

"Oh, I don't know." 

"How about the cake?"

"I'm not sure about that."

"What would you like to do for dinner?"

"Let me think about it."

"And how about after dinner?  What would you like to do?"

"Hmmm, I'm not sure."

After a few rounds of twenty questions, I managed to work out breakfast (German apple pancake), dinner (delivery from a local Uzbek restaurant), cake (apple upside down cake - pretty much breakfast again), and the after-dinner activity (assemble his birthday Legos while Brandon read a story).  I wasn't quite sure if I was doing him a favor by asking his preferences in everything.

The girls had heard about a toy store that sold knock-off Legos and were very excited to buy Edwin a set for his birthday, so we went to get it in the morning.  We had a fun time giggling over the names - 'Star Battles' (Star Wars), 'My World' (Mine Craft), 'Cities' (City), 'Bat Leader' (Batman), 'Ninja Movie' (Ninjago), and my personal favorite 'Justice Magicians' (Harry Potter).  The last one had pictures of the characters, in the typical pose, but none of them were the actual movie characters. 

We ordered the food for dinner around 3:30 and had enough time to make our annual Christmas ornament and clean it up before the food showed up around 5:15.  I suppose it's still better than making it myself. 

After dinner and cake, Edwin was eager to open his presents.  When I pulled out the camera, he hid his face, embarrassed that he was smiling for pictures.  He was very happy with his presents - a book from us, a book from his grandparents, a Lego set from his other grandparents, and an 'Ego' set from his sisters.  He was very pleased with the gifts.

We finished off the day with a story and Lego assembling party, where I got to find out again that I like putting Legos together better than Brandon does.  Edwin went to sleep that night with his assembled police truck next to him and his book open and ready to be read in the morning. 

I've enjoyed seeing Edwin grow up and become part of the big kids in the family.  He is usually fairly quiet, but is often quite funny when he makes his wry observations.  I love seeing him with his buddy, William.  He can sometimes be fairly savage with his other siblings, as children often are, but never with his little brother.  Even when William is screaming loudly because he doesn't want a bath or to go to bed, Edwin patiently carries him upstairs and takes good care of him.  We are happy to have Edwin in our family.  Happy Birthday, Edwin!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Getting to Know the Neighbors

A few days ago, the doorbell rang.  When I asked who was there (the camera view wasn't showing anyone), a high voice asked, "Is Joseph come out play?"

"Joseph," I shouted down to the basement, "your friend is here! He wants to play!"

A few seconds later, Joseph came barreling up the stairs, sprinted to the door where he put on boots and coat, and streaked out the door. 

Before moving to Tashkent, we have never lived in a neighborhood where we've made friends with locals.  Our last house was on a busy street with a Chinese business on one side and an oligarch on the other.  In Baku, we lived in a neighborhood populated mostly with expats.  In Cairo we had mission members across the hall from us, but never met anyone else in our building during our two-year tenure there. 

I can't completely blame our lack of local friends on our housing situation; I'm lazy when it comes to making friends with someone who doesn't speak the same language as me, and I'm busy with my own life.  Some people view this as a moral deficiency, but it doesn't bother me.  I don't live around the world so that I can soak in all of the cultural experiences, I live around the world because Brandon's job requires that we live in foreign countries.  I enjoy the occasional cultural experience, but they're not something I seek out.  After all, I have six children that I homeschool while running a household.  I have plenty of things to keep busy.

When we first moved in, the children played outside in the yard.  It was summer and a hundred degrees every day, so the pool was much more appealing than the road.  But when the weather (finally) cooled down, the children started playing in the road.  We live on a very quiet road with a constant guard presence half a block from our house.  Someone very important lives nearby and some sort of government facility is also at the end of the road, so there's not going to be anything troublesome happening in our neighborhood any time soon.

So the children in the neighborhood often play out in the road.  Our across-the-street neighbors like to play tennis, so when it was warmer, we would have doorbell rings with broken-English requests for the ball fairly often.  My children have been hesitant to join them, worried about ridicule for their poor Russian, and I haven't bothered them.  Their outside playtime is up to them, and I manage their lives enough already.

But eventually they got bored of the yard and ventured out in the street.  One day Joseph burst inside at the end of his playtime, excited with his new achievement.  "Mom!!!" he exclaimed in his high little voice, "I made a friend!!!"

I realized then that none of my children have ever made a friend on their own without some sort of engineered situation where they could meet peers.  Joseph was wriggling in excitement at the thought of someone to play with who lived right next door.  There's nothing Joseph loves more than talking with people, and the thought of having constant access to someone who wanted to play with him was just about his wildest dream come true.

"That's great!" I replied, "what's his name?"

Joseph wrinkled his brow for a minute, then shrugged his shoulders.  "I don't know.  He told me, but it was really long and hard to remember.  Tomorrow I'm going to show him my shotgun."

I often think about all of the normal American experiences my children will miss by living overseas, the experiences that I had in spades while growing up in suburban North Carolina.  I fret over how this will affect them, and feel guilty that they won't ever have a chance to live them, even after they choose their own path in life.  Obviously, those concerns aren't enough for Brandon to quit and move us all back to the States, but it doesn't mean that I don't have them.

So even if Joseph and his friend can't talk much to each other and they are playing together in an Uzbek street and his friend's Grandma scares him because she's so old and Uzbek, I'm still happy that he has a friend who lives next door.  It's as close as he's going to get.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Caroling Party

Last night we hosted our fourth annual caroling party.  I'm not a big Christmas gift-giving person, so our gift to everyone is doughnuts, hot chocolate, hot cider, and caroling.  I figure if people don't want our gift, that's their choice, but it's offered to all. 

This is our first party in Tashkent, so I was a little nervous about having enough guests to make a nice, loud chorus, but we had a very nice-sized crowd come to sing.  Not too many people to make the house unpleasantly crowded, but enough that everyone had a friend to talk to.

I made doughnuts, as always.  Because if you want to people to come to your party, doughnuts are always a good way to attract a crowd - especially when the nearest Krispy Kreme is a plane ride away. 

Also doughnuts are a part of my Christmas heritage.  My mother never baked for Christmas either, instead spending the Saturday before Christmas delivering boxes of fresh doughnuts to our friends and neighbors.  "There's a reason Krispy Kreme comes in red and green boxes," she would say with a smile as she stuck a Merry Christmas label on the box before handing it to one of us children to run to a door. 

This year I also had a friend making fresh crepes.  Because if fresh doughnuts are good, fresh crepes and fresh doughnuts are even better!

We scored several large juniper branches that were set out for trash on our neighbor's curb for greenery.  I supplemented with blue spruce and pine from a friend's yard and we were able to decorate the house nicely.  I love Christmas decorating. 

This year I roped Kathleen into playing the carols.  She practices a lot more than me - and by a lot I mean at all - and has reached the age of useful playing ability.  I offered to split with her when she was a little daunted by playing all fourteen carols, so we switched at the half.  I got to experience the pleasure of a parent who sees their children become contributing members of the community as I watched her play for the crowd.

Everyone had a fun time eating, drinking hot chocolate, and socializing before getting down to the main event, which was enthusiastically participated in.  We had the windows open, and I imagined what the neighbors were thinking as our shouts of 'fiiiiive goooooolden rings!' floated out into the Uzbek evening air.

By the end of the evening, everyone had eaten, drunk, sung, talked, played, and had a great time.  Every time I'm in the middle of preparation for a large event like this, I always wonder why in heaven's name I thought it was a good idea to host another event.  But after all is done and I get to enjoy the company and good times together, I always decide again that yes, it was a good idea.

But as we rolled into bed that night after tidying up, Brandon turned to me and sighed.  "Do you know what is great? We don't have to host a caroling part until next year!" And I had to agree with him, if only a little bit.

Sunday, December 2, 2018


This weekend the mission president and his wife visited.  This was their first visit to Uzbekistan, so in addition to meeting with the members here, they also did some sightseeing.  One of their visits was to Samarkand, as it is a day trip from Tashkent.  Uzbekistan has put a lot of work into restoring their historical sites and becoming a destination for tourism and opened a fast train in 2011, which makes the trip from Tashkent to Samarkand in two hours. 

We decided to keep them company, as we haven't visited Samarkand for a few years and it's always really enjoyable to spend time with the mission presidents.  They are unfailingly wonderful people who are a joy to be with.  And also, we get to hear some really great stories.  One of the perks of living in the wild west of the Church is that we get some real personal attention from our leaders.

The Davises had spent seven years overseas in Oman and China for work prior to being called as mission president, so Sister Davis, the other sister, and I had a great time swapping stories about domestic help, traveling to exotic destinations, and how great it is to be an expat wife.  

When we discussed going with the children, only Kathleen and Sophia wanted to come along.  I was surprised that Joseph, who wants to come everywhere wasn't interested, but more than happy to hire a babysitter for the four younger ones who opted to stay home in Tashkent.  

It turned out to be a great decision (and not just because the train tickets were $60 a person), as the weather was freezing.  Thankfully there weren't any clouds and the sun was out, but a constant whipping wind just about negated the effects of the sun.  Around four in the afternoon after seeing enough to satisfy everyone, a unanimous decision was made to call it a day and head back to the train station early.  It's funny how your enthusiasm for sight-seeing takes a serious hit when fingers and toes start going numb.  I'm glad that we have time to go back when it will be a little more pleasant.

The day started out with some excitement when our taxi driver took us to the wrong train station, but we were able to catch another taxi and made it on to the train with ten minutes to spare.  The train was nice, comfortable, and clean and we had a pleasant journey.  Train travel is so much more pleasant than flying.

The girls had a great time with another young women in the branch who came with their mother, listening to K-pop in the van together, causing the very good-natured guide to exclaim with (mostly) humorous frustration "Girls!!  I'm trying to talk!!!" during one of his historical explanation.  It warmed my homeschooling-mom's heart to see my girls hanging out and being friends with someone other than each other. 

Samarkand itself was, of course, stunningly beautiful, as always.  It was fun to see what new restoration had been undertaken - and also to visit the sites without thirteen children to coral and keep from touching everything they weren't supposed to touch.  Sightseeing is always easier when you have reasonable actors to deal with.  

We visited a paper-making site, which was new, and showed how mulberry-bark paper was made historically.  It was pretty interesting to see the process, and I imagine it will be a very pretty place to be when it's not December, freezing, and windy.

We also visited a bazaar and some shopping spots, helping Sister Davis take a part of Uzbekistan back with her, such a large part that she had to buy another bag to take on the plane with her to haul all of her beautiful treasures back with her to Bulgaria.  I made plans for my own treasures that will be hauled with me eventually.

For lunch we had fresh somsas and shashlik, filling ourselves full enough that we could brave the cold again after lunch.  Everyone decided that somsas really should be a thing in America.  It's hard to beat yummy savory meat (or pumpkin!) wrapped in fresh, hot flaky pastry.  

By the end of the day, everyone had had a great time (mine greatly helped by only having two children with me) and were worn out from our adventures.  We spent the entire two-hour train ride back talking together, probably annoying all the other passengers who were trying to get some rest.  It is always wonderful to make new friends.  We're already looking forward to their return next year.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Thanksgiving 2018

This year we hosted Thanksgiving.  We held it with a few other families who also had a lot of children and one of them offered to host also, but they have cats and Brandon preferred to host instead of sneezing his way through the afternoon.  

There were four families total, so the cooking got spread out nicely between everyone.  Brandon commented when he saw the spread, "There's nothing like profiting from the female desire to show off one's cooking skills!"  

We ended cooking the rolls, turkey, gravy, and pecan pie (which I made just because I really like pecan pie) and so I didn't even start cooking until Thanksgiving itself.  The rolls took most of the time, as making rolls for 24 people - with enough for leftovers - is no small job.  We ended up with almost eight dozen rolls, as I have a mortal fear of running out. 

I know that William's Thanksgiving dinner consisted entirely of rolls and juice, and I'm pretty sure a few other children had the same meal, supplemented by sugar cookies.  Brandon and I have gotten soft in our old age and our family rule for holidays is, "Eat whatever you want.  We don't care.  Nutrition doesn't count on holidays."  It makes for a more fun holiday for the children and gives us a break from forcing children to eat food they don't like.  Also: more tasty holiday leftovers for me.  

We have an enormous dining room which comes in handy when you're feeding so many people.  We had enough room (and seating) for an adults' table, a kids' table, and a food table all in the same room.  It's going to be sad when one day we have to live in normal-sized houses.  Easier to clean, much cozier, but not so good for large parties.  Which Brandon is probably okay with.

I'm grateful for the wonderful friends we've already made after only being here for four and a half months, friends who were not scared to come and join us for a noisy, child-filled meal and then stay at our house and enjoy each others' company for several more hours.  I miss family most at Thanksgiving, as that holiday was always spent with my most favorite cousins, and I treasure the easy companionship that comes from knowing people since you were born.  But as we move around the world, we make more family wherever we go.  And I'm thankful for my Tashkent family that made Thanksgiving wonderful this year. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Happy Birthday, Joseph!

Last week Joseph turned seven.  I remember when seven was a Very Big Age, but seven doesn't seem that big anymore when you have three other children that have already reached that milestone years before.

Joseph chose to go bowling and have Chinese food to celebrate his birthday.  We don't have birthday parties (I'm too lazy) and instead have a special day together as a family.  After a little internet searching, I found a bowling alley (somewhat) close by and we went and gave it a try.  

It turned out to be very nice and very empty on a Monday morning (Veteran's Day holiday), which was just fine with us.

The children all enjoyed themselves, probably making all the employees cringe with their horrible form, but having fun nevertheless.  The children had bumpers, which is the only explanation I can come up with for why Eleanor spanked all of us, including Brandon.

Afterwards we had lunch at our favorite Chinese hole-in-the-wall restaurant.  When the food is so amazingly good, you can forgive just about any decor.

We couldn't find the candles, so Joseph got to blow out a regular candle instead.  As long as there's fire, evidently it counts.

Joseph was very happy with all his presents.  But, who wouldn't be happy with free stuff, right?

Joseph is a very happy, cheerful boy and always willing to make a new friend.  He just made friends with a neighbor boy and is so happy to have his very own friend that lives just next door.  We're grateful to have Joseph as part of our family!