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Sunday, July 29, 2018

On Having a Pool

I have always enjoyed swimming.  My childhood summers were spent at the pool in my suburban neighborhood, whiling away the long, hot, Southern summers.  I enjoy being outside, and swimming is just a way to enjoy being outside while not dying of heat during the summer.  My ideal summer Saturday involves spending at least several hours by the pool.

I've never actually wanted a pool myself that badly, however.  I have no problem going to a swimming pool and enjoy the sociality of being with other people while swimming.  It was fun to go to the pool in Dushanbe and have it turn into an impromptu pool party while the children played with their friends and I caught up mine.  

Brandon has never wanted a pool.  He is the safety-minded one in the relationship and pools present a very real danger - every year at least one or two children in the Foreign Service drown in backyard pools.  The thought of having a pool never sat well with him.

But when we realized that Tashkent does not have an embassy pool, things changed.  Tashkent's summers are pretty identical to Dushanbe's - long, hot, and hotter.  Last week it the highs were was hot as 108 degrees and as cool as 100 degrees.  Most of the embassy houses have pools, and so when we filled out the housing survey the number one preference was a pool.  I didn't want to spend all summer hauling all six of our children to go and bum off someone else's pool.  

When we got a pool, I was very happy, and when I saw pictures of the pool, I was even happier.  The pools here can be rather small and sometimes awkwardly situated, and we were lucky and got a good-sized pool with a pool house and cabana.  It is evidently known as the pool party pool, so it does come with responsibilities, evidently.  I wasn't sure, however, how it would work out to have a private pool instead of just hanging out with everyone at the embassy pool.  But, I figured, any pool is better than no pool at all.

We've now been here for three weeks and I've had enough time to decide how I feel about having my own backyard pool - and I've decided that it's awesome.  It has been so great that Brandon and I have decided that we want a pool at our house when we eventually retire.

When we wanted to go to the pool in Dushanbe, it would take an hour between announcing that we would go to the pool and actually getting in the water.  Now I just announce, "Pool time," put on my swimsuit, and walk out the back door.  Our pool gets shaded around 3:30 or so, so most days we don't even put on sunscreen.  Swimming is no longer a serious commitment - if we have half an hour to swim, we swim for half an hour.  And when we're done, we get out of the pool and go inside.  No changing, no driving home, no waiting for Brandon to finish work before we can go home.  It's amazingly convenient.

Brandon and I will occasionally swim after the children are in bed.  One night we went to the grocery store, bought baklava, and then swam by the pool while eating baklava and fresh grapes.  It was one of those times when you realize how amazingly awesome your life is.  

Having a pool also makes yard work a lot more bearable.  Getting sweaty while mowing the lawn used to be really annoying, but now it just makes jumping into the pool even more refreshing.  Our lawn is in a somewhat poor state and so I've been swimming until I'm cold, weeding until I'm hot, and then repeating the procedure.  

I also like that I don't have to worry about the children bothering anyone else while swimming.  I can sit and read a book without worrying about anyone judging me for not watching my children.  I love that 'parenting' means sitting in a lounge chair while watching my children swim.  It's pretty awesome.

Yesterday was our first weekend with no commitments, so I got to see if it would be boring to spend the whole day at home.  We had a late breakfast, tidied up the house, and then swam for four hours.  Brandon and I got the back lawn into shape (I love that we have enough lawns that we have to designate them by location) while the children swam, we threw children into the pool, we played games with them, and we all lounged around the pool.  After we were done swimming, we made pizza and watched a movie.  That evening I asked Brandon - who would prefer to walk in the gate on Friday and not leave until Monday - if he was happy.  

"Of course!" he answered, "I got exactly what I wanted - a whole day where I didn't have to leave the house.  And you got what  you wanted - hours and hours by the pool.  Can it get better than this?"

I'm going to be sad when we have to leave Tashkent and I have to swim with the masses again.  I'm pretty sure I'll always remember our private pool days with longing.  But until then, I'm going to enjoy my pool!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Old vs. New

We've now been in our house for two weeks.  I'm always nervous about moving to a new house because, although I like change, I don't like change.  Change is fun and exciting, but it also means that all of the things that I really liked about my former situation aren't there anymore.  But change also means that all the irritating things magically go away.

When I first got the pictures of our house, I was seriously unimpressed.  I got the email with the housing assignment information while I was running one morning, and I spent half the run poring through the pictures on my phone while half freezing to death on the last cold morning of the spring.  The pictures were small, poorly lit, and not very comprehensive.  My initial impression was "Hm, that looks really dark and small.  I am really disappointed right now."

But I got some more pictures from the lady (also Mormon) who was currently living in the house and it looked better than the housing pictures, so I was carefully optimistic.

When we moved in, I was prepared to be disappointed, but instead was really impressed.  This house is the nicest house we've ever lived in, and will most likely be the nicest house we will ever live in until Brandon and I retire with fabulous amounts of wealth and build our dream home.  Or maybe it will just be the nicest house we will ever live in.

But, as with all houses, not everything is perfect.  There are some things that I like more than our last house, and there some things I like less.  I've lived in enough places by now to realize that a perfect house is a complete myth - just like a perfect job, children, or family.  You just take what you've got and make it work for you.

But, there are a lot of things I like about this house.  Our last house was a duplex and so only had a front yard.  The back and side of the house looked out onto a public alleyway and a back road.  I could sit in my bathroom and listen to conversations happening two or three feet away.  Sometimes we would be woken up by particularly loud clompers as they made their way up the stairs just outside our bedroom window.  It wasn't exactly private.

This house is its own freestanding house (which is actually somewhat rare in the housing pool here), so we can walk entirely around it.  There is a front yard, side yard, and back yard, all with their own grass.  I was shocked to find out that there are in-ground sprinklers.  Granted, they aren't hooked up to a timer, but I'll take turning a lever any day over moving sprinklers. 

And, of course, there's the pool.  We have the largest pool in the embassy community and have made a lot of good use of it.  I make the children play outside every day, and it really is nice to have a pool for them to play in when it's a hundred degrees outside.  I love not having to drive anywhere and being able to to jump in for half an hour on a whim.  It's so great having a pool that I've now added 'pool' to the list of things that I want in my eventual home. 

This house has more living space than than the last one.  Instead of one big downstairs room, we now have a living room, an enormous dining room, and a TV room.  Yes, a TV room.  It's not like we watch TV very often, but when we do, there's an entire room - with a recliner - for watching it in.  There isn't a dedicated study upstairs, but there is a very large landing where we keep all 2,000 pounds of our books.  We also have a study nook outside our bedroom where the computer lives.  I really liked our study in Dushanbe - it was cozy and very light with an entire wall of windows - and I still miss it.  But, our reading area is pretty light, and it's actually very convenient to have it centrally located.  Easier to see the mess, however.

The bathrooms in this house are a definite upgrade.  Instead of two small, windowless bathrooms on the second floor, we now have four bathrooms, two with windows.  Our bathroom has a window that gets sunlight in the morning, so I have to remember to shut the door every night so I don't get woken at 4:30 in the morning by sunshine.  We only have a half bath on the first floor, but it holds the distinction of being the Russel M. Nelson Memorial Bathroom.  The prophet visited when he was still an apostle, and used our stunningly green half bath.  I'm still sad that we missed it.

The bedrooms are of mostly similar size to our last house, but we managed to lose a bedroom.  Our house in Dushanbe technically had seven bedrooms, but we used one as a study and one as a storage room.  The baby had its own room and we had a dedicated guest bedroom.  Now we only have four bedrooms, which is too bad.  I've moved Eleanor in with William and she gets to sleep on the queen-sized bed.  She's pretty happy with the arrangement and now the big girls won't keep her up at night.

Our new kitchen is significantly smaller - almost half the size - than our last kitchen.  However, it does has a full-sized American gas range, so I'll have to give it points for that.  We were able to squeeze a kitchen table (actually two tables pushed together) in so we can eat in it, so I've made it work.  I also love my enormous sink that can fit a jelly roll pan laying down in it. 

The biggest downside about this house is its basement.  Our house in Dushanbe didn't have a basement, instead having a third floor.  It was entirely open, making a really great space for playing, homeschooling, exercising, watching TV, and painting (back when I had time to paint).  Now we have a basement chopped up in to a school room, toy room, boiler room, and exercise room.  All of the rooms are more than large enough for our needs, but I miss how light the third floor was.  I hate dark rooms and I'm not sure how much I'll like spending a major portion of my day down in the basement.  However, it is nice to only be one floor away from the main floor now and it's nice to have a door on the toy room. 

Our new house has much nicer finishing touches (no styrofoam molding!).  The floor are real wood, the kitchen has ceramic tiles, and the stairs are a uniform height.  There is a lot of lighting and I can turn on all of the air conditioners in the entire house without having any power issues.  The entire house is wallpapered, which seems to be standard here.  It's pretty gold, but at least it doesn't wash off like the paint did at our last house.  The windows have screens on them, which will be nice in the spring and fall. 

So, on the whole, I'm enjoying our new house.  I definitely feel like we've taken a step up, which is a nice place to be in.  Of course this means that we'll probably take a step down next time we move, but I'll enjoy it while I can!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

How to Unpack Four Tons of Stuff

Tuesday morning was hot.  Seeing as it's Tashkent in July, that wasn't surprising.  Every morning is hot in Tashkent when it's July.  Around 10:15 my doorbell rang.  It was the movers here with all my stuff - 8,000 pounds of it - sitting in their truck, waiting.  I wasn't sure whether to shout for joy or just start crying right there.

Unpacking is one enormous, giant, excruciatingly long, sorting process.  Packing is the process of un-sorting everything that you've carefully spent the previous two or three years finding the perfect place for and then strenuously enforcing that place for everyone in your house.  "No, the games go in the game cupboard, not in the bookshelf.  And go put your shoes away!!"  The hours and days I've spent arranging and re-arranging the things in my house for higher perfection are destroyed in a few short days when the movers pack it all up.

We usually have four or five movers who come.  Those four or five men sweep through the house like locusts, tearing down everything in their path.  Carefully sorted toy drawers are ripped from their places and unceremoniously dumped into waiting cardboard boxes, hopelessly mixing up food items with puzzle pieces with stuffed animals with Legos.  Long-items-used-on-the-stove utensil holders are emptied into boxes along with short-items-and-mixing-things, miscellaneous items, and jar lids.  Winter clothes are ruthlessly mixed in with summer clothes.  Baby clothes are dumped on top of high-heeled shoes which are thrown in on top of the contents of the nightstand.  Nothing is sacred in the drive to get everything boxed up, crated, and sent away to somewhere else.  Nobody cares as long as it goes in a box.

Recovery on the other end comes slowly.  First there is the unloading.  We had six wooden lift-vans, plywood and 2x4 crates that contain all the cardboard boxes.  Each lift-van has to be unloaded piece by piece, in an endless ant-trail stream of men walking past me as I tell them where each and every box, bin, and cardboard-wrapped mystery goes.  Most are labeled, but some cryptically.  What does "desk items" mean?  There isn't enough time to follow each box to its exact destination, so a few general areas are defined.  The kitchen, the living room, the basement, and the second floor landing soon each accumulate their own towering mound of boxes waiting to collapse on any child who wanders too close looking for the box with their favorite toy in it.

Next is unwrapping.  Once I told the movers I could unpack myself, and then I spent the next two weeks hauling my seven-month pregnant self in and out of boxes and unwrapping every single glass, plate, canning jar, knick-knack, picture frame, pencil, bed frame, mattress, toy, and bike in our shipment.  And that was only a 2,500 pound shipment.

The movers move through the house like a wave armed with box cutters as they unswaddle mystery cocoons that turn into diaper genies, treadmills, electric pianos, pictures, mirrors, bunk bed frames, and memory foam mattress toppers.  They wade through drifts of packing paper and tape, opening every single box (that gets real old after the fiftieth box you have to open yourself), and unpacking most of them.  As the drifts recede, leaving with the movers as they shift to the next room, there are piles of plates, glasses, games, toys, vases, book-ends, kitchen appliances, sleeping bags, school supplies, and mixing bowls.  Narrow trails mark the safe places to walk.

I always organize the kitchen first.  Everyone has their preference, but the kitchen is my workspace, and I can't sleep until everything has found its place.  This kitchen is smaller than our last kitchen, so I was worried that everything would fit in.  As the movers unpacked items, I raced around the kitchen, anxiously finding a place for everything.  Would there be enough room for the dishes in two shelves, or would I need three?  Is one cupboard enough for the random food that always needs a home?  Should the wraps go in that drawer or the washcloths?  Every place requires a decision and that decision is crucial.

After the kitchen is settled, the real work begins.  The movers are long gone by now and so all the work must be done by me and the children.  This is the first time I've had a number of useful children while unpacking and so I've invented a game called 'Mule Train.'  It goes like this: Mom gives you stuff to put in another location and you put it there.  You keep playing until Mom forgets about you and you can run off to play with your toys.  Each box that is labeled 'kitchen' inevitably has three or four things that don't go in the kitchen.  Things that used to go in the study now go downstairs in the storage closets.  Somehow the games ended up in the same box with Brandon's clothes.  Slowly each thing makes its way to the general location of its home in this house.

And last is organizing.  By this point I am so tired of making decisions that I can hardly make any useful choices.  But if I don't do it right, I will only have to return in six months when the general chaos of my medicine cupboard overwhelms me in the middle of an ordinary day and I can't do anything but set it to rights instead of my normal work. 

It is also during this stage that I discover all of the organization tools I'm missing.  We had shelves in where our extra toiletries were stored and now we have cupboards so that will take $75 worth of bins to fix.  There isn't enough space for the pots in the kitchen cupboards so now we need a peg board.  There is nowhere to store towels or pool toys in the pool house and so let's add $60 of towel hooks to the Target shopping cart.  I burn through money at a rate only equalled by consumables shopping.

This stage has a bonus feature called "Oh shoot! That didn't get packed up!" So far I've discovered that we no longer own ice bins, refrigerator magnets, the base to my ice cream freezer, a wooden desk chair, a console table, and two ottomans.  But, we did get the clock this time.  I always forget the clock. 

At the end of organizing there is always one last bin or box that defies categorization.  In it are things that have wildly differing purposes - drawer dividers that are too small or two large, plastic bags for clothes storage, a flute that I haven't played since Edwin was a baby, and a box of old photo albums from my youth.  That gets shoved into a deep, dark corer and is unearthed the next time we move.

And then one day, I am done and life begins its rhythms again.  I cook dinner every night, the children bathe on a regular schedule, the house is tidied daily, and everything has a place.  When I open the silverware drawer, there is only silverware.  When I want a new pen, I go to the pens bin.  The children don't have to ask me where their piano books are.  Brandon comes home to a functional house where all the stuff is hidden in its proper place. 

I find unpacking to be similar to traveling and childbirth.  When you are in the middle of the disaster nightmare, it seems that it will never end and your life has always and will always be filled with boxes or pain or airplanes.  But when it ends, you forget that it even happened.  There was this time when you were squeezing a baby out or flying for over twenty-four hours on two hours of sleep, or deciding the best possible place for the pastry blender, but it is a vague and distant memory, best not thought of.  You almost convince yourself that it wasn't really that bad.  And so it wasn't.  But when it happens again, all the memories come rushing back and you wonder how you could ever have forgotten something so terrible.

But still, you do it again anyway.  Because that's life. 

For now, I'm glad that I'm almost done unpacking, I don't have to fly for another year, and there aren't any baby-squeezings in my near future.  It's the simple things that make life wonderful.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

One Week

It's been just over a week since we landed in Tashkent.  The trip was uneventful, other than William acting like a typical 17-month old baby and keeping everyone around him awake with his fussing.  I'm very glad we're not flying with him for another year.

We were able to take a direct flight from Frankfurt to Tashkent, which meant we only had two flights total.  The last time we got to post in two flights was in 2011, so it was pretty amazing, especially when getting to Dushanbe often took four flights.  Also amazing was landing at ten o'clock the day after we left.  After spending three and a half years arriving at 4:30 on the morning of the third day, ten o'clock at night on the second felt like an absolute luxury.  It was beautiful to go to sleep and be able to sleep for eight or nine uninterrupted hours.

Our first impressions of Tashkent were immediately good.  Just like in Dushanbe, we arrived to a terminal so new that it still smelled new.  It took five minutes to get through passport control, all nine of our bags arrived, and our sponsor met us at baggage with two embassy vans waiting for us and all our stuff.  The city seemed to be clean and reasonably (for Central Asia) well-kept, and we were only a twenty-minute drive to the airport.

We had gotten pictures (that I had spent hours poring over) of our house, so we had some idea of what to expect, but found it to be even better than expected.  The pictures managed to make it look somewhat small and poky, but it's enormous (maybe even bigger than our last house), well-lit, and - most importantly - it has a POOL.

Summer in Tashkent, like in Dushanbe, is long and hot.  The embassy doesn't have a pool, so having one at our house was our highest priority.  According to everyone we've talked to, our pool is the largest in the housing pool, so we have been put on notice that we have a community obligation to host at least one party before the end of the summer.  Along with the big pool, we have a nice large yard with lots of space, so hosting a party shouldn't be too hard.

Since our stuff was coming all the way from Dushanbe, it arrived in Tashkent before we did.  Brandon arranged to have it delivered Tuesday, so I've been digging out ever since.  In between unpacking I've gone grocery shopping, visited the embassy for briefings and my badge (last time that took six months), and even attended a birthday party.  I've already turned down a lunch invitation and skipped an ice cream social, so I think that we'll have plenty to do here once we get settled in.

The children have already started making friends, and Kathleen was thrilled to find another newcomer who is only two weeks younger than her, making this the first female friend her age she's ever had.  I know of another family that has girls Kathleen and Sophia's ages, so they should have some friends, which they are happy about.  I've made friends, too, and my sponsor also homeschools, so I don't think anyone should be lonely.

Our neighborhood is quite nice, very quiet, and within easy walking distance of a nice supermarket.  We have a neighborhood milk lady who brings fresh milk (so fresh it's warm from the cow) twice a week.  Brandon has found a stable that's two miles away.  I've already hired a housekeeper and a pool man, and have gotten recommendations for a Russian teacher, piano teacher, and and swimming lesson instructor.

Judging by the first week, this is the easiest transition we've ever had.  It helps that we've only moved one country away and it's pretty much the same culture and the same way of doing things.  Some of the stuff in the grocery store is different (I can tell we're back in Turkic-land because there's lots of plain yogurt), the signs are in Uzbek instead of Tajik, but everything else makes perfect sense.

But now we've moved to, as Brandon put it one evening, "the Germany of Central Asia."  Everything works a little better.  Our house has 90 degree angles instead of 92 degree or 88 degree angles.  The molding is plaster instead of styrofoam.  There are screens on the windows.  We can turn on all of our split packs at once.  There aren't any backup water tanks or generators.  Our pool as a functional filter system.  There are specific neighborhood garbage pick-up days.  Our road has no potholes (it helps that we live down the street from the president's daughter).

So I think I'm going to like Tashkent just fine.  The DCM already brought up extending with Brandon and Brandon told him that we'd like to extend.  When the DCM assured him that he could think about it, Brandon assured him right back that he'd already done the thinking.  As far as I'm concerned, we can stay here as long as the State Department will let us.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Down to the Wire

Right now I'm sitting in Frankfurt at the McDonalds playplace, home to the Breakfast of Champions - french fries and milkshakes.  And despite arriving at 5:30 AM (11:30 PM east coast time) with only a few cat naps to sustain me, I'm feeling a lot better than I was 24 hours ago.

Yesterday at this time I wasn't sure if we were even going to have the privilege feeling like absolute trash in Frankfurt this morning.  I wasn't even quite sure we'd make it to Frankfurt at all.

It all started with me not doing my job.  In the midst of our hasty departure from Dushanbe in March, I didn't renew our family's medical clearances.  I knew that I wasn't being responsible, but those clearances were lower on my priority list than other things like booking plane tickets and getting CT scans. 

I had time to work on them when the crisis turned out to be nothing and I just sat around my parents' house for five weeks, but I didn't.  I told myself that it was because I didn't know how to get the forms, but really I was just lazy.

When Brandon joined me and we saw everything and everyone we didn't do them either. 

So finally when we got to DC, less than four weeks from our departure, we filled out the forms.  Stupid, I know, but unfortunately I have a gambling streak and I figured that we'd probably be okay.  It had all worked out before so why not why?

After some phone calls and emails, we got the clearances put at the front of the line (umm, so we're leaving in two and a half weeks so could you get those done for us? Please?) and everyone was granted a clearance within a few days.  We all got our usual Class 1 (world wide cleared) except for Sophia, who got a Class 7.  I suspected that we might run into problems with her, since she'd been put on Ritalin last year, but I still hoped that it wouldn't be a problem. 

It turns out that Class 7 means that our form-filling days were not over yet and we had a whole new round of filling, submitting, and waiting.  Which was followed by another round of desperate, pleading emails and calls (We have tickets to leave this week so could you please look at our paperwork??). 

The climax happened Thursday morning (twenty-seven hours before our flight) when we were told that Sophia wasn't going to post until we figured out a definite plan for how she was going to get her Ritalin refilled.  Brandon started making phone calls, I sent out desperate pleas on Facebook for advice, and we both wrote emails to everyone and anyone we could think of to help us out.  At one point Brandon asked if we should cancel the tickets, but we decided that it wasn't going to be any more expensive to change them in the morning. 

After a lot of strategizing, we hung our hopes on talking to the nurse practitioner at post who was currently sleeping as it was 1 AM in Tashkent.  So to pass the time we acted like we really were going to get on the plane the next day.  We finished packing, we cleaned out the apartment, we finished off the leftovers in the refrigerator, went swimming, and watched a lot of HGTV.  Most of all, we tried not to think of having to resort to plan B which involved moving to a hotel via a fleet of Uber cars, changing plane tickets, and hoping that someone would be sympathetic to our plight.  It wasn't a very attractive plan B. 

Tashkent is nine hours ahead of DC, so we planned to give the embassy a call around eleven and present our case to the nurse practitioner and see if she could help us.  By ten-thirty, not only had she contacted us (Facebook plea for the win), but so had the HR officer.  By one-thirty, fifteen hours before our flight out of DC, our problems had been solved and the suitcases stayed packed.

Next time, I'm filling out that paperwork six months before we leave.