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Sunday, May 30, 2021

Girls' Weekend, Part Two


As I was driving up to my friend's house at the conclusion of our last girls weekend, she turned to me with an excited face, "Do you want to go to Bukhara to go rug shopping??"  

"Of course!!" I excitedly replied.  Because if one girls' weekend to go shopping is good, two girls' weekends to go shopping are even better.  Just like the Fergana Valley is the center of ceramic production in Uzbekistan, Bukhara is the place to buy rugs.  

So this last weekend we took the train to Bukhara to go and find more lovely things to fill our houses with.  We had initially planned to only spend one day, flying there in the morning and flying home in the evening.  But there weren't flights, so instead we spent two days, going on Friday and returning on Saturday.

There is a fast train that takes two hours to go to Samarkand and continues another two and a half hours on to Bukhara.  It's fairly new and quite comfortable, so it wasn't much trouble to take the train instead of flying.  We arrived in Bukhara before noon, dropped our bags off in the hotel, got some lunch, and then set out on our quest to find beautiful carpets.

The Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan have been hit hard by the lack of tourists for the last year, and so there were fewer rug shops open than when I went to Bukhara with my parents two years ago.  Which was probably okay, as we intended to visit every single rug shop that we could find in the city.  Rug shopping isn't something that can be rushed, so we were happy to have two days.  

Having perfected our technique during our last trip, we made sure to take pictures of all the rugs that caught our fancy, not forgetting to note the starting price of each rug on the picture.  By the time we had reached our last shop, I had at least thirty pictures on the camera roll of my phone and we didn't want to see any more rugs.  It turns out that there can actually be too many beautiful rugs in one city.  

Bukhara was holding the Silk and Spices festival the weekend we were there, and all of the citizens of Bukhara were out that evening to enjoy the dancers, music, and performers that were spread throughout the old city.  After dinner, we enjoyed the party before stumbling back to our rooms and reviewing pictures and texting husbands for their input.

After phone calls and consults in the morning, I had narrowed down my list to three carpets and my friend had settled on definitely one and maybe two.  Following breakfast, we set out to bargain for our treasures.  The sellers were happy to have customers, and so we both got good deals on the carpets.  I ended up buying two somaks, which are embroidered woven carpets in addition to two knotted carpets.  My friend ended up with two rugs from the same seller that I bought mine from, so he was a very happy man by the end of the morning.  

Our train didn't leave until four in the afternoon, so we enjoyed a long lunch in an air conditioned restaurant (the temperature was in the low hundreds both days) before boarding our train back to Tashkent.  We spent the entire ride talking, soaking up one of the last times we could spent hours talking without interruptions.  After we had gotten to Tashkent, one of our fellow passengers commented in Russian to another, "Can you believe, they spent the entire time talking?!? Four and a half hours! They never ever shut up!" We got a good laugh and silently apologized to our fellow passengers.

Now I have four more beautiful rugs to add to the four that I already have, and all of them definitely spark joy.  And these four new rugs will always remind me of my lovely weekend spent with friends in Bukhara.  

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Happy Birthday, Sophia!

This week, Sophia turned thirteen, which means that I now have two teenagers in my house.  When I mentioned this to Sophia, she looked at me with a somewhat incredulous expression and replied, "Mom, you're going to have two teenagers in the house until William leaves on his mission - and that is in fourteen years!" So I guess the era of teenager-hood has arrived at the Sherwood house.

But to be fair, Sophia has - so far - shown no inclination to become like some of the horror stories that one hears about.  She is very practically minded and doesn't like conflict, so that certainly helps to keep the drama to a minimum in the house.  Occasionally we will have a difference of opinion about things, but she's very good about talking things through without getting dramatic.  Once she told me that occasionally she will run scenarios in her head where she decides to defy the parental orders just to see what could possibly happen.  "But," she commented with a shrug, "I always realize that that you have all the power and will win every time.  So it's really not worth it."

So far, I'm enjoying the teenage years of my two girls, as we get to have fun conversations together discussing life, future plans, and things that are going on around us.  They're both quite helpful and have helped widen the island of sanity in the middle of the whirlwind of life with seven children.  My role as a mother with them has changed over the years and I'm much more advisory than I used to be, checking in on them from time to time and offering help with problems and situations, but letting them do the heavy lifting from day to day.  It's probably a good thing that they're both so independent as I have my hands full with their five younger siblings.

To celebrate Sophia's birthday, we cancelled school for the day.  Sophia is mostly done with her school for the year anyway, as their online classes were gracious enough to finish the week before her birthday.  But everyone got school off, as birthdays in our house are holidays for the entire family.  

She started the day crafting with Kathleen, then swam until lunch.  After lunch, everyone enjoyed watching a movie and eating popcorn, something that never happens in the middle of the day on a weekday.  For dinner in the evening, we had sushi, followed by Sophia's favorite raspberry-chocolate-meringue cake.  And of course there were presents, because what's a birthday without presents?

Sophia really enjoys climbing and will climb any tree she can find, so on Saturday we went rock climbing at a local gym that a friend had recommended.  All of the children enjoyed making it to the top of the wall, and Sophia was the fastest each time.  

It seems like just a few years ago that I was a young mother of two and Sophia was a cute little baby with an infectious smile and adorable mohawk.  But now she is almost as tall as me, weighs about fifteen pounds less than me, and is closer to being a mother with her own little baby than she is to being my little baby.  But I guess that's what happens when one has children - they grow up without ever asking your permission.  

We're all happy to have Sophia in our family.  Happy Birthday, Sophia!

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Tashkent: Best and Worst

We're starting to wrap up our tour here in Tashkent, with our departure date two months away.  A tour always seems like it was short when we're at the end of one, with all of the things we've done and seen compressed by retrospect.  This tour has seemed especially short, as it has been mostly been filled with two major events - having Elizabeth and COVID.  But we've still had a wonderful tour here, and will be sad to leave when it's time.  However, we've known that our time would have to come to an end at some point, so it's not an enormous wrench to leave.

We were happy to get our assignment to Tashkent, and it's mostly lived up to our expectations.  It's been a good post for us and will probably be the best post we've ever been to, with its nice mix of cheap living, big housing, reasonable weather, good friends, and enough things to do to keep everyone entertained.  Every post is a combination of the local conditions and also everyone's own personal family situation, and both of those things have been good for us here in Tashkent.

However, as with any place anyone ever lives, there have also been downsides.  I'm not sure if I can come up with ten, so I'll stick to five, in no particular order.

1. Getting here.  Traveling to Central Asia is not for the faint of heart.  It's stuck right in the middle of Asia, very far from just about everything.  We are literally halfway around the world from the western part of the US, so there's no way that traveling can be anything but a long, painful slog that usually lasts more than twenty-four hours for a one-way journey.  There is thankfully a direct flight to Frankfurt which actually arrives in Tashkent the day after you leave the US (which beats Dushanbe by an entire day), but it doesn't fly every day, so you have to plan accordingly.  After we are done with Central Asia (whenever that will be), I hope to never have to take any trip that has travel over 24 hours.  Or even 12.

2.  The summers.  I like hot summers.  I grew up in North Carolina, so I'm not scared of heat.  But summers in Tashkent aren't just hot, they're HOT.  The weather gets in to the hundreds in June and doesn't start to think about cooling below that until late August.  Our back steps get so hot by midday in July that Elizabeth and William, with their little legs that can't move quickly, have to be carried up the stairs so they don't burn the bottoms of their feet.  Thankfully we have a pool because nobody wants to go anywhere when the weather is just so hot.  

3.  The size.  Tashkent is a big city.  It was the third-largest city in the former Soviet Union, coming in after Moscow and Kiev.  But unlike many FSU cities, most of Tashkent is private houses and not apartments.  This means that the city sprawls and almost everything here is at least twenty minutes away.  Any time I had a pedicure, hair cut, dentist appointment, visit to the embassy, trip to any medical clinic, or lunch date, it was always at least twenty minutes away.  It gets tiresome to have nothing at all close to our house.  Thankfully the stable, the place that I go to most often of anywhere, is only ten minutes away.

4. The restaurants.  There are actually a lot of restaurants in Tashkent.  There is a decent-sized middle class here and it seems that Uzbeks really enjoy going out to eat.  But it also seems that Uzbeks really, really like eating Uzbek food.  At least two thirds of the restaurants here are Uzbek restaurants.  And while Uzbek food has some tasty dishes, it would be a stretch to call it 'varied.'  If you like meat, dumplings, or plov, then Uzbek food is what you want.  But if you like something else, then you're pretty much out of luck.  Of the remaining restaurants in the city, half of those are burger restaurants, a quarter are sushi, and the remaining twenty-five percent are all of other cuisines.  Brandon and I have gone to the same eight restaurants for three years now, and we're ready for a change.

5. The in-country travel.  This has been disappointing.  I was hoping for some more adventures or places that we could go for fun as a family, but we've been sorely disappointed.  The three star attractions, the silk road cities, are pretty amazing, but they're really only good for a visit apiece.  Once you've seen those, there's not much left.  I've heard of people going to the Aral Sea, but that involves an airplane ride followed by a ten-hour car ride.  There's one place we found that was in the mountains that was okay, but it wasn't great.  We've never actually gone camping here, and the hiking was nothing great after all of the amazing hiking we did in Tajikistan.  Sadly, I don't see our travel opportunities getting better once we get to Kazakhstan.  

Now, on to the good points.

1.  The prices.  As a friend once pointed out, nine times anything is expensive, so it's been nice to be in a place where nine zoo tickets won't set us back two hundred dollars, much less twenty bucks.  We will order dinner for the entire family and can get away with food for everyone for less than twenty-five dollars.  Brandon and I go out on a date every weekend, and dinner for both of us usually runs around thirty dollars.  I ride twice a week for ninety dollars a month, and we can go bowling for two hours for around thirty dollars.  I'm going to miss that when we're in DC for a year.  

2.  The housing.  We have a six thousand square-foot house with four bedrooms, four and a half baths, a garage, a pool, and a pool house, and a great yard.  Being stuck here during COVID times hasn't been a real stretch, as everyone in the family can go to their own room in the house if we're really driving each other crazy.  We live in a nice quiet neighborhood, so the kids will often play outside in the street, ride their bikes around, go to the neighborhood park, or buy candy at the grocery store.  I always tell the kids to enjoy the house, as there's no way they'll live in a place this big when they're adults and have to pay a mortgage.

3. The community.  Before COVID hit, Tashkent had a very active social community.  There was a Bunco night every month, and lots of ladies were always there to enjoy each other's company.  We would get together for birthdays and baby showers.  In the summer, the kids would get together for pool days and city outings twice a week.  It is a great community where everyone is happy to get together, but doesn't mind if you'd rather stay home.  As Brandon noted once, it has enough people to be able to find good friends, but not so few that you feel pressured to go to everything.

4. The handicrafts.  Oh, the handicrafts.  We have bought so many things here that they will get their own blog post with pictures.  We have bought more things during this tour than we have bought in our previous three tours combined.  The combination of good prices and a very high standard of workmanship has made it so easy to fill our house with beautiful things.  I don't regret a single one, as every time I see them I am filled with happiness.  And as a bonus, I'm helping out local artisans.

5. The friends.  In the end, the best part of any place that we live has been the friends that we've made at each post.  Sometimes I am envious of people who get to stay in one place, make friends, and then grow old with those friends.  My mother has friends who she was pregnant with who now are grandmothers.  I'll never have that in my life.  But I also have so many friends that I have made because I get to move every few years and start from scratch.  I never would have met the amazing women that I know if I'd stayed in one place.  I've made so many wonderful friends here, and already have made plans to meet up with some in the future for some fun travel.  

When we pack our suitcases and head out for the airport one last time, I will be sad to be leaving Tashkent.  It has been a good three years for us, and we're not likely to ever return.  But we'll have quite a bit of Uzbekistan to bring with us, we'll have lots of lovely memories, and even better friends.  It will have been a good three years.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Fruit Season

For the last two months, I've been dreaming of strawberries.  Every time I would pull out another tired apple or orange from the refrigerator, I would count down the weeks until I could start looking for strawberry stands on the side of the roads in Tashkent.  

If I were in America, I could have strawberries any time I wanted to go down to Costco and get a five-pound tub of California-grown strawberries that tasted mostly like the real thing.  I could also get mangoes, blueberries, pineapples, and pears any time of the year.  Because America is the place where you can buy just about anything for money.

But here in Uzbekistan, summer fruit is only available in the summer.  I've started to see some fruit out of season in the grocery store - mangoes for three dollars apiece, pineapples for eight, and strawberries flown all of the way from the US for some sort of price that I didn't even bother checking.  

For the rest of the population who doesn't want to pay those prices for fruit that would be eaten by children in .30 seconds, we just have to wait for summer.  

Two weeks ago the strawberry stands started popping up all over Tashkent.  The road to the stable always has multiple stands, so we're able to stock up twice a week.  At first they were kind of expensive, but I didn't really care if I spent thirty dollars a week on strawberries because it was the first fresh fruit in months.  As soon as I'd bring another two-kilo bucket home, the children would descend on it like vultures, crowding around it while shoving strawberries in as fast as they could get them.

The price has now dropped to seventy-five cents a pound, and now the second wave of summer fruit has come on - cherries, apricots, and Framberries, a strawberry cultivar that tastes like a blend of strawberries and raspberries.  Last week I had a four two-kilo pails lined up across my counter, and within two days they were all empty.

Before we leave Tashkent, I'll get to have all the summer fruit except pears, each wave of fruit gorged on until everyone is so sick of strawberries, apricots, cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines, raspberries, and melons that they don't want to look at them any more.  

We're especially enjoying the fruit this year as next year we'll be back in America where fresh summer strawberries haven't thought about costing 75 cents a pound in the last two decades, and Framberries aren't found outside of high-end farmer's markets.  I'm sure the children will enjoy the novelty of blueberries in January, but we're all going to miss the amazing fruit here in Tashkent.  But for now, we're going to enjoy as much as we can.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Happy Birthday, Eleanor!

Eleanor turned seven this week.  I have always regarded Eleanor as being the oldest of my three babies.  I've been able to maintain that illusion for several years now, but with a seven year-old who is almost done with first grade, I have to finally admit that my babies are growing up.  

Eleanor, of course, is thrilled to have made it to the ripe old age of seven and is excited to have only one more year until she can be baptized.  She has been looking forward to this birthday for months and has been excitedly counting down the days as part of her math lessons for the last month.

Brandon and I broke our family ban on birthday parties for Eleanor this year.  She has found a best friend here at post, and when we found out that her friend's birthday was the day before Eleanor's, a combined birthday party was planned.  We're good friends with the family, so everyone was happy to have an excuse to get together anyway.

As birthday parties go, it was extremely low key.  I had Kathleen and Sophia blow up a few balloons and make a sign, but otherwise it was pretty much the exact same thing as having friends over on a Saturday afternoon.  Eleanor and her friend were happy to be sung to, blow out candles, and open some presents before going back to playing.  I was happy to have my commitment limited to making a cake and ordering pizza.

Eleanor is generally a happy, cheerful, helpful child.  She loves to draw and loves to draw horses most of all, leaving her creations scattered through the house.  Her favorite day of the week is Friday, as it is the day that she gets to ride, and all her favorite toys are horses.  I sometimes joke that Eleanor is my reward for not having killed her two older rambunctious, mischievous brothers.  She has the unenviable position of being stuck between two older and one younger brother and usually takes their torments without too much trouble.  When my older girls have grown up and left me, I'll be happy to have Eleanor to keep me company.  

We are all happy to have Eleanor as part of our crazy family.  Happy Birthday, Eleanor!