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Monday, June 13, 2022

Happy Birthday, Sophia!

Sophia's birthday was also back in May, but we didn't celebrate it in May either.  She wanted to wait and celebrate it with her grandparents.  So when Brandon had to be in Bukhara for a work conference on Sophia's birthday, it was okay because she'd already decided to delay her birthday.  Ironically, we celebrated it on Brandon's birthday, so this coming week will be his birthday, observed.

But despite my insistence that her actual birthday was just a regular day without any special celebrations,  when friends showed up we decided to make an evening of dinner and swimming together as both husbands were out of town and couldn't say no.  Sophia's friend had baked banana bread for her birthday, so we ended up singing to her anyway and she did indeed have two birthdays.  I guess that's what she gets for being a reasonable child about moving her birthday around.

On her birthday, observed, she got to have all the food preferences she wanted - coffee cake for breakfast, eggs benedict for dinner, and raspberry baccone for her cake.  For her fun activity, we went to a local water park where she repeatedly badgered the lifeguards into letting her ride the 'adult' waterslides.  The weather was better for water parks in June than in May, so she probably came out ahead in that respect.

I can hardly believe that Sophia is already fourteen.  When Kathleen hits the big milestones, I seen them coming from a long way off.  But then Sophia sneaks up behind her and hits them less than two years later and I'm surprised every time it happens.  She will be in high school in the fall, and then I will have two children in high school, which really spells the end of my run as a mother of young children.  

I'm not concerned at all with her ability to handle high school and the harder classes that she'll be starting in a few months.  She has, through a lot of hard work, learned to be quite diligent in all her school assignments, and I never have to worry about bothering her to get anything done.  It's always a relief to me to know that there's one child I can count on to be dependable and reliant even if everyone else is falling apart.  I probably lean on her for help more than I should because she is not only capable but also willing to help out, especially with Elizabeth.  Elizabeth will sometimes call me "Sophia" because Sophia spends so much time with her and really loves it (mostly).  On Sunday mornings Elizabeth will come down dressed in a pretty church dress, complete with hairstyles and jewelry because Sophia wanted to dress her up.  

Everyone is happy to have Sophia in the family, and it showed when all of her siblings that have money bought her a present for her birthday.  I look forward to continue watching her grow and become even more amazing.  Happy birthday, Sophia!

My Parents Visit, Again


Every year we've been in the Foreign Service (all thirteen of them), we've been able to go back to the US for a visit.  It hasn't always been at the same time, but we always make it a priority.  It's a lot of hassle and can be pretty exhausting, but we want the children to know their extended family, and I know that their grandparents want to see them.  This year is the first year that we haven't been able to to go back, and we're hoping that it was the last year.

When my parents heard that we wouldn't be able to make it back, my mom cheerfully announced that they'd just come visit us instead.  My dad has been retired for almost eleven years and after spending five years serving missions for the Church, they've been enjoying their retirement and have spent a lot of time traveling.  So they were able to slip in a visit to us between a trip to Cape Hatteras for kite surfing and a trip to Seattle to go see my brother.  


The kids were, of course, ecstatic that their grandparents were coming to visit, and eagerly counted down the days until my parents showed up to come and play with them.  My parents had already seen all the Silk Road cities during their last visit, so we decided to keep things low-key and hang around Tashkent for most of the time.

This turned out to be a good decision, as their bags got stuck in Boston and my parents spent three days borrowing clothes and washing their own every evening while waiting for the baggage to arrive.  It was a complicated process to figure out how to file a report for lost baggage - I made 37 different phone calls before I actually reached a person, and thankfully that person could tell me where to go to file the report - and complicated process to get the bags from the airport.  I was very thankful for all the years of studying Russian that made it possible to understand what everyone was saying to me and give them a coherent answer.  I can't imagine how tourists with lost baggage get it back.


Most of our days were spent in the pool for at least part of the day.  After an unusually cool and rainy May, summer arrived the day my parents did, with the temperatures getting up to 100.  The kids had a great time swimming with their grandparents and making silly underwater videos and having my dad throw them into the pool.  I'm grateful for parents that are both able AND willing to come all the way here to swim in the pool with my kids.

In between swimming, napping, and hanging out, we did take a day trip to Samarkand.  Some children wanted to see it again now that they have a greater appreciation of history, and others just wanted to ride the speed train that took us there.  Elizabeth and William - who are the only ones in the family who haven't been to Samarkand - got left at home with the housekeeper.  Nobody wants to haul small children around in ninety-five degree heat to go see tile-covered monuments.  

In addition to going to Samarkand, we also rode the Tashkent metro and went up the TV tower - both firsts for everyone.  Neither was the highlight of anyone's visit, but now we've done them and nobody can complain that we spent four years in Tashkent without going on the metro.  I found it to be nicer than the metro in Baku, which is the only other former Soviet metro I've been in.


We finished up our visit with a quintessential Central Asian attraction - a local water park.  My parents got to experience the random reinforcement of non-logical waterslide rules and then watch as my children pushed, cajoled, begged, and badgered their way onto the waterslides that were for adults only.  They also got to experience burning the bottoms of their feet on hot pavement, icy cold pool water (how is that even possible when it's a hundred degrees???) and crowds of Uzbeks also trying to beat the heat at the pool.  But the highlight of the afternoon was when waterslide lifeguard stopped Kathleen from going on the adult waterslide and then asked her out in Russian.  She didn't realize what was going on until halfway through and let him know that no, she wouldn't be meeting him later to go for an evening walk.  But then he let her go on the slide, so it was a win in the end.

After spending a week with their grandchildren and eating lots of cherries, apricots and fresh naan bread, my parents left to go back to their real life.  Even as they were saying their last goodbyes at the airport, they kept claiming that it was completely worth it to fly twenty-four hours each way, not have new clothes for three days straight, and just get over jetlag before returning and having get over it all over again.  I've got to admit that I've got pretty amazing parents.  Everyone was sad at the parting, knowing that they'd have to wait a whole year before seeing each other again.  But we're grateful that it's only one year and not two.

Happy Birthday, Eleanor

Eleanor had her birthday back in May, more than a month ago.  She had a pretty good birthday and got to go out to dinner to the local amusement park for her birthday Saturday.  It's hard to believe that my fifth child, the oldest of my babies, is now eight years old.  We let the children use breakable glass and ceramic tableware when they turn eight, and it's so strange to see only two plastic settings left when the table is set for meals.  Children have a tendency to grow up when you're not paying attention and it's very surprising when that happens.

My parents decided to come and visit us in June, so we decided to hold Eleanor's baptism during their visit so that her grandparents could be part of it.  They don't have that many grandchildren left to be baptized, so we thought that they'd enjoy being here for Eleanor's baptism.  

When Kathleen turned eight, I sewed a white dress for her baptism.  It's also been used by her female cousins, so my parents brought the dress and a pair of white pants for Brandon with them in their luggage when they came out to visit.

We had planned to hold the baptism for the day they arrived, on a Saturday, but their luggage didn't show up when my parents did.  The baptism had to be postponed until the clothes arrived, but thankfully it was was pretty easy to postpone as it was going to happen at our house and only one other family was coming.  We started looking for other clothing options, but were happy that the suitcases showed up Monday morning so we could hold the baptism that evening.

The baptism was, of course, beautiful, and Eleanor was happy to have her friends and family there to celebrate with her.  Everyone in the family except William and Elizabeth got to participate, with Kathleen and Sophia helping with the music, Edwin and Joseph acting as witnesses, my mother speaking, and my dad helping with the confirmation.  I loved seeing the wide smile and happiness shining from Eleanor's eyes as she was confirmed after her baptism.  

I love seeing Eleanor grow up into a cheerful, thoughtful, sweet girl.  She is always happy to share with everyone, even if it's just a crumb of the cookie that she has.  Her infectious laugh always makes me smile, especially when she's being tickled.  I love seeing the latest horse drawing that she has created and finding the numerous pictures she leaves littered around the house.  Poor Eleanor is stuck between two brothers, but she is a needed break from her sometimes intense brothers.  I look forward to enjoying seeing her grow up further and seeing what amazing things she has in store for us.  Happy birthday, Eleanor!

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Cleaning out the House

 This week I started cleaning out the house.  Cleaning out the house is one of the Dreaded Tasks of moving.  The State Department will pay to ship our stuff around the world, but they have a weight limit - 7200 pounds.  When I first joined, that sounded like a lot of weight, but now that I have seven kids that I homeschool and have collected treasures, it's not that much after all.

So this means that every time we move, we get to purge our stuff.  In theory, this is actually a good thing.  It's surprising the useless things that manage to unknowingly get hauled around for decades.  After we had been living in Tashkent for a year, I found a Babybug magazine from 2008.  In 2008 we lived in Utah, which meant that it had been moved from Utah to Maryland to Cairo to Belgium to Azerbaijan to Belgium to Tajikistan to Uzbekistan.  And I don't actually even like Babybug magazine.  So I do consider the requirement to purge to be a good thing because purging isn't something that I spontaneously do for fun.

But the actuality of cleaning out the house is another thing entirely.  It's amazing the number of places in your house that junk can collect in.  There are always those places in everyone's houses that become the dumping ground for stuff that you don't know what to do with.  Often it's the basement or that nook under the stairs or the back of the kids' closet.  We all have those places.  It's where the things that might have some use go to hide for a decade or so, waiting for their chance to be used just once so that their storage is justified.  It's also where all those unused electronics cords go.

Cleaning out the house means confronting all of those places and sorting through all the piles of potentially useful things and figuring out what things are actually useful and what things really haven't been worth keeping.  It requires the deep soul searching and consideration of what useful means and how often you actually have used a hacksaw in the past four years (answer: none) and if you can think of a situation in which you will buy/can buy a live Christmas tree when you also own a perfectly good fake one (the tree stand didn't make the cut).  It can become somewhat of a zen exercise where you consider the material world and our interaction with it and how those things can cumber your soul.  But it's usually just a huge pain.

Cleaning out the house also means sorting through bins and bins and bins of clothing and wondering if maybe your sanity is not worth saving money by reusing clothes and maybe each child should just get a new wardrobe of their own each year just so you don't have to store clothes in between children.  It's amazing how you can think that clothes are perfectly reasonable while children wear them, and then they look terrible once you take them out of storage for the next child.  I'm happy that we have purged multiple bins of clothes while here in Tashkent.  There's nothing quite like the feeling of just getting rid of clothes when William and Elizabeth grow out of them.  Someone else can enjoy them and I don't have to put them in a bin, waiting for the next child to grow into them.

We have also gotten rid of all of our baby things.  Gone are the car seat, strollers, crib, nursing pillow, bottles, baby bath tub, maternity clothes, blankets, towels, pump, washcloths, baby clothes, swing, rocking chair, changing table pad, diaper pails, cloth diapers, baby toys, and toddler beds.  I'm happiest about getting rid of all of the diapering accessories.  Although having a last baby is bittersweet, not having any more children in diapers ever again is completely awesome.

Last summer I did a preliminary purge, cleaning out all of the low-hanging fruit in preparation for a deep purge this summer.  And it has indeed been a deep purge.  I've cleaned out every single bin we own, going through things that haven't been examined since we joined the foreign service.  I found material from skirts I sewed in college, gift cards that Brandon was given before we were married, dictionaries for languages that neither Brandon nor I speak, and mini bread pans that I've never actually used.  It's freeing to get rid of those things, to realize that actually we don't need them.  And if suddenly we do in the future, we can just buy them.  We don't have to haul them around anymore.

I've given myself plenty of time for this purge, knowing that decision fatigue is a real thing.  I've done exhausting purges where I just don't care by the end.  The last quarter of the house is done in haste, figuring that I can sort it all out at the other end, and when the other end arrives, I can't fathom how all the random stuff got packed up and moved just so I could throw it away in our new home.  

I've paced myself, working for four or five hours a day - enough time to get into a good rhythm where my head is in the game and my whole existence has narrowed down to making crucial decisions.  But not so much time that I'm completely exhausted, brain buzzing with fatigue, and past caring about anything at all in life anymore.  It really hasn't been that bad, which has surprised me.

As the garbage bags pile up outside and the mound of treasures for my housekeeper grows, I grow increasingly satisfied with my moral purity.  Look how much stuff I've gotten rid of!  Think of how many pounds we've shed!  All of those things won't fill up our bins and shelves and closets anymore!  But, of course, the joke is on me as I cheerfully get rid of things that took so much time and money and energy to acquire.  I was just as happy to get those things as I now am to get rid of them.  

In about eight weeks, a team of movers will come and spread over the house like ants, boxing up everything in their path, encasing our entire life in cardboard and sealing it up with plastic tape.  Brandon and I will anxiously watch the stacks of boxes as they grow higher and higher, wondering what the day of judgement will bring.  Will we be under?  Was all of the purging enough?  Should we have gotten rid of more books?  Should we have kept the weights?  And if we pass we will breathe a sigh of relief for the next few years until we have to do it again.  And if we fail, the tab of expensive things we have to pay for this summer will grow even longer and I will know that all of my efforts were not quite enough.  

One day, we will retire and stop moving.  Our possessions will not be measured by pounds, only by what will can cram into our house.  When I buy something, I won't wonder how much it weighs and if it is worth spending our precious allowance on.  I will be able to own as many books as I have bookshelves for, and my furniture can be as heavy as I can afford for it to be.  I'm really looking forward to that day.  But for now, I'll just keep on purging.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Khiva



A few weeks ago, I was able to take Kathleen, Sophia, and Edwin to Khiva, the smallest of the Silk Road cities.  My aunt and uncle came out for their own Silk Road trip, so we decided to go with them for the first of the three stops.  We haven't taken any of the kids to any of the cities while we've been here, so when the older kids asked if they could go to Khiva, I thought that it would be fun to combine our visits and go together.

Khiva is in the western end of Uzbekistan, so we had to fly and then take a car from Urgench, the closest city with an airport.  Flying domestically with only three children who are all old enough to be completely reasonable was so much more enjoyable than our usual international monkey circuses.  The kids kept on saying, "Mom!  This is so easy with only three of us!  It's so quiet!  Nobody's whining!  We can all carry our own boarding passes!" 

We got into Khiva late Monday night and then spent all day Tuesday touring the small walled city.  There is a a lot of Khiva that is outside the walls, but most of the interesting sights are inside the walls.  Everyone has their favorite silk road city, and usually it's either Bukhara or Khiva.  Khiva is my favorite, so it was fun to come back with the kids and my aunt and uncle.

The entire walled city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the nineties, and it's easy to see why it got that designation.  The inside of the city is packed with madrassas, mosques, and old palaces.  There are so many madrassas that a good number of them stand empty, locked up because nobody knows what to do with them.  I'm not sure what was happening back in the nineteenth century in Khiva that made madrassas the popular thing to build, but I'm pretty sure I've never seen so many crammed in so close together anywhere else.  

The weather for the day was one of those perfect April days that makes being in Uzbekistan during the spring a delight.  It was clear and sunny and all of the trees were leafed out in the fresh, bright spring green of new growth that hasn't gotten tired and dusty from a long, hot summer.  

Foreign tourists were far outnumbered by school groups who had come to tour Khiva for field trips.  I've found that Uzbeks love visiting their silk road cities every bit as much, if not more, than everyone else.  My uncle had taken Russian back when he was in elementary school, so he enjoyed bringing out his few remembered words every time we got mobbed by school groups who wanted to know where we were from and if they could take a picture of us.  He loved it all, soaking in all of the cultural experiences he could cram in for their week-long visit.

Sophia spent the whole day trying to get to places that weren't strictly part of the allowed sections.  At one mausoleum dedicated to a fourteenth century wrestler-poet, she managed to find a stairway that led to the roof.  By the time I slipped past the minder and up the staircase myself, she and Edwin had managed to climb up the back of the entrance facade and were enjoying their view of the street far below.

In an empty madrassa, she found the small staircases embedded in the wall that led to the second story.  When she appealed the authority figure - me - we agreed that if the doors weren't actually wired shut, we could slip through one and explore the second story.  She found one that was open and so we did some furtive stair climbing and quietly crept around the second story, exploring empty rooms.  Luckily we didn't get caught and everyone enjoyed a shared adventure.  

We finished our day with a walk along the city walls before heading back to Tashkent while my aunt and uncle went on to Bukhara by train for more silk road adventuring.  It was fun to be able to travel with children who were interested in what we were seeing and enjoyable company to have along.  

As we were waiting for the (inevitably) late plane home, I realized that sometimes our mostly normal lives have little detours into the exotic.  On Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, everyone had school like we always have school.  Everyone did their Russian classes, had piano lessons, did math lessons, and complete homework assignments, just like any other kids their age back in the US.  

But on Tuesday, we took a short little jaunt to a Silk Road city where we wandered around in the inside of a tenth century mosque, climbed down into a madrassa cistern, walked along the ancient city walls, and admired tile work in the seventeenth-century palace of a khan.  It's fun to have some awesome in the middle of regular life sometimes.  

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Ashley Sherwood, International Russian Translator

 В Ташкенте прошли соревнования по конному спорту

My Russian is terrible.  I've given up hope that I will ever be anything approaching good at Russian, but I still study it because it's so painful to be so bad after so many years of studying.  At this point I can speak like a two year-old.  I understand a lot of what is being said (although sometimes I get completely lost, holding on to a few understood words like a drowning man to a passing log), but when I open my mouth everything is in the wrong case or tense or aspect.  People understand the gist of what I'm saying, but I sound ridiculous.

Last Friday, my horseback riding teacher asked if I could translate for her.  She has a horse that has problems and she had heard that there was a vet in town who might be able to give her some more advice than the local vets have been able to offer.  The only problem was that he didn't speak Russian and she doesn't speak English.

The club next door to where we ride held a four day FEI jumping tournament this past week with riders from all over the former Soviet Union and a few other nations also.  As part of the tournament, an FEI vet came in to certify the horses before the competition to make sure that they were all sound and wouldn't get injured while competing.

So after our lessons, we headed over to the club to consult with the vet.  When we got there, everything was in full swing with riders, horses, spectators, officials, and support staff everywhere.  The girls were in absolute heaven (the boys got left in the car).  We eventually made our way to the vet, who was at a table in the VIP section with several other FEI officials.  When we were introduced, he mentioned that he was Iranian.

It's always a little sticky running into Iranians when we are overseas because of the weird official relations between the two countries.  I've always found Iranians to be very kind and hospitable people, but there's always a weird understanding that on some level hanging out with them is not exactly all the way okay.  This was the same, as nobody said anything, but everyone stiffened ever so slightly when it came out that I was married to an American diplomat.  

But nobody was there to talk or care about politics, we were there to talk about lame horses and I was there to translate what he had to say in English (not his first language) to Russian (not anything even close to my first language).  Everyone at the table spoke some level of English, but it wasn't anyone's first language but my own.  I had to wonder why anyone hadn't thought of using Google translate (which has a talk-to-text translation feature) to solve their problem, but that's not what had happened.  Instead they had me.

I was able to explain the horse's problem (Russian-English translation is okay for me) and then stumble terribly through an explanation to my teacher of what to do (English-Russian translation is a different story altogether).  At one point a young lady at the table jumped in to help with the Russian-speaking end and I really had to wonder why I was there.  But then when I heard her Russian translation, I realized that her English comprehension wasn't that great and maybe I was useful after all.  

At one point in the whole endeavor, I had a little laugh at the completely ridiculous situation I had gotten myself into.  As diplomats, we get a free ticket into a class of society that everyone local had to use money to gain entrance into.  In places like Uzbekistan, that class is very aware of their status and what it means.  So there's a sense not really belonging in those places all of the way because really we're just regular people doing a government job, but still being part of that class anyway because of who we represent.  But that sense has faded over time, and now I feel pretty comfortable in those situations.  

So I was sitting at the VIP table with event officials who, at one time, I would have seen as Important People, but now I realize are people who are simply normal people doing their job like my husband is a normal person doing his job that includes attending meetings with foreign ministers and presidents' daughters.  They all understood one half of the conversation that I was having with an Iranian veterinarian, but none of them understood the other half of the conversation that was being stumbled through by the wife of an American diplomat dressed in sweaty riding gear.  My riding teacher understood nothing the vet said, and the Uzbek young lady understood half of what he said.  I understood everything the vet said, most of what the young lady said, most of what the riding teacher said, but explained everything to my teacher with hand gestures and terribly bad grammar.  Meanwhile the Uzbek military was coming in with bayonetted AK-47s to do a military half time show while the ladies in Uzbek costume were getting ready to hand out prizes to the winners of the 130 cm class that had just finished.  Most of the time my life is normal and makes sense.  And sometimes it goes a little sideways.

In the end, I was able to get the important information across, I small-talked with the vet about LA, living in Milan, and hopes for seeing each other again at another competition (because of course I attend these things in between schooling seven children and running a household), and then I left, having done the job I came to do.

I was able to peel the girls away from the horses and got back to my car so that I could get home and relieve my housekeeper who was waiting for my return.  As I got closer, I realized that yes, those were both my sons standing on the roof while a concerned Uzbek police man was watching to make sure they didn't fall off and die in a random back alley.  I herded them back inside the car, went home, and then resumed my normal non-translator-at-international-jumping-competitions job where I tell children to do their homework and break up fights.  Just another day of a homeschooling mom in Central Asia!

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Uzbekistan Saturday Fail

 There's a new park outside of town that I've been eying for months.  I'm always a sucker for parks.  It's not like one park is materially different from another - all parks are essentially the same combination of trees, grass, paths, benches, and maybe a playground.  But somehow I always think that a new one will offer a different combination that will make my park experience significantly better from all of my previous ones. 

We've seen it while heading out of town go up and play in the mountains, and we've watched the construction as the months have passed.  This park, New Uzbekistan Park, looks to have the same combination of trees, path, grass, benches, as all the other parks.  But still, I've wanted to go and see it every time we drive past it.  I know, logically, that it will be almost the same as any other park, but emotionally it still feels like this one might possibly be better as a result of some mysterious combination of elements that can't be defined.  

We first tried to go and check it out in late February.  The weather had warmed up for a brief False Spring, a short string of seventy-degree days that lures everyone into thinking that it won't be long before flip-flops and shorts will be a permanent feature in their wardrobe.  It also tricks the newcomers into turning their heating systems off much too early and then suffering through the inevitable cold and rainy March with a snowstorm or two that always follows False Spring.  We've been in the region long enough to recognize False Spring for what it is and no longer are taken in by its counterfeit promises.  

Brandon had heard reports from a co-worker who had been a few weeks earlier that the park was quite nice - and more importantly - had a good playground.  A good playground is key to a good park.  It keeps the children entertained so Brandon and I can enjoy the weather and scenery without having to break up fights or ignore complaints of boredom.  

We decided to make a picnic of it and bring lunch.  It would be a perfect outing after being cooped up inside all winter.  But after we drove up, parked, all piled out of the car, and strolled up to the gates ready for a good time, the surly guard informed us that it was closed.  Looking through the fence at the sunlit lawns of perfectly green grass just a few feet away, we were crushed.  Brandon asked the guard why, and he tersely replied, "Repairs."  We couldn't figure out why a brand new park needed repairs, but there was no getting around the guard.  Deflated, we went home and ate our 'picnic' at the kitchen table.

The next time I tried was with a friend.  It was a Sunday a week or two later, and we decided to take a walk and enjoy the weather and have some time to talk.  I told her about the new park and we drove out together, figuring that surely a few weeks was enough to finish the 'repairs.'  Sadly, it was once again closed.  Having already driven out, we just decided to take a walk around the park, figuring that we were next to the lovely view and it would be close enough.  It was a nice enough time anyway because honestly we were mostly there for the talking.

Real spring finally arrived this week.  March this year was especially cold and rainy, with three weeks straight of cold, cloudy, rainy weather.  Our rain gauge, otherwise known as the empty pool, showed that we got at least six inches of rain over that three weeks.  Everyone was excited to get out of the house to enjoy some nice spring weather this Saturday.  We planned to go hiking with friends, but ended up delaying the hike for a few weeks.

Still needing something to do, we decided to go to the park.  Our friends had passed it over Navruz holiday and reported that it was definitely open.  There were throngs of people and everyone was enjoying all of the grass, paths, trees, and benches that have been empty for so long.  When we drove up to the parking lot, the gates were open and people were hanging around outside them.  

Having done this a few times before, Brandon left us in the car (getting everyone in and out is quite the exercise) and went to see if it was really open this time.  He asked the people and they assured him that yes, the park was open.  Everyone joyfully tumbled out of the car, happy at the thought of exploring a new park and a new playground.  

Sophia and Kathleen started talking about what games they could play together, Eleanor was already imagining herself as a wild horse galloping through the grass, and William wanted to know if there would be swings.  I was anticipating finally getting to see this new park that had been beckoning me for so long.  The grass was perfectly green, the sky was perfectly blue, and we had friends to be with.  Who could ask for anything more on such a beautiful day?  

We swarmed the entrance, happily looking forward to a perfect morning at the park.  We made it to the gates that opened up to a beautiful vista and manicured greenery.  But standing in our way was another surly guard, foreboding in his black jacket, black pants, and authoritarian black cap.  I've never seen a guard at a park in the US, but it seems that here parks are a natural resource that needs to be preciously hoarded, guarded carefully against people who would want to actually use them.  

"You can't go in," he told us with a frown.  Everyone stopped, frozen in their tracks from dismay.  How could it be possible?  We were just told that it was open.  It certainly looked open.  People were inside.  Why couldn't we go in?  "It's closed," he curtly informed us.  "Repairs."

How was it possible, Brandon wanted the guard to tell him, that it was closed when it had just been open for the Navruz holiday?  Why were there people inside right now?  When was it going to ever actually be open?  "It's closed," he told us again, not answering any of our questions, "Repairs."  Maybe those were the only words he actually knew in Russian, so he was stuck repeating himself like a recording anytime crazy foreigners who actually wanted to go in the park asked him long and increasingly irritated questions.  

We considered swarming him as a mass and seeing what he would do.  After all, there were nine of us and only one of him.  Maybe if we waved our diplomatic IDs while rushing the gate, we could claim diplomatic immunity to park closures and surly guards.  We could claim that we were there on behalf of the US government to inspect the park and have the children test the playground equipment for US safety standards.  Joseph suggested we could scale the fence and skip the guard altogether.

In the end, we just retreated the car, frustrated with our repeated failures.  Everyone sadly piled into the car while wistfully looking through the fence at the park, just out of our reach.  Once again, the lovely, new, shiny, unknown park had eluded us and we were relegated to going to a park that we already knew, one that held no allure of something novel to see on a perfect spring Saturday.  One that was nice enough, but not the one we wanted.

I suppose that sometimes we get lulled into a sense of normality here in Tashkent.  We have grocery delivery and mostly consistent internet service and somewhat decent restaurants and the open ditches on the sides of the roads are even getting curbs put up to guard the unaware driver from dropping a tire in them.  Things here mostly work and life isn't that bad.  But it's good to be reminded every now and then that we're still living in Uzbekistan, the place where things can stop working at any time with no warning.  Because it's when you forget and start expecting them to work all the time that you get set up for serious disappointment.  So thanks, Tashkent, for reminding me that I'm still in Central Asia.  I certainly wouldn't want to forget it! 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Sri Lanka


This year we spent our spring break in Sri Lanka.  We won't be able to go to the US this summer, so I decided that we should take a trip somewhere fun to soften the blow somewhat.  We have very close friends that moved to India last summer.  They invited us to come and see them in India, and as travel plans progressed, we agreed to meet somewhere fun instead, as their town itself isn't that exciting.  After some talking, we decided to meet in Sri Lanka.  


Sri Lanka, an island nation off the southeast coast of India, has some of the feel of India, but is very popular for beach vacations.  And if there is one vacation that is the best for a trip with sixteen people, it's beach vacations.  After a lot of searching, we were able to find a house that perfectly fit everyone, and - even better - had staff that would cook for us.


The trip down wasn't too terrible - twelve hours of traveling really is quite short when our usual trips are over twenty four hours - and there was only a half hour time change.  Our house wasn't located on the beach, but we were able to take tuk-tuks to several nice beaches close by.  For the children, the tuk-tuks were part of the charm of the vacation.  Every morning after breakfast, we had four tuk-tuks waiting for us to take us to whatever outing we were headed to that day.


In addition to going the beach, we also went on a few adventures.  We visited Galle fort, went to a sea turtle rescue hospital, went on a safari, visited an elephant orphanage, and went to a temple.  





But mostly, we went to the beach.  Because the best possible thing to do with twelve active children is to spent lots of time at lovely beaches.  And when everyone was done with the beach for the day, we came home and then everyone spent a few more hours swimming in the pool before being served a delicious dinner of Sri Lankan food.




At the end of the week, everyone agreed that it had been a completely perfect week.  I didn't think that it would be possible to have a vacation as fabulous as our vacation to the Maldives last year, but Sri Lanka was different but equally amazing.  We absolutely loved the house that we stayed at, which was probably what made the vacation so wonderful.  The owner arranged everything for us and decided on the menu each night, which made it a vacation for everyone, especially the moms.  


The house was perfect for two families, with each one having its own separate space.  It had lots of room for the children to play and adults to sit and talk without anyone disturbing each other, and it even had a well-stocked library for anyone who had the chance to get bored.  And the house and grounds were stunningly beautiful.  The house was tastefully decorated and the garden made us feel like we were in our own private jungle.  When we were preparing to leave, everyone was already making plans to return for spring break next year.  We all hope it works out!

Sunday, February 6, 2022

No More Solo Church

 A few weeks ago, our third stretch of self-churching came to an end.  We've been holding every Sunday service alone since last June, when the final family in our group left Tashkent for their next post.  We had already spent eight months of 2020 self-churching because of covid and a State-department evacuation, so this most recent time wasn't too much trouble.  There are some times when having seven children really comes in handy, and when you have to hold church on your own, it's nice to have enough people to sing, play the piano, pass the sacrament, lead the music, bear their testimonies, help out with Primary, and participate in Primary.  

I confess that we had gotten pretty comfortable with waking up on Sundays whenever we felt like it, followed by a leisurely breakfast and and equally leisurely preparation for church - which started whenever everyone was ready, whatever time that was.  We still held church according to the usual pattern, including all the important parts and with everyone dressed up in their church clothes, but there was a little more casualness to the entire affair than usually occurs when other people are there on Sunday.  

If Brandon went long in his lesson, there wasn't anyone to be bothered by it.  If Elizabeth got a little restive during our sometimes quite involved discussions, it was okay for her to play on the floor with some toys because she wasn't bothering anyone but us.  If our frustration with restive children sometimes turned into impromptu lectures, nobody was there to witness it but the guilty parties.

But it really is better to have church with someone other than the same people we've been seeing all week long, so we were all happy when a long-anticipated new family finally made it to Tashkent.  It's been nice to have some other voices to add to ours and other faces to see on Sunday and other views to hear during lessons, even if it means we have to set alarms on Sunday mornings again.

The children are happy to have new friends to play with, especially Kathleen, Sophia, and Eleanor who are enjoying having girls in church after only previously having boys at church.  Brandon and I are enjoying having other adults to share teaching duties with, and we're also enjoying getting to know new friends.  Our only complaint so far is that they couldn't have arrived earlier to we could enjoy their company longer.

Our next post will be a first in our Foreign Service career - a country where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is officially recognized and allows missionary work.  Our church congregation will include local members, something that we've never actually experienced at church before.  That will bring its own challenges - not the least of which will be having to use our questionable Russian skills - and new experiences.  And as far as we know right now, we'll be the only American family there for a year.

So for now, we're enjoying our comfortable little church congregation that is easily run without too much trouble.  Almost everyone has a friend, we all can understand each other, and we can pretty much run it however we like.  Sometimes it's nice to be in places like this.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

COVID Strikes

 A few weeks ago, we all got sick with COVID.  Omicron has showed up in Uzbekistan as it has pretty much everywhere else in the world.  It seems like everyone who hasn't yet gotten sick has fallen ill to the omicron variant of COVID.  Brandon and I both have family members who have gotten sick, in addition to friends here in Tashkent and back in the US.  

When Kathleen was the first to get sick with a cold, neither Brandon nor I thought much about it.  When Sophia, Eleanor, and Joseph got sick in quick succession, I still didn't think that it was anything other than a cold.  Only Sophia had a fever, and it only lasted for half a day.  But by the time William, Elizabeth, I, and finally Brandon also got sick, we thought that maybe Brandon should get tested.  It's not very often that every single person in the family gets sick within a week.  Usually at least a few people get lucky and miss out on the fun.

I confess that I was a little disappointed when Brandon's test came back negative.  If we were all going to be sick, it would be nice to have COVID done with.  But then the medical unit asked him to come back in for a PCR test, as they are more sensitive than the rapid test he had taken.  So back in to the embassy he went for another nose swab, and this time it came back positive.

By this point, everyone in the family had gotten sick, and some of them were already feeling mostly better.  I was relieved to not have to decide whether or not to isolate and by the time we figured out that Brandon was sick, half of us were already past the isolation stage anyway.  

The kids were all a little excited about finally haven fallen ill to the dreaded COVID and survived unscathed.  I was relieved to have gotten it over with with no problems at all.  Brandon and I both felt a little crummy for half a day and had congestion and some coughing for awhile, but we've definitely had worse colds.  I'm also grateful that we had the omicron variant and not the delta variant from last year, which seems to have been much worse to go through.

So now we can join the hundreds of millions of people across the world that have fallen ill to COVID, although I can't say that we have a particularly interesting story about it.  We got sick, everyone got better, and then we moved on with our lives.  My favorite part of the story is that we don't have to worry about testing positive before we take any trips.  The children were very disappointed to hear that it didn't mean that we don't have to take any more tests, but at least the outcome of the tests won't be so stressful anymore.  There's always a silver lining!

Sunday, January 23, 2022

40

This past week, I turned forty years old.  My birthday was a completely delightful day.  It actually turned into a completely delightful two days by the time the partying was over.  Brandon started the morning off right with homemade churros (something that he's turned into an art form), and I got to go riding with the children in the morning.  Any day when I get to ride is a good day, so riding on my birthday is exactly how I wanted to start my day off.  


When Brandon asked what else I was going to do in order to celebrate my new stage of life, I told him that I was going to do all of the other things I normally don't have time for.  So I got a massage, read a book, and took a nap.  I actually have time to take a nap every day, but a birthday nap is even better than a regular nap because you know that there aren't any unpleasant things to greet you after you take the nap.

The children are old enough that we can leave them overnight, so we did, checking into the local Hilton for the night.  As I've gotten older, my dreams in life have gotten more modest, so having two meals - in a row - that I didn't have to cook, clean up from, or feed to anyone but myself made for a great weekend.  And when you throw in a late check-out so that I can have a little more reading and napping, it makes everything that much better.

Saturday also included at two-hour meetup with a friend, followed by dinner (made by Brandon and the kids) and birthday cake (made also by Brandon and the kids).  I got two take two days off from making food, chasing children around, or really doing any work at all.  I think that it was probably one of the best birthdays I've ever had, thanks to the hard work of Brandon and the children.  Having eight people who want to make your birthday great is pretty amazing.

Now that I've finally reached forty, I confess that I do find it a little disconcerting.  I've never been bothered by aging because aging is something I have no control over.  It happens to everyone, so why get distressed by it?  There's no point in trying to stop something that started the minute you were born.

But it turns out that those were the thoughts and words of someone who was young.  I'm not sure why forty is such a daunting number, but there is something quite visceral about leaving the last gasp of youth behind and stepping into the second, less attractive and glamorous, part of your life.  I don't look any different than I did the day before I turned forty, but now when I say that I'm forty, I don't see myself the same way as I did only a few days ago.  

I haven't exactly been trying to pretend that I'm any younger than I am - after all, having seven children does imply that one has been living for a reasonable amount of time.  And as I watch my older daughters beginning to come into their own as young adults, I have no desire to compete with them in the beauty department.  But there still is that little sting when I realize that my youth has definitely and completely come and gone.  I guess it's probably because I've spent my who life young and now I get to spend the rest of it old, getting older each year.

But I still would never go back to being twenty, or thirty, or even thirty-five.  I may now have more wrinkles and a saggier face and even several gray hairs (that was a shock to see those), but I also have all the experience that I've gained from being alive for forty years.  There are so many dumb choices and difficult lessons and work that I've put in to be the semi-reasonable person that I am.  And I'd never want to go back and have to learn all of those over again.  

I remember asking my mother once if she'd like to go back to being twenty-one.  I was in college and was afraid that I would always miss those years and think of them as the best years of my life.  "Oh no!" my mom laughed, "I would much rather be forty-seven!  Life is much, much better now than it was when I was your age."  I felt a lot better after that conversation.

Although I'm not yet forty-seven, I'm a lot closer to being forty-seven than I am to being twenty-one.  And I definitely have to agree with my mom.  Getting older isn't always a picnic, but it sure as heck beats being young.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Circus, on Ice!


Yesterday we took the kids to the circus again.  I have to admit that I'm kind of a sucker for circuses.  As I child I would beg my parents to take me to the circus whenever it was in town.  It looked so interesting - elephants and acrobats and tigers and clowns!  But my mom always refused, recounting the one time that they took my older sister and she spent the whole time complaining that it stank of elephant.  Now that I'm older, I realize that the cost was also probably a deterrent, as the circus in the US isn't very cheap.

But now that I'm adult and get to choose how to spend my money, I like to take my kids to the circus.  It also helps that it's not very expensive to take the whole family - the expensive tickets usually run around $8 a seat.  And even when you're paying for eight seats (Elizabeth gets a lap), that's still not that much money.

A few weeks ago, I a saw an ad around town for a kind of circus that I've never hear of before - a circus on ice.  I must say that advertising is doing its job because the last time I acted on an ad I saw around town, we ended up going to the Maldives.  

This time, however, it was a lot cheaper and also closer to home.  The idea of a circus on ice sounded interesting.  I've heard of Disney on ice, but I'd never heard of something that combined ice skating and circus tricks.  I confess that I can't think of anything that sounds more entertaining than that.

I had learned from my friendly neighborhood billboard about an app that sells tickets to events around town, so I bought seats almost immediately.  Brandon encouraged me to go for the expensive tickets, so I spent ten dollars a person for front row, ice-side seats.  

The circus was held at an almost new ice arena that opened after we moved to Tashkent.  Evidently hockey is popular enough here that someone decided building an ice rink was a good idea.  After we settled in to our seats, Sophia looked around in awe.  "I didn't know," she said with a note of wonder, "that places this nice existed." 

"Like, in Tashkent?" I asked.  "There are a few decent hotels, but I guess you're not going to those very often."

"No," she replied, "like anywhere.  I thought everything was just always old and crumbly. Like that's normal."  I had to shake my head at her.  I guess that's what I get for raising my children in this part of the world.  I also had to wonder if she has been paying attention at all every summer we go to America, which has lots of places that aren't crumbly.  

After some patient waiting (it seems that when something is supposed to start at a time, it really starts fifteen minutes after that time), the lights went down and the show started.  As I watched the starting parade of performers, complete with New Years characters and the obligatory clowns, I realized that we were going to get a standard Russian circus - but on ice.

It was interesting to see how the acrobatic acts were adapted for ice skating.  All the unicycle riders rode special unicycles that could be pedaled by performers wearing ice skates.  Instead of just walking on stilts, the ladies personifying the seasons skated on stilts.  I got to watch one intrepid acrobat flip off a pole - while wearing ice skates.  I hadn't realized before watching it happen that one can also skip rope in ice skates.  In addition to acrobatic stunts, we also got to watch figure skating numbers.

And of course, since this was the circus after all, there were the clowns.  Not only did they entertain the crowd while performers were hastily changing costumes and preparing for their next acts, they did it while ice skating.  One of them even got to ride a bicycle on the ice while balancing one man on his shoulders and two ladies on either side of the bike.

Sadly, there were no animals included in the circus, which is understandable.  I can't imagine what kind of treats it would take to teach an elephant to ice skate and I don't know if one could make ice skates small enough for a monkey.  It was entertaining enough with just people that I'm pretty sure that none of the children missed the animals.

Despite William's initial disappointment that this wasn't the regular circus, everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves.  I'm not sure why watching people do amazing tricks never gets old, but it's entertaining every time we go no matter how many times we go.  I realized that the circus is another one of those weird cultural experiences that my children won't share with their peers when they leave the house and join normal American society.  I'm sure at some point, warm reminiscences will be shared about circuses, and everyone else will look at my children in complete confusion as Russian circuses were definitely not a regular part of their childhood.  "You know," someone will probably comment, "we just went to places like the movies."

But I guess that's what I get for stranding my children in the former Soviet Union for such a significant chunk of their short lives - more things to tell the therapist.  However, they won't be able to tell the therapist that we never took them to do anything fun.  Even if the fun had more of a Russian flair to it.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

2021, In Summary

I must say that I really don't have much to complain about 2021.  Lots of people have had crummy years, but ours has been pretty great.  When we started the year last January, I was starting to count down the months until we left Tashkent.  This January we're starting down the same countdown over again until our departure from Uzbekistan.  But instead of counting down to being crammed into a three-bedroom apartment for a year of language training in DC, we're counting down to our move to Kazakhstan this summer.  It's like deja-vu, but with a better ending.

Over the course of 2021, everyone has gotten a little older, which is something that I am very enthusiastic about.  This year Sophia joined Kathleen in the taller-than-Mom club (although she's only currently got half an inch on me), and Edwin is coming up fast.  Kathleen learned how to drive this summer, and Edwin is now old enough to be second back-up babysitter.  Joseph started playing the violin (which he practices downstairs in the exercise room with the door closed), and Eleanor is very good at helping Elizabeth bathe, get dressed, and go to the bathroom.  William has learned how to dress himself, feed himself, get himself food for lunch, microwave the food, and is learning how to read.  This year Elizabeth went from a baby who couldn't walk to a toddler who never wears diapers, talks constantly, sings songs, and is capable to getting her own pancakes, complete with syrup. 

When I try to think of the worst thing that happened this past year, I can't think of any one thing that was particularly terrible.  Brandon bumped a car in traffic, but a hundred-dollar bill took care of the problem.  The State Department updated their payroll system and when that was combined with our home leave this summer, it left us with a $10,000 - and counting - pay deficit.  But we have money saved for times when State does things like this, so it's been obnoxious more than anything.  Brandon tried to go caribou hunting with his brother in Alaska, but the hunt got cancelled and all he had to show for it was a four-day stay in the Kotzebue Nullagvik hotel to show for it.  But he came home a week earlier, which the rest of us were happy about.  I think that I really can't complain that much about anything that 2021 threw at us.

When I remember some of the great things, I really can't complain.  We got to see almost all of our extended family members this year, in addition to quite a few friends.  We went hiking in Utah, got to set off fireworks for Pioneer Day, rode the Alpine Slide, had a rocking house party with over forty cousins and siblings, went to the beach in North Carolina, sent most of the kids off to go biking with my parents, and even got to take a direct flight from Tashkent to New York and back.  We got to travel to the Maldives and have a fabulous week together with the kids, having the first family vacation we've had in quite a long time.  Brandon got a major award at work, although it sadly didn't have a lamp leg as a prize.  Everyone has been healthy this year, with no trips to the hospital and no more broken bones for me.  

This year we're looking forward to our move to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.  After spending four years in Tashkent (the longest either Brandon or I have lived in one house/apartment since leaving home for college), we'll be ready to move on to a new adventure.  I always love the excitement of a new place and new things to explore, new upsides to enjoy and new downsides to be irritated with, and new people to get to know.  Since we won't be traveling to the US this summer (complicated State Department rules), we're considering driving to our next post, making a two- or three-day trip out of it.  I can't imagine I'll have another chance to drive across Kazakhstan, and the kids are finally old enough to make it an adventure instead of a painful slog.  

I feel like this time in my life is a really good one, and that 2021 kicked off the Next Era in family life.  I love having children old enough to help out and really enjoy being with, and I love having little children who are funny and still small enough to cuddle.  I love having had enough Mom and wife and homeschool experience that my life isn't a continuously unfolding train wreck every day.  I love that I can enjoy the time that I have with my children and husband without getting stressed or irritated with what is or isn't happening.  I love being old enough that getting old isn't daunting and I don't have to pretend that I still might possibly be in my twenties.  

And perhaps 2022 will be a complete disaster year for us, with all sorts of unexpected challenges and surprises that I had no idea were coming.  Some years are like that (I'm talking to you, 2011).  And maybe it will be a normal year with the usual mix of ups and downs.  As with all things in the future, we'll just have to wait and see how it goes.  But as for 2021, I can safely say that it was a pretty good year.