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Sunday, September 18, 2022

Eagle Hunting

This past Saturday we got to go on a little trip out of town to see some traditional Kazakh activities.  Kazakhs are very proud of their nomad heritage and we were happy that they could share some of their traditions with us.

We started the morning with a drive outside the city.  Since our cars are not yet registered, we haven't had a chance to get out of the city and see what it's like.  Once we were able to get out the industrial areas (which in some places felt a lot like the US), the landscape opened up to wide open steppe.  

Eventually we pulled off the highway and followed a dirt track to a ridge where we could watch the sports from.  They started with horseback riding.  We got to watch the riders do all sorts of tricks on horseback, jumping on and off the horses, standing on their backs while galloping, and wrestling to pull each other off.  The demonstration even included a horseback chase of the female member of the team.  If the guy chasing her didn't get close enough to kiss her, she got to chase him and try to whip him.

After the horses, we watched the local hunting dogs running.  They are long and lean like greyhounds, but with furry ears and tails.  It was impressive to see how quickly could run, which is probably pretty helpful for catching rabbits on the step.

The demonstrations ended with a golden eagle catching a killing a rabbit.  It was impressive to see how fast it flew and caught the rabbit, with the entire thing lasting less than thirty seconds.  We got to gather round and watch it eat the rabbit and then take pictures with the handler while he fed the eagle.  

Golden eagles are prized family possessions among Kazakh families, with eagles being passed from father to sun as they can live from 80-100 years in captivity.  The Kazakhs will catch an eaglet when they are young and then train them up for hunting, taking them hunting on horseback for foxes and hares.

We finished the day with pictures, petting the dogs, and rides on the horses.  The children enjoyed petting the dogs, which were remarkably calm and quiet, not barking a single time despite being surrounded by people and children.  I suppose they're saving all their energy for running fast to catch hares.

Despite the incredibly windy weather (a taste of things to come soon) that made the day pretty cold, we had a nice time seeing a little more of Kazakhstan and its traditions.  

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Canning Day

I am, generally, not a big canner.  I learned how to can from my mother, who grew up canning.  When I was a child, we would have various days - applesauce day, peach day, tomato day - that I do not have fond memories of.  I still don't care for canned peaches.  When I was first married and we lived in Utah, I canned applesauce and pears because they were both grown locally and not very expensive.  When we lived in a duplex that had a Concord grape vine, we canned grape juice - because free grapes.

As a general rule, I only can things that are a significant cost savings or taste significantly better when home canned.  As we've never managed to live in a house with any fruit trees or grape vines (each time I hope that we'll get one of those, but we never have), that restricts the list to two things - tomato sauce and jam.  Tomato sauce because tomatoes are cheap in the summer and jam because homemade jam is vastly better than commercial jam.  My children want me to add applesauce to the list, but apples are available all year round without needing me to take the time and effort to can them.

Since I had unpacked the last box and organized the last closet on Tuesday, I deemed this Saturday Canning Day.  Nur-Sultan doesn't have the multitude of bazaars that Tashkent does, but starting in mid-August they have farmer's markets that are open on the weekends.  Farmers from surrounding regions bring in their produce and sell it from the backs of trucks and pop-up tents.  

We went to one close to our house that was held in the parking lot of the big hockey rink in town and were surprised to find it swarming with people who were stocking up for the winter while being entertained by a live singer (who was actually very good).  There were vendors selling bags and boxes of potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onions, melons, pumpkins, and various other produce.  In addition to produce, there was honey, eggs, fresh butter, cream, and so so many carcasses of sheep and cows.

I was able to easily find tomatoes in addition to both strawberries and raspberries.  Evidently the season for berries is in the fall here because summer takes such a long time to get started.  By the end of our shopping trip, we had 63 kilos of tomatoes, 9 kilos of raspberries, 6 kilos of tomatoes, 1.5 kilos of garlic, a kilo of butter, two flats of eggs, and a bucket of honey.  It's hard for me to know when to stop at farmer's markets.

I can't say that the children were excited to get to work when we got back home with our haul, but they were amenable enough to being pressed in to service once we got an entertaining audiobook started.  There were enough able hands that I was able to split them into two teams, one working on berries and the other on tomatoes.  It was a long day, but by the evening, we had canned 47 quarts of tomato sauce, 15 quarts of pizza sauce, 15 pints of raspberry jam, 12 pints of strawberry jam, and frozen three sheets of raspberries.  I was grateful to have so many people to help, but as Sophia pointed out, without so many people, I wouldn't have needed to can nearly so much food.

By the evening, everyone was exhausted and didn't want to see another tomato, strawberry, or raspberry for a very long time.  But the best part of canning day is that it only happens once a year.  And we're all grateful for that.

Sunday, August 28, 2022


On Tuesday, our stuff finally arrived from Tashkent.  I'm not quite sure how it took five weeks to travel 1000 miles, which averages out to 28 miles a day, but I think that probably the travel was not what took so long.  Our air shipment, which is supposed to be the fast shipment full of the most important things, showed up two days after our ground shipment, but I guess that's government for you.

Regardless of how long and by what method it took to get here, our things finally did arrive.  Despite the fact that the boxes had been packed up only five weeks ago, and the children had theoretically labeled all of the boxes themselves, the process of directing boxes to the correct rooms involved a lot of shoulder shrugging and head scratching.  Ninety percent of the boxes were labeled one of the three things - books, toys, or stationary, despite us possessing a lot more than just books, toys, and stationary.

After the boxes were lugged to their appointed rooms, I had the movers open and unpack every box and furniture item in the house.  There is a hot debate in the Foreign Service community between complete un-boxers and people who like to go box by box themselves, but I prefer to have piles of stuff laying all over the house rather than spending days and days opening and unwrapping everything on my own.  I did that once while six months pregnant in Cairo, and swore I'd never do it again.  

I've been slowly putting the house to rights since Tuesday, working room by room.  The first task in unpacking is sorting out all the stuff that doesn't belong in the room that you're working on.  Our house in Tashkent was arranged differently than our house here, so stuff that all lived together in one room there now is getting split up into multiple rooms here, and the opposite is also true.  If unpacking only meant actually putting things away, it wouldn't be that bad.  

But of course, it never happens that way, and that's without the efficiency of movers making things worse.  Their job is to squeeze everything into the smallest space possible, so they pack empty bins full of random stuff, fill the tops of half-empty bins with more random stuff, and empty out mostly empty bins to put more random stuff in.  That's how we managed to have two Christmas decoration bins filled with empty canning jars, and one of the hand-me-down clothes bins filled with girls' clothes and snow boots.  

But unpacking is mostly a happy activity because it means the end of the tunnel that we entered back in May when preparations for the move got serious.  As each room is cleaned out and put to rights and our lovely things get settled into their new places, the cycle of uprooting is completed, and we settle a little bit more into our new home.  Unpacking is a bit of a ritual where an empty shell that could belong to anybody is transformed into a home that will be ours for the next three years.  I'm always reminded of a dog arranging its bed just so before contentedly settling in for a good nap as I arrange and rearrange things until I get them just right and I can settle in to my life again.  Home is mostly where the heart is, but it's also where the stuff is too.  And it's good to be home again.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Hello, Fall!

When we decided to come to Nur-Sultan, we knew that it would be cold.  It is, after all, the second coldest capital city in the world.  Once November hits, the temperatures drop below freezing and stay there for five months straight, never ever getting above freezing until April.  So, it's cold here.  Really cold.

When we got here exactly one month ago in July, the weather was absolutely beautiful.  We left Tashkent on a day where it had been 108.  When we landed in Nur-Sultan, it was in the eighties.  We were able to open all the windows in the house and enjoy a lovely breeze and the children spent the first few days outside for almost the entire day.  It was so nice to be outside and not feel like you were going to melt into a puddle within five minutes.

A few days in July, the temperatures climbed into the upper eighties and even maybe the low nineties and I turned on the air conditioner in a room or two inside the house.  But those days didn't last long, and the long, sunny, pleasant days were oh so refreshing after years of sweltering through summers in both Tashkent and Dushanbe.

Then the weather started cooling off.  I've been enjoying running outside, and this week I started wearing long sleeved shirts because my arms were going numb in the upper forties low fifties morning weather.  We've had to start keeping the windows closed because the refreshing breezes are a little too nippy for the house most the time.  The children have started putting jeans on to go play outside in the morning, although Elizabeth keeps insisting that her sun dresses are good enough.

But the weather has still been pleasant enough - low seventies and sunny is pretty good weather if you ask me.  Sure, it's been cold in the mornings, but it does warm up in the afternoons.  However, when it dipped into the fifties this weekend, I realized that summer is officially over.  We took the kids to the embassy to swim (in the indoor pool), and everyone was wearing jeans, long-sleeved shirts, jackets, and shoes.  The house is getting a little chilly, and we won't have any heat until the city turns on the hot water for heating in October.  The grass everywhere is perking up and turning green with the cooler temperatures.  I've noticed some trees starting to change colors.

I keep reminding myself that this is August, because it feels like October to me.  If we were in Tashkent, we'd still have another six weeks of swimming season, and in North Carolina it's still hot and humid with no cool weather in sight.  But although the temperatures feel like October, the days are still long summer days, with the sun rising by 6:15 and setting by 8:30 at night.  I've never lived in a northern place like this before - we're the same latitude as London and Calgary - and I'm having to get used to a whole new cycle to the year.

But as with all things in life, we'll get used to the seasons here in Nur-Sultan, and by next year August will be associated with fall instead of the depth of summer.  And it will be strange to think of people in other parts of the world going to the beach when we're pulling out fall jackets and having bonfires.  For now, however, it's going to take a bit of adjustment.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Sweet Sixteen

This week, Kathleen turned sixteen.  It seems like it wasn't that long ago that I was dropped into the crazy, sleep-deprived world of being a new parent.  But in reality, it was sixteen years ago and now I have a young woman that's not that far from being a full-fledged adult.  Time moves in funny ways when you're a parent.

Kathleen celebrated her birthday in a fairly quiet fashion this year, as we've only be in Kazakhstan for a little over three weeks.  Because her birthday is in August, she either celebrates it in the US with family or in a new country with nobody and nothing to celebrate it with.  She celebrated her third birthday in temporary housing in Cairo, her twelfth newly arrived in Tashkent, and now her sixteenth just three weeks into her new life in Kazakhstan.  

Since we're still living out of suitcases and making do with a miserably stocked welcome kit, the usual celebrations were a little less personal this year.  Instead of getting an elaborate breakfast, Kathleen had to make do with pain au chocolate made with frozen croissant dough.  In place of a special cake made by me, she got to go to the grocery store herself and pick out whatever cake looked good.  And no special home-cooked meal, just delivery sushi.  

But Kathleen is a cheerful child, always looking for the good things around her, so she was happy to celebrate her birthday, even if it didn't have the usual level of fanfare.  Everyone had forgotten about shipping times in the flurry of moving, she her presents are still on the way.  But her brothers came through and gave her some yummy treats for her birthday and I did remember to pack candles in our suitcases.  

In addition to celebrating with us, she also got to go to the mall with some friends.  We live a mile and a half from the biggest mall in the city, so it was easy to drop them off and let them enjoy themselves without the watchful eye of a parent to disapprove of their clothing purchases.  She came home with a pair of non-skinny jeans, which just further confirmed the fact that she is young and fashionable and I am old and not.  But no mother should compete with their teenaged daughters for beauty, so I'm happy to be the old, unfashionable middle aged mother to my young, fresh-faced, beautiful daughters.

It has been fun to see Kathleen grow up into a capable, confident young woman and see my fears about bad parenting not come true.  She only has two years left with us before she moves on to the wider world of college and autonomy, and it's starting to become something that isn't so strange to imagine her capable of.  We'll make sure to treasure those two remaining years with her and continue to enjoy seeing what kind of lovely young woman we are having the privilege of raising.  Happy birthday, Kathleen!

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Hello, Kazakhstan!

We have now been in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan for seventeen days now and everyone is fairly settled in.  Kazakhstan is the biggest -stan country in Central Asia, and is also the most economically developed because of oil and gas fields.  We're in the capitol city, which is in the very far north part of the country, about 200 miles from Russia.  

Our transition from Tashkent to Nur-Sultan was supposed to be the easiest move ever.  We packed up our things on Monday and Tuesday, watching everything in our house get wrapped in paper and packed into boxes for their short(ish) journey to our new home in Kazakstan.  We had scheduled three days for the move, but it only took two days, which was quite nice.

On Wednesday we got the rest of our affairs in Tashkent wrapped up, which included dropping both our cars off at the embassy so that they could also get shipped up to Nur-Sultan.  The State Department only pays to ship one car, but we decided to pay ourselves to ship the other one because it's been reliable and we bought it for a really good price in Tashkent.  It was a little painful to pay more for shipping than we had paid for the car, but such is life sometimes.

Wednesday evening, the first change to our plans showed up in an email to Brandon.  We had had a house assigned to us about a month earlier and had been sent pictures of our future home.  I had spent a lot of time thinking about how to set everything up and looked up the address in the neighborhood we would be living in and gotten my mind wrapped around our situation.

Then the email arrived, telling us that our housing assignment had been changed.  It was in a different neighborhood, it had one less bedroom, and fewer rooms downstairs.  And the biggest blow was going from a kitchen with two stoves - one European and one American - to a mini-sized European stovetop and equally mini-sized European oven.  Everyone was in shock and quite disappointed by the news.  But such is life when someone else pays for your housing.

Our flight the next morning was supposed to leave at 7:15, and as we were traveling with sixteen suitcases, our ride showed up at 4 am.  So we got the children up at 3:30, dressed them, put their shoes and backpacks on, and started shifting all the suitcases into the waiting van.  At 3:43, I got a text from Air Astana.  Due to the closure of the airport, the flight was delayed by twelve hours, not departing until that evening.  

So everyone climbed out of the van, Brandon started dragging suitcases back into the house, and I realized that we had neither food nor money for the next twelve hours.  Not being able to do anything about either food or money at four in the morning, we all went back to bed and got some more sleep.  

When we woke back up, I texted a friend to see if she could lend us some money.  She offered to have us over for lunch and playtime until we had to leave in the afternoon, an offer that we happily took her up on.  The kids enjoyed having a second goodbye party with their friends who they had just been hanging out with the night before, and I enjoyed having food to eat and a non-empty house to occupy the children.

The rest of our transition went fine, and we were able to board the flight, enjoy ninety minutes of flight time, and land in Kazakhstan just as the light was finally fading around 10:00 at night.  Our sponsors very kindly picked us and our sixteen bags up and we made the six-mile journey to our new home in Kazakhstan.  

As we've settled in to our new house, I've come to enjoy it very much and am glad for the switch.  In addition to not having any crazy wallpaper that Central Asians are inordinately fond of, we also have the biggest yard in the entire neighborhood.  The children are already planning epic snow forts and sledding hills and tunnels.  Our backyard adjoins the neighborhood park, and the children have spent many, many long hours playing and enjoying the much cooler Kazakh summers.  Kathleen has made a Kazakh friend who she practices Russian with, and they also ran into other American kids who live in the neighborhood.  

The girls and I have already found a new horseback riding teacher and are enjoying the new stable and new horses.  We've found plenty of grocery stores nearby for the kids to go to and have discovered that almost everyone in Nur-Sultan accepts Apple Pay.  I have even paid a delivery grocery guy with my phone, which is pretty amazing.  The other embassy families in our neighborhood have been quite welcoming and we've already been given a tour of the city and been invited over to dinner twice.  

One of the main reasons we decided to take a job in Kazakhstan is because we didn't want to start over in a new place with new systems and a new language.  We reasoned that it would be easier to settle in somewhere where we knew the language and could get around independently.  I've definitely found this to be true.  Thirty-six hours after we landed, Brandon and I took a walk to the local mall and got SIM cards for my phone and the kids' phone.  This was only possible because of Brandon's Russian ability and our confidence in being able to figure things out.  

On the day of our first riding lesson, I got a taxi on an app, asked the driver if he could wait while we went to the store, and then asked if he could take us to the stable and then return in two hours after our lessons were done and take us back home.  Then I asked him if he could come back and drive us the next week.  That was something that I never would have felt confident doing when we first moved to Tashkent.  Not knowing the local language is severely limiting as you can't feel like you can do anything but the most basic things, and you can never quite settle fully into a place because of it.  

But we are settling in nicely, thanks to our long acquaintance with Central Asia and the Russian language.  I may start singing another song when the snow starts falling and we don't see above-freezing temperatures for five months straight.  For now, however, I've decided that I like Kazakhstan quite a lot, which has surprised me.  There's something about the open steppe that I find alluring and I love that it's literally a mile from my house.  The city is convenient and has enough amenities that are close to us that life will be fairly easy here, and we've found the embassy community to be very welcoming.  I'm happy that we got the rough parts of the transition over with first and now we can enjoy the good ones!

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Farewell, Tashkent

Tomorrow morning, a team of movers will show up at our house to pack everything we own in a flurry of paper, boxes and tape.  I've spent the last week preparing the house, throwing out and giving away the last piles of things that we don't need, separating stuff, dis-assembling furniture, washing linens and tuppeware, and worrying if we will be overweight or not.  

On Thursday morning, we'll all happily board an Air Astana plane and arrive in Nur-Sultan before lunch time.  Because of State Department regulations, we'll be skipping our usual six-week home leave in the US and instead going straight to Kazakhstan.  We're sad that we won't be seeing as many of our friends and family as we can cram into the weeks-long marathon of late nights, park visits, games, movies, stories, laughter, and fun.  But we're not sad to miss the jet lag, endless suitcase packing and re-packing, flights, car rentals, and nervous anticipation of a yet-unseen new house, city, and country.

Everyone in the family is ready to leave.  Brandon and I are done with the endless preparations for departure, and disruptions to the usual calm rhythm of our life.  The children are tired of being pressed into service to clean out another dark corner and are excitedly waiting for the delights of a new place to explore.  We aren't ready to leave because we want to leave Tashkent, however, we're ready to leave because we're all tired of the process of moving.

Tashkent itself has given us a wonderful four years.  When we moved here, I had six children eleven years old and younger.  As we leave, I have seven children, ages almost sixteen to two years old.  When we arrived in Tashkent, I was just beginning to crawl out of the swampy middle years of motherhood where the days are long, the children are needy, and mothers have nothing for themselves.  They are hard years.  Now four years later, I'm firmly in some of the best years of motherhood - children old enough to be helpful but still with young children to adore.  I've taken up two hobbies - horseback riding and painting - and am very happy with my life.

The children have grown tremendously during our time here.  I arrived with six children, and now I'm leaving with two young women and a rising young man.  Kathleen, Sophia, and I can share each others' clothes, and Sophia, Edwin, and I all have the same sized feet.  Two children have grown taller than me, and Edwin is close.  Our baby is potty-trained, talking, feeds herself, dresses herself, and has strong opinions about how everything should be run.  Sophia and Kathleen are intermediate-level horseback riders, with Sophia jumping one-meter jumps.  Eleanor has gone from a little girl who knew nothing to a recently-baptized eight year old who is getting pretty good at piano, canters her horse happily around the ring, and devours novels while she's supposed to be going to sleep. William has gone from a baby who was just learning to walk to a five year-old who is learning to read and teaching himself how to write.  Four years doesn't seem like a long time until you see how far everyone can go in that amount of time.  

Tashkent has been a good city to spend four years in.  We've enjoyed our house and our yard, and especially the pool.  It can be a pain to get across town here, but the traffic isn't too bad and it's very affordable to do fun things here.  We've been able to see the Silk Road cities and go up into the mountains and do some sledding and hiking.  There are enough good restaurants to not get too bored and there are enough fun things to do with the kids on holidays.  We've also taken some fun trips, visiting the Maldives and Sri Lanka.  It's been a pretty easy four years.

We have, of course, made lots of wonderful friends during our four years here, despite the isolation that COVID brought in the middle of our tour.  Kathleen and Sophia made their first teenage friends, organizing meetups and book clubs and pool parties without any input from me.  It's been fun to see them grow into socialization and nice to be able to have taxis to do the ferrying for me.  Eleanor has found her best friend and already has plans for letters and packages that will be sent back and forth between the two countries.  We even found a family that was crazy enough to want to meet us somewhere for a vacation - and we had a wonderful time together.  We have had wonderful teachers that have become good friends and that I'm already missing.  I will always remember Tashkent for the wonderful people that we've been blessed with during our four years here.

And even Brandon has had a good four years at his job.  He was able to see some really good progress on some of the issues he was working with and has been recognized for those efforts.  Most of the time it has been the usual daily grind, but there have been some moments that have made him feel like he was pushing forward the Lord's work.

In four short days, our time here in Tashkent will be entirely in the past.  It's always strange at those transitions, when your life switches entirely.  One would think that that switch happens in some gradual fashion, a transition from one place to the next, but it never goes that way.  One day you're living in the same place that you've been living in for four years, and the next day it's all like a dream, entirely in the past, never to be repeated.  And the fuzzy future that you've been planning for and thinking about and researching and looking forward to is suddenly the very real present.  

Within a month, we'll be settled into our new place and new house and new friends and new grocery stores and new teachers and new rhythms.  Life will again be as it is supposed to be and the old will rapidly fade from memory.  We will reminisce about our time in Tashkent and the funny stories and good friends and great pool and warm winters.  But for now, we're in Tashkent, if only for a few more days.  And then, it will all be over and the next part of our life will have begun.

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


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!