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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Life as a Fifth Child


A week or so ago I was unpacking.  We've been in our house for a month now, but I'm still not quite done.  First we had to wait for all of our things, then we had to wait for shelves to be constructed, and then our last consumable shipment arrived.  I'm getting tired of dealing with all of our things.  At this point I'm almost ready to burn everything to avoid dealing with it.  Almost.

The older children were outside playing on our playground equipment.  The day was beautifully warm and sunny, the perfect day for a walk.  A few minutes after I got to work, Eleanor woke up from her nap.  She has learned the art of rolling around the floor to find something that might interest here - a chair leg or drawer pull, book or toy - so she's usually pretty low-key when I'm getting things done as long as I don't leave her alone much.

I was working on a heavily cluttered storage room - the room where all of the uncategorized items got dumped while organizing all of the other rooms - and I didn't want Eleanor to get fussy and interrupt my work.  So I hauled her downstairs, suited her up, and took her outside.  After depositing her in the baby swing, I told the girls to keep an eye on her and went back to work, giving Eleanor a push on my way inside.

Every twenty minutes or so I would peek out the window to check on everyone and each time the scene would be different.  Eleanor, alone in her swing while everyone else was perfecting the art of hanging upside down on the jungle gym.  Kathleen pushing the stroller around the courtyard at breakneck speed with Eleanor strapped into the front, a red-plaid lump quietly watching her life flashing before her eyes.  Eleanor, buckled into the stroller while everyone else is swinging.  Sophia pushing Eleanor on the swing, performing underdog after underdog while Eleanor, again, reflected on how short her life had been.

Eventually the children got bored of outside and came tumbling back in.  I checked to see if they had brought the baby in.  Yes, yes of course mom, they assured me, because now we're going to dress her up!  It's time for her royal wedding!!

Half an hour later and the procession came down from the third floor.  Kathleen and Sophia, dressed in all of the gaudy frippery they could get their hands on, carried Eleanor in a laundry basket draped in the rest of the gaudiness that Kathleen and Sophia couldn't fit on themselves.  The baby was outfitted in a white dress-up dress and draped in a cape, with a fuzzy pink crown in her head and make-shift ring on her finger, looking patiently about her, as always.  "Business as usual," her expression seemed to say, "I never have any idea what they're going to do next.  But I'm okay with that."

"Hail!  Hail!  Hail Queen Eleanor!!" the girls shouted in unison, as they passed me, "Queen of the babies!  Hail Eleanor!"  They continued their stately march and headed down the next set of stairs.  I quietly followed and watched as they set her up in state on the couch cushions in the living room.  Sophia started a song on the piano and both girls danced a dance before prostrating themselves before their infant sovereign.  I went back to work, leaving Eleanor in the capable hands of her older sisters.


This is life as a fifth child.  You never have to be lonely because someone's always interested in dressing you up or reading you a book or hauling you into their box house or riding horse with you or having a picnic or taking your toys or giving you theirs or pushing you in the stroller or putting you in the swing or sliding you in a laundry basket.

You may get confused about who exactly is your mother because sometimes the tall lady puts you to sleep or sometimes the glasses girl gives you your bath or the middle one feeds you a bottle or the bigger boy sings you a song or the little one gives you your blanket or the glasses man changes your diaper.  There are so many people doing so many things that you can't keep track very well.

You never have to be bored because somebody's always talking or dancing or fighting or singing a song or reading a book or getting spanked or jumping on the couch or watching a movie or playing with toys.

Your job is to just sit back and watch the show happen.  Maybe it might be a little scary on that stroller ride, but you're used to it.  That brother jumping off the couch might get a little close, but you've seen it enough to know that he never quite lands on you.  Perhaps you've been left all alone for awhile, but you know that it's just a matter of time before everyone comes back to find you.  And you're never quite sure what is going to happen, but you do know that whatever it is, it will never, ever, ever be boring.

Sometimes I wonder what she's thinking while the crazy circus wheels loudly around her.  Her placid blue eyes solemnly watch the world go by, never betraying any surprise or concern or confusion.  Just watching.  She is something different to each person in the family - a live baby doll, an audience for antics, someone to cuddle, someone to tickle, someone to steal Mom's lap.

But who is she to Eleanor?  I guess we'll just have to wait and see.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Happy Birthday to Me

This week I turned thirty-three.  A year ago I turned thirty-two, so it wasn't a big surprise when I woke up one morning and was thirty-three.  It doesn't bother me at all to be thirty-three and a year older than thirty-two (or four years older than twenty-nine); in fact I'd much rather be thirty-three than twenty-three and I'm looking forward to being ninety-three one day (but maybe not one hundred and three.  I'll probably be ready to be finished by then).  I like getting older.  I like having the added experience and patience that comes from spending another year alive and dealing with life and all of the good things and difficult things that come with it.  Maybe I'll feel differently about getting older one day, but for now I like it.

This year I got to spread my birthday out over the whole week.  I started out my birthday week by having a holiday.  Brandon was off work and my housekeeper was coming, so we left the children and went to lunch.  Our car is here in country but the registration wasn't finished on Monday, so we just walked to lunch.  Dushanbe is a very small city with reasonably maintained sidewalks so it makes for some pleasant walking if you're not in a hurry.  I'm quite looking forward to pleasant summer evening walks; there are very few things I enjoy more than a high summer evening walk.

It was nice that the walk was pleasant because the restaurant, which claimed to be serving Egyptian fare, wasn't.  I chose so I can complain.  If you're looking for authentic Egyptian, don't go to Al Misr restaurant - come to my house.  I'm not claiming I can do it as well as an Egyptian, but even I know that baba ghanoush does have tahina and doesn't have green peppers.  Or pomegranate arils.  Maybe somewhere else, but not in Egypt.

I had very responsible plans to hold school on my actual birthday since we had already skipped school on Monday.  Those plans lasted about half an hour into my morning chores when I lost my moral fibre and cancelled school.

I had a pleasant morning talking to my littlest brother, internet shopping for my presents (thanks, Mom and Bobbi!), and hanging out not teaching the children school.  The children were happy to play, take care of the baby, and make their favorite lunch - peanut butter sandwiches.  I spent the afternoon napping and reading a book while the children took care of the baby and chopped vegetables for soup.  It was very luxurious, like taking a sick day without actually being sick.

Our family has evolved a tradition of Birthday Saturdays, where the birthday person chooses the activity, which can cost money.  Brandon and I drove our newly registered car home Friday night (filled with lots and lots of packages - none of which were my birthday presents, which got sent to the wrong pouch address) so I decided to take a drive up into the mountains for my own birthday Saturday.

It was snowing so everyone put their snow clothes on before piling into the car.  We stopped when the roads started looking bad and got out to play in the snow.







Everyone had a great time and we're all looking forward to doing it again.  Probably next Saturday.

Today we finished out my birthday week with cake.  Brandon insisted on putting all thirty-three candles.  I couldn't find any matched or lighters, so Brandon stuck some paper towel into the toaster (plugged into the 220v outlet) and used that instead.  Everyone sung, I blew out the candles, and we had some delicious chocolate cake, baked by Brandon.

So, as always, it was a wonderful birthday.  It's pretty hard to have a bad one when I have six people who keep me company, remember my birthday, bake me cake, give me kisses, and generally make my life great. 

Happy Birthday to Me!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Simple Pleasures

Most nights I sweep my kitchen floor.  Brandon is usually upstairs with the children, reading them a story and putting them to bed.  He is spending some precious daddy-time with the children and I'm enjoying some precious solitary time without the children.  I used to hate doing the dishes and cleaning up alone after making and feeding dinner, but I can buy some more time with Brandon if I finish the dishes while he's putting the children to bed.  So I wash the dishes alone in the quiet.

I grew up in a house that was always neat and always clean.  My mother persistently insisted that all of our jobs be done daily and done right.  When she would remind me (again and again and again) to sweep the floor each evening, I would complain (again and again and again) about the necessity of sweeping the floor every single night.  It had been swept the night before, wasn't that good enough?

I laugh each time I remember this and thank my mother for her patience and perseverance that eventually taught me the pleasure of having a neat and clean house of my own.

As I make my way around the kitchen floor, stroke after stroke of the broom gathers the dried bits of egg from breakfast and toast crumbs from lunch and yellow grains of couscous from dinner.  Before me is the scattered detritus of twenty-four hours of living and behind me is a clean floor, ready for the detritus of another day.

I used to be annoyed by having to sweep my floor every day.  I would grumble as I picked up the children's coats from where they had been scattered after coming in from play.  Seeing pencils, pens and papers would send me into fantasies of the far, far off day when all of those things would stay where I put them with no small invisible hands to un-do my work a few minutes after I had finished.

All of these things kept me from what I wanted to do - read a book or surf the internet or sit and talk with Brandon.  They were endless tasks that were never done, a constant interruption to the Good Parts of life.  Why would we be sent to Earth, I mused, to spend so much of our time doing the same things over and over and over again?  What was to be learned from doing dishes, washing laundry, and cooking meals?  These things are only temporary, only something that has to be dealt with in this life.  I hope that I don't have an eternity of laundry to look forward to.  If so, maybe I'll pass.

Of course these things are necessary; I could personally get away from them if I wanted (and some of them I do), but that just means that somebody else is cleaning up messes and folding laundry and washing dishes and cooking meals.  These things are just part of being alive and only increased by bringing more people into the family.

Still, it feels a little like being on a treadmill some days.

All of the crumbs and dirt and flour and mysterious bits are gathered into a neat pile before being swept up and taken to the trash.  My mind has wandered over the day while stroke after stroke gathered the dirt.  Kathleen is doing better in her math, but still needs some work.  Perhaps I'll change her schedule around to encourage her to be more focused.  Sophia is doing so much better in reading, thank heaven.  It was such a lovely afternoon and marvelous to be out in the butter-yellow sunshine, enjoying the warmth of a sixty-degree day in January.  Eleanor is getting so fat and roly-poly; it's hard to believe she's closer to being a year old than a newborn.

The children are quiet now, mostly.  Brandon must have finished with stories and put them to bed.  I look around the kitchen that had been the scene of chaos and disaster half an hour ago.  The counters that were littered with dirty dishes, trash, onion skins, pots, potholders, wooden spoons, spices, canisters of beans, and appliances are now empty and wiped clean of spills and crumbs.  The stove, recently plastered with splatters, is shiny and black again, quietly gleaming.  The table has been cleared of glasses and plates and silverware and napkins and pots and pans and milk and water.  All have been put away and the dishwasher quietly hums to itself in concert with the distiller, preparing another morning miracle of cleanliness.  All is quiet.  All is clean.  All is orderly.  All is put away for the night, ready for rest.  All is the way it should be.

As I turn to the light switch (up or down?  I still can't remember), I am tired, but happy.  My kitchen, my place, is clean and orderly for another night.  It will get dirty again in the morning.  Kathleen will slop oatmeal on the stove which will burn to a crust that she won't quite clean all of the way off.  Joseph will create his usual mountain of crumbs on the floor.  Eleanor will knock her yogurt off the high chair tray and the splatters will reach all the way to the wall.  Edwin will drag half his toys down two floors and scatter them across the floor.  Sophia will smear peanut butter across several cupboards while making lunch.  The clean kitchen will be a distant memory.

But in the evening, while the children are hearing of the prehistoric creatures at the center of the earth, I will unmake all of the messes.  The oatmeal will finish coming off.  The crumbs will be swept up with everything else.  The last splatters of yogurt will come off the wall.  Edwin's toys will be returned to the third floor, and I will wipe the peanut butter off the cupboards.

Most of life has unresolved messes that I can't do much about.  Every time Edwin's face crumples before he runs off to cry silently in his room after I've lost my temper and screamed at him to stop hurting his brother, I wonder what it will all add up to.  Will we make it to a happy ending and he will realize that I really do love him even though I make mistakes?

After Brandon and I have discussed, again, how we can help each other better and I think over all of the selfish demands I have laid on him, again, while he has quietly borne them, again, I wonder if I can ever grow up all of the way and be the person I'd like to be and not just who I am.

I wonder what will come after Dushanbe.  Maybe Central Asia again?  Another baby?  More language training?  Will Brandon be able to find a good job?  Will we be able to retire and live all of those fabulous dreams that keep us going when we make another strange house in another strange country work for us, again.

There are so many things that I just have to wait for.  So many messes that won't be untangled and cleaned up until I'm old and maybe not then.

But not my kitchen.  Every day, my kitchen is a mess.  Seven people live and eat and fight and play and talk and cry and love and almost everything explodes out of its place by the end.  And every evening I put it all back together perfectly.  Some days it may take an hour and some days it may take fifteen minutes, but by the end of my time every single evening one mess in my life is cleaned up.  And then, I can rest.

One mess down, an unknown number to go.  But still, one down.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Living on the Wild Side

I once had a good friend tell me, "In every marriage, one person is the gas and the other is the brake."  I'll give you two guesses about who is who in my marriage - and the first guess doesn't count.  I'm a gambler by nature and so Brandon is constantly having to talk me down from my newest crazy plan that depends on everything working out just right.

"C'mon," I'll plead, "it's not that likely that I'll fall off the rocky ledge!  And it has such a nice view!  Please, please just let me climb up there?"  Brandon will reply with something about possibilities versus probabilities.  In his worldview, if something dangerous is possible, it's also absolutely probable.  He's most likely the one that has kept all of us still alive through the years.

In addition to being a risk-taker on high rocky ledges, I'm also a risk-taker about food.  I haven't died from food poisoning yet, so I've got thirty-two years of the odds being in my favor - and that means that the local shawerma stand is definitely a feasible dinner option when I'm not in the mood for cooking.  Add risk-taking to being cheap and the local shawerma stand guy may or may not already know Brandon and me by sight.

When we moved to Dushanbe I started out drinking reliably safe milk - UHT.  It may be nasty, but its nastiness is directly the result of being boiled so long that nothing would even think of living in such inhospitably disgusting milk.


One day while perusing the refrigerator case (you never know what you may find - once I found marscapone cheese), I noticed some bottles of white liquid that looked suspiciously like milk.  Thankfully 'milk' in Russian doesn't contain any of those tricky letters that look like they should be English but aren't - the ones that turn 'restoran' into 'pectopah' - and so I could read the label, 'moloko.'  It looked close enough to milk for me and so I hauled a few home for Brandon's inspection (instead of intelligently bringing a Russian dictionary with me or even learning words for things like 'cheese' and 'yogurt' I just drag random food items home and make Brandon read the labels for me.  This is how I once ended up with starchy fruit drink instead of raspberry jello).  

I had heard a rumor of fresh milk, but my informant claimed that it wasn't pasteurized and went bad quickly.  So when Brandon came home that evening, I shoved a bottle of 'moloko,' complete with pictures of serenely grazing black-and-white holsteins, at him.  "This looks like milk.  Do you think it's pasteurized?"

He glanced at the bottle.  "Well, what does it say on the bottle?" and pointed at an extremely long word.  I shrugged my shoulders.  I'm working on my Cyrillic, but it's a lot easier to have someone who already knows Cyrillic to read it for you.  He rolled his eyes and read it out.  "Pasteurized.  At least that's what the bottle claims.  There's only one way to know."  He cracked open the bottle and passed it around.  We all took a swig.  That way we could all die together and not leave anyone a fabulously wealthy orphan who would misspend the life insurance money in a life of dissolution.  

The next morning everyone was still alive so I headed back to the store for ten more liters.  Not only was the milk tasty - it doesn't take much to be tastier than UHT - it also cost $1.23 less than UHT.  And it had a higher fat content, a deliciously creamy 2.5%.  

The only problem with buying fresh milk was having to restock the refrigerator several times a week.  We probably go through at least fifteen or sixteen liters of milk (more when I'm making mozzarella cheese) and that's a lot of milk to get at one time, especially when it doesn't keep particularly long.  After my double baby jogger arrived from storage it was a little easier to get all of that milk home, but it's still troublesome to be tied down to the store by one's need for milk.

A week or so after still not having died, I stopped by a friend's house after loading up on milk.  I was raving about finding fresh milk (can you believe it?  Fresh!  And cheaper than UHT!) because that's what American women do when we live overseas - we talk endlessly about food and where to find it - when her housekeeper mentioned that she got fresh milk delivered to her house.  

I had heard of fresh milk deliveries before - I got woken up by the milk man's horn the morning we arrived in Dushanbe - but didn't know how I could arrange one of my own and how much they cost.  I had been tempted to run out in the street and chase after the man with his horn, but I'm not sure even my superior mimery skills could pull off "I need fifteen liters of milk every week delivered to my house.  How much will it cost?"  And even if they could, I think that the milk man would be so confused and flabbergasted by the sight of this white - really really white - lady waving her hands at him and speaking too loudly to pick up on the masterpiece of mimery that I was laying out for him.

I turned on her, "Really?? How often do they come??  Does it stay fresh?? How much does it cost?? How do you get them to come to your house??  How could I get them to come to my house??"

She stepped back and answered my questions one by one. "As much as you like.  Four or five days.  Four somoni a liter.  I'll have your housekeeper set up a delivery for you."

Last Tuesday, my doorbell rang.  Standing outside my gate was a woman with two large bottles of my very first delivery of fresh, unpasteurized Dushanbe cow's milk.  I brought it inside as the children crowded around, always happy for something new to ask endless questions about.  They watched as I carefully poured the milk into a pot, set it into a double boiler and turned the heat on.  After the milk reached 145 degrees, I turned the heat down and let it sit for half an hour.  Then I put it into a ice bath, cooled it, and poured it into washed bottles.  

At dinner, we all took our first swig together, again.  No orphans in this family.  Most pronounced it drinkable, and I pronounced it $2.03 a gallon cheaper than the milk we had been drinking.  

The next morning, we were all still alive and free of any intestinal distress.  

Ashley: 1.  Milk borne pathogens: 0.  Time to find some more rocky ledges.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Housebound

Winter has settled in here in Dushanbe.  Thankfully, winter in Dushanbe is more like "winter," which means a mix of grey rainy days with nice sunny ones and occasionally some cold weather.  I'm surprised at the mildness so far - on a recent afternoon walk we all shed our coats in the warm sun - but very grateful to not be in a place where winter is a more serious affair.  The children, of course, are extremely disappointed that their snow boots and pants and gloves haven't made it out of the bins yet, but I keep reassuring them that when the car is registered (maybe next week?) we'll go and find some snow to play in.

But despite the relative mildness, winter is still winter - especially when it's raining - which means that we've spent a lot of time at home lately.

This hadn't been helped by inertia - who wants to go on a walk any way if it's already cold outside and there are at least twenty minutes of toilet trips, diaper changes, socks, shoes, shoes laces, coats, zippers, mittens, scarves, hats, strollers, bikes, helmets, keys, cell phones, and gates in between you and being stared at by every single Tajik that passes your traveling monkey circus?

It's been made even worse by the complete lack of need to ever leave my own gated ten-foot walled compound.  I took the time and expense to ship 2,500 pounds of food and household products from America to Tajikistan, so I don't ever need to shop for toilet paper, soap, trash bags, shampoo, deodorant, laundry detergent, chocolate chips, brown sugar, olive oil, black beans, pinto beans, canned tomatoes of all varieties, or fifty other things currently sitting in jumbles of open boxes in my still-bare storage room.

My housekeeper very helpfully shops each week for fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, bread, beans and anything else I can mime or google translate accurately enough to get the general notion through.  On Monday I'm going to receive my first delivery of fresh local milk so I don't even have to leave the house for milk, the main necessity driving my extramuros excursions.  And for everything else, there's Amazon.  Our house is big enough for everyone to have their own room or two (even if I have to lock them in to keep everyone separated) and we have our own playground in the front courtyard.

Last week I realized that Zarifa was the only non-family member I had seen since we moved into our new house.  I hadn't left the compound for a week solid, and I had been wearing one pair of jeans for the same amount of time.

I knew when we moved here that I would be isolated; living in individual houses scattered around a foreign city tends to have that effect and homeschooling five children only makes it ten times worse.  I discovered in college that I enjoy a large amount of solitude so seeing the same six faces every day all day doesn't bother me too much, if anything I would be happier having a little more time not seeing any faces, but I do wonder if the end of winter will see me completely crazy or so self-contained that I never want to leave ever.

It's probably good that I have Brandon - who does spend a lot of time around other presumably normal adults - to monitor me for signs of the crazy beginning to show.  And it's also probably good that the children give me a reason to occasionally leave and at least go on a walk.  Because even though I might like hiding from the world, it's probably not good for me.  Probably.

And I also know that this happens at the beginning of every tour, when I've taken so much time and effort to settle in I don't really want to leave.  In time the weather will warm and I will become intimate with every single crack and bump in my house and then I will want to leave and see someone other than the person I married and the children I birthed.  The city won't seem so strange and the stares won't register any more and I'll forget that I ever lived in a country where I (mostly) just blended in.

But until then, you know where to find me.  Just listen for the sound of my children fighting.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Just Call Me Martha Stewart

Since moving to Dushanbe, Brandon and I have not had any date nights.  Which, at least for our finances, is probably okay since we really lived it up near the end of our time in Virginia.  The budget is still recovering and will be for some time.

I didn't pack my pizza stone or pizza pan in my suitcase (but I did pack yeast) so pizza night didn't happen while were were hanging out in temporary housing either.  A couple of Fridays have passed in our permanent house, but they were spent unpacking and so no time for pizza making.

But last Friday was different.  Or rather, last Friday was normal.  I had just finished my first week of Normal Life - we held school every single day, Brandon and I woke up and exercised every single morning, and I cooked dinner every single night.  And so Friday was pizza night.

I've been making my own pizza dough since the beginning of pizza night eight or nine years ago, so that was no problem.  Throw some things in the Bosch (I love you, Universal Kitchen Machine), wait awhile, throw some more, wait a little longer, and - voila - pizza dough.  Easy peasy.

Same trick with the pizza sauce - throw a can of tomatoes, some butter, some garlic, and salt into a saucepan, simmer it down, blend it up and look!  Pizza sauce!  Yum!

Now to the mozzarella cheese.  Cairo had a commissary stocked with all kinds of American goodies, so I never fretted about cheese there.  I was also able to find mozzarella in Baku.  I couldn't find it consistently at my local grocery store, but if I drove around to enough stores I could find mozzarella somewhere.  The cashiers always raised their eyebrows at the five-kilo blocks I would plunk down on their counter, but when you found mozzarella cheese in Baku, you bought it.

But here, the cheese counters intimidate me.  There is a large-ish selection of a variety of mysterious looking blocks and wedges of orange- and red- and green-wrapped chunks of things that look like cheese and have blocky Cyrillic writing on them that tell me something about what the blocks are made of.  Hovering behind the blocks is the onmi-present cheese counter attendant, waiting for me to make my selection.  Would I like the green-wrapped block of mysterious substance or the red-wrapped block?  I can't tell you, oh strange foreign lady, what they are supposed to be because you can't ask me what they are and even if I could divine that you wanted to know, my answer wouldn't make any sense to you because you don't speak Russian.  Or Tajik.  Why exactly are you here again?

I'm still working on my Cyrillic - I'm about the reading level of a four year-old - so my visits to the counter have always ended in my retreat after ten minutes of trying to tell the difference between 'CYMBOE' and 'HNAPONNO' and deciding that cheese really isn't one of the four main food groups anyway.

I've tried a few in desperation and there was one chunk that will live in infamy as The Worst Cheese Ever.  When it was new it smelled faintly of stinky baby diapers and when it was old it smelled horribly of stinky baby diapers.  I was inclined to throw it away, but Brandon issued a command performance, so in it went into a batch of macaroni and cheese.  The children called it macaroni and glue, after watching it bubble and stretch at least two feet before snapping back to the pot.  We choked it down for dinner and threw the rest away.

A friend assured me that the locally available 'mozzarella' was no better, so I decided it was time to really get down to home cookery.  I pulled out the home cheese making cookbook and supplies I had given Brandon for Christmas and opened to '30 minute mozzarella.'

Step 1: Heat the milk to fifty-five degrees.  I heated the milk.  Step 2: Add citric acid.  I added the acid.  Step 3: Heat the milk to ninety degrees.  It was a good thing I still had a barely-functioning digital thermometer.  It worked, but to see the temperature it had to be tilted and viewed at the exact right angle.  Step 4: Add the rennet.  In goes the rennet.  Step 5: Cover and let sit five minutes.  Step 6: Cut the cheese.  It's a good think none of the children have heard that immortal joke.  Step 7: Heat the curds.  Step 8: Drain the curds.  Step 9: Heat the curds.  Step 10: Stretch the curds.  Step 11: Eat the mozzarella cheese.

When I got to step eleven I was so pleased with myself, I had to tell someone.  I told the children and they weren't impressed - after all, what's making a little glob of congealed milk protein to making a whole baby - so I called Brandon instead.

"Guess who is so awesome?"  I couldn't wait for him to answer so cut him off, "Me!!!  You're a very lucky husband to have such a talented wife!"  He was more impressed than the children.  After all, I've already made him five babies and this was my very first pound of cheese.  "But does it work on pizza" he wanted to know.  "Well, hurry up and come home and we'll test it out!!"

After feeding the children, putting them to bed, putting them back to bed, running out for soda (the root beer supply hasn't arrived from ELSO yet), assembling, and baking the pizza, Brandon and I sat down for a taste test.

I took a large bite.  All of the flavors were there: chewy crust, tangy tomato sauce, and on top making everything perfect, was salty, melted mozzarella.  Mmmmmmmm, pizza.  I've missed you.  And thanks to the magical combination of milk, acid, rennet, and heat, I'll never have to say goodbye.  No matter what kind of strange country in the middle of nowhere I live in, I can always have pizza.  And that is a wonderful thing.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Thoughts on My House

My house is starting to feel like a home.  Our books are unpacked, my very favorite carpet is in the living room, I'm sleeping on my magic memory foam topper, and I fried doughnuts in my cast iron casserole on Saturday.  The rooms are smelling less funny and the heating has warmed the house up to a pretty liveable temperature, one that only requires socks and sometimes slippers, but no jacket.

Everything isn't arranged to the point that I want to post pictures, but until then I'll ruminate on this, the third home we've had since joining the foreign service.  

Overall, I like the house.  It's got some very (very) strange parts, but I think that's pretty standard for just about any house overseas (and a lot of houses in America).  It's very large - maybe four or five thousand square feet (???), with three stories.  The first story has the kitchen, the living room/dining room, a storage room, a bathroom/laundry room, and the Mysterious Concrete Space.

The second floor has seven rooms surrounding a landing, complete with chandelier, the size of the largest room.  The girls share one room, the boys the other, Eleanor has a room, Brandon and I have a room, we use one room as a storage room, one as a study, and the last as a guest bedroom.  Unfortunately, there are only two teeny-tiny bathrooms and they are both inside rooms.

The entire third floor is open.  We're going to use it as the school room, toy room, TV room, exercise room, and my studio.  It's got lots of space.  

We have a courtyard in front, complete with a separate house that the landlord lived in right until about two weeks ago when the house was finished.  Most of the courtyard is paved, with a small grassy area (aren't I glad we don't have a dog) and some small planter-ish areas in front of the windows.  Brandon and I just laughed at the swing set and dome climber instructions about not installing over asphalt, packed dirt, concrete, or any other hard surface.

Our house has several features that I really like.  I love the kitchen.  It has plenty of cupboard space and even plentier counter space.  It has an eight-foot tall west-facing window overlooking our courtyard and stays nice and warm with the afternoon sunshine.  I don't like the easy-bake oven, but I guess I'll take it since the rest of the kitchen is so nice.  I love my Bosch dishwasher.  Every day I give it kisses.

I also like our second-floor study.  One wall is west-facing windows, and so it is filled with sunshine in the afternoon.  Most of our books are here, and it's very cosy in the evening and in the afternoon and in the morning and probably even in the middle of the night.  I think I could live in the study.

I like the third floor.  There are, again, lots of windows (perhaps you may have noticed that I like windows) and enough space that I can teach school to the older children while the smaller children have an enormous space to play in.  Our toy room was on the third floor in Baku and so nobody used it during school, choosing instead to turn the first floor into a disaster with whatever they could find. 

I like having a courtyard to call my own.  I've never actually lived in a house that has its own yard; the closest I've come is in Utah where Brandon and I lived in a duplex that had a shared backyard.  Last Saturday, after the dome climber was finished, I kicked the children outside to play until dinner and locked the door.  I cooked in peace until they realized they could come and bang on the window.

I don't like any of the bathrooms.  Our 'powder room' is about the same size as the kitchen, tiled in a pattern that, combined with the florescent overhead light is almost enough to induce seizures.  All of the fixtures are spaced as far apart as possible, to try and use up all of the empty space.  If you were so inclined to use the bidet, you have to scoot about five feet over to wash your bum.  The bathtub is just that - a bathtub with no surround, and the washer and dryer complete the cozy ambience.

The upstairs bathrooms are barely large enough to fit a shower cabinet, a toilet, and a sink.  No cabinets, drawers, or room.  Next to the bathrooms are closets the same size as the bathroom, empty of anything.  I would have perhaps made the bathrooms a little larger and skipped the closets.

The floors are a wonder to behold; downstairs we have "wood" floors and upstairs we have ""wood"" floors.  Brandon and I like to scoot across the floor and count how many valleys are in the concrete floors underneath.  It's like nobody ever heard of a float or a level.  All of the toe railing is plastic, with the corners capped in plastic corners that pop off with the slightest provocation.  I'm pretty sure that our staircases are made of plywood, spray painted brown.

All of the house is covered in decorative molding - that is styrofoam.  I'm not making any promises about how it's going to look when it's done.

But my very favorite weird-house feature is the Mysterious Concrete Space.  The house is on a lot that was once a hill, and to fit it in the lot, the owner dug into the hill.  So the first floor is level with the road in front, but the second floor is level with the road in back.  All of this means that there was no room for a basement, which is where everyone keeps things like boilers (we found the original one that is coal-fired) and water tanks and plumbing.  So instead this house as a space at the back that is unfinished concrete.  Which is fine.  Except that this concrete space rises two floors and the back of our grand staircase has a ten foot tall window that looks into the concrete space.  There are windows at the back of the space (at the second floor level) and so some light is let in that way, but it's still really weird.  

In the end, however, it's not my forever house and so I'm perfectly happy to live here for the next several years.  I finally came to my own place of peace about housing when I realized that every house has things that are really great and things that are really obnoxious.  There's no house anywhere that has all great things and no obnoxious things and so I don't have to worry about whether I got the best deal possible because there is no best deal.  It's just a bunch of strange houses in a strange country that are only temporary anyway.

And of course, it's just a house.  What's more important than the wonderful dishwasher or non-functioning lights or stained glass transoms or cloudy windows or vast spaces or cold bathrooms or tall ceilings is the people who live in the house.  And no matter where we live those are always the best parts.  

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Return to Normalcy

Saturday, Brandon and I assembled our last piece of furniture.  We've had a lot of practice doing this over the years; our bed has now been assembled four different times, the crib three, the girls' bunk bed three, the piano two, and this time we added two new friends to the party when we finally got to put together a swing set and dome climber that we bought in 2011.  When I envisioned my exotic diplomatic lifestyle almost six years ago, I didn't realize that it would involve so many hex keys and muttered curses.  I'm so good at assembling that I don't even use the instructions any more.

Most of our boxes are unpacked.  Our house is very large and has multiple storage rooms, but none of those rooms have shelves to store things on and so all of my consumables, linens, suitcases, canning supplies, and random things that can't find a home are sitting in boxes in those storage rooms, under our front stairs, and in the guest bedroom.

The rooms have been measured for shelves, but I'm not sure of the timeline on them, so for now cooking is accomplished with a trip or two to the maze of boxes, sometimes with a knife, to forage for ingredients.

But other than those boxes, everything else in unpacked.  Friday the girls (unwillingly) and I (willingly) unpacked twelve boxes of books.  Every time one of them came across a friend they had especially missed, the work would stop until I noticed the offender hiding behind a chair or table and sent them back to their task.  When we finally finished, both grabbed stacks they had set aside and retreated to their room with their treasures.

With all of the unpacking - and assembling - finished, now I have to return to normal life.  My treadmill has arrived and so five tomorrow morning will see me wondering if exercising is really that important anyway - I've dropped ten pounds in the two months off - followed by a full schedule of school and dinner and all of the normal routines of every day life.

And unlike this past year, I don't have any major interruptions to look forward to or dread, depending on the interruption.  I don't have any impending babies or family reunions or pack-outs or trips or international moves.  I just have normal, every day life.

I've been living the crazy life so long now that I'm not sure if I will be able to handle settling down to the routine every single day, week after week month after month.  There's nothing like a good crisis to distract one from the monotony of every day life and shake things up a bit.  Secretly, even though I protest otherwise, I think that I'm an adrenaline junkie, getting my highs from high stress situations like international four-day plane journeys where I don't have to worry about my child's moral development, just what gate our next flight departs from.

When tomorrow morning starts, my year of living crazily will be over and it will be back to plain old normal life.  Wish me luck!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Tajik Hospitality

I've never been a big fan of 'cultural experiences.'  This probably makes me completely unfit for this lifestyle - what better place to have those experiences than while living in foreign countries for years on end - but I don't worry too much about it.  I'm happy to spend my life in my own, comfortable safe American bubble with occasional forays into the Outside to gather provisions before hunkering back down in my safe place.

Brandon is of a like mind, and so we haven't made any efforts to make local friends in any of the countries we've lived.  He had a speaking parter from his student days in Cairo who we spent some time with during our tour there.  We had several meals with his family and attended his sister's wedding, but that was it.

We made no local friends in Baku.  Our small neighborhood was populated mostly by expats and the children didn't go to school, so I never even had an opportunity to make a local friend.  I did want to attend a wedding (they always looked like crazy fun parties), but you have to make friends to get invited to weddings, so no weddings for me.

When the CLO Dushanbe welcome packet assured me that I would make lots of local friends because Tajiks are very friendly, I didn't believe it.  How was I going to make friends if I spent most of my days behind a big concrete wall?  And what would I say to anybody who wanted to be my friend - mimery only goes so far.  I've got lots of friends, anyway - six of them - and they keep my social calendar very busy thank you very much.  And making friends means obligations.  No really, I'm fine.  I've got plenty of those already, too.

Then last week a friend called.  This friend is the same friend who appears in all of my stories (you know who you are).  She has helped me keep my sanity through the four plus weeks of limbo we've been going through, helping with lice, inviting us over for Thanksgiving, inviting us over for dinner and playdates, and even finding me a housekeeper.

My friend was calling about my housekeeper.  Zarifa doesn't speak English and I don't speak Tajik (or Russian), so we use my friend's housekeeper, Zulfiya to communicate.  Zarifa, who was cleaning my dining room, had called Zulfiya to tell Kim to call me and invite everyone (Zulfiya and Zarifa's husbands are cousins) over to their house for dinner on Sunday.

I, of course, accepted.  I don't think turning down a dinner invitation for the entire family + friends is considered a very polite thing to do.  Thankfully, Brandon speaks Tajik and Russian, so there would be one person in the family who could translate.  I was, however, a little apprehensive.  After all, this woman cleaned my toilets - how would things be when I was her guest?  I'm always afraid of offending people and looking like an idiot while doing it, and being a guest carries an even heavier burden of politeness.  But, the invitation was accepted and the day was set.

We caravanned Sunday afternoon with my friend and her housekeeper and so showed up en-masse - all thirteen of us - to Zarifa's house.  Her husband had set up the plov pot out in the courtyard and, after taking off all twenty-six shoes, she proudly ushered us into the dining room of her house.  The power had gone out twenty minutes before we showed up, so the table was candle-lit and absolutely crammed with dishes.


There were salads and bread and meat and pickles and pickled salad and cookies and cake and sambusas and compote and bread and fruit - and that did not include the massive pot of plov (plov, being a meat dish, is the province of men here) the men were cooking out in the courtyard.  The children's table was similarly loaded.

Zarifa's four children - from early twenties down to eleven - immediately sat the children down and plied them with all sorts of tasty food while the women chatted and ate before the plov was brought in.  Eleanor was whisked out of my arms and passed around, smiling broadly at her adoring (the three oldest children were girls) attendants.  Joseph, initially shy, sat on my lap for a few minutes before remembering his rock-star days in Baku and happily submitted to the tender ministrations (and gifts of candy) of his own attendants.

After we had eaten our fill of appetizers, the plov was brought in.



I had eaten plov before, at a holiday caroling party.  It was, of course, tasty.  But it was nothing compared to this plov.  The plov had carrots, chickpeas, fried onions, rice, and meat topped with meat-filled dolmas, all cooked in a delicious, greasy, savory meat stock.  All ready full from the first part of the meal, I took a small plate.  Then I took another.  And a third.  I'm still dreaming about that plov.

By the end of the meal, everyone was lolling off their seats, stuffed with amazing food.  The children played together, not caring if someone spoke English or someone else spoke Tajik.  Eleanor smiled at her fans and Joseph begged candy off his new friends.  At the adult table, the talk drifted back and forth, sometimes in Russian, sometimes Tajik, and sometimes English as tea was shared around.  Sometimes I understood the conversation and sometimes I didn't, but it didn't really matter.

I was with friends, and that didn't need any translation to understand.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

And Finally, Time to Stop

I love unpacking.  I think I love it as much as I hate packing; packing is just the first step in a long and complicated series of actions that ultimately ends in undoing the first step that took so long in the first place.  But unpacking is the final step before order is restored and chaos is banished and life can return to its smooth path.

On Friday, I began the last unpacking.  I only began it because most of our things (5900 pounds of things) are still somewhere out in the vast unexplored space between here and Belgium, making their obscure and circuitous way from the packing in Baku to the unpacking in Dushanbe.  But I was able to make a start on my ten suitcases, two welcome kits, and a thousand pounds of UAB.  The ton of consumables that showed up on the same day as the UAB is patiently waiting until shelves are constructed for its ow turn at unpacking.

Both shipments had been helpfully stashed in Eleanor's room on the second floor, it being the only clean room in the entire house on the day the shipments were delivered, so Brandon manned the boxes as the rest of us scurried up and down the stairs carrying toys and diaper bins and books and clothing and computers and blankets to their appointed place.  When we hit gold, Brandon sent me down to the kitchen to make order out of the chaos brought to me one newsprint-wrapped bundle at a time.  Sophia or Kathleen would burst into the kitchen, shout "Merry Christmas" as the newest bundle was torn open to reveal a gravy separator or bouquet of spatulas, then scurry up the stairs to bring more packages of unknown and mysterious contents.

After several visits, I had to wade through the drifts of paper that collected around my ankles as I considered where to best put my newest delivery of treasures.  The warm afternoon sun crept across the wall as I imagined myself cooking birthday cakes, making ice cream, and frying chicken in my new kitchen.  After an hour or so of carefully considering the best home for my pans and appliances and canisters and dishes I began shoveling paper drifts from the floor and clearing small piles of detritus from the countertop.  The small uncategorizable things went into that cupboard that always collects those things.  Things that no longer belonged in the kitchen went to their appropriate homes.  A few stray items found their places.  I fetched a cloth and wiped down the now-empty counters.  And then I sat down for a rest.

I found myself thinking of how long it would be before I packed up the unpacked things.  A few weeks, a few months?  No, a few years.  The kitchen was so new and fresh and unknown.  The stove was untried - would it cook slow or hot; what setting would be perfect for simmering, for doughnuts?  The refrigerator was nearly empty; would it have room for all of the leftovers?  My brand new freezer was pristine, waiting to receive the first batch of homemade bread that would fill our new strange house with its old familiar aroma.

This kitchen was still foreign to me, untried and strange.  But in time it would be like the oldest of friends, familiar and comforting.  It would keep me company as I waited for Brandon to come home after a long day of work.  I would fill it with mashed potatoes and stuffing and rolls and sweet potato casserole and just barely fit a turkey in its tiny oven.  In the summer I would watch the children play in the courtyard as the windows let in a cool evening breeze.  Eleanor would pull all of the tupperware out of its drawers.  We would dance to Bill Withers.  We would sing "Happy Birthday."  I would cry.  I would laugh.  I would spank the children.  I would kiss my husband.

And then one day, I would pack it up and leave it, with the memories drifting in the air, hiding in the dark corners of the cupboard.  Someone else would move in and their memories would crowd my own out.

But not yet.  Not this year, or the next.  Not for a long, long time.