The views expressed in this blog are personal and not representative of the U.S. Government, etc etc etc.
Read at your own risk.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Hilarious Letter, Brought to you by Kathleen and Sophia

Dear Grandpa, how are you?  The letter you sent was hilarious.  The picture of Joseph was the most striking. Here’s something funny we will write: 

My Many Desires 
By Joseph H. Sherwood
First, I would like to tell you how pleased I am to be a three-year old.  My greatest desire is to have whatever I want.  I would someday hope to be the supreme ruler.
                                Things That I Am Lacking

  1. A fancy palanquin.
  2. Cookies every day for at least a meal.
  3. At least 7 meals a day and snacks whenever I want them.
  4. Soda for my daily drink.Fanta and other types.
  5. Many servants who will obey my command.
  6. Graham crackers and marshmallows every day.
  7. The number of daily snacks each day will consist of at least 15.
  8. At least a meal will consist of ice cream and lollipops.
  9. A grand castle, fully furnished.
  10. To go to bed at 12:00 AM and wake up at 3:00 AM
  11. Many real working toy weapons.
  12. To have a whole bunch of candy.
  13. Many living animals.
  14. A tool box full of real tools and a wall I can drill holes in.
  15. Many little vehicles I can drive around.
  16. A real lighter and something I can set fire to.
  17. My siblings to not hurt me or persecute me and Edwin to be in prison.
  18. Games that I can play all by myself and things I can break.
  19. A light system, fancy wallpaper, and many windows.
  20. Wallpaper that is flavored like ice cream.
  21. Here is a list of my things:
    1. A reasonable cardboard house.
    2. A baby doll.
    3. A fully stocked kitchen.
    4. A bed I can lie down in.
    5. A nicely furnished room for my beloved sister.
    6. Various junk in my house.
    7. My sister’s busy box.
    8. About 3 nicely furnished rooms.
    9. Several empty rooms.
    10. The vacuum cleaner.  
    11. Am I not poor? The things you have read in this list are all I have in the world.Here is a conversation between me and my sister.The E stands for Eleanor and J stands for me.E:Why haven’t you been working?
    12. J:I have been telling all these respectable people what I have and what I lack.
    13. E:Oh Joseph, now you’ll be a rich man!
    14. J: Why do you say that?
    15. E:Because all of these respectable people are here to help you!
    16. J: Now I am a rich man! Now get me what I request!
    17. E: Oh Joseph, why do you say that when we can help others?
    18. J: Because I do not believe in helping others!
    19. E: Oh Joseph, that you shouldn't say that!
    20.  We hope you enjoyed this.
    21. Love,
    22. Sophia and Kathleen
    23. P.S. They were originally going to be a couple and have kids, but we decided not.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Homegrown Household Help

A few weeks ago, I told the girls to make zucchini bread.  I grated the zucchini for them (three pounds is a lot to grate by hand, so I used my Bosch), and then went on with my own work.  A few hours later I had three loaves of zucchini bread and a (relatively) clean kitchen.  

Every morning Brandon and I shower, dress, and go down to the kitchen where our hot oatmeal and eggs are waiting on the nicely set table.  After breakfast is done, I leave to complete my morning chores.  When I come back down an hour or so later, the kitchen is clean, along with the girls' room, the living room, and the study.  On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I go up to the third floor to exercise, and the whole room is clean.  And I didn't even touch a single toy.

My days as a mother of small children are over.  

It seemed like I'd never reach this place in my mothering career, the place where I don't physically have to do every single thing in the house, or even personally oversee every single thing that is done in the house.  I've graduated to directing every single thing that is done in the house.  When it's time to go swimming, I only have to get myself dressed, pick up the baby from her nap, and get in the car.  Kathleen has put the towels in, Sophia has put the pool bag in, and Edwin and Joseph have dressed themselves and gotten in to the car.  Joseph can even buckle his own car seat now.  

When friends who have one or two small children look at me with five and wonder how I do it all, I always want to assure them that I don't do it all.  Nobody with five children can do it all - that's why we have five children to help us.  On laundry day I spend forty-five minutes folding and putting away Brandon's clothing, my clothing, sheets, and bath towels.  Everything else the children fold and put away.  I haven't had laundry this easy since before Kathleen was born.  

I remember the days of rushing around, timing my day to the minute so that I could get everything done just in time so that I could get everyone to bed and relax.  I'm so glad those days are over.  I'm so glad that I will never ever ever have three small children ever again.  Even though I still have the same number of small children I've had since Sophia was born seven years ago, somehow they just aren't as stressful as they used to be.  Maybe I've gotten old.  Maybe I just don't notice in the general din.  But it sure is nice.

Dinnertime is no longer the last slog in a day-long slog to force my will upon every living thing in the house so that the universe keeps turning.  Now we sometimes have interesting conversations and three of the five children eat their entire dinner without me ever touching any of their utensils.  It's like a minor miracle.

When we go swimming, I don't watch every single child, keeping all within arms' distance just in case one of them decides to drown.  The other day I read a book while Edwin, Kathleen, and Sophia swam around the pool and Joseph and Eleanor kept me company on the pool chairs.  After fifteen or twenty minutes of reading, I got back in and gave Joseph a ride, but it sure was nice to read my book for those fifteen minutes.  I used to longingly watch my friends with older children sit by the pool and read a book.  It seemed like I would never ever get to that day.  And now it's here.  I'm not sad about that.

I'm not sure what I would do it I was just back to two little children again.  The girls bathe Eleanor, dress Joseph, cook my breakfast, clean up my breakfast, clean up the toys, change sheets, fold laundry, put away laundry, tidy rooms, wash dishes, unload the dishwasher, load the dishwasher, fix lunches, pack snacks, play with their siblings, read stories, fetch blankets, pack suitcases, help cook dinner, help clean up dinner, get their siblings ready for bed, and keep me company.  Often I feel guilty shrugging off so much of my work on them, but Brandon tells me that guilt is not fashionable anymore.  The children need to learn how to replace me, because one day they'll be running their own households.  I still feel a little guilt, however.  But just not enough to do all of that work myself.

Some day I'm going to be alone again and I'll miss all of the help.  I'm not sure how good I will be at cooking breakfast after a twenty year hiatus.  I'll probably have forgotten how to make zucchini bread.  And it will be a shock to have to cook dinner all by myself every single night.  

But until then, I'm going to enjoy it.  Bring on the books by the pool.

Monday, July 20, 2015

(Urban) Adventure Saturday

We haven't had much adventuring lately.  First everyone got sick.  Then Brandon spent a couple of Saturdays picking up/dropping people off at the airport at insanely early times in the morning.  Then everyone got sick again.  There were a few holidays thrown in and maybe some rain, but we haven't gone successfully adventuring since May.  I'm sad about that.

The streak continued this weekend when we called off a camping trip when my housekeeper's daughter invited us over to celebrate Eid.  Then the invitation fell through and instead we stayed in town.  But, to make up for it, we took the children to the local (and probably only) water park.

The CLO had organized the trip, so the children had a great time playing with their friends and I had a fun time chatting with my friends.

And Brandon took the children on rides in between watching the baby so I could go on water slides.  The last two visits we made to water parks were at the end of pregnancies, so I haven't ridden water slides in quite awhile.  I had a lot of fun.

The park itself was actually quite nice, especially for being located in Dushanbe.  Lots of lifeguards were stationed around the pool, and I think it might have been cleaner than the embassy pool.

The only one who didn't enjoy themselves thoroughly was Joseph, who refused to be comforted when he found out that the big water slides were off limits for three year olds.  I'm pretty sure one of his first memories will be the devastation he suffered from not riding the big water slides.

Everyone else, however, got to enjoy the big slides right until Edwin got confused and swam across the exits of every single water slide after his first solo ride.  Then the slides were suddenly off limits for small children.  Maybe if they weren't all so blonde they could have slipped in unnoticed, but it's pretty easy to spot the ones that aren't like the others.

But, it was a pretty fun day.  You really can't complain about a Saturday spent riding water slides and hanging out with friends, especially when it's done it the comfort of your very own city.  I'm pretty sure the children are already planning their next visit.

Friday, July 17, 2015

How Does Your Garden Grow

I am a wannabe gardener.  Everywhere we've lived I've tried to plant something, usually without the best success.  My first, most ambitious garden was the best of all my gardens.  Each one has drifted further down in quality, with my last attempt in Baku ending in dead zucchini plants.  I didn't think anyone could kill zucchini plants, but I guess I can.

But still I try.  I just really like to grow things and so I keep pouring money into rather pointless garden endeavors.  One of my first big disagreements with Brandon was about spending money on plants, but by now he's given up protesting when the Burpee boxes show up.  

Our house was brand-new when we moved in, and two of the three dirt areas were sown in thin grass and the third was bare dirt.  I had really hoped for a lovely yard with mature fruit trees and a grape arbor and was disappointed with an empty concrete yard.  But you don't spent 3 1/2 years with the yard you'd like to have, you spend 3 1/2 years with yard you do have.

My gardener planted these from seeds.  I'm not that fond of marigolds, but they're better than bare dirt and add some nice color.

Herb gardens are always nice, and my gardener brought this rosemary when I hired her.  I like rosemary, and it looks shaggy because I keep cutting branches off.

This zucchini hasn't died.  Yet.

Friends had us babysit their areogarden herbs for the summer and we rooted some of the mint.

I started this thyme from seed and surprisingly, it's just fine.

This is another cutting from the areogarden.  Thai basil.

The kids helped me 'urban forage' this mint from our local 'park.'  Bunches and bunches were growing wild, so the children pulled up a few plants from the ground and I planted them.  And they grew!  Time for mint ice cream.

Sage.  Gotta plan early for Thanksgiving.  We still have the turkey in our freezer from last year.

I've always had a rough time with basil, but this year's crop is doing pretty well.  Almost pesto time!

This bed is the worst of all of them.  Turns out that bad soil is called bad soil because it's... bad.  I've got plans for serious soil remediation and a lovely flower garden next year.  Because right now it can't even grow butternut squash.

I planted this squash six weeks ago.  Fertilizer anyone?


Vines that are making a half-hearted attempt to hide my gas tank.  So far, not working very well.

My best success so far.  These beans spent about a month getting 9 inches high and then spent three weeks growing nine more feet.

And as a bonus, they have lovely purple flowers.

I have a cherry tree, peach tree, and apricot tree.  Maybe we'll get a few fruits before we leave, but I'm not holding my breath.  That's okay, because I like having trees in my yard.

One day I'll finally have my own yard, but until then, I'll keep plugging away.  I'm looking forward to seeing the difference by the time we leave.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Living in Dushanbe: Melon Piles

It's watermelon season here in Tajikistan.  It's actually been watermelon season here since the beginning of June.  Thanks to multiple growing zones and proximity to Afghanistan, the seasonal availability of fruits is actually much longer than in the US.  Apricots started showing up at the end of May and are still around because the northern areas are in the middle of their apricot crop.  Which is nice, when you can only ever get apricots once a year.

I think there's something about the former Soviet Union and watermelons.  Brandon likes to tell tales from his mission of watermelon piles taller than him and as long as a semi appearing overnight in the neighborhood.  Every evening on the way home he and his companion would buy a watermelon, stash it in their refrigerator, and then pull it out and eat the entire thing the next night.  Then they would put in the new watermelon and repeat every night until the pile was finally exhausted, probably from everyone in the neighborhood doing the exact same thing.  I imagine (and I can only imagine because I've never actually done a full day's hard labor) having a juicy sweet watermelon on a hot summer night tasted pretty good after working hard all day.

One week our friendly neighborhood fruit stand in Baku was suddenly taken over by watermelons.  One third of the space was filled with watermelons on the floor, watermelons on the shelves, and watermelons in the doorway, piled up to the ceiling.  The children were in absolute awe, never having seen so many watermelons in one place their entire short lives.  They still talk about it today.  "Do you remember, Mom, when there were so many watermelons at the fruit stand in Baku?!?! There were so many watermelons!!!  They reached all of the way to the ceiling!!!  That was CRAZY!!"  One of their formative childhood memories will be of entire wall of green-striped watermelons, all concealing a sweet red heart, threatening to crush them at the slightest provocation.

Tajikistan has the same love of watermelons.  It gets pretty hot here in the summer, reaching the hundreds for four- or five-day stretches frequently, and most people don't have air conditioning.  Many houses have tapchans in their courtyards where everyone sleeps in the summer to escape their stifling houses, and in the evening everyone is outside the apartment blocks watching the children play and chatting with neighbors.  On our way home from swimming last week, Brandon and I saw three boys sliding downhill in the irrigation ditch, the last one incongruently holding an umbrella.  I can always count on the local water canal being filled with at least ten boys on hot days, and the river is another popular place to cool down.  Everyone does what they can to survive the heat.

Watermelons are sold anywhere and everywhere here.  The grocery store's minuscule produce area is taken over by watermelons and a local cantaloupe relative we've nicknamed yellow melons (very creative, I know).  My favorite roadside produce market has two competing piles of watermelons, one for each stand.  The backup produce stand has watermelons lined up in front of the green-painted boards, spilling out of a half-opened door.  An empty storefront on my route to the embassy filled up with watermelons as soon as the season started, with a pile of three or four standing proudly out on the road so that everyone can know where to get their daily melon.  I often wonder if they ever get run over.  Watermelons are an essential for long, hot summers.

Watermelons are also sold wherever someone can unload their trunk, or truck, or car-top rack and sell twenty or thirty melons to any passers by who want them.  Some piles are semi-permanent; Brandon and I like to stop by the man in front of the mosque as we head down to the amusement park.  Sometimes he cools his watermelons in the blocked-up irrigation ditch.  Occasionally he's not there, but most days he sits by the road and waits for people to pay him ten or fifteen somoni for his melons.

Some piles are spontaneous and ephemeral.  One night a pile of a least a hundred appeared just down the street from us on an unused street corner.  A few days later they were gone, with only straw and trampled grass as testimony.  I had hoped that the pile would be replenished - it's always handy to have a watermelon pile within walking distance - but the watermelons have never returned.

I can always tell where a new pile has been created when I'm out driving.  Without any warning, the traffic will slow and narrow down to one lane.  I've gotten spoiled driving here; I can drive the five miles from our house to the embassy and encounter as many stoplights, so any slow-up is frustrating and completely unexpected.  As I creep past the blockage, wondering what car-crash had happened and checking the clock to see if it's time for Friday prayers to end, I look around for the culprit and then the pile of green-striped melons come into view.  Oh, just another new watermelon pile.  It will be gone in a few days, replaced with another one somewhere else.

I think watermelon piles will become an enduring memory of long, hot, dusty summers in Tajikistan.  One day when I'm in America and I have to drive to grocery store, park my car, walk into a store, pick up a melon, pay for it at a checkout counter, walk back to my car, and continue on my way just to get a watermelon, I'll miss my neighborhood piles.  I'll miss the traffic slow-down from Tajiks double- and triple-parking so they can get juicy sweet watermelons to enjoy in the cool of the evening.  And every time I see a watermelon, I'll think of hot, dusty, brown summertime Dushanbe.  And sweet, cool, quiet evenings.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Stop the Poo!

It all started Monday morning.  Monday was a holiday so we slept in.  When Joseph was released from his room, he ran to me looking very worried.  "Mom, Eleanor pooped on the floor!  Come see!"  Joseph, being three, is very prone to flights of imagination.  I wasn't quite sure how Eleanor got out of her crib and crawled over to the boys' room just to do something that was just as easily done sitting in her crib.

When I walked in the room, I knew he wasn't making things up.  He excitedly pointed to the floor and sure enough, hidden in a forest green patch of the oriental rug at the base of the bunk bed ladder, was exactly what Joseph had claimed was there.  Puzzled, I looked up.  Where had this mysterious pile come from?  Both boys are completely trustworthy in that department, and Eleanor's door was still closed.

But as I looked, I saw the trail.  It dripped down each rung of the ladder, leaving a brown smear like some putrescent slug had decided it was the upper bunk for him and climbed up to join Edwin.  I looked further into the bed, where Edwin was passed out, oblivious to the unfolding mystery.  Inside the bed rails and on the sheets was further foul evidence that Eleanor had definitely not been the culprit.

One of the girls came running out of the bathroom.  Why are children drawn to disgusting things with such excitement, almost cheerful glee with how completely revolting something is?  They first thing they always want to see is the blood running down the leg or vomit spattering the wall or urine soaking the carpet.  Anyone with sense would run away from the filth, not towards it.  But I suppose everyone slows to see how bad that car was smashed up.  Were those bodies being taken to the ambulance??

"Mom, Mom!  There's a pile of poopy clothes on the floor!!  Come see!!!"  I sighed, called Brandon, and got to work stripping both beds.  There's something seriously wrong about things that should be solid dripping onto bed covers and spattering on walls.

Edwin eventually roused and after much prodding, we got a tale out that involved the middle of the night, new clothes, and a shower before going back to bed.  One can only hope he climbed very carefully up that ladder.

One part of me, the good maternal part that picks up the child that has just comically hurt themselves instead of laughing, felt that I had failed as a mother, again.  The children have been trained to stay in their rooms at night until we come and get them in the morning.  Brandon issued stern warnings about children in our bed when Kathleen was born, and so everyone knows their place.  But we've also told them that emergencies don't count.  If there's blood, come get us!  Same for all other bodily fluids.  We're parents, we're here to help with those sorts of things!  But a cup of water, that does not count as an emergency so you'd better leave us the heck alone.  Obviously Edwin was more afraid of the wrath than cleaning himself up after a very unfortunately incident.  And I want my children to know that they can come to me when they have a problem, no matter the time of night.  I'm here to help.  That's what I do.

But the other part of me, the part that sends children on errands when I'm too lazy to get up from my book, was relieved.  Better to clean up in the morning than at two a.m.

Wednesday was my turn.  I gained new empathy for Edwin.  My mother-in-law said once that mothers should always get sick before children.  We have much more empathy for their suffering when we've already gone through it ourselves.

Brandon got hit Friday morning.  To add a twist, we were miles from indoor plumbing.  I think maybe getting in touch with your paleo roots should only be done in certain areas of your life.

When I checked Eleanor Saturday morning, she was dead asleep despite her four older siblings' best efforts to wake everyone on the street.  So I took a shower and dressed before heading downstairs to cook breakfast.  When I peeked in on the baby again, she had destroyed her clothes, her blankets, and the sheets.  We finally got breakfast on the table around 10:30, after stripping everything, cleaning off the crib, bathing Eleanor, letting her free, and then cleaning up the vomit (bonus! two bodily fluids!), changing her her again, and cleaning our upstairs carpet for good measure.  I don't think there are any diapers in the entire world that can contain a determined baby's loose stools.

Thankfully Eleanor has two blankets she sleeps with, so we could wash one set of blanket and sheet before the next set was destroyed and ready for its turn in the washing machine.  I've lost count of how many baths Eleanor has had, how many times the sheets have been changed.  Eleanor hasn't worn clothes for the last two day, just diapers.  There's no point in putting something on that will just be fouled in an hour anyway.

Until the last few months, our family has had better than average health.  We've never had strep throat, ear infections, pneumonia, asthma, allergies, broken bones, or even any cavities.  As I've read about others' health woes I've been rather too smug.  Obviously we must be doing something right to have such healthy children.  Maybe it's just moral superiority.  Or the homeschooling lifestyle.  It's definitely because I let them drink bath water when they were children.  Perhaps God just loves us more.  Oh how pride goes before the fall.

Now I'm just like the rest of humanity, with my tales of woe and vomit.  Now everyone can wonder how incompetent I must be to have everyone getting sick so often - it must be that I don't wash my vegetables enough or I'm letting the children drink their bath water or maybe I'm just plain incompetent.  It's probably all of those things.  Perhaps God doesn't love me as specially as He once did, too.  And most likely I'm wrong in the other parts of my life, too.  It turns out that I wasn't superior, I was just saving up the odds so that I could experience them all in one great long string of unmentionable goriness.

I'm looking forward to at least ten cavities when we visit the dentist this summer.  Who wants to start a pool?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Camping, Take One

This past weekend we went camping.  I've wanted to go camping for some time, but first children were sick, then Brandon had weekend commitments for work, and then suddenly it was July.  A month seems a really long time until you only have four weekends before it's all over.  Brandon had last Friday off for Independence Day, so we decided to head up into the mountains and see how well taking five children into complete wilderness to sleep somewhere other than their own beds would work.  And also, using the bathroom in the woods.  

I've heard of three campgrounds in Tajikistan, but all of them are on the other side of the Tunnel of Death, which is currently closed to make the potholes only small enough for Ticos instead of full sized cars to get lost in.  I was told by a man who has visited over 150 countries that the Anzob tunnel is the worst tunnel he's ever been through in the entire world.  I'm proud to live in a country of superlatives.

So all with all campgrounds currently inaccessible, we decided to just find somewhere flat enough for our massively large eight-man (room for one more!) tent, secluded enough to not draw the passing stares of every villager in the district, and close to a driveable road.  There ain't no way we're hauling housing, food, clothes and bedding for seven people any further than 100 yards from our car.  Sophia and I got into a discussion about why we don't backpack to camping places.  Not only are the children pretty lousy at hauling stuff (they probably max out at fifteen pounds), but super lightweight backpacking gear for seven people gets pretty expensive pretty fast.  Plus, I've not found any ultra-lightweight backpacking porta cribs yet.  I'll have to talk to Graco about that.

So I've been keeping my eye out for a likely spot ever since we started hiking, and you'll be very shocked to find out that there aren't very many that fit the bill.  Land is at a premium here, so any flat spot either has a house or a field on it.  If there's somewhere particularly nice, someone has already claimed it.  And driveable roads only lead to villages, which are built wherever flat, pleasant spots happen to appear in the terrain.  Good spots are so rare, in fact, that so far I've only found one.  But this one was pretty nice.  It had everything we were looking for, and a bonus fire ring all ready for our use, complete with a liberal scattering of bone dry branches, ready for a marshmallow roasting fire.

Everyone had a great time cooking their dinner on sticks (good news - Tajikistan has a good hot dog import arrangement with Canada.  Not kidding) and eating outside in the lovely mountain outdoors.  My favorite part was doing the dishes - just throw them into the fire.  

Eleanor spent the entire trip confined to her pack'n play.  I watched her when Brandon lit the fire, completely absorbed with those pretty, dancing things made of light.  Whoever invented play pens was a genius.

Everyone slept as well as you can sleep when you go to bed too late, have a completely full moon flooding your tent, and the sun rises at 5 am.  Which is to say, not bad for camping.  No one had to find the woods in the middle of the night and only Joseph woke up crying because he couldn't find his blanket.  

We had intended to stay for two nights, but by morning Brandon's rumbling insides had turned into a more pressing problem.  So after breakfasting on zucchini bread and hot chocolate, we packed up and headed back to civilization and indoor plumbing.  As we pulled out, the children were already planning for the next time we'd get to sleep in the woods.  And surprisingly, I was equally excited.  Until next time.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Living at a hardship post

Dushanbe is at 30% hardship differential post.  In the Foreign Service, some posts are declared 'hardship' (think most places outside Western Europe) and then given a percentage of how 'hardship' the post is.  Theoretically, the higher the percentage, the harder the post, although there is always a lot of room for debate over which hardship is harder - high crime vs. lack of medical care vs. difficulty of travel - and I'm glad that I am not tasked with assigning those numbers.

Our two previous posts - Baku and Cairo - were also hardship posts, twenty and ten percent, respectively.  There are very few accompanied posts that are higher than thirty percent, so we're probably going to stop chasing a higher differential after Tajikistan.  Of the six years we've been employed with State, we've spent the last four and a half in hardship posts, almost as long as I spent in college, and are firmly committed to three more years at a hardship post.

And so, my life for the foreseeable future is living in places that are definitely not America.  They're not even Europe, even Eastern Europe.  And I'm fine with that.  

Everyone has different things they're looking for in a place they live.  When I was assigned housing the first day of my study abroad in Vienna, I was crestfallen with my assignment to a house in the suburbs.  I had spent my whole life in the suburbs and wanted to be where the action was, living in the city where everything was close at hand.  I wanted that so desperately that I convinced another girl, one who didn't care so much about city life, to switch with me.  This would be the only chance I had to live it up the city life before I retired to a middle class existence in the suburbs.  

Now that I have five children and have spent much more time living in the city than I ever thought would be my lot in life, I have long, fanciful, wistful dreams of that house in the suburbs surrounded by a lush green lawn and lots of parking for my minivan.  But that's because I have five kids and my taste for outside entertainment has waned.  It's hard to get excited about opera and ballet when all you want to do in the evening is spend some time with your spouse and sleep.  I still enjoy opera and ballet, but they aren't a crucial part of my happiness anymore.  Maybe I've grown dull or lost my taste for the fine things in life or realized that happiness is a simpler affair than it used to be, but whatever it is, that's how I am these days.

And so living in places like Vienna or London or Paris have no appeal for me.  I spend most of my day, no matter where I live, taking care of my family.  When school is finished, nobody in my family wants to go visit a museum, they want to go to the park or the pool.  And all of the delicious French food in the world still can't balance out the days we would spend together, cramped in a shoe box apartment (furnished at our own expense with Ikea), cleaning it ourselves after we finished spending all morning in the same room having too much closeness for anyone's own good.

I like having my very own courtyard to park my big, black SUV that I can drive wherever I want and park wherever I want (did I ever tell you how easy it is to park here?  It's almost as good as real live parking lots).  I love unloading my groceries and just walking them into the house.  I adore telling my children to get in the car, and they just walk out the door and get in the car.  We can be as loud as we like because nobody's above or below or beside to hear the ruckus.  We have enough space that everyone can be in a separate room with one to spare if they get bored.  Our school room has enough space for two room-sized rugs, a treadmill, a TV area (with another rug, couch and chairs), two kitchen tables, and enough extra space for Joseph to drive his Little Tykes cars in laps around the whole thing.  And that's just one floor of our house.

Sure, the house has styrofoam molding and conduits running across all of the walls and no screens in the windows (and they have very very large hornets here) and bars in front of the windows, but after a few weeks those things fade into the background.  The driving has its own strange logic, and you hardly notice the crumbling infastructure or broken pipes sticking out of sidewalks.  Because life, for me, is the same no matter where I live - I feed people, school people, keep the house clean, and break up fights.  So why do it in a shoebox in London when Brandon can earn 40% more for doing it in Dushanbe?  I have made my peace with living in places where nothing is ever quite square and nobody can cure concrete properly ever.


Every now and then a friend posts pictures of their vacation to somewhere that has things like green grass, butter smooth pavement, and order.  And then I remember that there are places in the world where central air conditioning exists and generators aren't necessary and molding is made out of wood.  Then the longing comes back.  I want to be in a place like that, where everything works like it's supposed to, and public spaces are well cared for and neighborhoods exists with trees and lawns and sidewalks.  I want a house with floors that are level and all of the light switches turn a light on or off and the toilet seat stays on for years without any fiddling.  I want to be somewhere that works.  

I talk myself back from that dangerous place, the one where order is all around me with no crooked curbs and holey sidewalks, the place that has to wait patiently for decades until I can come to it.  I am a child of America and I will never stop yearning for order and beauty.  But, as in everything in life, choices have to be made and I've made mine.  And so I stuff that longing back into the corner of my mind where it hides, waiting to catch me unsuspecting, and go back to my life of crooked lights, rusting playgrounds, and lawless driving.  It's okay, it's okay.  Life is not about where you live, it's about how you live, and who you live it with.  All of these things are props to the play, just passing backgrounds.  You have your family.  You have your health.  You have plenty of food and a comfortable family.  You are rich.  

But still, I miss it those green lawns and beautiful parks and order.  It's okay, though.  Because one day, I'll go back and it will be for good.  I won't ever leave and eventually the thought of a place where sidewalks happen only occasionally will seem like a distant memory.  I will have a house that always stays the same temperature and the doors all shut perfectly every time.  Lane markers will be ubiquitous and all roads will be wide enough for two cars to pass each other without even coming close.  Order will be so normal I won't even notice it.  One day.  Whenever that day will be.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Strangers No More

Last Saturday night Brandon and I took a trip to the grocery store.  We had to pick up a few things for dinner the next day, along with staples like dried fruit, nuts, sweetened condensed milk and butter.  I never know when I'm going to the store next, so whenever I go I pick up at least four or five frozen saran wrapped logs of butter.  Because you never want to run out of butter.  I could probably get along without flour or eggs or maybe even milk, but butter is an essential.

While cruising the aisled of Poitacht at eight o'clock on a Saturday night, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" came on the tinny grocery store speakers.  I don't know why foreign grocery stores love American music, but it's been ubiquitous in every country we've lived in.  One grocery store in Cairo was having sound system problems and so every song was sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks.  I almost lost it when the Macarena came on.

Brandon and I danced past the soap and deodorant and continued to the spice aisle.  As we exclaimed over the Iranian dates - the best dates I've ever had are from Iran - a man came up to us.  "Excuse me," he asked in an American accent that matched his boots, hiking shirt, and backpack, "you look like you know what you're doing.  Do you know where the salt is?"

We showed him the salt and then fell into conversation.  Tajikistan is such a small, out-of-the way country that stumbling across another American is always fascinating.  Last Saturday we were driving back from a hike and saw a man on a bicycle loaded with panniers, wearing a Smith t-shirt.  He was so American, I wanted to stop and ask him how many countries he's been through in his cycling through Central Asia journey.  Because who else does such a crazy thing?  Once when Brandon and I were out shopping I saw several college-age girls dressed as locals enjoying ice cream cones, but just as American as me.  What are you doing here, I wanted to ask.  Because who comes to Tajikistan?

So we chatted with our fellow American and after awhile it was past nine o'clock and the store was looking like it might want to close.  After we parted ways, I sent Brandon chasing after our new friend to invite him for dinner.  He was traveling alone and trying to cook food in a practically unfurnished apartment, so I thought he might enjoyed something other than salt-less soba noodles for the next three days.  He accepted and I went home wondering what had possessed me to invite a complete stranger - one who had never been married and never had children - over to enjoy a family dinner with all five of our children.  Culture shock in Tajikistan is nothing compared to culture shock at our house.

When we got home, I realized we didn't even know his name.

Brandon and I figured it was a fifty-fifty chance that he would show up - after all who goes to dinner at the house of a random stranger that you met the night before in the spice aisle - but at 3:15, he was at our gate and ready for dinner.  We had warned the children that our dinner guest - by this time we had looked at his website and found out his name - wasn't here to watch the antics children and listen to an endless list of impossible what if questions.  Everyone sat (mostly) quietly at the table and excused themselves to play while the adults talked.

Martin had traveled to over 150 countries, so we swapped stories about traveling and driving and eating in foreign countries.  He told us of spending several days in a Georgian hospital after being beaten badly.  We told him about being evacuated from Cairo during the Arab spring.  He talked about spending four years in India growing up and how his family had never been the family anyone would have wanted.  We talked about religion and eternity.  He talked about a Great Spirit, or God, or Someone or Something that filled the world.  We both talked about existence and what we're doing here and what we can do to make our piece of the world better and more beautiful.  He watched the children play and wrestle and chase each other around the room as we tried to get them to be quiet.  We finished dinner, cleared the table, ate dessert, and sat.  Finally around nine, we said goodbye.

We exchanged contact information, and promised to help if anything was ever needed, and then returned to our normal lives.

If we had passed each other in the spice aisle of Safeway in Falls Church, nobody would have ever said a word to each other.  America is filled with Americans and nobody ever looks twice at each other, or if they do, it's surreptitiously.  We all go about our lives and our business encased in the bubble of our own existence and only let people in under the right circumstances.  Because there are so many to choose from, we have to be choosy.

But in Tajikistan, all Americans are like extended family.  We smile at each other on the street, make friends at parties, and reminisce about the things we miss most - Krispy Kreme doughnuts or large parking lots or neighborhoods with lawns and trees.  Because we are adrift in a sea of people so unlike ourselves, we cling to any accent that reminds us of home and familiarity.  It doesn't matter if we aren't the same religion or political affiliation or race or class.  We're American and so we already have more in common than with 99 out of 100 faces we pass on the street here.

And so, when we come across someone who is far from home and without family, we take him in to ours.  I don't know if we'll ever meet with Martin again, at least in this life, but he will always be part of our story.  One Sunday in late spring we will have always shared sushi and soba noodle soup, mulberry cobbler and ice cream, six hours of food and friendship and pondering on the universe.  And we will have one more person gathered into our thoughts and hearts, all because of the spice aisle on a summer Saturday evening.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Brandon Week

This week we got to celebrate Brandon's birthday and Father's Day.  I'm never quite sure how Brandon feels about back to back celebrations, but I'd be miffed about not getting to spread the joy over a little more time.  Being Brandon, however, he doesn't mind.

Brandon, of course, had to work on his birthday.  Every year I pester him about taking his birthday off and every year he replies that real adults still have responsibilities even if it's their birthday.  I'm just fine with not being a real adult on my birthday and always try to shuck as many responsibilities as possible.  But I am morally inferior to Brandon.  So.

The children and I started his morning off with a surprise tasty breakfast, overnight baked french toast with raspberries and whipped cream.  The girls had secretly made signs, cards, and a crown for him.  That afternoon I left with children with Zarifa and surprised Brandon with lunch.  We had a great time and I returned him to the embassy within the 90 minute time allotted to us by his boss.

I had planned a tasty birthday dinner - pad thai and spring rolls with raspberry pavlovas - but it had to be postponed due to a last-minute command performance at a reception.  So instead the children and came to the embassy for swimming and had dinner al fresco next to the pool.

For Brandon's birthday Saturday we had a picnic.  We hiked to a nice spot next to a small river and laid out our blanket under the sycamore trees.  After eating, Brandon and I relaxed while the children waded in the river. Several got soaked, as they always do, but everyone dried out in the end.

Father's Day was low-key, at Brandon's request.  He slept in this morning while I fried up doughnuts and Edwin scrambled eggs for breakfast.  We had chicken pot pie, made on Friday, for dinner.  This year I didn't even attempt to buy presents; Brandon has never cared much about things, so I didn't waste our money on something he really wouldn't care about.  We all just enjoyed each other's company and enjoyed a quiet Sunday.  Well, quiet until the end when Joseph decided to throw up a few times just for fun (mild concussion?  Food poisoning?).

The way I feel about Brandon is not something that I can adequately put into words.  I'm not skilled enough to express what I feel and anything less would only come across as trite.  But just in case the internet, or future posterity, is wondering, I'm pretty fond of him.  He treats me much better than I deserve (well, on my bad days) and loves his children more than they'll understand until they get to have children of their own.  None of us have any doubt about his priorities - if he could get paid to spend all day with us, he would.  He goes to work every day so that we can have a nice house to live in, plenty of food to eat, and time to sit by the pool while he watches from an office, working while we play.  He gives up the last piece of cake, his private time, and his choice in movies just so the rest of us can have what we want.  He stays up late listening to me talking about nothing, and reads the children a story every night, some nights before he even gets his own dinner.  We all know that we are the most important things in his world.  And he is the most important in ours.  We love you, Brandon.