Monday, August 25, 2014

Settling in...

Settling in, but not really, because tomorrow we move again. This time, inshallah, to our real house. Last move for two years, knock on wood, fingers crossed, etc. etc.

I packed suitcases and kitchenware this morning for as long as I could stand it. Then I decided to come here instead. I could've gone to the store, but A.) do I really need more stuff to move tomorrow? We can live without yogurt for a day, and B.) it's raining outside.

We have seen more rain in the 13 days since arriving in Moscow than we saw in a typical year in Amman.

Today on compound.

We've been out and about already. First we dragged the kids to Red Square. I didn't get a single good picture with my camera phone though, so don't tell them, but we'll be going back soon. Poor kids.

Over the weekend we took advantage of a respite in the rain one evening and walked across the Moscow River to try a Georgian restaurant. I've been making khachapuri (dough stuffed with cheese and fried) for years, ever since my housekeeper in Armenia taught me how - it's everyone's favorite meal, and the kids were eager to try the real thing. I was eager to stop making it from scratch. Three of the kids loved it; one pronounced my khachapuri better. Go me! Jury still out on who makes better krasnoe lobio (spicy mashed kidney beans), me or the Georgians.

On our way back across the river after dinner, we stopped to take this photo. The building in the foreground is the Russian White House. That weird sunset reflection to the right? That's the sun hitting our Embassy - that's where we live.



Next we hit the Old Arbat. I first saw the Old Arbat back in 1989, or 1991, or something like that. It was - and is - a beautiful pedestrian walking street, with cafes and shops and historic old buildings.



It does look a bit different now. When we were first posted here in '99, there was none of this. Now, in addition to Starbucks, there's a pretzel shop. A Shake Shake. All sorts of American stores. It's kind of cool and kind of sad, all at once.




 I always did like this church, between the Arbat and the Ambassador's residence.


Overall, my first impressions of the city are favorable. The Russians have clearly spent a ton of money updating the infrastructure, and everything in the city center appears cleaner, safer, less chaotic than it did all those years ago.

I'm still finding my footing. Haven't found a decent store yet, at least not within walking distance, and I'm fighting off a teeny bit of panic, a fear that we're all going to starve. It's nothing, really: I do this at every new post. I stroll the aisles of the stores in search of something familiar, and when I don't see it right away, I get all stress-y. I'm kind of a crazy health food cook, and the sight of a bag of flaxseeds, or a box of tofu, does wonders for my mood. It's okay - I recognize the feeling and I know it'll pass, eventually. For now though: arghhhhh. What am I gonna feed my family? (That doesn't involve much chopping...?).

More later. I guess I should get back to packing up that welcome kit and facebook-stalking all the people I am missing right now. You know who you are.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pearl Strikes Again

A knock at the door.

It was a new neighbor, stopping by to introduce himself to me.

"My daughter has been playing a lot with your daughter Angelina," he explained.

Angelina? I stared at him, confused.

"That's not her name," Kyra helpfully explained.

The man at my door looked more confused than me.

I looked down at Ainsley, who was closely examining her shoes, and asked "have you been telling people your name is Angelina?"

"Well," she replied, "it is my nickname."

So, okay. If you hear any stories about some crazy new kid on compound named Angelina, just remember, it can't possibly be my daughter. Her name is Ainsley.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

First Day of School, Moscow

And wasn't it just the last day of school in Amman?

Today my youngest three put on uniforms and climbed on the bus to their new school. (The eldest doesn't have a uniform in high school. And how is it possible that he is in high school??)

My camera is still dead, so I took these pictures with my phone. Some day I guess I'll get a new camera. But not just yet. Sigh.

Anyway, here's a little something for the grandparents...

1st grade. She looked adorable going there. Coming home, not so much: a big accident on the playground left her with a  nasty scraped face, poor thing. She said 1st grade is "howwible."

3rd grade. She loved reading and writing today.

6th grade. He said middle school is "kind of fun, but kind of freaky."

9th grade. He isn't yet sold on the awesomeness of school or  post in general.


I spent the day cleaning and making my first grocery store run. I may have also taken a nap in my quiet house. I'll never tell.

Part Two: In which the Iron Chef does battle with a standard government-issue kitchen knife


RECIPE: Carrot sticks
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY: Easy
PREP TIME: 2 hours




We're here!

We arrived in Moscow, bleary-eyed and cranky, to discover that one of our lovely new neighbors had not only unpacked the welcome kit and made all 5 beds, but she had purchased all of the items we requested from a nearby grocery store and even made a pan of vegetarian lasagna.

All that was left for me to do was to cut up a few carrot sticks and dinner would be served.

I searched the drawers for my welcome kit vegetable peeler and knife.

“Ha!” I exclaimed as I pulled the knife from the drawer, thinking of a recent Trailing Houses rant about the worthlessness of welcome kit knives, a rant that had garnered hundreds of sympathetic responses. “Ha! You people were wrong. For behold! I have before me an entirely brand new welcome kit knife, still encased in plastic, plastic so strong that I will need the knife itself in order to extract the knife.”

I pondered the irony of that thought for the next 30 minutes or so, as I attempted to open the plastic casing with my teeth. Finally, though, I managed to extract the knife and held it in my palm, already anticipating the crunch of perfectly rectangular carrot sticks.

First, though, I needed to peel the carrot. I turned my attention to the peeler and discovered I was already quite familiar with this specimen. In fact, close inspection revealed it to be the exact same peeler that my mother had cast aside in disgust back in 1977, when its blade stopped being bladey and its swivel head lost its swivel.

The peeler of my youth had returned and I looked at it fondly. It reminded me of what I’m going to look like myself, a few years hence, in the nursing home - not a speck of rust to be found, though admittedly a bit dull and not quite as flexible as in days of yore.

But okay. Just 7 minutes of work and one carrot was peeled. I placed it on the cutting board, admiring the way bits of peel, already drying out and turning brown, clung to its surface. Then I picked up my brand new, never-before-used knife, and set to work.

I placed the knife blade at the tip of the carrot and prepared to make the first celebratory cut. I pressed the knife down and… nothing happened. The knife refused to cut. Confused, I tried again. Nothing. Once more I brought the blade down onto the carrot and sawed mightily. The knife worked that time. It - and here I’m not exaggerating – it cut a curvy diagonal swoop of the sort that I imagine famous chefs spend years learning how to make. No straight lines for my fancy knife.

Perplexed, I paused in my exertions and raised the knife for a closer look.

This is how I discovered that my brand new knife had only one serrated edge.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t knives supposed to have just one serrated edge? But I’m not referring to the serrated chopping side versus the flat top edge. No. I mean that the left side of the business end of the blade had been carefully serrated back at the factory, while the right side of the supposed-to-be-pointy end had been left untouched.

This was something I’d never seem before, not in all of my years of using welcome kit utensils. A brand new knife that was only 50% finished?

I would not give up, however. I would not. I held the knife aloft and shook it at the ceiling. “As God is my witness,” I vowed, “we will have carrot sticks for dinner.” And I set to work. No mere knife could defeat me. Me, who had once survived 36 hours on 3 separate airplanes, with just a newborn, a toddler, and 75 hacking strangers for company. I had just moved to the other side of the planet, to one of the hottest diplomatic spots on earth, and I would not be defeated upon arrival by a Russian carrot and a Chinese knife. Let others make peace in the Middle East. Let others promote the famous Golden Tree Frog of Panama. I would take on this lowly battle myself. I was no stranger to despair, and I would win this fight.

Twenty minutes later, the carrot lost its valiant battle. I counted my fingers: all ten were still intact. All ten fingers still attached to hands at the dinner hour counts as victory in my book, so I carried the plate of carrot sticks to the table and summoned the kids.

None of them actually appeared, however. They’d long ago succumbed to jetlag. Three were sprawled around the house, mouths drooling on various carpets, carry-ons still clutched in tiny grasping fingers. The lone survivor was outside, vomiting airplane candy into the grass.

I sat alone at the table, admiring my handwork. A plate of perfectly formed carrot sticks:

Beautiful, no? And, like snowflakes, no two alike.

Enjoy the photo, as it is the last photo you will get from Russia, probably. A mere twenty four hours after I shot this photo, my camera met with a premature death, not by stabbing (obviously), but by drowning. Apparently, and they don’t teach this stuff at FSI, so listen up, newbies: apparently, you should always check to make sure your kids have screwed the cap back onto the bottled water before you put it, together with your camera and your husband’s travel voucher receipts, in the bottom of your purse. Who knew? Maybe that’s something they should warn us about over on Trailing Houses. Because they’ve already got the crappy knives pretty well covered by now.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Today's the day!

My Facebook feed this month has been full of updates from people who are heading to points all across the globe. One friend just landed in Suriname. Another is en route to Bangladesh. One just left Austria; another Estonia. Still another friend left Tokyo, while another is on her way back to Tokyo after R&R.

Today it's our turn. We are boarding a plane to Russia in a few short hours.

The kids veer between excited and evil. As do the adults, if I'm being perfectly honest. About every 10 minutes, Ainsley cheerfully announces "I hope the Russians don't shoot our plane down!" I guess we shouldn't have left the television tuned to CNN so much this past month.

We've done it all: beaches and relatives and boat rides and pony rides and new foods and old favorites and on and on and on. It's been a terrific - if ferociously expensive! - home leave.

Moscow was our first foreign service posting ever, way back in the last century. So it's a homecoming of sorts for us. Back then, I remember my friend Paula told me that with each consecutive move, it gets harder, not easier. I didn't really understand why at the time, but I get it now. Every move is more complicated than the last, with more moving parts, more kids to keep track of, and more baggage - both physical and emotional.

I'm going to miss so many people. It's hard to leave your loved ones behind, not knowing when you'll see them next. But it's time.

Back soon, I hope, with tales of adventure from Moscow.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Final Days of Home Leave

We're almost ready to climb on that plane to Moscow. Cramming every last bit of America into our final days of home leave.


That's the White House way back there.

With the cousins.


Ainsley was not excited about walking from Virginia "all the way to another country." But we did it anyway.

Georgetown canals.


Cousins having coffee.


Sisters (in law)


This cousin couldn't sit still for a photo. Everyone wanted to hug him and his curly blonde hair.


Friday, August 8, 2014

Iron Chef Oakwood

My two favorite hobbies - okay, my two ONLY hobbies, until I was recently introduced to the diabolically addictive 2048 - are cooking and eating.

My parents taught me to cook at a pretty young age. Family lore has it that my mom came into her marriage unable to do much more than boil water, so she was determined that we'd all learn to cook. She's a great cook now, as is my dad, and the two of them taught me both how to follow a recipe and when not to. I honed my skills in the foreign service, because if you live in a country without pizza, you'd damned well better learn to make your own pizza dough. And if you ever again want to have that awesome dish they served you once in Kazakhstan, you have to learn how to tease out flavors, how to experiment until you can make a decent approximation of the dish in your new kitchen in Beijing.

I have been known to spend days preparing for one dinner party. Not because I'm making anything complicated; rather, it's usually because I'm living somewhere complicated.

Take for example, lasagna. Basic staple in every American kitchen, right? We all have a recipe somewhere. But when the lovely and talented JennD (from whom I stole the most delicious enchilada recipe ever, by the way) pointed out that making lasagna for four people would set you back over $50 in Beijing just because of the cost of imported cheese, I decided to learn how to make ricotta. It's easy! It's better than store bought! But it does tack on some time to the recipe prep.

So lasagna. Let's say I invited you over for lasagna in Amman. Well, I'd need to do my shopping at 5 separate stores: the Z store, Meat Master, the commissary, the vegetable stand guy on the corner, and probably Cozmo as well. I'd make the sauce two days ahead (because bottled sauce is an abomination before the lord). Cheese, too, and then I'd assemble the lasagna a day ahead - it's always better the second day, you know.

But I'd still need a salad. So I'd visit the veggie guy, to see if he had spinach that day. Triple wash? Ha! That's for amateurs and people who enjoy eating sand - you need to soak the dirt out of that stuff, which takes approximately half of forever.  No pre-washed salad in a bag overseas. I'd need to find berries, maybe, or carrots. Nuts? You need to roast and chop them yourself, or caramelize them in syrup if you're being super-fancy. And let's not forget dessert! I refuse to spend $8 on a brownie mix out of principle, so that has to be made from scratch, too. These things take time, people. And so that lasagna dinner prep gets spread out over three long days overseas.

But then I went to Seattle, where there is a Trader Joes just down the road from my sister's house, and did you know you can buy pre-cooked lentils? And pre-washed herbs and pre-shredded cheese and pre-just-about-anything-you-need. Pick up a rotisserie chicken, some pre-washed baby greens and a pack of sliced, already-cooked beets and dinner is served. No wonder cooking is a lost art. I didn't need to actually cook or wash or peel or chop anything! I loved cooking in Seattle.

(Okay, let's be honest. I loved going to Japanese restaurants in Seattle. I loved watching relatives cook for me while I sat at the counter, chatting and downing margaritas, or those awesome marshmallow vodka drinks which, incidentally, why did my sister not introduce me to that beverage until my last day there? My point is, when I had to cook, it wasn't all that tricky.)

But this week I'm staying at the Oakwood. In the interest of keeping the bad guys from tracking me down and stealing my last remaining still-fits-despite-home-leave pair of pants, I'm not going to tell you which Oakwood I'm at. You could find me pretty easily, though. Just go into any Oakwood, get off at a random floor, and listen for the sound of kids fighting viciously at the end of the hallway. If you hear it, chances are good you've found me. Steal the kids, please, but don't touch the still-fits pants. I'm through shopping!

Are you still reading? Because I'm about to get to my point, which is: cooking at the Oakwood is a whole lot different from cooking at my sister's house. My sister had olive oil. Macadamia oil. Avocado oil. Walnut oil. And so on. Here, I not only lack oil of any sort, but I have exactly zero spices. Salt? Ha! Red pepper? I think not. But I'm only here for a week, and how much do I want to spend on groceries when there is a perfectly delicious pho restaurant right across the street?

I tried to cook the first night here. I sent my husband to the store, and he came back with a desolate little bag o' groceries from the depressing grocery store down the way. Baby carrots covered in a film of not-quite-mold. Some canned beans. Lettuce. Ketchup. A whole roasted chicken. Etc. I looked through the cabinets, hoping to find a discarded salt pack left over from the last resident's take out french fries, but alas. The Oakwood cleaning staff was too good for me. I rinsed the beans, shredded some salmonella carrots over them and sprinkled them with cheese. I briefly toyed with the idea of tossing a teaspoon of ketchup in there, too, but instead I scooped the beans onto a plate, closed my eyes and chewed them down slowly, imagining I was actually savoring something decent. Even the leftover chicken bones were subpar - without any star anise or onions to toss into the pot of bones and water, the resulting broth turned out flat and boring.

I think this is the State Department's way of making sure you're ready to go to your next post. When too many weeks of take out food have you outgrowing your favorite pants but there aren't enough days left to invest in sriracha, it's time to get on that plane and get back to a world of slow cooking overseas.

It's time, people.

Now let's all cross our fingers that my welcome kit comes with a decent knife. And is it too much to hope for a cheese grater?

Please. Write your own stuff.