Thursday, April 29, 2010

Forty Four

We’re 44 days out from our departure from post. Here’s what 44 days looks like:

We have plane reservations. Sort of. We think. Probably. We don’t have places to stay in 2 of 3 cities, or rental cars anywhere, or any sort of schedule. We also haven’t passed our itinerary to our family (Hi, family! Now you know!).

The dog is hanging on. So I guess we still need to reserve a place for him on the plane(s). And we need to get his rabies vaccine updated before we get to 30 days out. Then he needs an exit inspection, 7-14 days out. And some other bureaucratic something when we’re less than five days out. All downtown somewhere. Chinese language only. Without a car, because that will be gone by then.

We have a pre-pack-out survey scheduled, and two days scheduled for the actual pack-out. 900 pounds of UAB and up to 7200 pounds of HHE. All split and shipped. This is after we pack suitcases and set them aside, with enough stuff to get us through late August, which is when we hope to see our 900-pound UAB shipment again. Probably need to buy a couple new suitcases, too.

We have a new mailing address in Jordan, though we don’t have a housing assignment yet. We have to change addresses for banks and magazines and bills. We have a social sponsor in Jordan, and she’s been writing to me, sending answers to all of my questions. So have two other people I met through this blog. Still, the questions multiply.

We have a line on a new job for our ayi. We have to come up with a large chunk of change for her, because we want to give her a good severance package. She’s been such a blessing on our household; we don’t want her to be stranded and unemployed when we leave.

We’ve notified the schools here that we’re leaving, and the schools there that we’re coming. We’ve faxed report cards and evaluations and recommendations to the new school.

We have doctor appointments lined up for one child who needs them, but not for the other.

We have to settle outstanding hospital bills and pay any traffic tickets. We have going away parties to attend.

We have 2 kids’ birthdays to celebrate between now and then, too. And I have a column due shortly. And life: just everyday life, which is hectic enough.

That is what forty four days looks like.

Should be fun.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Where is Home?

I was on Facebook this morning, courtesy of my VPN (and yes, EF'M, you're right - Facebook is an awful timesucker and no one should use it, yet I can't seem to give it up. It's my not-so-secret addiction.).

Anyway, there I was, reading that my friend Danielle had joined a group called "I went to Target to buy shampoo and I spent $150." I laughed and immediately wrote back "If only I could join that group. Alas, no Target in Beijing. When I'm home this summer, I'm pretty sure I'll make up for lost time..."

And then I paused.

I've lived in Beijing for almost three years. I've lived overseas for eight of the last eleven years. And yet, reflexively, I typed "when I'm home."

Where is home anyway? I thought, for now, it was here in Beijing. This is where my kids are, after all. And my husband. And my boxes of holiday decorations, and my sock drawer. Oh, and I'm here, too.

So why isn't this home?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Trash Man Cometh

Last weekend I got the biggest, blackest garbage bag I could find, and I snuck into Aidan’s room with it. I stuffed it full of junk: cars without wheels, books missing pages, half-filled scribble books, torn-up clothes. It’s amazing how much trash can grow underneath a bunk bed over a three-year period. I found an empty goody bag from a birthday party, blue with little soccer balls all over it, and tossed it in there. I found old pieces of puzzles. Gone. I even (I confess) tossed a few perfectly good toys that seemed too small to donate, but too old to keep.

I took that bag, and when no one was looking, I stuck it into the garbage bin outside. It must’ve held 20 pounds of stuff.

It felt great to purge all of those things. One whole bag, gone forever. To celebrate, I headed inside and started working on dinner.

A couple of hours later, the boys were still outside, happily playing with friends. The door burst open, and in came Aidan, sobbing hysterically. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but I couldn’t find any blood either. I was trying to calm him down, to get him to tell me what had happened, when Shay and his friend Jack ran up behind him. “The garbage men stole all of Aidan’s toys!” they shouted, and my heart sank. All three boys were now shouting about cars, and books and evil garbage men.

I went outside to see the garbage truck pulling away down the street, too far away to catch. There was a guard supervisor still there, though, and when he saw me coming toward him, sobbing boy in tow, he sheepishly reached into his truck and pulled out the blue birthday goody bag, now full of broken toy cars.

He handed the bag to me, saying only “It was in the garbage can.”

“I know,” I told him. “I put it in there myself.”

And then I wanted to say “If only you could’ve waited to divvy it up until you were around the corner, it all would’ve been yours.” But of course I didn’t have the words for that. So I just thanked him, handed the bag to Aidan, and went back inside.

The boys went through the little bag of recovered loot, all that was left after the garbage men picked it over. They were indignant. “They stole Aidan’s toys!!” they kept exclaiming, “and they were taking them all right in front of him.” Then, after a pause, Shay quietly asked, “I wonder how they got the toys out of Aidan’s room?”

I pretended I didn’t hear the question.

But the next time I purge the boys’ rooms, it’ll be a school day.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Good News, Bad News

Good News: We finally have travel orders! So we can schedule packouts and buy tickets and generally get ready to get outta here!

Bad News: Now we have to schedule packouts, buy tickets and generally get ready to get outta here.

Good News: We have plane reservations!

Bad News: Turns out that after the cost construct, we're going to be several THOUSAND dollars out of pocket just to sneak into one extra city on the east coast. And that's before we've rented a car, stayed in a hotel or done anything fun.

Good News: After several months of searching and one blog post that mentioned my missing boot, it suddenly reappeared in my closet this evening!

Bad News: After three long paranoid years in Beijing, I will never stop wondering if it has been converted into a "shoe microphone" without my knowledge.

Good News: I spent the whole day at Silk Street, buying pearls and purses and pillows, with a break for the most delicious lunch with dear friends at Hole in the Wall.

Bad News: I gained five pounds. Also, I am crushed by the realization that I will never be able to recreate sesame beef after I leave here.

Good News: Tylenol PM worked, and I slept a solid 8 hours last night!

Bad News: Tylenol PM does not pay me zillions of dollars to sponsor this post.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Too Much

We're in the middle of it now, people. Less than 8 weeks to go, which is a lot of time to stress but not a lot of time to accomplish anything. And then there's the travel orders, which still haven't arrived. So we can't actually do anything: no packout scheduling, no ticketing, no nothing.

Still trying to figure out the dog situation. One minute he's leaping up to bark at a cat, the next he's struggling even to stand. He won't even attempt to climb the stairs: we just moved his doggy bed downstairs instead of trying to entice him up the steps. So who knows what'll happen? We may have a dog when we leave post; then again, maybe not. I keep hoping for a sign from God, but so far He's been pretty quiet up there, near as I can tell.

We also have the little matter of the medevac-that-wasn't. We're trying to work out a few health care matters that have not been resolved at post, which means they need to be taken care of while on home leave. Sure, YOU try to hit three different cities on two different coasts with four kids and one dog and no car and then try to schedule a consult, a surgery, an MRI, etc... Ha! Oh, and if the doctor says you need the surgery, but he doesn't have time to do it in the next 48 hours while you're in his city, then you can't go to post. Well, you can, but they won't medevac you for anything related to the condition. Ever. Fun stuff.

So I woke up last night when one of the kids came sneaking into the room, and I couldn't fall back asleep. I was thinking about things like: "Should I even try to go to work during the auto show? I wonder if there will be space for bicycles at our new house? Will I ever learn Arabic? Didn't somebody ask me if I have any firewood outside my house? But who? When will my kids stop crawling in bed with me at night, and why do they kick me while they sleep? I need to send that recipe for peanut butter cookies to so-and-so. Do I need to buy apples tomorrow? I wonder if my missing boot will turn up when we pack out, or if I should just throw away the other one." And so on and so on: random thoughts nagging well into morning. (Tylenol PM, I believe we have an appointment tonight.)

So. Tomorrow I go for another shopping binge with some friends (weird because I usually hate shopping but I seem to be doing it often these days), and another meal at my favorite Chinese restaurant. But everything I do now is tinged with "last." Will this be my last trip to this restaurant? Oh, I hope not. But maybe. Last trip to the market? Last time at this particular gas station?

The brain starts going into overdrive, thinking about all of the things that can't be controlled, trying to find just one little thing that it can.

And that's how I know it's time to start making lists.

But first: to sleep.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

And Now, For Something Completely Different...

You've had a crappy year, I know. You've had to claw your way out of someone else's mid-life crisis and figure out how to protect your family from the aftermath.

But you've done it - you're dealing with it still, and it amazes me that you found your way through the past year with dignity, with grace and with your sense of humor intact.

I hope you know how proud I am of you. And I hope that this year, you get every happiness there is to be gotten. You deserve it all.

Happy, happy birthday. I love you.


I was all set to post another little story about packing out. It seems that's all I have on my mind these days. But first, I dropped a pile of old clothes and toys at Roundabout. Then I decided to go grab a bagel at Ms. Shanen's. Ran into some friends; had a lovely chat. I was feeling pretty cheerful when I stopped at the fruit lady's stand to stock up.

I got out of the car and happened to glance down the road I'd just driven. About 50 yards down, I saw a man and a woman fighting. He was dragging her down the road, away from me, and she was putting up quite a fight to avoid going with him. But he got her to his car and shoved her in forcibly. Then he drove away.

I stood there and watched. God help me, I didn't do a thing to intervene.

In the States, I could've called 911. I could've screamed and raised such a scene that people would've come running. But here: there's no 911. And all around me on the street, everyone else was going about their business, paying no attention to the woman. Was she being arrested? Was she being kidnapped? I have absolutely no idea. He shoved her into a private car, not a police car. But why?

I stood, and I watched, and when the car drove away (too far for me to even read the license plate), I turned and bought my fruit. The fruit lady said nothing about what had just transpired, and I didn't have the words to ask. I paid her, I thanked her, and I drove off.

Now I'm feeling awful. Just awful.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Life Cut Tragically Short

It's not what you think.

Casey's still limping along, sometimes better, sometimes worse.

No, it's the refrigerator that died this weekend. And why can appliances never die on a weekday?

So, to recap: This weekend we had one sick dog, one dead refrigerator, no electricity for awhile, 800 Chinese workers in our backyard and one flood of some sort, intentionally caused by aforementioned Chinese workers, who offered one unintelligible explanation for why they needed to cut the power and flood the yard.

So what did I do?

I went shopping, of course!

Actually, I'd already put my shopping plan in motion before the weekend fell apart. I saved a pile o cash with the idea of taking it all to George's Lamps and handing it over.

George takes "ordinary" Chinese objects, like old windows, or bells, or birdcages, and turns them into lamps. They aren't cheap, but they are beautiful.

And since we're getting ready to pack out, we need to start buying the things we want to take with us. It ain't Pottery Barn, folks: one of the coolest things about the foreign service is that you can tell where people have lived by the amazing things they have in their houses.

We already have enough pictures and rugs and such-not.

So here are the newest members of our family, courtesy of George. (Sorry I din't think to stage the photos or even straighten the lampshades before shooting...)

These two are jade.

These ones are metal, with some sort of cool etchings (and that little box next it? That's from Iran, via one of the -stans.)

These are pieced together from old Chinese window covers, then wrapped inside with fabric. Really stunning, both on and off.

Now that the electricity is back on, we can even use them!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

It's a Bad Week to be a Dog

Some friends went on vacation last week, leaving their three dogs to be looked after by neighbors. One of the dogs died while they were away. The details aren't mine to share, but I bring it up anyway because the other two dogs ended up moving into our house for the duration. So now, in addition to our four kids and a big Airedale Terrier, we have a cute little mutt and a beautiful old greyhound shacking up with us.

The house has been busy.

Casey, our Airedale, is thrilled to have the company, especially as he seems to be of the opinion that the new dogs have superior food, and the new dogs are happy to share. So: a win-win.

I don't know if Casey has overexerted himself playing with them, or if it's something else, but he has suddenly become quite unwell. He's been suffering from arthritis, or so the Chinese vet told us, for quite some time. But yesterday he was unable to stand up. And once up, he was unable to sit down. Last night, he stood next to the bedroom door almost the entire night, unable or unwilling to lie down.

I took him back to the Chinese vet today. Actually, there were two vets: one owns a nearby kennel and speaks great English, the other speaks almost no English but comes to work periodically at the kennel.

This second man did a complete exam, including bloodwork, thermometer up the whoozit, and general poking around. Casey stood patiently as the doctor cut the fur away from his eyes, one of which is apparently infected. He stood as the doctor pulled and stretched his legs - I couldn't stand to watch, it looked so painful. The only time my calm old dog reacted was when the vet reached under him and poked at his stomach. Casey tried to bite him.

So. Where does that leave us?

Apparently, in addition to the arthritis, which has gotten so bad that his legs constantly shake, he has "something" wrong with his stomach. But they don't know what. We've switched his food - we just bought a bag of imported "mobility" food, which I believe contains glucosamine. 14 kilograms = $115. He got two shots: I think they said one was a painkiller and one was an antibiotic. He got two kinds of antibiotic eyedrops. He got some oral "probiotics." And he has to go back next Saturday.

I asked: if he's in this much pain, when do we think about euthanasia? The vet took a deep breath, then said "let's wait a week and see if he feels any better." A non-answer answer. I don't think they're big on euthanasia here. They seem to believe that suffering is just a part of living, and the animal should live it out. So I don't know what will happen.

But the poor dog! I suppose I can look around and see if there is a clinic downtown that can do an x-ray so we get a more definitive answer. But I think, for now, we will wait it out and see how he does. He's a bit better today, and has thus far been able to lay down and get up as necessary. But he's still panting and seeming quite distressed, and I just wish I could help him.

We bought him in Moscow - he's a purebred Airedale puppy, and we paid $150 for him (just a bit more than that bag of food cost today). He moved with us to Armenia, Kazakhstan and the States before coming here. We've been worried for awhile about how he'll handle the long trip home and then on to Jordan, because he's gotten so old and shaky lately. Now I'm just wondering how he'll make it comfortably through the night.

Times like these, you miss your basic western-trained vet. I have horror stories about veterinary care in Moscow, where the vet made house calls and actually performed surgery on the dining room tables of several friends of mine. And the things our dogs went through in Kazakhstan - yikes.

When I'm overseas, the combination of language barrier and differing attitudes toward animals combines to make me less-than-certain that I'm dealing with a doctor who sees the world the way I do.

And I really need to make sure I take care of this dog in the best possible way. I owe him that.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Easter in Pictures

At the Embassy Easter Egg Hunt:

Ainsley at our super-secret church service:

Ainsley found the jelly bean trail on the steps Easter morning...

The Easter Bunny brought Kyra a doll. Do you think she likes it?

More candy...

Sadly, this is the best picture we could get of all four of them. Someone was always ruining it...

I'm not sure when Aidan decided to rebutton his shirt. Hopefully after brunch and not before...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

I Should Be Packing

We still don’t have travel orders. But if things go according to plan (go ahead and laugh when I say that, all you FS employees), we’ll be hopping on the freedom bird and winging our way out of here exactly ten weeks from today.

Ten weeks. Ten weekends. Ten weekends means 20 days to see everything we haven’t seen, buy everything we want to buy, eat everything we want to eat and toss everything we want to toss.

This last is important, because the State Department allots us a little over 7000 pounds of HHE. HHE stands for household effects, and it basically means the contents of your household, shipped by truck or slow boat. We’ll get a separate shipment of UAB, which is air freight. This will be somewhere between 500-1000 pounds, and this is everything you can’t live without to set up your household: pots and pans, sheets and towels, cookbooks, toys, spices, ipod, the entire contents of the utensil drawer… This smaller shipment usually arrives within a few weeks of arrival at post, and you’re expected to live without the rest of your stuff indefinitely. In the past, we’ve been pretty lucky and we’ve gotten our HHE relatively quickly, but you have to be prepared to live without it for months. I’ve even heard of cases where it’s been lost or stolen – gone forever off the back of a truck transiting Eastern Europe or something crazy. That’s why we pay a lot for transit insurance. Well, that and the fact that it’s pretty much guaranteed that something valuable will break along the way. We’ve lost Russian serving platters, grandfather clocks and even a crèche set that was passed down to us from Bart’s grandparents.

Anyway, back to tossing. We were scarily close to our 7000-pound limit when we moved here, and we’ve added a few choice items (like lamps, and, oh yeah, a BABY). So we need to pare down in order to ensure we’re within our limit. (Jill is apparently making the same calculations as she prepares to pack out of Chennai.)

This is the part of our wandering life that I hate. I am not an organized person, so the thought of tossing, and culling, and packing away, and reorganizing, gives me the shivers. I wander through the house throwing random things in a trash bag until it is full; then I toss it and move along with my life, feeling virtuous, but actually not any more organized. Fortunately, my husband is better at this than me. He went through the whole garage this weekend, figuring out what stays and what goes. At one point he said “We haven’t used this in six years – isn’t it time to toss it?” And I thought to myself “But if I’d known it was there, maybe I would’ve used it?”

No, this is not easy. But I remind myself: do I really want to be faced with an endless sea of boxes in Jordan, all of which I have to unpack and arrange in a new house? No. Definitely: no. And so we toss ruthlessly: Ainsley’s winter sweaters, my old work clothes, kids’ books, old CDs.

Today I dropped a gigantic pile o’ stuff at Roundabout, a charity that collects things like clothing and redistributes to the needy. So I’m feeling virtuous. But then I remember: only ten weeks until we move. Which means about eight until we pack out. Which means my work is far from done here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

An Article for You

This is last month's column, online at last. I imagine there won't be many more of these to write, given that we have only 2 short months to go in Beijing. Stumble it, digg it, tweet it... you know the drill.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Weekend Math

Four kids. Two parents. One car.

One kid has basketball at school from 8-10. Two kids have ice skating at the skating rink from 9-10. (Unless their mom forgets and thinks it starts at 8:30.)

One Easter party starts at the Embassy at 10:30. All stop at Starbucks first, to buy 1 mocha, 1 frappucino and 2 kids’ cocoas, split into 3 cups. 100 RMB for all of that.

Kids 8 and under can participate in the Embassy Easter egg hunt. One kid is over 8, but too young to stay at home. Kids under 2 look for eggs inside the circle. We have 1 of those. Kids older than 2 look for eggs outside the circle. We have 2 of those. All kids are supposed stop when they find 10 eggs. One kid is so excited, she stops after finding 2 eggs. Three kids never stop looking for 1 golden egg.

On to Kros Nest with 2 other families, for pizza. Too many kids to count. No leftovers. Home by 3, after a quick stop at the store when we realize we have 1 wet baby and 0 diapers.

Church starts at 5. Get 4 kids ready. Tell them dinner will be after church, at which there will be approximately 10,000 readings, because it’s the Easter vigil mass.

Five goats nibbling grass on the lawn outside the church. Which reminds me: 1 dog is at home with no food or water. Every churchgoer lights a candle during mass. Two kids refuse to blow their candles out. (One kid is still too young to get a candle. This kid is not happy with this decision, until she is presented with 2 lollipops instead.)

One frazzled mom spends half of the service (approximately ten hundred minutes) in the car with 2 kids, watching 5 goats and playing 1 song, over and over and over, on the radio.

Don’t worry: there won’t be a quiz. There’s no right answer here, really.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

And Now, For the Downside

I try to stay pretty upbeat in these posts. No one wants to hear me whining, least of all me. But folks, we're on the slow slide down as we get ready to head out of here, so expect a bit of whining over the next few months. This moving-every-three-years business is not easy.

The other night at dinner, Aidan was getting worked up about moving. He's already told several friends that he will not be moving to Jordan. "I'll go there," he said, "and I'll ride a camel. But then I'm coming back."

I explained again that we're moving to Jordan for three years, which means he'll be there for 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade. He sighed deeply, then put his head down on the table. From beneath his elbow, he wailed, "So, we're not gonna move back to China until I'm in the FIFTH grade?"

Poor guy. I didn't have the heart to tell him we're never moving back to China.


Because I am SO over this place.

There. Enough whining for now. If you want to hear some more complaining, from a foreign service person who is hilariously complaintastical, go check out Facts Are Strictly Optional. When she complains, I laugh. When I complain, my eyes roll back in my head as I bore even myself.

And now - I have several kids whining even as I type. What do they want? Attention? Dessert? Who knows. Guess I'd better go find out.
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