Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas from Amman

There we were, the night before Christmas, posing in front of Paleo's tree. I have to write that so that, years from now, I'm not confused, wondering where all of those ornaments disappeared to. Future self: this wasn't your tree! Paleo invited us to a Christmas Eve dinner at which there were in attendance: Paleos, gluten-intolerant, vegans, vegetarians, lactose-allergic and I don't know what all sorts of people. Pretty impressively accommodating spread she had. Her husband VP is visiting from Afghanistan, as is uhh-Ron's wife, so there were lots of happy kids there. 

Of course, we had to leave early to get ready for the big day. Normally I'm just the assistant present-putting-under-tree person, but this year it was all on me. The pressure! I managed to get everything wrapped and under the tree, plus all stockings stuffed, before midnight. I amaze myself.

Shay took this picture. He titled it "Dad's Point of View," because this is the view Bart had of our marathon present opening extraganza, from up there on his Skype perch.
Told you I made a cream cheese braid for breakfast. Here's proof, again, in case Future Self doesn't believe I was ever so competent. Also, Future Self: please don't lose this recipe again.

And on to the reason for the season: presents!

Ainsley asked Santa for a "rainbow unicorn." Mrs. Claus despaired of ever finding such a thing and immediately took to drink after she saw that at the top of the list. Mr. Claus, never one to run from a challenge, found it on amazon. Mr. Claus kicks ass.

Look! There's Mr. Claus himself! We found a way to get him in the family photos after all.

This girl loves herself some princess gear. It's a little bit scary how much she adores all things pink and sparkly.

Blankets. The surprise hit of the day. Who knew?

Here's Kyra, showing daddy her new lap desk. She also got a locking diary, and she spent pretty much the whole afternoon on the couch, writing secrets in her diary, which was propped on her lap desk.

First Ainsley shows me her new outfit....

...and then she shows daddy.

Action shot of Yogi eating wrapping paper. Because it's there. And apparently delicious.

The womenfolk...

He looks like his dad.

Ha! I'm still taller...

Ainsley trying on a new princess dress. Because the 30,000 dresses she already owns  Simply. Won't.  Do.

The girl knows how to accessorize!

Kyra photo bomb...

All together now: Awww....

Proof: we made it to church. The kids were spectacularly well-behaved. A Christmas miracle made just for a tired mom.

Because this year, we're determined to take a photo in front of every tree in Amman. This one was at the church.

The view from the church. Beautiful view, beautiful day.

Still a work day for these folks.

And that's it. I am so, so tired. I can't even be bothered to proofread.

Merry, merry Christmas to all of my friends and loved ones, all across this globe of ours. I wish I could throw my arms around you and give you a big hug. All of you. Some more than others. You know who you are...

Monday, December 23, 2013


My husband is a man of tradition.

He does Christmas a certain way because, well, that's how it's always been done. Simple as that.

He can describe in exact detail every song that was sung at mass, and who sat where, and who cooked what, for pretty much every Christmas of his life. In fact, just today, he cheered me up via email by reminding me of our very first Christmas together in New York, the year after we got engaged. He remembers everything. He remembers the sleigh ride we went on, when it was about three zillion degrees below zero and I almost died. He remembers that his mom had to give me a wool coat because I got off the plane wearing just my leather jacket. ("Where's your coat?" she asked. "I'm wearing it," I replied. She looked at me and then at Bart before saying "oh, honey," and I was pretty certain I hadn't received a passing grade from my future mother-in-law, but I wasn't quite certain why - until we walked out of the airport and into the frozen wasteland that is central New York in December.) My husband remembers all of this in great detail - he even remembers what his parents gave me for Christmas that year, and yes, it made me blush.

The tradition, the pomp and circumstance, it's all important to him. He wants everything just the way it always was, every year, because that's what makes it special to him.

Me? Not so much. I mean, sure, we had traditions around Christmas, too, but I don't remember them with such clarity. I remember the train set going around the tree. We built tunnels out of the presents and tried not to crash the train into the packages. I remember getting pajamas from one grandmother and a silver dollar from the other. I remember that my mom made us eat scrambled eggs in the morning, and gawd but I hated those eggs. They tasted like disappointment to me, because I wanted to be opening presents and playing with my new stuff, not sitting at a table eating eggs. Mostly, though, I remember my Christmases for the things that made them different, not the ways they were the same. I remember getting a giant stuffed monkey one year. I remember the year that my dad made miniature doll house furniture for me and my sister. We each got a doll house. My mom wallpapered mine in yellow and my sister's in pink. Some years I think there were relatives at the dinner table, and other years, not. Some years my aunt knitted me a sweater. Some years we went to midnight mass.

See, but none of it sticks out in my mind as something you have to do. And maybe that's why Christmas is so much harder on Bart this year than it is on me. Because he is doing it ALL WRONG. There are no trees. There are no walnut dream cookies. There is no fudge. There are no boxes of gifts hidden in the basement. He had to tell me where he hid my stocking stuffers so I can fill my own stocking at midnight, and believe me when I tell you it's driving him crazy to not be here to manage the stockings.

For me, it's hard this year because I'm trying to find a way to make it special that doesn't stress me out too much but still allows the kids to enjoy it as much as they can without their dad here. I'm working, after all, and why I didn't think to request a few days off, I'll never know. We were invited somewhere for Christmas Eve and somewhere else for Christmas Day: after all of those years spent taking in strays during the holidays, it seems I'm a stray myself this year, elbowing my way into other people's celebrations.

It's okay. The way I see it, my tradition isn't really a tradition. I make stuff up as I go along. I don't have a traditional meal that I have to prepare for dinner on Christmas Eve. I try to make it fancy each year, but it's never the same thing twice.

So I wasn't really worried that the kids were missing out on anything. I mentioned to Bart that Aidan wants to make those peppermint bark cookies that we've made for the last few years, but I haven't quite gotten around to it yet. I was a bit stressed about it, feeling as though I was failing in the cookie baking department, but Bart was thrilled to know the kid got his "this is how the holiday is supposed to be done" gene.

And then tonight, while I was chatting with Bart via Skype, Shay popped in. We were talking about our plans for Christmas morning and I casually mentioned that I was thinking we'd have bacon and grapefruit for breakfast - the kids never want to eat much in the morning anyway, just like me, all those years ago. They don't want to waste time at the kitchen table.

But Shay shot me a look of horror and said "no, no, no, mom. Bacon? Grapefruit? That's just an ordinary school breakfast. You always make cream cheese braids for breakfast on Christmas morning!" He's right. I always do. But they take hours and hours to make, and you have to start them the day before, and I don't even have sour cream in the house.

It appears, however, that I will be braiding pastries well into the night tomorrow, because this is a tradition we cannot live without. This, and NORAD's Santa tracker, and skyping with family, and watching Christmas movies.

Something about making do without the typical trappings of Christmas is teaching me that those trappings really do matter, not just to my husband, but to me as well.

(Don't tell my husband he was right, though. I'm still going to pretend it's all no big deal.)

Next year, I won't complain about the time spent putting up all those trees and baking all those cookies. Next year, I'll plan it better so I can fit it all in. For this year, we'll just enjoy what we have: each other. We have each other, and bacon, and grapefruit... and some hastily assembled cream cheese braids. And, hopefully, lots and lots of coffee. I have a feeling I'm going to need coffee, come Christmas morning. I wonder if that's what I'm going to find in my stocking?

We'll get through it somehow. But next year, it's back to the old traditions for this family.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Santa in Amman

Santa's first attempt to come to Amman was thwarted by both the snow and the Secretary of State. When the snow started falling a week ago, the camel had to cancel - he couldn't make it up the hill. Then, too, the Secretary was planning another visit to Amman - something like his ninth in the past year - and the two gentlemen who'd volunteered to serve as Santa were both assigned instead to the visit. So they had to cancel, too.

As it turned out, the storm got so bad that the breakfast with Santa event was canceled entirely, and the Secretary's plane was rerouted. Neither Santa not the Secretary made it to Amman that weekend.

It's okay, though. Santa agreed to make a surprise visit to the Embassy during last Thursday night's holiday dinner. There was caroling, followed by cookie decorating, dinner and Santa. Ainsley fell asleep at dinner but rallied when Santa arrived. While waiting in line to see him, she poked at the frosting on the cookie she had decorated and licked her fingers. When she got to the front of the line, she thrust the slobbery cookie at Santa, saying "I made this for you!" Santa seemed touched by her gift - but I hope he didn't actually eat it.

It still doesn't feel much like Christmas over here. I think we all miss Bart - he's really the driving force behind our Christmas celebrations, and we're all feeling mopey and out of sorts without him. He's sad too, of course, because he desperately misses the kids (okay, and me too) and is probably worried that we're not doing it right without him (okay, and we're not).

Tonight Ainsley got on Skype with him.

"Why are you sad, Daddy?" she asked.

"Because I miss you guys," he answered, "and I don't like being alone on Christmas."

Without skipping a beat, she answered, "but you're not alone, Daddy. We're right here, in your heart."

I may have teared up a little bit when she said that, but I'll never tell.

Merry Christmas, everyone! It's going to be an odd one for sure, but we're doing our best to keep it festive. And yes: we're holding you all right here in our hearts. Especially Daddy.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Birthday, continued...

Unless you're either A.) my husband, B.) the grandparents, or C.) fascinated by photos of middle-aged women wearing no make-up at all, this post will be of no interest to you whatsoever.

So, yeah, birthday. I got a facial today, and Mimi the awesome spa lady didn't even charge me when she found out it was my birthday. Took Shay shopping, brought the girls to a fancy tea party, ordered sushi. Cupcakes from Sugar Daddy's, and Paleo dropped off some ice cream from Gerard's.

All in all: a good day.

I got to thinking: 5 years ago, I celebrated my birthday in Thailand. 10 years ago, in Kazakhstan. 15 years ago, I was in Long Beach. 20 years ago, I was in grad school in Los Angeles, but I think I may have celebrated my birthday at Bart's parents' house in New York. Can that be right? I can't remember that far back: getting old sucks. Wonder where I'll be 5 and 10 years hence.

That's it; I'm exhausted! Jordan finally went to winter time last night, so we all switched our clocks back an hour, and it's given me a touch of jet lag. Or maybe it's old age setting in, who knows? In either case, I'm off to bed.

Enjoy the photos, A, B and C!

Who Am I?

Ever since I showed the girls these pictures, they've been arguing over who it is.

Ainsley? Or Kyra?

Truth is - they're both pictures of me. One is from my first birthday party, all those years ago.

Happy birthday, me!

My plan is to order some sushi and stick a candle in it. It's my husband's job to make the cake, after all.

Next year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you an important commercial message...

So I wrote my last whiny, self-indulgent, first-world-problem post (Ack! It will ruin my shoes if I try to walk through the snow to buy some vegetables!) and then I went to bed, dreaming of broccoli. Yes, broccoli. Go ahead and nominate me for the Most Boring Person of the Year Award.

When I woke up, there was a text on my phone from my pal GF. And I swear to you, this is not a paid advertisement, but her text read " More citrus. Less scurvy." Which, when you think about it, is an awesome tag line for a vegetable delivery company. Which khodarji is. So I guess they should pay GF, not me.

I was desperate. I mean, c'mon, how desperate do you have to be to dream about broccoli? So I went online, registered, and started adding random things into my cart, sure that none of them were actually going to appear. Chard? Two bunches, please. Cauliflower, large. Clementines. Local grapefruit. Baby spinach. And so on.

Then I went to work.

When I got home, the nanny was waiting in the kitchen. "They delivered the vegetables," she sniffed, "but the spinach looks disgusting." I looked in the sink, and there was the most beautiful bunch of Swiss chard I'd ever seen - not spinach at all. I may have swooned a little.

I'm kind of - what's the word? - a health food freak. Don't get me wrong - I love a good onion ring as much as the next gal, and I'm eating chocolate covered caramels as I type this. But I lovelovelove pretty much any sort of vegetable, and I'm a sucker for whole wheat flaxseed chia oat bran whatever. My ideal dinner would probably be stirfried cabbage with tofu. (Unless you're buying. Then it's sushi.)

So the sight of this amazingly fresh chard right there in my kitchen after days of nothing but frozen veggies made my heart flutter. My kids had already eaten every last bit of the chicken noodle soup before I arrived home, so my dinner was Swiss chard topped with some frozen shrimp.

The kids had clementines and strawberries for dessert.

And all is once again right with my world.

Except for one small problem.

I'm out of caramels.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Snowmaggedon Continues....

Snowmaggedon is over, in the sense that no more snow has fallen since Sunday, and no more is expected this week.

But the city is still an icy mess.

Every evening we get a text from the school - "no school tomorrow" - and another from the Embassy - "late start tomorrow" - because the roads are impassably icy in the morning.

I left the house at 11 this morning. The temperature was in the 40s. But the hill from my house down to the Embassy was an icy slide, because the street is mostly shaded by apartment buildings, and the ice simply wasn't melting. I made my way sloooowly down the hill, mostly because once on it, there's no getting off it. I figured I could always turn into the median if necessary. From the looks of things, lots of folks before me had already done exactly that.

On the way home this evening, I drove a friend home. Well, almost home. He told me not to even try getting down his hill, so I left him a short way from his house. I suppose he could've simply slid down the hill on his rear. Apparently he'd had to resort to crawling up the hill on his hands and knees in the morning, so icy was the road. Now that, my friends, is true dedication to the job.

Today, the school administrator finally threw his hands up in despair. The buses are still trapped in the lots. The lunch area collapsed under the weight of the snow. The teachers haven't yet dug out of the snow blocking their apartments. So he sent the dreaded message: "Merry Christmas! Don't come back until January!"

Yes, well.

It was absolutely the right call on his part. The school needed to lock down and clean up. But ohdearlord I am a single mother with a full-time job here. My kids haven't been in school for the past two weeks, in part because of snow and in part due to illnesses. I have a lady who cleans the house and meets the bus while I'm at work, and that's great for things like laundry and ironing. But she can't cook or shop or remind the kids to brush their teeth. She can't entertain them particularly well. She can't read to them. I mean, I guess she could. But she doesn't. That's my job, and I haven't been particularly successful in getting her to take any of that on. (Remind me some time to tell you about the Great Spaghetti Sauce Disaster of 2013. Let's wait til it seems funnier though, shall we?)

So anyhoo. Somehow I have to work my full-time job while making sure my kids are fed and not scratching each other's eyes out from boredom. It would be nice if I could keep "don't get scurvy" on my To Do List as well. But until the roads clear I'm afraid there is no way to venture out in search of my beloved fresh vegetables. I mean, the vegetable vendor is open, just down the road. But his tent collapsed, and he is sitting out there in a field of snow next to the traffic circle. Ignoring the fact that it probably wouldn't be smart to park my car on the adjacent icy field in order to buy some apples, I can't even figure out, logistically speaking, how to walk across that field in order to reach the vegetables when I don't own a pair of snow boots. So there they sit, all of those apples and oranges and peppers, tantalizingly out of reach, while I heat up yet another box of frozen corn in my microwave and try to convince my kids that's it's different corn from yesterday. I could go out at midday, when the roads aren't so icy, but midday is when I'm at my paying job. They can live without apples for a few days, right? And I'll hit the store this weekend with the rest of Amman.

I think it should be better by this weekend. The snow is slowly melting, which means the streets will be clear soon enough. For now, though, I back out of my driveway carefully, trying not to hit the giant frozen snowbanks on either side of the car, snowbanks that block my view of oncoming traffic and prevent me from turning my steering wheel too early. Of course, there is a Porsche stuck in the snow directly across from my driveway, so I don't exactly want to turn my steering wheel too late, either. I think if I can get through this tour without hitting a Porsche, I can consider the tour a success.

For those of my friends who thought I was a wimp for camping out at STJ's house over the weekend, I can only say: you're wrong. You may have lived here until recently, but I can guarantee you never saw a snowfall like this while you were here, and you wouldn't want to skate down the street in your car, either.

Enjoy the weather, wherever you are!

(Can't give a photo credit coz I don't know who took this. But it's making its way around the Internet today.)

Monday, December 16, 2013

The three-day surprise

It was supposed to be a surprise.

For me, and for a few other people with birthdays in December.

If it had been a real surprise, if I hadn't known it was being held partially in my honor, I wouldn't have gone to the party at all.

You see, the kids were all sick on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday last week, so none of them even went to school until Wednesday. And then Thursday was a snow day, a nasty, wet and icy day, so there was no school, and there was a delayed opening/early dismissal at work.

By the time Friday rolled around, I wasn't much in the mood for a party. And more snow was expected in the evening. I hate driving in the snow. Despite all my years in places like Russia, Beijing and Central Asia, I'm a Los Angeles girl at heart, I guess. But STJ and CL had gone to great effort to invite all of my favorite people (some of whom are going to need nicknames themselves in order for me to finish this post). Besides, they're from Pittsburgh. I figured, they know from snow, and they could always drive me home if I didn't think my 2-wheel-drive van could make it. So I loaded up the kids and the cake for the 5-minute drive to their house early Friday evening.

It was great fun. The GlobeHoppers were there, and Paleo, and GF and her husband, and the whole Cantaloupe family, and even, uhh, Ron. (I still haven't thought of a good nickname for Ron. Chime in if you know him!) Trixie and her husband were expected, too, but they didn't make it there ahead of the storm.

Because: yes.

Before dinner was even served, the snow started to fall. And not in a "hey, according to the news we'll get an inch of snow tonight!" kind of way, but more in a "your van is not going to make it up the hill, ever" sort of way. Paleo didn't even wait for dinner - she loaded her kids in the car and took off when it started storming. Me, I'd already had one of Mrs. Cantaloupe's now-infamous gingerbread martinis, so I wasn't going anywhere.

Just as well, because 20 minutes later, Paleo called. She was stuck at the bottom of the hill, halfway home, and she couldn't move, neither forwards nor backwards. CL and Ron laced on their snow boots and took off to rescue her. Eventually, they got her car moved to the side of the road - they couldn't get it up the hill, either - and they got her back home before rejoining the party.

The rest of us continued to eat and drink and gaze out the window at the snow, wondering how we'd get home. CL's favorite Jordanian pal Ice showed up - it was his birthday, too, so he was another guest of honor. We all set about teasing him, because he'd had to ask his very-important dad for a ride to the party. And we waited for one last guest - I guess we'll call her Pilot - whose plane had landed at the airport, a 40-minute drive away, sometime around 6pm.

Pilot never got there. She called about every thirty minutes with an update: stuck on the airport road; abandoned my car on the side of the road; getting a ride with a random stranger; still stuck; still stuck; still stuck.

Eventually the GlobeHoppers and the Cantaloupes decided to convoy home. But they were going downhill, together, in trucks. I was going to have to get uphill in a minivan, up the same hill that defeated Paleo's van just a couple of hours earlier. Ron left, too. But CL and STJ didn't think I could make it back home in my van. We finally decided CL would drive me back to get the dog and some toothbrushes. We figured it would be safer than taking the kids out on the icy roads, and more fun anyway. We could stay til Saturday morning when the storm stopped. Ice was stuck for the night, too, and Pilot hadn't even arrived yet.

Off I went with CL. We only got stuck a couple of times. Of course, the first time, we were less than a block away from his house. I nervously suggested to CL that if we ever got unstuck, we should forget the dog and go back inside the house, which we could still see from our patch of ice. But he gritted his stubborn little teeth and said he was not going home without that damned dog. Eventually some random passersby helped us to dig out with a shovel, and we made it to my house, about 30 minutes later.

We grabbed the dog, some toothbrushes and some pjs and, after much skidding and sliding, we rejoined the party. Still no sign of Pilot, and by now it was probably closing in on midnight.

We stayed up until about 2, but eventually decided Pilot wasn't going to make it, and we went to bed, laughing at our adventures and wondering where she'd ended up.

Pilot rang the doorbell at 3 am. It took her 8 hours to make the 40-minute drive. That's how bad the roads were.

The next morning we awoke to find almost 2 feet of snow on the ground. CL went out, looked around, and said nobody was going anywhere. At all. All day long. So we made pancakes and heated extra chili and ate leftover cake and sat around in our jammies all day watching movies. Pilot and Ice worked the phones, trying to explain to the rental car company that the car they'd rented to her was in a snowdrift somewhere on the airport highway, with her luggage still inside. My dog and STJ's dog had vigorous doggy sex, about every 12 minutes, hour after hour. After hour.

Evening rolled around and we were all still friends (Except the dogs. They were definitely more-than-friends by evening.) We made some soup, played some board games and watched some more movies until bedtime.

We started wondering which dog we would eat first if the snow didn't melt soon, or get cleared. Me being the fabulous dog owner that I am, I of course volunteered Yogi to go first. And I told Donner party jokes that no one else understood, because apparently only Californians study the Donner party in elementary school history classes.

(Go ahead and google it. I'll wait.)

Day three: the snow has stopped. The weather is warming. It is time to say goodbye, to go home and put on clean clothes. Oh, and let the cat out. I dig the van out while SUVs go sliding past me, down the hill, which has been plowed enough to allow for one slippery lane of traffic. I load the kids in the car. I wave cheerfully at STJ and Ice and Pilot as I pull out across the ice. There is a loud crunching sound under my wheels, which I assume is the sound of ice. Crunchy ice.

"Don't go!" shouts Ice, presumably because he misses us already. I wave cheerfully.

"Don't go," he shouts again, more urgently this time. "You left part of your car on the ice!"

Turns out, the crunching sound I'd heard was actually the sound of the bottom of my car detaching from the vehicle and staying behind, frozen to the ice as it was.

We're home now. It's Monday night. School was closed yesterday. And today. And then, this evening, we got the texts informing us that the school will be closed tomorrow as well. And the embassy will open late again. All across west Amman, parents sobbed fat tears upon reading those texts.

There's no salt in this country. Very few plows. They haven't been hit with this much snow in a decade. So the roads are still snow covered, slick and icy. Driving down the hill this morning to the Embassy was not fun. It's just as well the school is still closed. I don't want my kids on a bus on these roads. But one of these days I'm going to have to show up for a full day of work, somehow.

Meanwhile, I suspect the kids' favorite memory from this Christmas season will be of the crazy surprise party CL and STJ threw for their mom, the surprise party that lasted for three laughter and snow-filled days.

Please. Write your own stuff.