Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Baghdad: An Update

It was 8 long months ago that we bid on Baghdad.

It was nearly 2 months ago that he got the assignment.

And finally, today, we have news:

He may be leaving us on Saturday for parts unknown, for several months of training.

Or, you know. He may not.

Because as of today, there are tickets, but they are not the right tickets. As of tonight, there is a TM2, which is an official-like paper without which you cannot go anywhere in the service of your country. There are training dates. But he has not, technically speaking, been enrolled in the training.

So we will either say goodbye to him for a long, long time come this weekend, or, well.

We will not.

Do we have adventures? Yes, aplenty. Excitement? Of course. But - and I cannot stress this enough - do not join the Foreign Service if you like to have your life neatly planned out. Just don't.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Parenting Milestone

I remember once, back in the dark ages of high school, we had a football game in Podunk, California, or some other such small town up north. Because it was far away, several hours up the road, we had to spend the night.

I say "we" because I was a cheerleader. I'll pause here, to let that sink in for a bit.



I know, right?

Really, have I no shame? Is there nothing I won't tell the internets? But yes: it's true. I was a cheerleader. I have pictures as proof, even, but they're probably in storage in Hagerstown or something. So no photographic evidence today.

Anyhoo. Ahem. Are you still with me? Do you think less of me now? I tell you this only so you'll understand the heart of today's story. I was, indeed, a cheerleader, and we drove all day to this little tiny town, and we stayed in a little tiny motel, and I believe some of the cheerleaders and football players managed to acquire some alcohol, and much revelry ensued until the chaperones shut it down. (Are you reading this, mom and dad? I swear I didn't participate. Anyway, it's not as if you can ground me or anything. Statute of limitations and all.)

I don't remember who won. I just remember that it seemed weird, travelling that far, just to play football. Why? Who needs to go to Podunk to play football?

I haven't given that trip much thought since. Until last Wednesday, that is, when I went to the airport and waved goodbye to my eldest son as he boarded an AIRPLANE to go play baseball. IN ANOTHER COUNTRY.

Seriously. He's not-quite-13, and he's in another country, somewhere in the middle east, without his parents, playing baseball.

To be fair, one of the chaperones is my dear friend STJ, so it's not as though we've totally abandoned him. Still and all, it's odd to think he's sort of on his own over there, without me to ask if he's brushed his teeth and did he remember to eat lunch and gross-are-those-socks-even-clean?, etc., etc.

From what I've heard, the team is doing a good job. They've won 2 games and lost one. As I type this, they are playing their final game, and tomorrow I will go to the airport to pick them up and welcome them home.

But my baby! My baby, in another country without me. When did he get so big?

Foreign Service kids do this sort of stuff all the time. They go to swim meets in Shanghai, and debate tournaments in Dubai. And then they graduate, and they go to entirely different continents for college. My own university, by contrast, was an hour or so down the road from my parents' house. Far enough to be independent; close enough to go home for dinner on a long weekend.

It's normal, then, for foreign service kids, this international tournament travel. But it's a first for me, as a parent. I'm so proud of my son, for trying out for the team, and then sticking with it even when it meant 3+ practices every week, for hours on end. And yes: I'm proud of me, too, for letting him go.

But I'm more proud of him, my growing-up son.

His first baseball game ever, with Bampa and Pop. Circa 2003.

Friday, January 18, 2013


This is my 700th post.

Seven Hundred Posts. That's kind of a lot of time spent on my own, writing. As Jill famously said, it's cheaper than therapy. For me, of course, there's the added benefit that I now have a record of my FS life and my life as a mom. I don't do baby books. I'm not much for photo albums. And my memory is terrible: if I don't write it down, it never happened.

I started out by writing emails home from Moscow. But my list of recipients got a bit unwieldy, as people started asking to get on my distribution list - people I'd never met, like colleagues of my mother, or my in-laws' neighbors. It was sort of embarrassing sending emails to these people, and my friend Jim kept bugging me to blog it instead, so finally, 4 countries in, I did just that.

Some day I'll have to figure out if I can retroactively add my emails from Russia and Armenia and Kazakhstan to this virtual record of mine (Jim? Help a girl out...). It would be kind of nice to have the whole story in one place. For now, all of those emails live in a file somewhere in my computer, and I sort of suspect my parents kept them all, too - my own personal cloud.

I've been going through the archives - there's so much I forgot about.

There's my first post ever, read by an audience of just 216, if blogger is to be believed. My first post from China, when the place was confusing and scary and new. My first pictures from the Great Wall, just after I discovered I was pregnant with Ainsley and days before I suddenly went deaf. And a description of the actual trip to the Wall, with the incomparable JennD, who would later become one of my best pals in all of Beijing, figuring prominently in adventure after adventure.

Ainsley was born. Casey died. We moved to Amman. Yogi followed.

So many memories for me, here in these 700 posts. So many friends made, and laughs shared. So much sadness, too, mostly when you read between the lines. Adventures and embarrassment and boredom and fear and sickness and what-the-hell-were-we-thinking and what-the-hell-are-they-thinking?

This right here? This is the Foreign Service. Moving through life at the speed of light, making decisions on the fly, being ordered to some random corner of the globe by someone who has never met you and relying on the kindness of strangers once you arrive in that big scary corner. Bonding hard - too hard, sometimes - with the people who are tossed into the pile with you, and crawling out the other side, bruised and scarred, but laughing - mostly laughing - and in awe of what you managed to do.

It doesn't make any sense, not to the people who never try to live this way, and not even always to us, the people who are doing it.

But looking back over the last 700 posts of mine, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Not Your Everyday Mechanic

One thing about living overseas: your local car repair service can leave something to be desired. For one thing, you can't always get the parts you need, but for your local mechanic, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. He'll just use duct tape and other random bits of flotsam to put your car back together. And you will never know, of course, because you don't know the difference between a carburetor and a radiator.

In Beijing I actually took the Honda to a certified Honda dealer once, and they still screwed up. They screwed up my brakes. I hope they screwed them up on accident, but you never know. These are the same people, after all, who waited until my husband was out of the country one fine spring day, and I was in the back of an ambulance with my baby, rushing to the hospital with sirens blaring, to break into my car and disconnect the battery so the car wouldn't work when I returned home from the hospital the next day.

Bygones, Chinese government drones. Bygones.

I only found out how badly they screwed up the brakes when I took the car to a mechanic here for the first time, and he was horrorstruck when he saw the condition of my brakes. Apparently it was a Very Bad Thing they did.

So, this mechanic. His name is Shukri, and he has a shop not far down the road from the Embassy. I've never actually been to his shop, not on purpose, anyway, because when my car needs anything, he takes it there himself and returns it to me when he's done.

(I was accidentally at his shop just this week, when I was stuck in traffic in a strange area of town, and it turns out I was stuck directly in front of his shop. He came out in the street to chat for five minutes while we waited for traffic to clear.)

Shukri knows what he's doing: he was trained in the U.S., speaks impeccable English, and knows where to source real parts that really belong inside my car. He's honest. He's reliable. When he says he's going to do something, he does it. I had a friend whose car broke down on the side of the road, late at night, and Shukri drove to where she was, then gave her the keys to his own car so she could get home while he waited for one of his mechanics to show up. Who does that?

When I took the side of the car off after failing to see a teeny tiny stone wall that jumped out in front of me one afternoon, he didn't laugh, or even roll his eyes. He simply fixed the car.

When he had to repaint the bumper (okay, that was SO not my fault), he warned me not to let the boab wash the car for 24 hours. But the next morning at 6am, I staggered sleepy-eyed into the kitchen, and when I glanced out the window, I saw the boab preparing to wash the car. I shrieked and ran outside in my pajamas, only to realize I couldn't remember the Arabic words for "don't wash the car." So I called Shukri. At 6 in the morning. His wife answered, and she was very confused, but when I managed to explain who I was and why I was calling, she offered to talk to the boab herself. I handed him the phone, words were exchanged, and the problem was solved. I was kind of embarrassed when I finally met Shukri's wife in person and had to explain that I was the one who'd woken her up to ask what the verb "to wash" is in Arabic.

Two weeks ago, I got a flat tire on the way to work. Only I didn't know it - the guards at the Embassy pointed it out when I got there. I found Shukri in the cafeteria: he found a nail in my tire, and he patched it up and returned the car to me, shiny, clean and drivable, for the low, low price of about $8.

Today, when I was at lunch, he tracked me down. "I noticed," he said, "that one of your tires looks low again. We should probably check it out." I gave him the keys and he went out and found another nail. Seriously. Nails are a hazard here, apparently. But he patched it up while I was at work and returned the car to the parking lot, with 0% inconvenience to me.

So today, I am grateful for Shukri. He was paying attention when I wasn't, and he saved me from getting a flat tire somewhere out in the wide world tonight.

Good things happen sometimes. And good people are everywhere. You just have to pay attention, I guess.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

And That's How I Ended Up with a Pet Panda

I have this friend; I'll call her, let's see now... Kolbi.

Once upon a time, approximately 4 months ago, Kolbi was having a rough day. This is because Kolbi lives and serves in a country where both her internet access and her access to breathable oxygen have been severely restricted. Also because she lives far away from me which, let's face it, for most people, this is a true hardship. Plus which, people snack on chicken feet in her country. For some reason, Kolbi doesn't like chicken feet. She's picky like that. She spends her days now huddled up against the air purifier, googling "air fare to Jordan" and "wormhole to Estonia." On those rare days when the local government lets her fire up her VPN, she hops on Facebook and we exchange xanax-based non-chicken-footed recipes.

Funnily enough, Kolbi and I have only met each other twice in real life, but we've been blog friends since the age of dinosaurs. I believe she personally and single-handedly started the Foreign Service Blog Family way back when: a lot of us were blogging, but we weren't talking to each other, and then this crazy Kolbi woman started commenting on all of our blogs, and she wouldn't just go away and let-us-blog-already, until before you know it, we were commenting on her blog, and on each other's blogs, and eventually there was some sort of real-world sushi club and next thing you know I was slurping noodles with Jen Dinoia in Rosslyn and going out for Thai with Jill Perlman in Herndon and suddenly there was a whole DS-blogger-sisterhood and now we're all inseparable and that, my friends, is how the Panda War started.

Four months ago, as I said, Kolbi seemed a bit down, so I bought her a random little gift here in Jordan. I meant to send this gift to her at her post in order to cheer her up, but I have four kids and a dog and a cat and a husband and a full-time job and a blog and a very mild Facebook addiction - so mild that the only people who actually label it an addiction are my husband and the rest of my real life friends who never get a call back. Details. Anyway. I never managed to find the time to get up from my desk, carry the tiny package to the mail room (which, in my defense, is not even on the same floor of the Embassy as my office) and stick it into the mailbox. The gift sat, gathering dust, until approximately Christmas Eve, when I realized it was probably almost time to mail the Christmas presents to my family. (Those gifts were in a bag under my desk, also waiting to be mailed for months on end. Except for the present for my sister-in-law, Carolyn, which is at this exact moment still sitting on my kitchen counter. I can only assume she will receive that gift as a 50th birthday gift. Yes, she's around 30 right now, so it could still happen.)

When I couldn't put it off any longer, I mailed the family gifts to the family and the Kolbi gift to Kolbi. And then I promptly went back to blogging and facebooking and cooking and working and I forgot about the whole sad ordeal.

Until today.

Today I got an email from Kolbi that read, in part:

"You must know that this means war. Gift war, of course, but war nonetheless. Brace yourself: when you receive a box and you look at the outside of the box and see that it has air holes, just take a deep breath and remind yourself that it couldn't in a million years REALLY be an actual, live panda."

I was confused. Gift? What gift? And why was Kolbi threatening to send me a panda? Had too many successive days of inhaling straight carbon monoxide while simultaneously gnawing on chicken feet and praying for an onward assignment finally gotten to her?

The wheels spun slowly, but I eventually remembered: the gift! The tiny cheer-her-up-in-September gift! Here it is January, and the gift had finally arrived, prompting not joy, but threats of all-out-panda-war.

Oh dear. If you knew Kolbi, you'd know she's serious. So I have been googling "What do pandas eat, anyway?" and "Is it even legal to ship a panda through the DPO?" in preparation.

I should have just signed up for Amy's sort-of-annual foreign service swap over at the Crafty Foreign Service. I think it unlikely any of those people would threaten to send me a whole panda.

It's not too late for you. If you're in the foreign service and you want to participate in the swap, you have until the end of the week to get to her blog and sign up. Or, to enter a drawing to win a panda, just leave a comment here telling me what pandas eat. Once the panda arrives, I'll select a commenter to win the panda through a random drawing. (Shannon - I'd advise that you don't tell your boys about this contest - unless - do pandas eat tarantulas?)

If you, too, need cheering up, and you'd like me to send you a happy little gift of some sort, go ahead and email me the address where you'll be in 2017, and I'll get started on this mini-project of mine right away.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Iron Chef

This is probably the first place that we've lived where we can buy most everything that we need in the local grocery stores - assuming, of course that we're willing to pay the sometimes exorbitant prices. Which I, of course, am not.

My mom and dad taught me to cook, back in the day, so I came into this marriage pretty proficient, but what really forced me to learn was Armenia. It was our second post, and I loved it, but when we lived there, there were almost no imported or convenience products available in the local shops. Our time there coincided with 9/11 and the anthrax scare, which meant that we were without mail for half of our tour, so we couldn't order the things we wanted from the States. There weren't a lot of restaurants: if you wanted to eat something, you had to make it yourself.

There were no canned beans: you soaked the dried ones overnight and boiled them. There was no pizza restaurant, and the first time I tried to make my own pizza dough, it turned out flat and dry and toothbreakingly crunchy.

I figured it all out eventually - even the pizza dough! - and my part time housekeeper taught me to make both Russian and Georgian food - everything from borsch to hachapuri to chicken tabaka. I still love making that stuff, all these years later.

I love to eat. I love to cook, too, and one the best things about this foreign service life of mine is that I've learned to make so many unusual things, like dumplings and ricotta cheese and fried rice. I cook weird stuff sometimes - like mustard greens, or Swiss chard, or lentils. Sometimes my kitchen experiments are gigantic flops, like that first awful pizza dough. But no matter - time spent in the kitchen is my own personal zen.

Little wonder, then, that I've spent these last few snow-bound days in my kitchen. You could say I kind of went a little crazy on the cooking this weekend. I trudged through the slush yesterday in order to buy butter and cream and sugar and flour from the little shop around the corner and ohmygawd, you guys, what haven't I made? I started with brownies and caramels - tragically, they are already gone. I made a couple of loaves of whole wheat bread. I made 2 kinds of soup for the freezer. I made bran muffins and crepes. I still have plans for another batch of bread if tomorrow cooperates.

Ironically, then, we went to someone else's house for dinner last night and had takeout pizza. Tonight the boys have sleepover pals and we promised them Mexican takeout from the new restaurant down the road. I've cooked and cooked and cooked, yet the only things we've eaten have been the caramels and the muffins and the bread.

No matter. It got me through the snow days. Today is warmer and the steady drip-drip outside the window tells me it'll be time to get outside again soon.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Snow In Amman

The school has been closed for two straight days.

The Embassy sent us home early yesterday because the roads were iced over, and they closed entirely today.

It's not that there's tons of snow out there, not really. But Amman is a hilly, curvy-road sort of place, lacking both snowplows and salt. People here aren't used to driving in wet conditions, the underpasses are flooded, and in some areas of town, walls have collapsed under the weight of the water.

Here at home, I'm pleased that it has turned cold enough to snow. Just a few days ago, it was all rain and ice, and the rain leaks in through a gap in our back door, which means I'm constantly doing battle against a stream of water that refuses to quit. I can't win, but I can't stop fighting the flood, either. At least the snow can't get inside - unless it sneaks in on dog paws and kid shoes.

As soon as the school texted their "school closed" announcement last night, my two middle kids went to a friend's house with the intention of getting snowed in overnight. It worked.

So for now, all is quiet. No nanny, no husband - he's at work, despite the closure - 50% fewer kids. I think I'll spend the day catching up on my reading. Or maybe I'll brave the roads and get a few pounds of butter to make cookies.

Who knows? The whole day stretches ahead of me, empty. I plan to use it lazily, and well.

Meanwhile, here's the view outside my door.

From the kitchen window.

Also from the kitchen.

From the front door. What? You thought I was going to step outside to take pictures? It's cold out there. 

Anyway, why go outside when your camera has a perfectly good zoom lens?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Ugly Sweaters

It seems somehow it is already time to wrap up the ornaments, to box up the Santas, to stash the tree boxes in the closet.

But where did the time go? I have so many posts in my head, so many stories I need to write up before this Christmas season vanishes into the ether. The kids will be back at school on Sunday, and I'll be back at work, and I'll have already failed at my half-baked resolutions, three times over at least. With that - life returns to normal.

I haven't even told you about the ugly sweater party we went to! Though, truth be told, I've been struggling with how, exactly, to explain it. How to explain the cheesy door prizes for best sweater? Bart himself won a bottle of "Wild Africa Cream" - I'm not sure what sort of alcohol is inside, but the outside of the bottle is lined with fuzzy leopard fur or something equally frightening.

Tell me: Would you drink this? If so, stop on by...

One gentleman, whom I'd never seen before the party and haven't seen since, showed up in a sweater that he'd carefully hung with glass Christmas ornaments, prompting many an inebriated comment about his "shiny Christmas balls." He won a door prize, too - a can of whiskey. Being a bit intoxicated already, he thought it would be funny to crack open the can and down it as if it were a can of lite beer. (Bart shook his head in dismay: "Someone better tell that guy to stick his finger down his throat, quick.") The last time I saw the guy, he staggered past me and straight into a wall, shattering those shiny balls of his. Some military guys were enlisted to get him home safely, and off he went, more or less vertical.

There was one other guy there who got memorably (to me at least; probably not so much to him) drunk. He strung his t-shirt with Christmas lights and walked around blinking all night long. When he'd had enough to drink ("I live jus' down the shhtreet..." he told nobody in particular), he decided to walk home. And he proceeded to do just that, staggering right down the middle of the street. "Should somebody help him get home?" one guy asked. "Naw," said another. "If he gets hit by a car when he's lit up like a Christmas tree, it was probably his time to go."

Okay, but not everyone got drunk. I myself stayed respectably sober, which is probably why I remember these tales. I definitely have a few blackmail-worthy shots (Hey, if you're going to wear a sweater that shows Santa doing that, you should probably expect that I'll bring out the photos when you get your first star.) Tragically, I did not get a photo of Major Winerack's husband in his Santa suit. Maybe next year.

On Santa's lap...

Photo has been cropped to protect the guilty.

Me n' Major WR kept getting our antlers hooked together.

And that was the ugly sweater party. I'm still hoping to find a proper way to tell you about the whole Turkish bath experience. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

....aaaaand we're back!

First sunset of the year, as seen from our hotel room balcony. That's the West Bank over there, on the other side of the Dead Sea. Jerusalem is up on those hills.

(Taken with my iPhone. Because I forgot to pack the camera. Duh.)
All in all, not a bad way to spend the first day of the year: swimming, playing board games, lounging in the sauna and ordering room service.

Back with a real post soon enough. But first - apparently the kids want dinner. And there is no room service in my house in Amman. Who knew? January 2nd, and I've turned back into a pumpkin already...

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013 - Good So Far

They say that if there is something you want to do all year long, you should plan to do it in the first few hours of the New Year.

So that is exactly what I did. We had a few good friends over last night, along with all of their kids, and we ate and drank and laughed and talked and who knew New Years could be so much fun?

I think it's safe to say that in the first couple of hours of the New Year, I definitely took care of doing some of the things I want to be doing for the next 365 days. Hanging out in the kitchen, laughing, spending time with friends and family - what could be better?

And today? Well, today we're off to the Dead Sea for the first trip of (hopefully) many this year.

No resolutions to announce today! Just - wishing you all the happiest of years this year. Thanks to you all for reading and laughing and living along with me. I am grateful for you - the blessings in my life.

Please. Write your own stuff.