Right Now

Right now I’m

… happy to announce our household goods (HHE) have arrived.  For those who were keeping track, we were without our things for 10 months, the Cairo apartment was packed in September, finally shipped in January, and got to us here in Lima the last week in April.

…still sweating from my morning run to drop the boys at school.  Did I mention my beloved BOB stroller was in our household shipment?  Maybe you’ve heard me speak of it… once or twice… a minute… for ten months?  We are reunited.  And it does feel so good.

… washing dishes and laundry, constantly.  Everything coming out of the boxes is dusty, musty, and gross.

…listening to a Power of Moms podcast marathon – it makes everything go easier.

…packing box after box for the yard sale we’ll be participating in later this season

…not yet ready to put the baby things in that pile.

… tripping over the Thomas trains the boys have been playing with non stop since it same out of the boxes.

… thinking that it was a shame (and expensive) to ship boxes and boxes of expired groceries (mostly canned food) and medicine all the way here.  I went on a huge shopping trip just days before evacuation – we were told to stock up since it may not be safe to go grocery shopping, power may be out, etc.  Little did we know.

… planning where all the art will hang.  It will finally be our home.

… smelling bread baking – my first home made bread in over a year.  It is good to be home.

…inviting you to come visit, friends!

Off to school

ToesThe blog has certainly not reflected how busy we have been around here!  Shortly after moving in, I had to make a few difficult decisions about schools for the boys this year.  The school year here starts in March.  Jack Jr. turns four next week, and that is the starting age of formal schooling here in Peru.

We had very few options, as many schools fill up years in advance, and waiting lists are atrocious.  The American school here will always try to make space for an embassy kid, but it is very far away (and very expensive!)  I really wanted him to have something a little closer to home, and preferable a smaller, more montessori-like school.  My other consideration was spanish.  At the American school, he would have spanish as a second language a few times a week at best, and our hope was that the boys would become fluent in our three years here.

The other option was a “nido”, which is a playgroup/daycare type facility for younger children.  Many of these have phased out the program for four year olds since that age group now goes to schools.  We found one nido that had a program close to our home.  It certainly wasn’t ideal, and I didn’t really like the space much, but some other embassy families used and liked it.  I resigned myself, and bought books (yes, books, for a four and two year old!  For approximately $150!)

At the last minute, we were offered a space for him at another school nearby.  Classes are in english and spanish, and we can walk there.  It is much more structured than I would have liked.  Children get homework, and take exams.  (Again, at four!)  The school supplies lists around here will blow your mind – four tightly spaced typewritten pages with every type of paper – copy paper, toilet paper, tissue paper, to a box of dinosaurs, books, and the inevitable lists of markers, crayons, and pencils.  Shopping for said list without a car, and without spanish has been the bane of my existence since he got in just a few weeks ago.  So far he likes it, and is all smiles at pick up everyday.

Unfortunately, my two year old little guy is now stuck without his brother at nido, and the way he calls for him the whole time is just heartbreaking.  None of his teachers speak any english, so it will be a challenge in the beginning, but emersion is the best way to learn.  (I keep telling myself that when I see their confused little faces.)

While my mommy heart is still not at peace with the decisions we made, we will live with it for the next three years, reevaluating as necessary.  Oh, schooldays.

Do you consider schools when you choose your expat assignments?

2013’s Vital Lessons

In my mind, 2013 will always be known as the year of upheaval and displacement.  We lived in four homes this year, downsized from a large apartment in Cairo to a small apartment in Arlington with only what we brought in our luggage, and then downsized some more into a hotel room in Lima, still with only what fit in our luggage.   We did some things right, we did some things wrong. This is what is vital.

Move in right away:  No matter how long you’ll live somewhere, unpack the boxes (or the suitcases) put up pictures, bring out some cloth napkins, stick the kids’ artwork on the refrigerator.  Do whatever you need to do to make it feel like home.  I’m a huge fan of those fathead type stick-on things.  You can personalize a space, especially for the kids, in minutes, and take it all down and take it with you to the next spot.

Know what you have: Take an inventory of your belongings and update it every single time you toss something or bring something new home.  If you lose everything and have to claim insurance you must know what you had.  In our case, our apartment was packed in our absence.  Many people had access to our belongings and by the time it all gets here,  it will be 8 to 9 months since I last saw it.  Will I know if something is missing?  Only if it is on the pictures we took, or the list I didn’t update as frequently as I should have.  There is another reason to do this.  Our movers claimed we were over our weight allowance.  While I find that hard to believe (I decluttered like a madwoman in Cairo, we didn’t buy very much, plus we used plenty of the consumables we took with us), I can’t argue when I’m not there and don’t have updated records.  It’s costing us $2000 in additional moving expenses.

Kindle and iTunes:  I used to think my Kindle was a nice diversion, but could never replace my favorite books.  You cannot take your entire library with you if you have paper books.  You cannot pack all your CDs in your luggage.  But my Kindle and my iPod came, all of it is backed up online, and just like that I have access to my favorite books and music which makes me feel much more at home anywhere in the world.  Besides, books and CDs weigh a TON – see above.

Emergency fund: We were really diligent about saving my last few paychecks since I didn’t know when or if I would start working again.  I got a job right away, but it didn’t start for several months, and then we were evacuated, and I never started at all.  Evacuation is very  expensive.  It cost thousands of dollars to care for and move pets, pay household help you are no longer using (after all, its not their fault you are out of the country.)  We chose our health insurance based on being overseas and it turned out to be an awful plan for being stateside.  Small necessities add up – a vegetable peeler,  sharp knife, a larger cutting board, a cheese grater, a steamer basket, bath mats and non-slip mats, childproofing locks and latches, command hooks to hang and organize our things in a very small space.  Not to mention all the duplicate items: winter clothes, a double stroller.   I even had to buy duplicate christmas presents for the kids as everything I diligently purchased early is in a shipment somewhere on the ocean.  There are allowances to help with some of these things, but no matter how frugal you are, you will need reserves.

Learn when to say yes. Learn when to say no.  My biggest lesson this year was to accept help.  I even asked for support, and it made a huge difference.  A desperate Facebook message had friends and family from everywhere reaching out immediately.  Even if they can only say they are thinking of you – say yes to that.  Say yes to opportunities to see and do and learn.  Say no to over scheduling.  Say yes to quiet time spent outside.  Always yes to more time with friends.  Always no to pressure to be what you are not.

Don’t take anything for granted: Not people, not opportunities.  We made amazing friends in Cairo.  In fact, I was at a party with many of them when we got the call that we would be leaving in two hours.  I would love another cup of coffee with those friends.  I’ve written elsewhere about the opportunities I missed in Egypt.  It will not happen to me here.  I have a list, and I’m checking it frequently.

Know what’s vital: It’s not the stuff.  It’s not the place.  It’s not “home” however you define it.  All you can really take along are the lessons you learned, the experiences you had, and the love you shared.  My family is safe, and we are all together.  That is what’s vital.

Ordinary Days

blog-6557Jack Jr. is really dealing with our recent move a lot differently than I expected.  Yesterday he repeatedly told me that he wanted to “go home” and I told him that home is where we all are together – same as I always do.  It is no longer enough for him.  When I later asked him what he wanted for Christmas (the answer changes daily and is usually good for a laugh) he responded that he wanted a home where we could have his dog.  Ouch.  It just broke my heart for him.  We are in temporary housing (a hotel actually) until my husband’s office finds us a house, and the dog had to stay with my parents for now since we can’t have her in the hotel.

His little heart reflects my own.  Right now, I’m challenged to find the joys in our daily life.   I know in future I’ll look back at this time with only good memories.  (Oh the blessing of selective amnesia – I always remember the good times.  It’s genetic – blame it on my mom who can never remember that she was angry at someone, or had a challenging time.)

Right now, I would give anything for an ordinary day – cooking a meal, cleaning the kitchen, folding my boys’ little shirts and pants, hanging diapers out to dry, maybe a little sewing, a few beautiful books, our carefully selected art on the walls, the messes of toys that mean my boys are playing around.  Coffee with my friends, ordered in a language I can understand.  These things would probably not have made my wish list just six months ago, but it is a stark reminder to be grateful for ordinary days.

As my Spanish improves, we find a home, bring the pup to live with us, and get back into the daily routine of cooking meals, doing laundry, teaching children, and picking up toys, I know ordinary days will return.  I hope I’ll remember to be grateful for the buzzing of the washer and dryer, the clanking of dishes, easy conversations, and the legos underfoot.

PS Great, and timely, essay on Power of Moms about moving and transitions.  Read it here.

On my own

That first work day is certainly where the rubber meets the road, the men and the mice are separated, and the trailing spouse either finds her way, or finds herself wanting.  The spouse, likely the only one to have received language training, is off to work.  The trailing spouse, me, is left at a hotel knowing no Spanish, and having two small boys to entertain and feed.

Now, before I get the eyerolls over not having learned Spanish as a second language, I’ll clarify that I did learn a second language – English.  I even obtained some fluency in a third, German.

Not knowing what else to do, I loaded the boys into the stroller and went for a walk.  We have found a few public gardens where the boys can collect sticks and leaves, always a favorite pastime, and found a playground at the local McDonalds.  I know, I know, how cliché!  The American’s first day in town and she takes her kids to McDonalds.  Honestly though, it is not McDonalds as you know it.  The pastry case and coffee selection rivals Starbucks.  Besides, it was the one place where I knew enough about the menu that I could get my kids lunch.  Even so, I had no idea about some of the options I was asked about, and was so flustered by the experience that I forgot to order any lunch for myself.  Woops.

I still have not met anyone speaking English.  My husband confirmed this, as even the Americans at the embassy speak Spanish all day.  There is an upside to this: I will be forced to learn fast.  The downside is that I will not be able to find work unless I attain fluency.  Nothing else to say about that.

For those following the travails of my blank advent calendar:  The first three ornaments where two balls (one for each boy) and a candy cane.  I have started hand stitching doodles on the tree and love the way it looks.  It has lead to some changes though – I didn’t care for the machine topstitching I initially used to attach the tree, so I’m replacing it with blind stitches (kinda like attaching binding) as I go.  I also like it so much that I’m less enthused about the cheesy felt ornaments.  There may be another calendar entirely next year.  Hmm.

Pockets and buttons are still missing.  Pockets are a lot more of a pain to do than I first thought – mostly because my initial thoughts involved a rotary cutter, mat, and ruler (all still in a box somewhere on the ocean.)  The ornaments have been handed to the boys by Mommy with great enthusiasm, and then pinned to the tree with more enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm makes up for a lot of shortcomings, no?

I apologize for the quality of pictures.  In the next three years I’ll learn lots about flash photography – the light here is terrible!  Captain Jack claims the sun was out briefly yesterday, but I must have blinked that second.

Anyone have suggestions for natural looking light bulbs?

Regrets, I have a few.

St Georges Cathedral, Coptic Cairo

St Georges Cathedral, Coptic Cairo

We are not returning to Cairo. Our next post will likely be announced in the coming month, but in the meantime, we are here in Arlington, trying to get ready for what comes next, and trying to make peace with the goodbyes we won’t get to say.

There are so many things we didn’t get to do while we were there. “We are here for three years” we’d say. “We can come back.” When seeing things I wanted: “I want to shop around first,” I’d say. Except that I will never get the Bedouin tent for the kids, or the brass table with the folding wooden legs. Or the metalwork lamps I wanted made into a chandelier. Maybe we could go back to Cairo some day, but it won’t be soon, I’m sure.

I’ll miss my Cairo friends, I’ll miss my beautiful apartment. I never got to the Egyptian Museum, or the Dashur pyramids. My husband never even got to go to the Giza pyramids with the boys – I took them on a weekday.

Future expats, pay attention. Here’s some things I did wrong, and I’m telling you so you don’t make my mistakes.

  • It took me a long time to make friends. I didn’t go to the baby groups or the coffee mornings because I was working. I should have taken advantage of my flexible schedule more often. When I finally started making friends I met the most incredible group of women you can imagine. They became my tribe, and made hardship easier, fun funnier, and life better all around.
  • I didn’t explore the city. Cairo has much to offer, but I was always nervous going places by myself. I should have taken advantage of more opportunities with local groups, or even arranged tour guides on my own instead of waiting for my husband to have more free time. Be a tourist in your city. And don’t wait until the month before you leave.
  • Buyer’s remorse is real. And for a deliberate shopper like me, the regret is almost always that I didn’t buy. If you see something unique, don’t wait. You don’t know that you’ll be back or that it will still be there when you come back.
  • I didn’t share our experiences here in this space. I always thought I would have a chance to show you the amazing things we saw and experienced. Luckily, I keep a journal, and this is one regret I can still fix. I’ll do a few “retroactive” Egypt posts for your reading and viewing pleasure.

I’m trying to learn my lessons and enjoy our time here in DC as a tourist in the city where I lived for 10 years. And for our next assignment, I’m making a bucket list and will start checking that list the minute we are wheels down.

Now is real, now is today, and ultimately now is all we have. Carpe diem friends.