It’s New Year’s Eve, Will is finally down for a nap. Here’s a quick recap of the top 12 highlights from this past year. It’s been a busy one. Hat tip to Donna over at Email from the Embassy for the inspiration.
1. In January we returned from our trip to Thailand with Will and Chris’ family and I learned some valuable lessons about parenting overseas.
2. Just a few weeks later, we took our lessons learned with us to Tokyo where we ate ourselves silly in what we both remember to be one of our favorite weekend trips ever.
3. After two years in China, we said goodbye in April to our adopted hometown of Chengdu. We still miss the food, a lot.
4. After a 2.5 hour flight to Shanghai (with delays), a 13.5 hour flight to Chicago, followed immediately by a 4.5 hour drive from Chicago to my parents’ home in Wisconsin we found ourselves back in America. We spent the next two weeks flying across the country, driving to and from between Charlottesville, D.C. and New York and then finally settled into our temporary quarters in Rosslyn to spend a summer readjusting to America and hosting friends and family all summer long.
5. I wrote a series of expat lessons learned from our first posting overseas. I wrote a tour guide for Rosslyn–America’s other premier tourist destination. We took Will for his first trip to the zoo. And later, his second.
8. In India, we’ve visited tombs, food markets and flower markets and taken photo walks around Old Delhi. When I shared my frustrations finding a kid-friendly social circle in Delhi, the wisdom and empathy and experiences all poured in from you, dear readers. I’ve been following your proactive examples every since!
9. We visited friends in Bangkok and ate non-stop for three days.
11. We went to Goa for Christmas where, among other things, we received the creepiest towel sculpture in the entire world (Those are my glasses and my sons pajamas). More photos and thoughts from Christmas to come (if anyone even reads about Christmas after New Years??).
Oops that’s only 11. Oh well, here’s hoping that New Year’s Eve is especially fun and memorable!
Two weeks ago, after one of her post-graduate classes, she and a male friend boarded what they thought was a commuter bus to head home. The girl was brutally gang-raped by the men on the bus. Brutal is not a strong enough word for it, not when the men, after taking their turns with her, savagely mutilated her internal organs with an iron rod and then used it to beat her male companion before leaving them both for dead on the side of a highway.
The fact that she lived for two more weeks is something a miracle. The fact that this sort of thing happens daily, perhaps even hourly in India is unspeakable.
For the past two weeks, Delhi has raged, protested, rioted. Roads have closed, metro stations closed, friends have been tear-gassed, the out-of-touch have offered platitudes and formed “committees,” they say we should forgive and forget.
There should be no forgetting.
Thank goodness for the young people here who have protested, shouted, lit candles and stood their ground. They are the bright, shining beacon of hope in all of this.
On a less downer note, how about a few photos from the weekend?
Self-portraiture outside Delhi’s finest (well, and only) Turkish cafe. It’s a real shame that most of my friends are either preggo or otherwise non-coffee drinkers. The petite little cups of Turkish coffee are sublime. As in I just about sat speechless for a moment after each small sip.
The semolina and honey cake is also delicious…and the baklava…and the little phyllo rolls filled with crushed walnuts…I think my new motto should be: “Bid Istanbul 2014.”
A few more shots from Qutub Minar.
Delhi is our second land-locked post in a row but INA market carries fresh seafood flown or trucked up daily from Mumbai. It’s only safe to buy the amazing looking catch-of-the-day during the winter months (for most of the year the fish spoil before they reach the market) so we are taking advantage of the cooler temperatures right now.
Every time I go to INA, I buy a cup of chai from the chai walla I met on my early morning photo walk there a few months ago. Now I have another regular treat: spicy potato-stuffed paratha. The men shaping the dough, stirring the slurry of potatoes and flipping the hot bread with their bare hands get a kick out of Will and I coming by to say hi and buy paratha every week or so and they finally had a chance to meet Chris this last weekend. The paratha-makers actually run a proper restaurant across the alleyway as well and one of these days I hope to have time enough to go in and try it.
It’s a common site here in Delhi, and across India to turn down a somewhat desolate side road and find oneself surrounded on all sides by drying laundry: towels and bed sheets and uniforms from the nearby hotels draped by the hundreds over makeshift clothes lines and patches of tall grass.
Just a few photos from the car ride home yesterday:
This is the industrial park we drive through on my way out to the factory/school/NGO I volunteer with. With the sun reflecting off of all of the concrete and grey gravel this is almost precisely what it looks like:
The kids, of course, all wanted their photos taken when I visited the school. I’m saving most of those shots to print and frame and give to their parents at some point in the future, but I thought I’d share just one photo from yesterday:
How are you doing?
The kitchen is our place of refuge and rejuvenation. You’ll often find us there hovering over the stove, washing dishes or simply sitting together, waiting for bread to bake, on the thick checkered Tibetan rug we put into the middle of the room for exactly that purpose. It’s where we go when we’re content and happy, and where we go when the world doesn’t make sense.
I hadn’t considered our kitchen as a refuge until I reflected on this past weekend. We found out about the shootings in Connecticut on our way home from the market on Saturday morning and it was Sunday night before we left the kitchen long enough for the dishes to dry. I roasted sweet potatoes and made black butter while Chris labored over a seafood stock. I made bread, Chris made fried rice. We baked gingerbread dutch babies for Sunday morning breakfast. Our comfort foods.
I don’t know what to say that hasn’t been said or that wouldn’t make me want to bolt into Will’s room right now, pull him out of his crib and hold him in my arms, breathing in his every exhale, until morning. No one should ever have better access to assault rifles than to whatever level of support, therapy or supervision they personally require. No child should fear being gunned down in their classroom with a weapon originally designed for use in combat.
Yesterday I was back out on the outskirts of Delhi doing a few meetings and taking photos at a school in a waste pickers’ slum. Thinking of the kids in Connecticut and then hanging out with a group of hungry kids for whom their school–with its dirt floors and no electricity, is the nicest building they know–well it’s a lot to consider.
On the way home yesterday afternoon we passed fields of mustard flowers in bloom and I asked our driver to pull over. He found a space off the road about an 1/8 of a mile away from the field and I tore out of the back seat and ran down the road to take a few photos of the flowers.
Afterwards he reprimanded me a little, asking me why I didn’t ask him to turn around and go back instead of running to the field myself. “Ma’am he said, with real concern on his face, “this is not a good area, that’s not safe. Please don’t do that again.”
Oh how I wanted to tell him that no, I–a grown woman with strong legs and a heavy camera lens was safe in broad daylight–it seemed to be every child around me who wasn’t.
Less downer-ness and more photos coming soon…as well as that sourdough post I promised.
In that same way you can feel a prickly scratchiness at the back of your throat before a raging fever sets in, I can feel the prickly ugliness of a little bit of culture shock beginning to cast a shadow on this stage of our time here.
I’m feeling two different kinds of culture shock really, towards both India and, as a friend here calls it, the “cruise ship” lifestyle of living on an embassy compound.
I hate to really complain about these things because–for every leering, innuendo-spewing pervert in Delhi, I know at least four or five wonderful men who’ve helped me with my stroller, held open a door, or simply said “Hello” in the most respectful and kindly way. For that one horrific incident we had in Lodhi Garden a few weeks ago where a woman, shouting and snarling, tried to grab Will out of my arms over and over until her husband intervened and Will was shaking in terror, we’ve had dozens and dozens of kind people since then nod understandingly as Will bursts into tears whenever anyone so much as tries to stroke his cheek.
And for as much as it sometimes feels like a social gauntlet to exchange greetings with at least 25 gardeners, sweepers, guard, nannies and neighbors every time we step out our front door, it’s also an incredibly nurturing environment for Will to toddle around in, knowing that everyone he meets will smile and wave every single time they see him–even if it’s the 16th time that day. I miss “real India” living here with so few markets, stores and restaurants within walking distance, but it is so very nice to come home to great neighbors, quiet green lawns and a home where the generator faithfully kicks in 5 seconds after every power failure.
I can’t deny though that this week I’ve begun to think about where we might go next instead of simply relishing our short two years here.
My instinct, when the culture shock is just starting to kick in is to retreat, to hibernate, to stay at home where its comfortable and easy and where I can very nearly pretend I’m not in India at all.
I’m learning though that this is often, paradoxically, the absolute worst thing I can do to cope. As isolated and “Americanized” as our lives are here, the more that I cling to all things familiar, the more jarring the foreignness becomes.
And after awhile a certain amount of inertia can take hold. The longer a person stays at home and avoids going out into the city, the more insurmountable the challenges seem and the harder it gets to simply pack a bag, hail a taxi and just go somewhere.
So, with these things in mind, I asked our driver if he’d mind a few hours of early morning overtime pay, woke Will up before the crack of dawn, hustled him into his car seat, blew off warnings of unseasonal morning showers and away we went to Qutub Minar. I’d been wanting to visit for months and today seemed as good a day as any to do it.
The things that can be annoying about our India experience were still present–the touts, the baby-cheek-pinchers, the men talking about me as they huddled just over my shoulder and refused to budge. But these things that can be so maddening when they take place on a quick shopping trip, or during what should be a routine trip to the park, are always overshadowed by the magnitude of the experience when we’re out visiting someplace new.
I had hoped to catch Delhi’s beautiful sunrise over the ruins and get home before rush hour traffic took over the city. With lingering rain clouds hovering over the site, we at least did well on our second goal. By 9am we were back in New Delhi and I realized we had time for another culture-shock-busting secret: when in doubt, indulge in what you love about where you live.
If it’s the sites, go sight-seeing. If its the shopping, go shop. If it’s the food, go eat. If its that one place on the edge of town that is half-way pretty if you squint your eyes and pretend not to notice the sewer smell, go there.
As for me, I like food. I particularly like South-Indian dosas–a treat that’s hard to find here in Delhi, especially if you want it done right.
I can’t say that I know where to find the absolute best dosa in Delhi yet but I’ll tell you this, the coffee shop at the Taj Ambassador by Khan Market is an excellent cure for culture shock. I could buy 20 dosas in Chennai for the $10 I pay for a cup of chai and a dosa and 30% in taxes at the Taj, but the wafer-thin dosa and the spicy sambar and the kitschy old-world atmosphere of that sunny little cafe make the indulgence worth it And it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a plane ticket home.
We’re back home on the “cruise ship” now, but I don’t feel quite so prickly as I did before we got out this morning. I’m sure I’ll have my moments again very soon, but for now, owing mostly to an especially good dosa, the worst of the culture shock has been momentarily averted.
How do you deal with creeping culture shock?
Pssst. I did a guest-post for one of my favorite expat bloggers, Wanderlustress, over at World Moms Blog this week. Click over to check it out. Also, want to read a really, really long post on making sourdough bread at home? I’ll post my recipe and tips later this weekend.
It’s become a cliche to rattle off a list of relatively minor disappointments and then cover for it with a #firstworldproblems hash tag. A self-deprecating shorthand for acknowledging one’s blessings while apologizing for feeling anything but grateful and happy for them.
Gratitude–yes gratitude is important, but in a world that celebrates busy, rewards perfection and worships the pursuit of happiness only after it’s already been accomplished, I sometimes forget to value the alternatives to happy.
Pollyanna I may sometimes–annoyingly–be; but my favorite authors and artists aren’t the ones who write only about sunshine and rainbows and I’m no detachment-seeking acetic.
I was reminded of this yesterday, our first truly down-tempo day in a long time. A day with no comittments, no deadlines and no audience of either family, friends or staff to witness my every move and my every reaction.
I felt grumpy and uncharacteristically exasperated–with everything: a frustrating day at work for Chris. A teething, feverish, cranky toddler. An unexpectedly gloomy, rainy day in perennially sunny Delhi. A cancelled trip to Jama Majsid and an aborted attempt to go for chai and dosa on account of the teething short one. The beginning of the descent into the culture shock U. Having to cancel the Christmas surprise I’d planned for Chris–which would have been our first real date out in eons and last chance before family comes to town for the next 3 months. Embarking on a new project and realizing how horribly ill-suited I am for the work.
I realized though, at some point between Will face-planting into a puddle of pigeon-poop and me accidentally covering the kitchen floor in microscopic shards of glass from a broken vase, that perhaps it wasn’t so much that I was having a bad day, but instead that I needed–very much–to have one. I needed a short break from happy, from striving to be the most cheerful, well-adjusted person in the fish bowl.
I like busy. I like to-do lists. I like my work-like obligations, I like entertaining and cooking and having family and friends over and staying up late at night to pour over the photos I’ve taken from our adventures around town.
But there is an anesthetic quality to being busy all the time and the price I pay for moving constantly is a certain superficiality of both thought and emotion. As any mother, any parent, anyone who’s moving, working, striving every waking hour of the day knows–which is to say, most people–it’s difficult to truly think or reflect deeply, on either “first world” or “real” problems, when you’re falling asleep every time you have the chance to sit still.
Tuesday I crossed nothing off my to-do list, I ate far too many leftover cappuccino cheesecake bars. I bickered with my sweet husband (who empathetically indulged me). Instead of spending every spare minute busy with chores and commitments after Will went down for his nap, I read and I thought.
Frustration teaches. Disappointment begets inspiration. Sadness sparks creativity and occasionally taking a day to feel really miserable can sometimes be more pleasurable and even more productive than forcing good cheer.
Fulfillment isn’t a state of constant happiness. It’s a mix of whichever healthy emotional experiences will bring both the most joy and the most growth at the same time.
Tuesday was a day filled not with joy but instead with, ahem, “growth” (to put it rather euphemistically). But there’s nothing like a bad day or a few #firstworldproblems to recharge and feel grateful for those days when the sun is shining and happiness is so easy to come by.
Every year I open my small, solitary box of Christmas decorations and think “this year I’m going to actually go out and buy some real decorations that I really love.”
But every year, I manage to find a few bits of ribbons leftover from last year’s gifts and a few ornaments and Santa figurines from Chris and I’s childhoods to repurpose. I arrange our strands of lights so that the burnt-out patches aren’t so noticeable and I put my son’s construction paper to good use. I use a few yards of random fabrics, still waiting for their dates with my sewing machine, to cover up eyesores like 1960’s era air-conditioning units and transform them instead into a mantle for presents.
I buy flowers in red and white and light candles. This year I put out a few Christmas books on the coffee table and put Will’s Christmas photos from last year up for display (don’t even ask me how I”ll manage to get him to sit still for anything half as angelic this year).
Having grown up on a steady Christmas diet of real trees and piney needles and aromas reaching into every corner of our home, I have yet to bring myself to buy an artificial tree. Perhaps because the ones for sale that come anywhere near the majesty of a real, live tree also come with some serious sticker-shock. Or perhaps because this Northern Wisconsin-gal hasn’t quite made peace with the fact that it’s been 4 years since I’ve seen a white Christmas.
We skipped having a tree for our entire tour in Chengdu, but who throws a holiday party without a tree in the living room for ambiance? Well, ok, I’m sure quite a-many people, but not me. I needed a tree this year.
The artificial Christmas tree market here in New Delhi is certainly for the sellers. It’s illegal to cut down real Christmas trees and prices for flimsy, plastic 4 foot tall trees in Khan Market soar far higher than I’m willing to pay. INA offers slightly cheaper prices and more options, but the bulk of the vendors won’t get their trees in until the 10th of December. I needed something sooner and, quite honestly, something alive.
Which is how we ended up with a trio of potted shrubs, tied together with ribbon, and topped with as many ornaments as their flimsy limbs could handle–precisely half a dozen, if anyone’s curious.
For height, I arranged the clay pots in Will’s water table and covered the whole thing with an old, stained tablecloth.
The reviews have been mixed. The kids tell me it’s not a “real” Christmas tree. Their parents, after a slight pause, call it “creative.” As for us, I rather like our funny little tree and the fact that the pots can be dismantled and the shrubs left to grow in the yard after the holidays…to ensure an even bigger, better “tree” for next year.
And so, once again, I have yet to buy a single new Christmas decoration, but it seems that maybe having the cute Land of Nod gingerbread pillows and all of the amazing modern garlands on Etsy isn’t the end-all be-all of holiday cheer that I always think it will be. With a few evergreen candles burning and the magical glow from a few strands of lights in a dark room, I guess I can hold off again on my Christmas decoration buying-spree until next year.
We threw a party yesterday–an afternoon cocktail party of sorts…at which no one drank cocktails and half a dozen babies congregated underneath the dining room table.
I was worried no one would come. I’m was also irrationally afraid of running out of food. And of being awkward.
Lots and lots of people came and I’m sure I was a little awkward, but we most certainly did not run out of food.
Then again, had all of our 35-odd guests been professional linebackers instead of seemingly normal people with a diabolical gift for healthy portion control, we would have still been sending everyone home with bags of cookies and plates of cake. I made way too much food.
This was my first time throwing a party for that many people and it was something of an obsessive, Herculean task getting all of the details right–or as close to right as I am capable– the food, the music , the drinks, kids’ cookie-decorating table etc. It was a ton of work, but a ton of fun.
I also learned a few things:
1. No need to make two kinds of gingerbread. Grown ups and toddlers alike devoured the super spicy “grown-up” gingerbread and barely touched the more mild (but still delicious) orange-scented version.
2. The dish people raved about the most was the most after-thought of a dish for me to make. I’ve been making two loaves of sourdough bread every week since we lived in Chengdu. Feeding the starter, kneading the dough and baking bread is an almost subconscious part of my weekly routine. For the party I just added some walnuts and dried cherries and put a fresh-from-the-oven loaf out on the table with a dish of soft butter. Before I knew it, everyone was gathered around that corner of the table.
3. Homemade crackers taste lightyears better than store bought ones. They may, however, be a total waste to serve at a party because:
a) no one will believe you that you made them yourself; and so
b) no one will bother trying them because–why eat a store-bought cracker when there is so much else to eat on the table.
I’d be more broken up about it if I weren’t so happy to have leftovers.
4. Why decorate 100 cookies when you can decorate 1 cake instead?
The dessert I spent the most number of hours preparing, baking, decorating and agonizing over: the 100+ deliciously buttery sugar cookies with delicate almond royal icing.
The dessert everyone else spent the most time oohing and ahhing over: the 14-inch tall layer cake that took almost no time to throw together and that I was convinced would fall over mid-party.
5. Homemade apple cider from real apples is a great party trick (but you better have a cheesecloth to strain it with or the process will take you far, far longer than you ever thought possible).
We’re taking it easy today to eat leftovers and recover from all of the hustle and bustle of the last few days. Will be back soon though with more food-talk and hopefully very soon, more photos from around Delhi.