Tuesday, June 30, 2009

vay cay shun

The first week of summer vacation is always bliss. No alarm clock, no homework. The days are long. You can read a book in two days, bike to the pool by yourself, eat too many secret M&Ms, and stay up late playing gin rummy with your sister. And then the second week of summer vacation comes and you regret to admit that you miss a little routine.

I need an alarm clock. This, in no particular order, was my day (so far):

Itsy Bitsy Chocolate Chip Cookies. I find a recipe and beat it to death. Today, spooning the half teaspoon balls of dough on the cookie sheet, and sprinkling each with the smallest pinch of sugar, I thought about meth addicts cooking a batch in a trailer. I think this needs to be my last run of Itsy Bitsy Wonderfully Delicious Dangerously Addictive Chocolate Chip Cookies for awhile. Okay, at least a week.

Putzed out nine miles on the treadmill while listening to a Sister Chicks book on CD my mom recommended. I did rachet up the last three miles to finish in the 7:20s.

Thought about what I could be doing with my time. Writing letters to people. Emails at the very least. Starting a Facebook account. Not sure I can commit to that yet.

Wished my online order from Eddie Bauer would hurry up and arrive. My sister Jo and I picked out a bunch of tops for our mom to try and Mom went along with all of this. So when the package arrives it'll be a "fashion show, fashion show, fashion show at lunch!" to borrow a line from Kelly Kapoor.

Snuggled with Claire. What a honey. When she wakes up from a nap she docile and tucks her head into my shoulder. Once she's fully awake, she's all over the place. Twisty turny baby with her fingers reaching for everything just beyond her reach - but finding plenty to grab and chew.

Also made googly eyes with Claire and funny noises and enjoyed nursing my baby. Fed her a few bites of bananas and was happy enough she didn't throw them up immediately. Perhaps the key is to not mash them to the consistency of snot.

Made dinner with my sister Grace. Baked potatoes with bacon (gonna miss that in a few months) and sharp cheddar, sour cream. Mm. I rub the potatoe skins with olive oil and salt before baking. Fabulous. The asparagus turned out perfect too. Grace made chocolate pudding for dessert but that didn't quite set so Ellie and Ruth made the best of it by drinking dessert through a straw.

Laughed when I walked into the upstairs bath to find one of the sinks full of water and two plastic fish bobbing. That is one reason I like to have little siblings to come home to in the summers.

Started another short story I am going to make myself finish. For once it isn't remotely autobiographical and I'm not rewriting the same old same old. I'll let you know how it goes.

Checked out laptops online. I get a new one this summer. My own. This will be my writing laptop. It's time to type some of my work. Eeps. (Of course, it'll probably also be my procrastinating laptop. Spider solataire, anyone?) So when looking at the options, the most important factor was quite naturally the color. Deep violet is most appealing right now. Hm.

Played one and a half games of Bananagrams with Grace and was proud that I managed ambidextrous in one of the rounds. Justin and I joke about raising Claire to be ambidextrous. Can you do that?

Did a grocery run for milk, icecream, peaches and avocados. You know, the necessities. Tomorrow Grace and I are going to make tortilla soup for dinner - if the avocados are ripe. I about passed out at the price of a single avocado here.

Well, I didn't wake up to an alarm clock but I guess I did get quite a bit done today. Not bad, not bad. Tomorrow it's an alarm clock wake up for a run in the early morning. That is the plan, my friends.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

reverse reverse!

I am back in Wisconsin. Our travel day last Friday was long. The Thursday night before, we said goodbye to Patricia and her two girls and several of our good friends and so I spent most of the later night crying and trying to fall asleep and thinking this can't really be the best way to spend your last night in Colombia. Sleepless and sad. I caught two or three hours and woke up at quarter to four to head to the airport.

I'll spare you our last DAS emigration checkpoint saga. The supervisor recognized me from my trip back in May. For once, my Spanish didn't fail me and there were no wrinkled brows or raised voices. That made things easier but I was still one of the last to board the plane. Love it, love it.

Our second flight from Miami to Chicago was delayed and delayed again and then circled above Chicago for twenty or thirty minutes before diverting to land in Indianapolis to wait out the weather on the ground. I am not scared of flying but I started to feel nervous when people around me began to say things like, "Wow. I've been flying twenty years and I've never been in such terrible turbulence." It was a roller coaster up there, all the belly flipflops and lightening flashes. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and thought about angels and God. Claire slept through it all. Lucky.

Returning to your own country is sometimes more difficult than living in another culture. I've read about reverse culture shock and last summer felt it in a big way. My first week home last summer was not much fun: we met my in-laws in Ottawa and Justin and I both felt the stress of waiting for past conflicts to surface with them. We wandered around a little dazed by North America. It's a very weird feeling to look at all the choices and convenience and feel a little sick.

Reverse culture shock hasn't hit yet this summer. Perhaps because I was back in the States in February and again in May before moving back for the summer. Or maybe because my sister and her husband drove up from Texas for a week's visit so we've been busy chatting and playing marathon card games and - currently in progress - a rather aggressive game of Monopoly. (I don't play Monopoly. At some point - likely when my sister and I set up a game on our bedroom floor that lasted a week and included trading sticker collections when paper money ran out - I burned out on the game). So far, a wonderful time home.

P.S. I've been married four years today! Wow. We woke up this morning and talked about what the first four years brought us and what the next four might have in store. Great day. I love my husband.

Friday, June 19, 2009

dispatch from colombia

Last post from Colombia. For awhile at least.

Luggage is packed and waiting in the van. Claire and I are off to the airport.

These two years have been an adventure. Thank you, Colombia.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

in case you get too sappy

Try closing your bank account. And then try canceling your internet service. And then, for the sheer enjoyment of another line to stand in for twenty or thirty minutes, get something (anything) notarized.

We left school early with another couple to close our accounts. We arrived at the Ciudad Jardin branch of Banco de Occidente to close our savings accounts. We arrived at 11:33 in the morning. The bank closes from 11:30 until 2 in the afternoon for lunch. I want a lunch like that. I stuck my toe against the glass door the security gaurd was trying to close. He kept pushing. I moved my foot. No exceptions for gringos.

So we thought: early lunch at one of my favorite spots for mango y maracuya juice. Antonina's. We walked there and looked up, started laughing. The restaurant wasn't just closed. It wasn't even there anymore. A Cafe Mulato will be moving in soon.

This story gets long. Too long. We took a cab to Unicentro. I got my Antonina's fix and Josh and Kristy got their McDonalds fix and Justin, stomach roiling, ate his PB&J. Unicentro has a Banco de Occidente and we thought: Awesome. Close the accounts. We couldn't do that because our accounts weren't originally opened with that branch. We all started count the ways. As a consolation prize, the banker wrote out each of our account balances. Little pieces of paper to throw away. He tried.

Back to Ciudad Jardin, kissing that front entrance at two when the gaurd smiled. Now you may enter. Closing the accounts took about forty-five minutes. And we left before Josh and Kristy.

On to Unitel/Uniweb/UniAggravation. The woman at the desk was a battle ax. I don't think I've been that rudely judgemental about people here before but this lady was having none of our halting Spanish and typed letter explaining that we wanted to cancel our internet service. Our last bill wasn't printed so we couldn't actually pay it yet. Tomorrow it would be ready. Right. This is only a problem because Bolivar requires proof of cancellation of services and proof of last payments before they'll give you your last paycheck. See how this works on a tight timeline?

Battle Ax asked for copies of Justin's cedula. We returned with those. Still no last bill. I called our secretary at school to beg translation. I thought perhaps Battle Ax didn't quite understand our predicament. She refused - actually refused - to speak with our secretary, even after I explained that it was only for translation. No hoodwinking. I began tearing up, trying for the umpteenth (okay, fourth or fifth) time to explain: We need to cancel our service. We need to pay our bill. She started writing up a bill by hand which seemed a bit suspect, charging us four hundred thousand pesos to terminate our contract. That's about two hundred dollars.

A young man stood up to help us. At this point, Battle Ax was still writing out a factura that probably would have netted three hundred thousand pesos for her own pocket. Young Man spoke fluent English and properly commiserated with Justin about the backwardness of several business practices here in Colombia. Bemoaned the lack of customer service. Yada yada. He and his mother were there to cancel their service too. Wonder if it cost them four hundred thousand pesos.

Following those forty minutes of getting nothing down - unless you count renewing your misplaced rage at a lousy internet service - we stood in another line to get a document notarized. This document (and cedula copies!) says that I can take Claire out of the country on Friday. By myself.

That's right. Claire and I get another shot at the Cali Miami Chicago journey. Justin will come home sometime next week. That's another longshort story.

In the end: I get sappy and this drops in my lap. Say chao to paperwork and Battle Ax and lines.

Who am I kidding? I'll get paperwork and Battle Axes and lines in the Middle East too. I'll get paperwork and Battle Axes and lines until I learn to be calm about paperwork and Battle Axes and lines. Gak. I need a long life.

Monday, June 15, 2009

ugly beautiful possibility

During these past few days I've been thinking about why this goodbye is difficult. Colombia is ugly beautiful. Beautiful ugly. Both at once and sometimes neither one more than the other. I have been frustrated and angry and hurt here. But I have been full of joy and peace here. I have continued to learn contentment and pursue the gift of just being present.

I have grown up in this country. Our first months here were questions and hope. There was doubt and fear and the sense that this life we'd chosen: it was terrifying and perfect. Terrifying because we'd taken a leap and left comfort and expectation in Wisconsin. And perfect for those same reasons. We needed that leap.

"I could have carved a nice rut," Justin told me once, of our jobs and life in Wisconsin.

But we weren't made to carve ruts. So we came to Colombia. And we just didn't know what would happen next. We didn't know that we'd meet people who would show us patience and how to live more fully one day after another. We didn't know the things we'd be able to do: navigate the language, take a bus to another town, hike to a coffee plantation, run with the buses, bike trails in the foothills of the Andes, rest in a hammock, sit in a city square older than our own nation.

We found new confidence here. In our own selves and in each other. I was able to let go a lot of little insecurities and be kind to myself, appreciate my gifts. I started to see a much bigger picture of this world and the ways in which we overlap. I forgave sins mistakes regrets that I'd been unable to free myself from before. I began to heal from a sharp hurt that was buried deep. Justin and I both continued to explore and strengthen our faith. And when I watched my husband grow too, I was amazed. I loved seeing him open here. His enthusiasm was childlike exploration: he built a hummingbird feeder from soda bottles; he bought plants for our apartment and later grew tomatoes and basil in pots outside our front door; he biked further than ever before, came home muddy and beat and happy. For someone who hadn't considered living abroad before hearing my dream of it, he was often the one to jump when I hesitated: speaking imperfect Spanish, but actually speaking it; making our travel plans for weekends and breaks.

And Colombia is where we became mama and papa. We found an even greater love for each other in those fast months that followed Claire's birth.

In two years here, we began to see the possibilities, the shapes our life together might take tomorrow, ten years from tomorrow. And maybe that is what I've fallen in love with, even more than Colombia herself: all our own possibility. Not just waiting to happen but happening now. And that understanding is a very beautiful part of our time here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

friday five: one week one week one week

1. School's out for summer! The end of the school year here feels like two weeks of please-return-your-books-and-make-sure-you-study-for-your-final-and-no-they-aren't-graded-yet. Our school has turned the end of the school year into an incredible process: in April, seniors take their exams; then in May, seniors go on "special schedule" before presenting their projects before finally graduating; underclassmen have finals broken up by a weekend and the last week of school is interrupted by a no student day when all the teachers from each grade level talk about who is failing. I picture stretching a wad of silly putty to see how far before it whisper breaks. On the last day, students wander in packs, waiting for final bell.

2. Paperwork! The end of the school year for teachers means gobs of paperwork to get initialed by a variety of administrative assistants and administrators. We all zigzag around campus and report to each other: someone saw Robin by the cafeteria, Matt's in his office. Quick, quick, with your pens! Teachers have another three days on campus so we've got plenty of time to get signed.

3. Bag addict. Yesterday we wandered aimlessly around Unicentro after a (short!) trip to the notoria for rubber stamps and signatures so that our boxes can (finally) be shipped back to the States. I kept wandering into stores to pick up handbags that I don't really need, unzipping and zipping, touching cloth and leather, judging color. And then I got home and looked up bags online to compare the inflated prices to what it might cost in the States. Justin gave me a look. "It's cheaper than buying," I said. Except, I want to buy. What I don't need. Gak.

4. Friends. Chatting with friends. I spent a good chunk of my day at school talking with friends I won't see for awhile once we leave next week. Really enjoyed the visits. Good people here and I will miss them very much.

5. I'm up to number 37 of my Colombia 101 List, scraps of my two years here. Here's number 19, one the new imports were all baffled by last year: The Colombian mullet. On men and women. On teenage boys, for soccer idols - and a braided rattail behind the ear. On women, I don't know why. I don't know why. They believe in the layer here and girls with thick tresses sometimes thin them out to a lousy mullet. Long shaggy mullets. I got one in January when an overzealous stylist couldn't add enough layers. I chopped it to a bob in Boston and vowed not to get so much as a trim until I return to the States. And number 14: The first time I said something in Spanish at Exito [a store here], a few days after arriving. Asking about Chilean red wine. "Vino tinto de Chile." And the lady understood me. Justin and I looked at each other and the bottle of wine now in my hands. "I just impressed myself," I said.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

mama article

I read a lot. I'm a magazine junkie. Lucky for me a lot of magazines post their articles online. Here is one I read recently: "Let the Kid Be" by Lisa Belkin in the 31 May 2009 NYTimes Sunday Magazine.

"Let the Kid Be" made me feel a much better parent since Belkin's premise is stated in the title of her opinion piece. Having a baby seems so much different than having a kid but even so - I spent a tired month thinking that I had to be right in front of Claire singing and talking and making faces when she was awake. The entire time she was awake. That's nuts. My mom soothed my conscience. "You spent a lot of time by yourself when you were a baby," she told me. And then I wondered: would I be more spastic or better spoken if my mother had constantly jabbered at me when I was a captive baby audience?

Probably more spastic. And we don't need that.

And to clarify: Claire doesn't crawl through the rooms chewing on electric cords and nibbling at my Birkenstocks (though she tries every chance she gets). I read books to her. I sing to her. I tickle and coo and lay on the floor with her. But I also take joy in letting her be. One of my favorite things to do is watch her when she doesn't know I'm watching just to see what she finds interesting.

Belkin gives a short walk through parenting trends through the ages before wondering if refusing to overparent is just another trend. She briefly mentions "feelings of competition and inadequacy" related to being a parent today. This caught my attention because I've had a few conversations with expats here about parenting, starting around the time Hanna Rosin wrote "The Case Against Breastfeeding" for the April issue of The Atlantic. I won't jump on my soapbox except to say that I think most moms and dads have the sense and intuition to be great moms and dads. But I also think that sense and intuition sometimes whisper something counter to the current culture.

Okay. Soapbox. My sophomores read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. At one point in the book the narrator, a freshman named Melinda, almost cries because her parents bought her art supplies for Christmas. Because they actually noticed that she enjoyed art. The rest of Melinda's relationship with her parents is full of holes: they work long hours, don't say much to each other or to her, don't understand what is going on in Melinda's life. And my class started talking about time. Spending time with mom and dad. So I asked them if they wished they could spend more time with their own parents. All but one raised their hands. The girl who kept her hand down is always helping out at one of her family's restaurants. She gets plenty of mom and dad time. We laughed about that. But then I asked if they would give up expensive gifts - stuff - to spend more time with their parents. If their dad came home an hour or two early once a week to hang out with them, what would that be worth? No Diesel jeans? No Swatch? And the majority of my sophomores said they'd make that swap.

Made me sad. "Go tell your parents," I said and a few of them laughed.

"What would they say?" I said.

"That it's ridiculous," one of my students replied.

So looking at Claire and letting her be while still aiming to very much be here for her, I think that there is much more to this parenting life than pumping breastmilk and buying the right board books. Much more than filling a schedule with playdates, music lessons, and soccer practice. And remembering what my sophomores wish for, I hope I'm not ever too wrapped up in me to make time for the much more.

Friday, June 5, 2009

friday five: riding the rollercoaster

1. Last weekend we went to Marty and Ilsa's for a fabulous dinner. You know it's going to be fabulous when there is a deep fryer built into the kitchen island. They also had two little puppies. Claire size puppies.Then she fell asleep in a hammock while the rest of us watched the city lights.2. Yesterday I felt like the worst mama, the worst wife, the worst friend, the worst teacher, the worst worst. There wasn't anything that set that off, really. Just one of those awful days when you still answer "Fine" to "How are you?" Although I've been saying "Okay" when I feel like garbage because choking out a "Fine" seems too close to lying.

3. Gripe. That's greeep-ay. And I'm at the end of a week with it. Saturday at Marty and Ilsa's I could feel my head filling with snot and I came home, crashed, and staggered through Sunday, pushed through Monday, almost died Tuesday, and pulled it together for yesterday and today. At least my ears have stopped ringing and Dr. Roman assures me that I'll know gripe is on its last leg when I start coughing. I've hacked a bit today. So maybe tomorrow it'll be much, much better. Probably not, but maybe.

4. Graduation! My seniors are graduating tomorrow morning. We're going to the commencement but passing on the all night party at the club. Seriously, the party starts at eleven Saturday night and they serve breakfast at five Sunday morning. I was going to go but then realized: there will be eight hundred people there and I just learned today that there will be no open bar and, more importantly, no free food. I joked with another teacher whose daughter is graduating tomorrow that if I woke up at two in the morning, I might just make my way to the club.

5. Two weeks from today we leave! And I'm starting to get excited about Kuwait! Not much but a little! And if I keep punctuating everything with exclamation points, it seems wonderful! Really, though, I am in the mood to close a chapter.

There's a writing exercise I enjoy called 101. You make a list of 101 whatever: places you want to travel, foods you love, movies you've watched, childhood memories, dreams you've had. You can go anywhere with it. But 101 is tough because you usually sail along until you hit the thirties and by the sixties you're running dry. So you end up exploring ideas in different ways or wiggling your definitions and often it's in the last twenty or thirty items on your list that you mine bits of gold.

When we were getting ready to move to Colombia, I started two 101 lists. 101 Things I'll Miss and 101 Things I Won't Miss - about Wisconsin, our town, our school. Wow. So that's my weekend project. Get a start on my Colombia 101. Get things down before the details get murky. I'll share excerpts here.

Sneak peak of something I'll miss: We have a gigantic flowering bush outside our front door. The blooms are all wilty and peachy and remind me of women who have never had dirt under their fingernails.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

things that could go wrong

Last night was the third night in a row that a mosquito enjoyed a feast on the wrong side of our net. I do not know how that happens. Yesterday I awoke to a welt on my forehead. So last night after I felt tiny stings dotting my arm, we turned the lamp on and checked every inch of the net. I killed one, an empty. No blood. But I had bites up my right arm. That meant there was another, the one who got away. In the middle of the night, silly ideas seem reasonable.

"Look under the bed," I said, "Maybe they're breeding. See if there is any shallow water."

Justin looked at me - a split second of are you serious? - and then dangled his torso over the edge of the bed. He sat up. "In that corner," he pointed to my side at the foot of the bed, "the net does not touch the floor."

"Oh, come on." I had half expected a report of a piano bar with a card game.

He shrugged. He rolled over and turned the lamp off, fell asleep.

I laid awake. I closed my eyes and thought of all the things that could go wrong. In the middle of the night, these are fun things to count.

Yesterday the shipping company came to our apartment to weigh and measure seven boxes of our stuff. We wrote my parents' address and phone number on the tops and sides of the boxes. We wrote "O'Hare" on them. I made sure that Jose was going to affix proper labels so that the boxes go to O'Hare first. We'll pick them up there when our flight arrives. I didn't want to be charged hundreds of dollars more for an accidental delivery to Wisconsin. My parents' address and phone number is probably futile anyway since if any box is actually lost it likely isn't lost at all and no call will be made and all our stuff will make its way to a side street market. Then a man smaller than me maneuvered all the crates onto the truck while I watched.

So I thought about our stuff. I thought about Justin's bike, prayed that it wouldn't get mangled in the shipping. It's an expensive mountain bike but more than that, on his rides he's explored a lot of Colombia most people never see if they just visit. In a taxi out to Marty and Ilsa's last Saturday, Justin pointed to various hills and distand cell towers. "I've been there. And there," he said. So the bike is a vehicle of memories too.

And I thought about dengue fever, fingering the fresh welts on my arms and shoulders, the bump on my forehead. I used to have this view of God as this entity who would pile tragedy on my life and sit back to see if I could take it like Job. I used to think of what I didn't want and then figured that was probably what God wanted for me. Rather bleak. Missing promise. So last night I laid there thinking Of course I'll get dengue. What else could possibly happen in my last two weeks in Colombia. Oh yeah, we could get mugged. That hasn't happened yet either.

Although our apartment has been robbed. Maybe that counts.

So I laid there listening to my husband and daughter breathe deep sleep breaths and I had this bleak vision of God and my life and a list of unknowns as long as my welted arm. And then I remembered something Justin and I talked about while I was fixing dinner.

"I hope our stuff gets there," I said.

"Yeah." Justin was holding Claire, getting ready to give her a bath.

"You know, I was just looking for that red bowl when I remembered it was packed, gone," I said, "And I just realized I can live without it."

"I was thinking about that too," Justin said, "while they were loading the truck. What we can live without."

We talked about keeping a loose hold on stuff. Maybe it's this lifestyle - moving and traveling internationally - that we can see our family enjoying for another five or ten years that brings the understanding: it's just stuff. Boxes get lost. Luggage doesn't arrive. We can live with that. Two years ago when we were preparing to move abroad, I felt almost euphoric dropping box after box at Goodwill. I felt lighter. But it's easy to get heavy again. That's when you have to load all your stuff on a truck and sign a paper Jose gives you and realize that if you never see those boxes again, it'll be okay.

Our conversation dived a little darker. Transatlantic flights disappear. We talked about the Air France tragedy and all the grieving families. What we'd do if we were on a plane about to crash. I know that sounds morbid. It is. But here is what we know now: if we were together knowing our last moments, we'd look at each other and love each other and hold our baby and let this life go. We cannot hold this frail life we have too tightly. It is a gift and, for our time, one to enjoy.

And when I finally fell asleep, it was knowing that.