Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Belated Farewell to Kosovo

We left Kosovo three months ago. Because I was a bit overwhelmed with preparations and goodbyes, even more so than usual when we leave one of our temporary homes, I neglected to write my traditional goodbye post. I have to admit, too, as we wait in the Washington, DC, area for final approvals to leave for Greece, that I am at a loss as to what to say in farewell to Kosovo.

Of all the posts where we’ve lived, Kosovo felt the most like home. The climate felt familiar, with its four distinct seasons. The housing to which we were assigned felt like a spacious American townhome—bigger and in many ways nicer than what we’re likely to find in our price range in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and with more stairs than your typical American home, but welcoming and comfortable. The people spoke a different language (or two), but most Kosovans oozed with a love for America that would have fit right in with my childhood community. Although my friends in Kosovo were from a variety of national backgrounds, our shared faith and our shared role of “mother” (I met most of them at a Christian Moms of Preschoolers group) gave us so many points of commonality that any cultural differences faded rather quickly into the background. I even recognized most of the items for sale at the supermarket, though usually not the brands. When asked about the differences between Kosovo and the United States, I often replied that I was sure they existed, but that after my time in Cambodia and Egypt, coming to Kosovo felt like coming home—there were so many more similarities than differences that I had to force myself to notice the differences.

Of course it wasn’t all easy. There were days when I felt foreign and tired of all the differences, when I just wanted to understand what the people and the signs were saying without having to consult Google. There were days when I missed the more strictly enforced building codes of the United States or the availability of a wider variety of fresher produce in American grocery stores. There were days when I simply thought that my life would be easier in America, forgetting that there are tradeoffs to every country and to every lifestyle.

As we left Kosovo, I found myself wondering if, after the sum total of three overseas assignments, I’d become jaded enough not to be so affected by saying goodbye. However, the reality is that I’d already said goodbye well before I left.

I’d said goodbye to friends who left before I did, for summer home assignments and fundraising trips, and who wouldn’t return until after my departure. I’d said goodbye to a friend who’d recently returned from home assignment with the announcement of an unexpected decision to settle affairs in Kosovo and then return home permanently. A full year prior, I’d said goodbye to most of my friends from the embassy, and then I’d said goodbye to the stragglers who were leaving a month before or after me.

My goodbyes in Kosovo were lots of small moments, spread out over time, rather than a lot of goodbyes occurring in a very short time like I’d experienced when I left Egypt and Cambodia. I said each goodbye individually, with time to feel it, to mourn each and every loss. It was a long, nagging sadness that still resonates but that largely resolved itself as it happened, rather than one big wound that left a gaping hole to be filled.

I’ve come to believe that that’s why I had such a hard time writing a goodbye post to Kosovo. It felt redundant. Now that I understand what happened and why I felt as I did, however, I’m better able to see—and to feel—that all those small goodbyes to the individuals who made Kosovo what it was for me do not equal a goodbye to the country of Kosovo.

The country of Kosovo is much more than the sum of its expats, as much as they shaped my experience there. The country of Kosovo is a country of contradictions: mountains and plains, summer heat and winter cold. Muslims who love America and Christians who (to put it mildly) don’t—as well as Muslims who don’t and Christians who do. Ancient mosques and modern libraries. Urban centers and rural villages. Warm and friendly people whose faces turn hard and cold at the thought of those who were on the other side of that disturbingly recent war.

I'm not certain that I ever really got to know Kosovo, to understand it beyond surface level. Whether I did or didn't, though, my time there is done. I have no more chances to unravel the contradictions, to work my way into its soul or to allow it to work its way into mine. I will remember my time in Kosovo with fondness, but now it's time—past time—to say goodbye.
Thank you, Kosovo, for welcoming me. Thank you, Kosovo, for nourishing me. And thank you, Kosovo, for releasing me.

Goodbye, Kosovo.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The In-Between

We are entering a season of In-Between.

People ask me if I’m ready to leave Kosovo, for my time here to end. My answer confuses even me: “I’d be happy to stay in Kosovo for another year. I like it here. But we aren’t staying; we’re leaving. So I’m ready to go. I’m tired of preparing to leave; I just want to leave already.”

I’m tired of preparing to leave. I’m tired of not knowing if this is the last time I’ll see this particular friend or visit this particular restaurant. I’m tired of hearing of newcomers arriving and shrugging my shoulders and saying, “If they need anything, I’m happy to help—but they’ll be better off hanging out and making friends with people who don’t have one foot on the plane.” My body and my stuff are still here, but my heart is in the process of disconnecting and my head is already gone. I am no longer fully here but not yet fully gone. I’m In-Between.

In roughly three weeks, this part of the In-Between will be over, and we’ll move into the next phase. We’ll be done with the mental preparation and on to the real, tangible sign of our impending move: packout. Our stuff will disappear into boxes and crates. We’ll have one week of living in our house that is no longer our home, with no pictures on the wall, no beloved treasures to remind us of past homes or adventures, no imprint of our family on this house. Alexa will play only with the five toys we allow her to take in her suitcase, I will cook only with borrowed pots and pans, and we will eat only off borrowed dishes. I’m glad we’ll have only one week of that this time—the time after packout is by far my least favorite time at any post. The empty house is not a symbol of possibility and anticipation like it is at the beginning of our time at post; instead, it’s a symbol of endings and loss. After the end, but before the beginning: the In-Between.

Then we’ll be in the most easily recognized In-Between: in between posts. No longer living in Kosovo, not yet living in Greece, just visiting in the United States. Wanderers who can answer the question “Where are you staying?” but not “Where do you live?” Don’t get me wrong; it should be a good summer. We have plans about which we’re excited—attending our first homeschool convention, going on a cruise with friends, renting a townhouse not far from our extended family. It will be a good summer. It’s probably the part of the In-Between that we’ll enjoy most. But it will be a summer of cramming in as much America, as much family, as much time with friends as we can, because it won’t last. It’s only In-Between.

The final stages of the In-Between will be in Greece. Hopefully they’ll be in our “permanent” housing (as much as any housing is permanent in this nomadic lifestyle), though they may be in temporary housing if our assigned quarters aren’t available yet. We’ll be back in an empty house, but this time, the emptiness will be waiting to be filled rather than waiting to be abandoned. We’ll start learning our new neighborhood, our new community, our new language. Eventually the boxes and crates will arrive and be unpacked. Our new house will become our new home. The In-Between will end, at least for a while, and we’ll be home again.

The Ending that is becoming the In-Between will lead to the new Beginning, which eventually will transition into another Ending.

It's a common experience. We all go through changes that include Endings, In-Betweens, and finally, new Beginnings. During these bittersweet times, we mourn the old and anticipate the new. Everyone experiences it as they make life's great transitions: from child to adult, from student to worker, single to married, childless to parent, worker to retiree.

The Foreign Service lifestyle, however, puts this rhythm on an endless loop and hits the fast-forward button. One of the great sacrifices of the Foreign Service lifestyle is the frequent mourning as we say goodbye; one of the great beauties is the frequent anticipation of new adventures, new experiences, and new friends. The In-Between is the transition between and intermingling of the two. Because the Endings and Beginnings happen so frequently in the Foreign Service, sometimes it seems that we live perpetually in the In-Between, that we just barely make it out of the Beginning before the End is back, and so the only part we experience fully is the In-Between. We don't have time to settle, to live, to abide in the comfort—or in the tedium—that we establish during the Beginning, because it so quickly becomes time to dismantle it all for the Ending. Life never becomes routine, at least not for long.

It's perfect for those who crave variety. It's difficult for those who crave stability. I am one of those who craves stability—but at the same time, I also love the adventure and variety of this lifestyle. I am beginning to recognize that I need to satisfy my need for stability not in long periods of time in one place, settled in and comfortable, but in the predictable pattern, the rhythm, the ebb and flow of hellos and goodbyes: the In-Between. 

I need to accept that I live, always, in the In-Between. It is my home, as much as any house ever will be. I need to put pictures on its walls, carpets on its floors, and memory-keepers on its shelves. At times it's more noticeable than at others, but the In-Between is always there. I need to create my stability in routines and traditions that hold up well in all the phases of transition—in the Ending, in the Beginning, and in the In-Between: Friday night pizza, daily devotions with my daughter, evening cups of tea. We need to take the advice I've seen on several expat blogs and create traditions around the Endings and the Beginnings, traditions that create stability, no matter if we're in Egypt or Cambodia or Kosovo or Greece.

I was wrong. The In-Between is not a season we're entering: it's the life we live.

Welcome to the In-Between.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Catching Up

We are almost 5 months into 2015 now … and I haven’t written a single blog post this year. Pathetic, I know. Rather than explaining and justifying and apologizing, let’s just catch up, shall we?

January started off with a bang—we’re in Kosovo: the New Year is celebrated with countless not-so-mini family fireworks displays. I continued enjoying our last true winter for the next few years, while Jeff continued looking forward to its end. (I can’t blame him; he has to drive in the snow and ice, whereas I stay home and enjoy the winter wonderland.)

Toward the end of January, we finally made it out to Gadime Cave, not too far from Prishtina. The Community Liaison Office organized a trip. We decided not to go with the large group—caves plus large groups equals lots of echoing noise, which would not be a great introduction to caves for our sensitive girl—but we did take advantage of the reservation to go a little early with a smaller group. It can be difficult at times to know when the cave will be open, so this opportunity was not to be missed. It was a great morning! The caves were much larger than we anticipated, and Alexa loved exploring them. She didn’t even notice that she also was learning, as she asked question after question about the cave, its features, and the life it contains. I found myself wishing I had an age-appropriate book about caves that we could have read before or after the trip. I’m hoping to correct that oversight and then find another fun cave to explore with her within the next few months.

We spent most of February in the United States. We traveled to Washington, DC, for some appointments and to see some friends. Unfortunately, we only saw about half of the friends we wanted to see—as we landed, my ears grew pillows where my ear drums should be; the next morning, my ears were better but my sinuses were awful, and it only got worse from there. I became so congested that my entire face hurt, even my teeth! After a week, I gave in and went to an urgent care doctor, because I was afraid of what would happen if I flew again 10 days later without treatment. I was diagnosed with a sinus infection and a double ear infection. The antibiotics started helping immediately, so I felt much better for the rest of the trip, but we’d already missed out on visits with a few friends. We hope to see those friends this summer instead.

We arrived back in Kosovo on schedule in late February, but a week later, Alexa and I were back on a plane. There was a medical situation back home with a close family member, and my help was needed. Jeff was needed at work, especially since he’d just returned, so he remained in Kosovo. I am thankful that the medical situation was not as bad as it easily could have been, and my family member seems to have made almost a full recovery. Alexa and I spent our time in the United States helping with everyday tasks and transportation, but we also were able to do fun “America” things like celebrate my sister-in-law’s RN pinning, go to my niece’s football soccer games, and entertain random passersby with Alexa’s TCK questions and comments (for example, “Does everybody in America know the name of that store is Wal-Mart?” and “Why is there more than one McDonald’s?”). We returned to Kosovo just after Jeff’s birthday, at the end of March.

After our second return to Kosovo this year, I realized just how close we are to the end of our time here. I spent a few days getting over jet lag, then dove in and finally started preparing for packout. So far, we’ve rid ourselves of almost all of Alexa’s baby clothes, most of our “we severely overestimated how much Kleenex we’d use” consumables, and several bags of my ill-fitting or unflattering clothes. We’ve sold the elliptical machine for which we expect to have no room in Greece, and we’ve made arrangements to sell our second vehicle once we can get the paperwork in order. I’ve organized several full drawers of small items into labelled gallon-sized Ziploc bags. Now I need to start focusing heavily on my list-making, which has been sadly neglected due to all the travel earlier this year. We’re leaving in less than a month, and I’ve never been so far behind on my preparations.

At some point during and between all these other activities, we completed the Sonlight P4/5 preK curriculum. We ended up dropping a couple of workbooks that were too advanced for Alexa at the time, and there’s still one book in which she has shown no interest whatsoever. I left that book in South Carolina back in March, assuming we could try it again this summer and see if she’s interested then. She’s still working through her Mathematical Reasoning workbook, which she does not do every day—but when she does do it, she wants to keep going and often does 10 or more pages! That is quite the change from when I required her to do it daily, when she resisted and often did no more than 2 pages. We intend to continue working through this book over the summer until it’s done, as well as continuing to “play” Reading Eggs and Math Seeds. I’ll have to do another post about our plans for homeschool next year, as I never finished that series, and we’ve changed our plans for language arts. 

That’s for another time, though.

Right now I have some lists to make.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Our Year in Ornaments: 2014 Edition

It’s that time again—the week after Christmas Day but before New Year’s. The time when we reflect on the year that is about to end. The time when we make plans and goals and resolutions for the year that is about to begin. The time when, as longtime readers know, I write about our little family’s participation in a tradition begun many years ago: The Ornie Competition.

Jeff and I have participated in this competition every year since our marriage in 2006 (though I didn’t begin the blog until 2008, and even since then there has been one year in which I did not blog about our ornaments). We have included Alexa every year since her birth in 2010.

This year was no different—we participated. Yet, this year was different—two of the three of us had a very hard time deciding what ornament best represented our year, or indeed, what theme the ornament should represent at all.

Let’s start with the easy one, shall we? Alexa’s ornament was so easy to pick out this year that she picked it without ever thinking about the competition or her year or anything other than her love for and excitement over it.

Alexa's 2014 Ornament: Disney Cruise Ship

It was September, and we were on our R&R: a 14-night transatlantic Disney cruise, aboard the Disney Magic. We planned this R&R almost a year in advance, and Jeff started talking it up to our timid girl right about the time the flowers started to grow in the spring. She was excited from the first time he mentioned it. She spent the spring and summer talking about meeting Mickey Mouse and his friends, looking at pictures of the Magic’s Oceaneer Club online, and convincing herself that she wanted to experience all the ship has to offer—including the parts that were offered to her alone, in the kids-only zone, without the security of Mama or Daddy’s presence.

On the very first night of the cruise, we visited one of the onboard stores. We’d heard from veteran cruisers that the good stuff sells out quickly and that it was wise to hit the stores on day one, as soon as they opened. As we looked around, I saw a small display of Christmas ornaments. My mind immediately went to the Ornie Competition, so I called Alexa over “just” to show her—and she immediately exclaimed that she wanted one. She picked out a relatively realistic depiction of the Disney Wonder, the Magic’s sister ship. As there was no Magic ornament, I was thrilled with her choice. We bought two—one for our Christmas tree, and one to leave with my mother-in-law as Alexa’s ornament for 2014.

The rest of the cruise did not disappoint. I have intended to write a blog post gushing about how amazing the cruise was, about the friendliness and dedication of the cast and crew, the beauty of the ship, the comfort of the cabin, the extreme deliciousness of the food, the stellar performances that were the shows, the fun and interesting people we met, the relaxation of temporarily forgetting the world outside the ship … but life has happened, and I never wrote that post. Rest assured, however, that Alexa has not forgotten the cruise: it inspired many of her requests for Christmas gifts, it provided the “happy thoughts” upon which she relies as she falls asleep to avoid nightmares, and it has spurred countless askings of the question “When will we go on our next cruise?”

It is safe to say that although Alexa’s (and Jeff’s and my) first Disney cruise lasted only 14 nights, it has been the theme for her entire year: excitedly anticipating it, thoroughly enjoying it, and longing for a repeat of it. She picked the perfect ornament to represent her year, and she did it without even trying.

Jeff's 2014 Ornament: Chewbacca

Jeff’s ornament was a bit more difficult to pick out this year. It was not because he couldn’t decide what theme he wanted to represent—it was because he wasn’t allowed to steal Alexa’s ornament. As he conscientiously prepared Alexa for the cruise, as he showed her pictures of the kids club, as he talked up the opportunity to meet the characters, as he introduced her to the idea of playing in the pools and going down the water slides (well, the one slide for which she was tall enough), he built the anticipation for himself as well as for her. When the time came to leave for the airport, to leave the hotel for the port in Barcelona, and finally to board the ship for the first time, he was as excited as she was. After a day or two onboard, he told me that he hadn’t realized just how much he needed that vacation, that time away from work, that ability to relax and have fun for an extended time, without being on call, without knowing that he had to be back in the office in a day or two. He anticipates our next Disney cruise as eagerly as Alexa does. Unfortunately, however, he could not simply point at Alexa’s  ornament and say “That one. Me, too.” He had to pick a different one.

He settled on Chewbacca. Chewie, as Jeff affectionately calls him, is a more subtle representation of the cruise than the ship would have been, but in my opinion, he represents Jeff’s year more fully. Disney recently purchased the Star Wars franchise, so despite Chewie’s absence from the ship, he now is a representative of Disney … as Alexa puts it, “Chewbacca works for Mickey now.” In addition to the Disney tie-in, though, Chewbacca represents hard work, and strength, and the provision of protection, things that represent my husband’s personality in general and this year in particular.

Deborah's 2014 Ornament: School Time

I am the loner in the family this year—the only one who did not even consider the cruise as a theme for my year. Although I thoroughly enjoyed it, heartily recommend Disney cruises to anyone and everyone, and am excitedly anticipating our next Disney cruise, I refrained from getting excited about it until just before we left. I allowed Jeff to do the preparatory work with Alexa, and he did all the planning for the trip in general—the flight and hotel reservations, the car rental arrangements for the week we spent in the United States afterward, finding and joining the Facebook group dedicated to the cruise. He did all that. I did not become emotionally invested in the cruise until a week or two before we left. I was too overwhelmed with what really defined my year: school.

We finished up Alexa’s preschool year in the spring, then began almost immediately working through the curriculum for pre-kindergarten. We schooled year-round because I knew we’d be taking a long break for R&R and a shorter one for Christmas, and I also knew that we need to be done with her preK year by mid-April 2015, before our lives get hectic with next year’s move. While working through her current curriculum, I also busied myself researching and making plans for her next curriculum—the one we’ll begin for kindergarten in fall 2015. I knew that I did not want to continue with Sonlight; I knew that I did want to purchase or create a classical curriculum; and I knew that I will have no time for researching curriculum during the most typical planning time—the spring and summer before the curriculum is used. So my attention was divided among teaching Alexa for preK, planning for Alexa’s kindergarten year, and fitting in my regular household tasks as I could.

Luckily, preK was mostly about reading quality books aloud, but there also have been some workbooks: math and handwriting (both of which Alexa loves), the preK Explode the Code phonics series (which she does not love), critical thinking (which Alexa loved until we finished the age-appropriate book and the next one was too advanced for her), and the Developing the EarlyLearner series (a mixed bag of activities—some loved, some hated, and all put aside for now since they’ve progressed to the point of being too difficult for her). I also began teaching Alexa to read, using The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading, which has been shelved temporarily in favor of a subscription to the online Reading Eggs program.

Throughout the year, there have been times when I was excited to “do school” and teach Alexa new and wonderful things, times when she was excited to do school and learn new and wonderful things, a few blessed times when we both were excited, and too many times when neither of us was excited. Thus, this ornament with an excited-for-school Chip and a less than enthusiastic Dale seemed like a good fit … and the nod to Disney does help my ornament fit in with Jeff’s and Alexa’s, as well. And I did really enjoy the cruise.

In our family, it was a Disney kind of year, though there also was plenty of hard work. Next year promises to hold new adventures, with all the stresses, joys, and uncertainties that tag along with any new endeavor. One thing is for certain, though: next year, we will NOT be schooling year round!