Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Settling In

We’ve been in Greece now for around 3 weeks, and I think we’re settling in nicely. Jeff has been busy at work. He’s grateful that he has some overlap with the person he's replacing so that he can get up to speed without quite so much pressure.

Alexa and I are doing well. I like our housing, though it has its challenges as always. We estimate that it’s about the same size as our house in Kosovo, but it has a larger number of smaller rooms, and some of the design features make it not quite ideal. For example, there’s no good place in the living room for the TV because of the placement of doors, windows, and a fireplace, so we think we’re going to need to angle it into a corner that will still be a little tight. We’re also lacking wall space that would be suitable for hanging our art pieces, due to windows, doors, tall furniture, and a “special finish” that we aren’t allowed to disturb on the wall above the fireplace. It’s an interesting challenge to say the least, but we’ll figure it out. I’m planning to do a blog post about the house hopefully before too long, but unlike at previous posts, I want to wait until our things are here and set up so that the pictures will show the house as we’ll be living in it rather than as it is before we make it ours.

Our two furry family members have rejoined us. One week ago, Jeff flew back up to Prishtina, where Cleo and Isis had spent the summer with friends and our car had spent the summer in a friend’s driveway. Jeff left Athens on Friday night, overnighted in Istanbul, arrived in Prishtina Saturday morning, and was on the road with the car, the cats, and their stuff by noon. He arrived here around 9 o’clock that night. The cats seem to have adjusted pretty well to being back with us, and we’re happy to have our little family all together again.

Alexa and I each have found a friend. Our next door neighbor grew up in the same state as me, and she has a 4-year-old daughter. The mom has been an invaluable resource for me, taking me to a huge laikey (farmer’s market) and to the supermarket, in addition just to being a fun person to be around. Alexa bonded with the daughter the first time they met—even though Alexa called her simply “the little girl” for the first couple of days until her name stuck—and they enjoy playing together as often as they get the chance. Best of all: they’ve only been here for a couple of months longer than us, so unless something unexpected happens, they’ll be here until just a couple of months before we leave.

I’m slowly figuring out how to cook in Greece. The laikeys are wonderful, with fresh fruits and vegetables. It looks like I’ll finally learn what’s in season when, as options appear and disappear over the year. My neighbor took me to an awesome butcher shop where I was able to stock up on all the beef, chicken, and pork we’ll need for perhaps the next month (we have a good freezer). I still need to explore the supermarkets a bit more—I’ve only been to two, and in neither case did I really have time to go slowly and look at exactly what’s available; I was on a mission each time to get what I needed and get back by a certain time. It does seem, however, that there should be plenty of options here. Once all my kitchen stuff arrives, I should be able to put together good, healthy, familiar meals. Until then, I’m able to feed the family basic meals involving meat, vegetables, and minimal seasonings … and there is a wonderful Android app called “ClickDelivery” that enables us to see English menus and order a huge variety of delicious food to be delivered to our door. Our wallet and waistlines will appreciate the arrival of my slow cooker, though.

Speaking of, we’re hopeful that our stuff will arrive within the next couple of weeks. There were some snafus on the part of the shipping company in Kosovo that delayed our shipment, but those seem to have been worked out now. It has been reaffirmed that they cannot simply put the uncrated boxes in the truck, drive it down, and contract on their own with a company here to deliver those boxes—the boxes accordingly have been placed in lift vans, which will be put on the truck, driven down, and then delivered by a company that’s actually been approved by our security people. Yeah, we're silly like that ... we like to vet the people who have access to our stuff ...

We were able to start school at approximately the same time the international schools here started, though we didn’t get to start all subjects the same week. We had to wait for most of our curriculum to arrive—we have the history curriculum in digital format on the laptop, and we’d ordered history, geography, and literature books to arrive around the same time we did, so we’re on week 3 of our 36-week planned year for History, Geography, Literature, and Bible. We’re on week 2 of Art and Music, and we’re just starting Health, Science, Math, and Language Arts this week. The art and music curricula arrived at the same time as the other books we’d ordered, but I needed to review them a little, and I also didn’t want to add too much at once. Our remaining materials just arrived a few days ago, as we’d purchased them in the States but left them with friends to mail to us here—they wouldn’t fit in our suitcases.

School is going fairly well so far. Alexa is enjoying my literature selections—instead of following any particular curriculum for that, I’m pulling books from multiple reading lists. So far, she has not wanted to read any history books until we got started, and then she was interested. The science books, on the other hand, are a source of great fascination for her, especially the ones about animals. We haven’t officially started our curriculum yet, but that hasn’t stopped us from reading about 10 of our science books already. In addition to science, Alexa has been excited about music and art. She seems to like the math and language arts curricula we’re using, too, although that may be because they’re beginning at a level that’s very basic review for her. I’m hopeful that she’ll keep enjoying them once we hit the new material. I’ll try, in a few more weeks, to do a more comprehensive post about our curriculum choices for this year and how they’re going. I realize that I never did get around to finishing my series about kindergarten curriculum last year.

We're enjoying life in Greece so far. If I can find a way to take language classes (childcare is an issue), I'll enjoy it even more. We're looking forward to connecting with another homeschooling family once they return from vacation later this month. We also have plans to start visiting churches soon. We're settling in, figuring things out, and making connections. We're going to have a good three years here.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Our First Week in Athens

I have learned a few things about myself over the years. One of those things is that I do NOT do well on little sleep or with any type of illness, not even something as simple as the common cold. When I’m tired, I tend to be a little down in the dumps. When I’m exhausted, everything is bad; there is nothing good about anything, anywhere in the world. When I have a cold, I am both exhausted and dealing with the added indignity of not being able to breathe easily or quietly. It is not pretty.

I was unable to sleep on the flight to Athens, and I developed a cold on the plane.

I arrived in Athens primed to hate everything about it. And I did: my house was too dark, the rooms were too small, the split pack air conditioner units were placed inefficiently, the stairs were too steep and too circular, the handrail on said stairs was too high, and don’t even get me started on the ridiculously ineffective European washer and dryer in the basement (okay, fine, the dryer; the washer is actually fine). Luckily, there was no need for me to leave my house for a full day after I arrived, so my hatred was confined to the house while I slept off most of the jet lag. Jeff brought home medicine from the exchange at the embassy, so the cold began to resolve fairly quickly as well.

By the time we’d been in country 48 hours, I was feeling a bit better. That was a mighty good thing, because by then, I’d had to leave my house. We were at the embassy on Wednesday morning, getting photos made for our diplomatic ID cards and going through the in-briefing for newcomers (in which we heard from Human Resources, GSO, and the health unit). I was still a little ambivalent about everything, though I tried to think and act more positively than I was feeling at the time. After a morning at the embassy, I was more than ready to come home and take a nap.

On Thursday, I woke up feeling almost normal. Alexa and I puttered around the house all day, and amazingly, it seemed brighter than the previous days. The rooms were indeed smaller than what we’ve had in the past, but I recognized that they are a workable size. The air conditioners still weren’t placed efficiently (they really aren’t; we may invest in a fan or two next summer), but the stairs felt more manageable (if still steep, circular, and with a shoulder-high handrail). I managed to do two or three loads of laundry, without getting annoyed that the clothes came out "cupboard dry" rather than "ready to be worn dry"; I even recognized that hanging them for the last little bit of drying is going to result in much less ironing for me, and that's never a bad thing.

Thursday evening, Alexa and I headed out to meet Jeff and some of his coworkers. There were TDYers in town (Temporary Duty-ers, here on a short work trip), and they were being taken up to the Acropolis to see the sunset. It was an opportunity too good to miss.

We took the metro to the stop just behind the Acropolis, then walked up and up and up some more to the top of the mountain. When we first came out of the metro, we walked through a shopping area that reminded me of a cleaner, more high-end version of the Khan el Khalili in Cairo, and I made a mental note to check that out when I have a little more time. There continued to be random stalls here and there almost all the way up, though most were clustered at the bottom of the mountain.

After the long walk up, we climbed some stairs and found ourselves on a rocky outcropping. The Acropolis was just one outcropping over. There were amazing views down into Athens. I had not brought my camera, so I had to settle for a few pictures on my phone. I’ll definitely be making the trip again—probably several more times—with a real camera ... and possibly a taxi.

Once the sun had set, we continued walking around and back down the mountain. We stopped for drinks at a wine bar, then went to a local restaurant for a very late dinner. We talked and laughed and all around enjoyed ourselves and the food: Greek salad, fried sardines, roasted pork (or was it lamb?), and some kind of greens. It was very late when we returned home, close to midnight, I think.

The next day, while Jeff got up and went to work, Alexa and I slept until 11am. Just a few hours after we got up, we met up with Jeff and some others at an apartment downtown for a happy hour. It also was a nice time—a great opportunity to get to know some of the other people from Jeff’s office and from around the embassy. We didn’t stay too late, though, as we thought it better to get Alexa back on something resembling a normal sleep-wake pattern.

Yesterday, Saturday, one of the people in Jeff’s office took us to Ikea. It is so incredibly nice to have a resource like Ikea here! We bought several odds and ends that we needed—lidded trash cans for the bathrooms, a soft topper for Lexa’s hard mattress, a new drying rack to pair with that European dryer downstairs. The availability of familiar stores where we can get lots of different needed items from one place (rather than going to several smaller stores) is a definite plus to being in a more developed country.

Today we had intended to go to church, but Jeff woke up with a scratchy throat. He made the executive decision to turn the alarm clock off and go back to sleep to try to get over this quickly. He has all day today to rest, and he can rest tomorrow too, if needed, since it’s Labor Day. We’re hoping to spend at least part of tomorrow walking around with our neighborhood sponsors, though, getting familiar with what’s near our house.

I did have a rocky first couple of days in Greece, thanks to jet lag and illness. I’m thankful that I know myself well enough that even then, in the midst of the “I hate everything” attitude, I recognized it for what it was and knew not to take it too seriously. The last few days have been much better.

I’m pretty confident that we’re going to love living in Greece.

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.