Friday, December 30, 2011

Our Year in Ornaments

Malya's Laughter, 2009, Deborah

 I’ve mentioned before that Jeff and I, upon our marriage, joined with his mother and her husband’s family in their tradition of an annual Christmas Ornament Competition. Here’s how it works: each member of the family picks an ornament that represents his or her year, then presents it to the group. The three judges (chosen by the patriarch, my mother-in-law’s husband) then come to a consensus on who had the best ornament, which often means who had the best story. Ornaments can be purchased or made, usually with extra points from the judges for homemade ornaments. Jeff won the competition the first year we participated with his U. S. Constitution, representing why he works for the U. S. Government; I won the third year with my home-made pyramid that represented our move to Egypt, with each side containing a picture of a different significant event in that year. This year, Jeff won again.

Cairo Traffic, 2008, Jeff
I have to admit, my competitive nature does ensure my interest in the results of the competition. But my main interest in this tradition is the memories. At the beginning of the year, I rarely have any idea what the year will bring or what ornament possibly could represent an entire year of my life. But the knowledge of the ornament competition prompts me to pay attention to the year, to look for repeated themes, to be more present in my own life. By late summer, I usually have an idea of the theme that I want the ornament to represent. Then, just as soon as Hallmark and American Greetings start to bring out their ornaments, I’m online, searching away for that perfect one that will capture my year. I love the idea of having these ornaments years from now, looking back and saying “That one’s from the year I volunteered at the orphanage! The first time I heard Malya laugh, she was standing behind me pulling my hair, just like the little bear is standing behind the big one” or “That’s the one Jeff got to commemorate the traffic he put up with every day in Cairo!” I view these ornaments as memory keepers, and each of them is special. I even try hard to pick one for Alexa that represents my best guess of what the year was like for her—although next year, probably she’ll want to pick her own, and it will be “The horse represents my year because I want a pony!” *sigh*

Anyway, without further ado, I present the ornaments that best represent Jeff’s, Alexa’s, and my life this year …

Jeff's 2011 Ornament
Jeff’s ornament is a saddle. That’s right—a saddle, like what you put on a horse when you ride it. He said it’s because this year has been the wildest ride of his life. All things considered, that’s saying something. It started back in January. On 25 January, to be precise. When the Egyptian people began the protests that turned into the uprising that turned into the Revolution that toppled Mubarak from power. The Revolution that caused the American embassy in Cairo to do what we never, in a million years, would have thought we’d have to do: evacuate. Jeff was the only member of our family, one of the few members of the embassy community, who did not evacuate. He spent three months at the embassy with his officemates, the security personnel, and a very few other embassy employees, with much of the time spent under severe movement restrictions because of security concerns. Once that stressful time was ended, he had a month of me frantically trying to get ready for our packout. Then a month of constantly going all over the place, introducing his replacement—his best friend—and his wife to all our favorite places. Then a week in a 1-bedroom hotel suite in the Washington, DC, area, with his wife, his child, two cats, and six huge suitcases’ worth of stuff. Then the summer with all of that, plus a little more stuff, in a bedroom at his mother-in-law’s house, with two short side trips. Then a month in a 2-bedroom hotel suite (we learned our lesson!) in the DC area, while our departure was delayed time after time. Then, finally, a trans-American, trans-Pacific flight to his new home, with the last three months or so spent adapting to new coworkers, a new language, a new culture, and a wife who couldn’t seem to remember how to cook. A wild ride, indeed! It’s no wonder Jeff won this year’s competition.

Deborah's 2011 Ornament

My ornament is an airplane made out of Legos. At first glance, you’d think: “Oh, well, she did fly from Egypt to the States alone with an almost-seven-month-old, then from the States back to Egypt alone with an almost-ten-month-old. Then she flew with her husband, an almost-one-year-old, and two cats back to the States. While in the States, there were road trips and a flight to Arizona and back. Then she flew from Baltimore to California to Japan to Bangkok to Phnom Penh. An airplane fits her year pretty well!” But you’d only have half the story. The truth is, I was looking for an ornament to represent homelessness. Because that’s how I felt this year. I was in my home in Egypt, when suddenly I wasn’t. Then I was in my home (my mother’s home, the one in which I grew up) in South Carolina, except that it wasn’t my home anymore. I was in exile from my home, the home I shared with my husband. Then I was in my home, the one I shared with my husband, except that it was painfully clear that it wasn’t really my home because I couldn’t stay there—I had to get ready to leave. Then I was in a series of temporary homes—a hotel, my mom’s house (I am grateful for the hospitality, Mom, and I hope you realize that it doesn’t reflect on you that it just isn’t my home anymore!), a second hotel during a road trip, a third hotel during the same trip, a friend’s house, back to my mom’s house, my mother-in-law’s house, my mom’s house, then back to the first hotel. Finally I was in my new home … except that it in no way felt like home yet. Other than the first month of this year, I’ve felt like a homeless vagabond, a wanderer, with no place that was really mine. But I could find no ornaments that depicted homeless people. So I started looking for one that had something to do with homelessness, maybe one that would benefit homeless people. That’s when I found my ornament. I purchased it online from a family that makes and sells Lego ornaments every year and uses the proceeds to benefit their local homeless population. This year’s profits were going to buy blankets for a local homeless shelter. That’s the full story of my ornament—homelessness plus endless travel equals a Lego airplane.

Alexa's 2011 Ornament

Alexa’s ornament was purchased from either American Greetings or Hallmark. It’s a silver key, with the words “New Home” inscribed on the handle. Like mine, it makes sense at first glance: “Oh, she just moved to Cambodia, so she has a new home.” But that doesn’t represent the entire year. You have to remember, infants are not so much aware of the concept of “future.”  For them, there’s right now, and maybe, just maybe, some inkling that there used to be something different. But whatever there is right now is, in their minds, what always will be. So Alexa did not, and maybe still does not, fully comprehend the concept of “temporary.” Every time we moved, even though Jeff and I knew it was temporary, it was a new home for her. She had a home in Egypt with Mama and Daddy and her two kitties. Then she had a home in South Carolina with Mama, Grandma, Uncle Mike-Mike, and Aunt Kay-Kay, with other family members nearby, but Daddy was just a face and voice on the computer screen, and the kitties were gone. Then she had a home in Egypt again with Mama and Daddy and her two kitties. Then in a cramped hotel suite. Then at Grandma’s house, with Mike-Mike, Kay-Kay, and her other relatives again. Then in a hotel with just Mama and Daddy, but near Great Dee. Then a hotel with just Mama and Daddy. Then at Daddy’s friends’ house, but she didn’t like that home, because she was sick there. Then back to Grandma’s. Then she had another home at her other Grandma’s house. But then she was back to the South Carolina Grandma. And then she had a home in a hotel again, with Mama and Daddy and the cats. And then there was the long trip, in airplanes so similar that she could be forgiven for thinking that it was just one plane, and that it was her home now. And finally, she had a home in a big house with Mama, Daddy, and the kitties, and then her new friend Miing (the polite form of address for children to use with Khmer adults, referring in this case to our housekeeper) started coming over a lot. So how many new homes is that? I lost count! Her entire year was a series of new homes, so a “New Home” ornament seemed perfect for her.

There you have it—our year in ornaments. I think others who were in Cairo at the start of the Revolution will agree that the experiences we all had there and during the evacuation shaped our experience of the year 2011 in ways we did not anticipate. Even now, as I communicate with others who were in Cairo then but who are not there now, a pattern is emerging: many of us seem to be having an especially difficult time settling into our new lives, wherever in the world we are, and the difficulty seems to be positively correlated with how much we enjoyed our time in Cairo and negatively correlated with the amount of time we had in Cairo after the evacuation. In our family, our Christmas ornaments certainly reflect the reality of the Revolution, the evacuation, and a scheduled departure from post that prevented us from settling back into our lives in Egypt and, in our case, prevented us from settling anywhere until the year was almost over. These ornaments perfectly represent our chaotic lives in 2011.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas in Cambodia

Our Nativity
I really did not intend for it to be a full month between posts … but this is what happens when life gets busy, and my life—just like everyone else’s—has gotten very busy in the last month. First our shipment arrived, so my house was crammed with boxes that needed to be unpacked. Then, we still had boxes, but I’d unearthed the Christmas decorations and wanted to put up at least a few. And there was the menu planning, gift ordering, shopping, and finally cooking. But this post is not about the crazy busy month of December—it’s about our first Christmas in Cambodia.

Christmas was much better than Thanksgiving! When Thanksgiving approached, I was so overwhelmed with just getting through general life here that I didn’t have the energy to plan for Thanksgiving. After Thanksgiving, I made Christmas planning a priority (although there were a couple of weeks when I was focused mostly on ridding my house of as many boxes as possible!).

Our stockings--the cats' are on the other side
In the past, we've done a very simple Christmas dinner--meatloaf and mac'n'cheese, Jeff's favorite meal. But I actually make that fairly often, at least I did before we moved here, and the beef available here isn't that good. I think I've found a new source that should have better beef, so maybe it'll get good again, but so far, my experience has been that Cambodia ruins meatloaf. So I asked Jeff if he preferred meatloaf or a more traditional Christmas menu, and we decided to go with traditional. I planned the menu for Christmas dinner within just a few days of Thanksgiving, then made the ingredient list. 

Our cat-proof tree

Based on the recommendations of several people, I ordered a smoked ham from Dan Meats, which imports meat from Australia and is the go-to place for cooked hams and turkeys. Most of the other ingredients looked to be available here or were already in my kitchen (a big thanks to my friend who read the Thanksgiving post, realized that canned pumpkin can be shipped APO, and sent me some!), with the exception of sweetened condensed milk, which I could not find in any of the three supermarkets I tried. That was very strange, as Jeff reported that Cambodians actually use the stuff to sweeten their coffee, but I looked high and low and everywhere in between, and I must have just missed it. In all three stores. (Let me just add here ... I miss the commissary!) I found a substitution recipe online and thought that I had everything I needed for that, but it turns out that I didn’t have baking powder. On Christmas Eve, as I was ready to make the pumpkin pie but realized that I was missing the one ingredient (either sweetened condensed milk, or the baking powder for the substitute), Jeff offered to go to the corner store near our house to see if they had it. Sure enough, they did—not the baking powder, either; they had the sweetened condensed milk! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Earlier this month, we took time out to take Alexa to the children’s Christmas breakfast, thrown by the embassy and hosted at the Ambassador’s residence. It was a good morning. There was a large garden where Alexa and the other children could run and play with several toys that had been put out for them, and a large driveway where they could ride the wagons and scooters that also were provided. We feasted on pancakes, French toast, fruit, chocolate chip muffins, and other goodies (including, of course, the coffee that the adults required and the juice that the kids preferred). After breakfast, Santa arrived—in his very own tuk-tuk, painted with an American Pride motif. All the kids were excited ... all except for Alexa and another child or two around her age. We tried to get her
Santa's "American Pride" Tuk-Tuk
 to sit on Santa’s lap, but that was a no-go. So we tried to get her to sit on Mama’s lap beside Santa. We got a picture of her adorable, heartbroken, “Mama, how could you do this to me?” tear-stained face. We decided she doesn’t need to see Santa this year.

Later we went to the Christmas party hosted at the embassy. It was nice, with lots of people, some food and drinks, and a show—the “Embassy Singers” sang Christmas songs and threw in the Hanukkah song, too, just for fun. We left before it got dark enough to turn on the huge display of Christmas lights; Alexa needed to go to bed.

Then we got to Christmas Eve at our place. I’d made the pie crust (from scratch!) the day before, so it was ready to be filled and baked. On Christmas Eve, I finished the pie and made the carrot pineapple salad, a gelatin recipe I’d found online. I also started the Parker House rolls, so they could rise overnight in the fridge.

That night, Jeff and I set out the presents for Alexa. We’d gotten her three gifts: a ride-on train, a toddler-sized armchair, and a new baby doll. Our extended families mailed gifts, but only one made it here in time—a large wrapped box for Alexa from her Grandma Linda. We decided not to wrap any of the gifts from us, because she’s so young. So Jeff assembled the train and got it started charging while I assembled the arm chair and took the new doll out of the box. I placed her in the chair so Alexa could discover them both. We put the wrapped gift off to the side to be opened after Alexa discovered the unwrapped gifts.

On Christmas morning, Alexa woke us up shortly after 6. Not from excitement; she’s not even 18 months yet! She’s just used to waking up early. We tried to get her back to sleep, to no avail. So we got up, and Jeff kept her in the bedroom while I came out to the living room with the video camera. I recorded her walk all the way from the bedroom through the playroom … and then she turned right, toward the kitchen. We usually go to the kitchen for breakfast right after we get up and change her diaper. I wanted her to come straight into the living room to see her presents, which were hiding just around the corner.

Alexa's new baby, Sherry, waiting in her big-girl chair
“Alexa, come look at the tree!” I called out. She changed course, toddled on over, and reached out to touch the tree, completely ignoring the chair and doll right beside it. “Alexa, what’s that beside the tree?” At that point, she noticed the two gifts and walked over to them. She picked up the doll, sat in the chair, and generally acted happy. Then Jeff called her over to where the train was still plugged into the wall, charging.

She’s been wanting us to read The Little Engine that Could quite a bit lately, which may help account for why she seemed so pleased to see the train, even though she didn't seem to know what to do with it. She got excited when Jeff pushed one button to make it choo-choo, and another for the sound of the train crossing. She didn’t even seem to realize that she could ride it, which was just as well because the charging cord goes under the seat and you really shouldn’t sit on it while it’s charging. But she wanted her doll to ride the train, so we got pictures of the new baby sitting on it.

Alexa's new train
Finally, we pulled out the box from Grandma. With a little help, the paper was torn off, the lid was opened, and a teddy bear—about the same size as Alexa—was revealed. Lexa pulled it out of the box, hugged on it, and then took it right over to the train and patted the seat. We got the point: the bear rode the train, with the baby sitting in front of him. Eventually Alexa got to ride it, too, although she much prefers making it make noise while her toys ride it, rather than actually riding it herself. She’s figured out how to work it, but I think it scares her a little.

Papaya from our garden
After Alexa had opened her gifts, it was time to cook. I spent the rest of the morning in the kitchen, not even pausing my dinner preparations when Jeff’s mom called us on Skype—Jeff brought the phone into the kitchen and showed his mom images of Alexa zooming around doing her “I’m not sleepy!” race while we talked over the speakerphone. While I cooked, Jeff watched Alexa. When she got hungry, we strapped her into her booster seat in the kitchen and let her start on the rolls while Jeff cut into the papaya our gardener had presented to us—apparently we have a pepper tree and a papaya tree in our yard! After eating two or three rolls and several slices of papaya, Alexa was ready for a nap, while Jeff and I were just about ready for dinner!

Alexa slept for a while. I finished the dinner preparations and got everything on the table. Jeff and I ate our Christmas dinner with our phones set to the baby monitor app, showing us a live feed from a webcam in Alexa’s room. She woke up before we finished eating, so she came out and ate some ham and other Christmas goodies. She seemed to love everything. Jeff and I thought it was pretty good, too. The pineapple carrot salad hadn’t gelled, probably because I erred in my substitutions, and the rolls were burned on bottom but great everywhere
Our Christmas Dinner
else. The green beans may have been significantly a tad undercooked, but they had a nice flavor. The ham was delicious. The potatoes were yummy. And the pumpkin pie. Oh my word, the pumpkin pie. I will never look at pumpkin pie the same way again—who knew that pumpkin pie could be SO good, without even a hint of the bitter aftertaste that you get with the frozen ones? NOW I understand Jeff’s obsession with pumpkin pie.

After dinner, we cleaned up, then went to a dessert party hosted by an embassy friend. We had a nice time, chatting and gorging ourselves on cookies, cakes, and cobblers. Then we came home, got Alexa in bed for the night, and just relaxed. We kept relaxing for the next several days—Jeff took Tuesday and Wednesday off work, as well as the Monday that was the observed holiday.

There are things I intend to do differently next year. We may find ourselves in a position to go back to the States for R&R around that time. If we don’t, I think I’ll ask my housekeeper to work on Christmas Day. It isn’t a day of significance to her, and she can help with the cooking and keeping the dishes washed, or watch Alexa if Jeff and I both need to do something else. And I’ll try to plan a menu where more of the preparation can be done on Christmas Eve, or even before. If I use a gelatin recipe, I’ll make sure to do a test run. I want next Christmas Day to be less scurrying around the kitchen and more enjoying time with my family. But overall, this Christmas was good.

We're settling in here. I'm figuring out how to make things work. I've found a supermarket I like better than Lucky, even though it's a bit farther away. Alexa adores our housekeeper, and our house isn't big enough to require her to clean the entire time she's here, so she plays with Alexa in the late afternoons, and I get some down time. I've met a few ladies that I'm friendly with, although there isn't yet anyone I'd truly consider a friend--that takes time. We still have boxes in the house, but very few in the main rooms. We have guests coming in less than two months, so we have motivation to clear out the rest quickly! And if we don't do it before, we'll definitely get out and do the tourist stuff while our guests are here. We even intend to visit Siem Reap with them. So we're settling, and Christmas felt much more natural than Thanksgiving did.

I hope each of you also had a good Christmas, wherever in the world you are.