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.

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