Mind of a FedWife (Abridged, and Apologies to James Joyce)

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Ugh dammit I wonder if this is over yet I what does that notification say no it’s not let’s get this day moving do you ever clean the toaster why doesn’t he just eat in the morning teenagers drive me nuts no time to drink my coffee into the go cup it goes at least we have coffee I’m so glad I bought two boxes of pods last time I went to Costco we will be OK as long as we have coffee move over dammit I’m exiting here why are so many stupid drivers in this area I wonder how much traffic has gone down since December I sure don’t notice it but it will get worse with Amazon God I love that kid I hope he does well on that test I’m 99% the sacrifice for this school is worth it damn I need to go to yoga so glad three months are paid for what bills do we have and which can we shift well sure as Hell not that damn toilet maybe I’ll have the plumber check ours too its running a bit I think great I beat him here does anyone else empty the dishwasher in this house OK so DiploDad does it too but anyone under 50 no that’s not fair DB1 has a migraine today let me check on him ASAP geez he’s greenish white I remember getting these it’s probably hormones he’s gotta stop with the Monster energy drinks I bet he bought one with his allowance at school yesterday because he didn’t sleep over his math quiz of course I know he didn’t sleep because I was awake too why do I even check Facebook what kind of idiot really believes that “not hurting the right people” fuck him and the horse he rode in on man I need to sleep what’s this voicemail shit shit I did not charge that to PayPal this is why I don’t have PayPal great call him now now now why the fuck would he ask me if I bought over a hundred bucks from a food app delivering in Boston he’s just stressed where’s the number for USAA OK OK OK cancelled but now we have to transfer savings and no points to pay for the plumber no big deal probably just a couple hundred what the Hell you are kidding me both of them crap OK yay laundry time to make casseroles I am so devastated for her I can’t imagine losing my mother she was so sweet and lovely and it’s not fair damn this stress too I can cook though I hope her trip is going well I need to run we have that race coming up and fantastic I was going to pay the balance which is due tomorrow with the now cancelled credit card what a shitty time for this to happen happy new year to me at least I am healthy except for that arthritis thing and headaches now well of course I’m getting headaches now should I do the Christmas cards now man I’m late on that well at least I got them done this year I already have tons of forever stamps no need to buy them I like the cool red envelopes red is cool maybe I should go apply to Target just in case at least we have one more paycheck then all bets are off thank God we’ve saved but that’s for retirement and college beyond just rainy days what’s the penalty for early withdrawal is this really going on still no news you’re kidding me Cousin A just posted on Facebook I forgot her husband was Coast Guard that is going to get ugly why do people always forget the Coast Guard that’s border security people should I cancel that visit to Mom and Dad’s I don’t think I can be civil if they spew wall shit this weekend I wonder if they will get retirement pay and social security this will be a mess if old folks aren’t cared for and mean too no way you’re kidding me a hole in my dining room ceiling of course you don’t do drywall repairs no one fucking does drywall repairs shit the cats are gonna crawl into that that’s not good whew it’s probably just out of reach only an additional $300 thank God the best worst case scenario typical when are they going to be finished with the car it’s been three days and dammit it’s brand new what’s the Virginia lemon law why did we buy on a new model year oh yeah we needed a left hand drive car come on dog let’s go it’s freezing yeah we’ll be using everything in the freezer I am glad I learned the art of freezing and stretching in Ghana gotta go get DB2 why is there always a crash when I’m running late at least the route is blue once we pass Tysons oh shit now it’s yellow dammit red fun times sorry baby I’m still not to Maryland I know soon sorry I’ll call DB1 and ask him to walk DiploDog thank God he’s alive again OK got kid he seems happy I bet he asks for Earth Wind and Fire and bingo I called it I’d tell Siri to play it but the bitch only speaks German can you imagine if we got hacked that way I wonder who hacked our card of course the Chinese have all our data anyway from the OPM breach it’s nuts we’ve had more problems here than in India oh I miss India what’s the next holiday I should text my friends and see how they are doing you’re kidding another crash how hard is it to just pay attention while you drive turn signals are not an option asshole I think I need to shut off the news DB2 is stressing about the shutdown why would a ten-year-old even have this on his radar this is sad I don’t want to lie to my kids I want them to stay kids finding this balance sucks why do they always ask what’s for dinner when they’ll complain about something anyway did I complain that much about dinner man I remember when it was tight when I was a kid too but I was loved my kids are loved it will be OK nope still not over I’m turning off notifications someone will tell me when it’s over who else is affected others have it so much worse off Mitch McConnell is a jerk he’s abrogated his Constitutional duty yeah only say the second part out loud to DB1 I bet government class at Marshall is nuts right now OK homework done why doesn’t he read his parents are both readers his grandparents are all readers is this some majorly recessive gene wow that’s an awesome LEGO build he’s smart in other ways there’s the door man please don’t be in a shit mood oh I love his hugs everyone is everywhere again and dinner is on the damn table getting cold get down cat it’s not your dinner I swear that fat one would open the fridge if he had thumbs I can’t believe they all like everything I swear he ate the carrots too please can we not ask about this at the table damn his jaw is set this is going to be upsetting he’s conservative but he’s not mean so we’re doing our job right somehow that’s actually a good idea why doesn’t congress think like a 15yo wait that might be bad thank you I love you more for doing the dishes wait now I get to fold laundry OMG he soap dodged again saves on soap one less thing I’ll have to buy quit being so maudlin it will be OK we’ll all be OK I love the way semi-clean boy smells did the teenager go to bed light is off hmmm odd blue light did I turn Qustodio off he needs his sleep especially after that migraine really I forgot to install it I think we paid for that up front for a year oh man gotta change all credit cards on all autopay I’m sure we’ll miss one and get some kind of stupid late fee gotta put that app on the Kindle kids always find a way where should I hide this oh he’s walking the dog what else can I do turn down the heat its 70 but we can do 68 mom always told us to put on a sweater I get enough hot flashes to heat the house anyway can I sit down yet yeah TV sounds good man the music in the 80s was awesome those are groovy clothes FBI agent is a cool job but then I don’t think they’re getting paid should check in with her and ask how she’s doing she was supposed to be here last week no word though I guess that was cancelled you’re kidding you have to go in early and stay late yeah and federal workers are lazy fuck America they don’t care I need to sleep I need to sleep breathe I need to go to yoga that’s paid up until March will this go on past March no don’t think that we’ll be fine our friends will be fine we will stick together I need to sleep dammit what level am I on Candy Crush I need to sleep melatonin is your friend lalalalala sleep maybe tomorrow this will end yeah right I gotta work on being more positive oh fuck it.

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The Awkwardness of Return

Once you have orders in hand, you start to think about your next assignment.  If you’re heading off to another country, that’s really exciting.  You research the place – housing, schools, entertainment and leisure options, potential weekend destinations – all things you need to know and things that are 100% new.  Everything is new.  EVERYTHING.  Language, culture, neighborhood, school, weather.  Even if it’s “not”, it really is.

But when you return to the US, “nothing” is new.  But it is.

There’s a strange kind of rhythm to home.

You know it if you’ve ever “gone home”, whether it was for a high school reunion, back to your hometown for a job closer to your parents, or even on a much smaller scale and temporarily, that first trip home at Christmas Break during college when all your friends have scattered (or not) and suddenly you don’t have last Friday’s football game to talk about.  Your frame of reference has shifted.

I forgot about it.

I forgot about it at Mass our first Sunday back with our church.  I was full of joy, back with my community, coming off of an inspiring sermon and eager to catch up with friends and parishioners.

Me:  (Hugging fellow mom who had a kid DB1’s age) Hi!  “So great to see you!  I was actually thinking of you on the way over.  I thought, “I wonder if we’ll see Familie XXXX.””

Her:  “Well, there’s not any Familie XXXX anymore.  Not since three years when we divorced.”

I could see that this event wasn’t something she’d wanted.  That whatever plans she’d had for her family had dissolved.  We caught up.  I listened to the demise of her marriage, the challenges of single parenting.  I heard the sadness in her voice.

After some time, we parted.  I then met up with our organist, a tall and handsome man in his seventies, and greeted him as I scanned the room briefly for his wife.

Me:  “Hi!  How are you?  I loved the music today.  Our church in India didn’t have an organ or a piano and it’s so nice to hear it again.”

Him:  “Thank you.  You know, I lost [Wife] in June this year, so I’m playing a lot.  I am involved in three choral groups and another church that I play for. ”

Me:  “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

He proceeded to tell me about how fast his wife’s illness struck.  That they’d just downsized and expected to have all sorts of time together and it was stolen from them.  I listened, heard the sadness in his voice.

Eventually, we moved on.

I was batting 1000 at this point, so I stayed in a corner and drank in coffee and sadness.

Then we got back into our rhythm.  Kids were settled into school.  DB1 discovered what the MLA Handbook is and why it’s important, DiploDad got his car fitted with new tires and a vanity plate and make the daily trek into DC, and DB2 rekindled some friendships with kids he knew from his Kindergarten class.  I settled into a routine of job search, housework, unpacking, and driving everyone all over creation.  We caught up with neighbors.  We figured out who was new and who belonged in our neighborhood.  Which was the best route to walk the dog during construction of a new water main.

So a month or so after the last box had been unpacked and the final pictures hung on the walls, my guard was down when I saw a little neighbor girl coming out of one of the neighboring houses holding the hand of an older man while I was walking the DiploDog with DB2.

Me:  “Hi!  You’re Z, right?”

Little girl slowly nods.

Me:  “Your mom is D, right?  Do you remember DB2?  You used to play together.  I wondered if you still lived here.  We just got back from 4 years in India”

Older Man:  “Yes, she does.  She’s in X grade now.”

Me:  “And you would be the grandpa?”

Older Man:  “I would be the guardian.  D passed about a year ago.”

Me:  “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t know. ”

I was absolutely wracked with guilt while walking the dog.  I probably ruined a fun holiday outing for Z by bringing up her mother.

It weighed heavily on me.  Later on, I consulted the Almighty Google, but didn’t come up with much.  All signs point to the mother still living – house ownership, professional licenses intact – and no, I didn’t do a super-nosy search, I just did a cursory obituary search.  I didn’t turn one up.  But what I did find out is that she was about 40 when she died.  She had been a young widow when she came to the US from overseas, hence the guardian.  Heartbreaking.

You figure that when you move away, life goes on.  Kids grow up.  Yours, neighbor kids, kids from school, kids your kids do activities with, your friends’ and families’ kids.  They get bigger.  Start to shave and wear makeup.  They go away to college.  They get jobs and cars and have kids of their own.  We all get a little greyer and gravity is a little unkinder.

But other things happen that might not be as happy.  Divorce and death are part of life too.  I’m old enough now that along with the happy transitions, the sad are going to surface as well.  If you’re an expat reading this, brace yourself, because eventually coming home will not be new beginnings, but new endings.  They will be even more stark for you because the tendency is to not keep you in the loop.  You’re so far away, people don’t want to guilt you, or stress you out, or demand too much.  But for me at least, that’s been even more devastating.  Coming home to find Grandma in a wheelchair and a shaved head in front of you and you are still waiting for her to “come out” into the nursing home parlor because you don’t recognize her is horrible when you had no idea she was anywhere close to this state.

You’ll feel awkward.  You’ll be reminded that not only did life go on while you were gone, but life didn’t go on for some.

Say a prayer, take a deep breath, and drink in the awkwardness.  You’re back, and life will go on, in a myriad of ways, with all the attendant joy, growth, and sometimes, sadness.

 

There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under Heaven;

a time for giving birth, a time for dying, a time for planting, a time for uprooting what has been planted.

A time for killing, a time for healing; a time for knocking down, a time for building.

A time for tears, a time for laughter; a time for mourning, a time for dancing.

 A time for throwing stones away, a time for gathering them; a time for embracing, a time to refrain from embracing.

A time for searching, a time for losing; a time for keeping, a time for discarding.

A time for tearing, a time for sewing; a time for keeping silent, a time for speaking.

A time for loving, a time for hating; a time for war, a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Lessons from a Moving Expert: The Trailing Spouse

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It’s only taken about six weeks, and the DiploFam is almost entirely moved into our postage-stamp sized townhome in Northern Virginia.  It’s taken a lot of work, appointments, negotiations, and time.  It’s been worth it.

The previous paragraph is complete and utter bullshit.  Let me translate it for you:  DiploDad had a total of three days off to direct and unpack about 18,000 lbs. of crap.  He marked off the boxes from the BINGO sheet as the movers brought them in, bought food for the movers, and promptly went back to work and left me with 16,500 lbs. of crap to unpack and find a place for.  The DBs sat around and played with their LEGO or phone in the middle of a pile of paper, completely overwhelmed at the idea of putting any of their crap away and didn’t move on it until I physically lorded over them and made them.  The DiploCats spent the days rustling paper, hiding in or climbing on boxers and inducing general panic of “have you seen the fat one?!?!?” whenever we took a bunch of boxes and paper out to the trash.  The DiploDog hid.  Just hid.  He’s probably the smartest creature in the family.

Moving is overwhelming.  It’s exhausting.  And I’m SOOOOOO done with it.  I’ve never lived anywhere longer than 4 years in my entire life.  And I’ve gone through a total of 27 moves.  Nope, that’s not an exaggeration, and yes, it excludes the moving from temporary quarters to permanent ones in a couple of places.  I consider myself an expert on moving.  Today, I present my Top Ten Lessons on Moving – the Delivery.  Learn from me, not the hard way, trust me.

1 The movers will always show up earlier if you have an early morning school run, later if you have a late afternoon cable appointment.  

Always.  It will not matter if you take your kid to school a half an hour early and drop him ten minutes before he’s even allowed in the building, the movers will be there, waiting for you and calling your phone, trying to induce panic.  Do not fall for this.  Your delivery window was 9 a.m. to 12 a.m., if they show up at 8:04 and start hassling you, remember that they cannot leave because you were not there.  I’m not saying you can go to Starbucks and hang out for 30 minutes drinking your morning chai (unless you take orders from the moving crew and pick it up for everyone), but I AM saying don’t freak out and feel guilty because you’re buying milk at the grocery store half a mile away or are 10 minutes from arrival home after dropping said kid at school.  They have to wait.  This is gonna be an all day affair.  Chill.

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Brace yourself.  

2.  You’ll Be Eating Pizza for Weeks.

There are several reasons for this.  First, you will have very little energy to cook anything for most of the first two weeks you move in.  Second, you can’t find the pot or pan you want or need.  Third, in some kind of scarcity mathematics or over exuberance, your spouse will order six pizzas for the three adults on the moving crew.   You can always return the favor to your spouse for his planning by pulling a foil-wrapped pizze slice out of the freezer two weeks later and pack it in his lunch.

3.  There Will Always Be Something Broken You Can’t Replace

Always.  It might be grandma’s antique cookie jar or Aunt Eileen’s hope chest.  Maybe it’s the pottery “who knows what it is” your kid made in preschool that you always put out for display on your desk.  Maybe it’s your wedding cake topper.  Either way, brace yourself.  And then take a deep breath and either file the claim to replace it or fix it, or let it go.  I have a friend who buried one of her kid’s art projects in her garden (just make sure you don’t dig it back up if it’s not biodegradable) to say goodbye.  Because I’ve moved so much, I don’t have my memories stored in a place – there’s not an ancestral home to go back to.  I store my memories in things.  This was a hard lesson to learn, but I’ve made peace with it now.  When something you love is gone, the memories can remain.  Take a photo if you must (you’ll need one for the claim anyway), take a deep breath, relive the memory it jogs again, and let it go.  You were overweight on the last move anyway, right?

4.  Watch the Filials and Stoppers!

Movers don’t care about them.  At all.  Personally, I don’t let the movers unpack any trinkets or dishes alone without me hovering, because I know exactly which items have a stopper or filial or decoration that comes off that the dude on the other end decided needed to be separately wrapped.  DiploDad does not track these things.  If you leave the movers alone (or worse, with your spouse) you will wind up without these crucial pieces.  This move was particularly bad for this – I’ve got two stoppers gone forever, including the top of one of my oil-and-vinegar salad dressing bottles I’ve had for over 20 years.  I have no idea how I will replace it.  DiploDad may finally, finally NOT override my directive on no unpacking after this fiasco.  Maybe.

5.  There Will Always Be a “How the Hell Did They Break THAT?”

Yup.  It’s like it was a challenge and they met it.  Sometimes, you actually have to admire that.

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A plastic storage bin that had mostly stuffed bunnies for Easter decorations was toast.  This is only one of four sides that was totally crushed.  How do you do this?  You bet I’m claiming it – those suckers cost upwards of $15.  

6. Clothing Hangers will Take Over the Entire House if You Let Them

Hangar supply always goes through a predictable cycle in our house during moves.  It goes something like this:

DiploDad:  “I need some hangers.  I don’t have enough to hang all my clothes up with.”

Me:  “I have a few I can give you.” (Takes off a few dresses, folds them, hands hangers to DiploDad)

DiploDad:  “That’s not enough – I have a total of eleven hangers.  I need at least 15.”

Me:  “UAB* comes in a week – I packed a TON in UAB.  Can you wait just a few days?”

DiploDad:  “Not really.”

Within 24 hours, DiploDad will sneak out on a Target run, ostensibly to buy cat food or milk, and return with three twelve-packs of plastic hangers.  A week later, UAB will show up with about 40 hangers in it.  A month later, HHE** will show up and we’ll be looking at this:

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If you leave them alone in the dark, they replicate.  I promise.

DiploDad:  “We’ve got to find a place for all of these.  Can we donate them to Goodwill?”

Note that Goodwill does NOT take hangers.  Everyone on the planet drops them there and they have too many –  they will actively chase your car down as you are trying to leave to give them back to you.  Trust me on this.

7.  The Cats Will Do Something Bad While You Are Unpacking

It’s 3 a.m. in the DiploHouse.  All is calm, all are asleep . . . .

DB2:  (runs into our bedroom) “Mommy!” (Not Daddy.  Never Daddy.)

Me:  (waking up, disoriented) “What?! What?!”

DB2:  “It’s Gink!” (DiploCat1)

Me: (jumps out of bed, runs with DB2 into his room) “What?! Is he OK?”

DB2:  “He peed on the paper in the corner of the room!  I heard him meowing and then scraping the paper and then I went to pick him up and he was peeing!”

DiploDad: (who has followed us in, unnoticed) “On my new carpet.”

Turns out that the carpet was safe, and the pile of paper was big enough to absorb the accident.  This meant that DiploCat1 was permitted to stay a little longer.  It also meant I used less white vinegar on the area.  Just in case.

A few nights later:

DB2:  (leans down next to me, sleeping, whispering in my ear loudly) Mommy!  (Not Daddy.  Never Daddy.)

Me:  (disoriented) What?!?

DB2:  Gink peed on my LEGO!

DiploDad: Damn cats.

Upon further inspection, it seems that DiploCat1 was completely disoriented again when DB1 placed a plastic bin of LEGO pieces on the floor in a corner.  Seems that the change from Indian kitty litter, to American kitty litter, to American kitty crystals confused him, and when a pan looking suspiciously like a new kind of litter and his old Indian litter box showed up in his favorite room in the house, he thought we were just being considerate.

Me:  “I think it’s time you got a handle on your room.”

DB2:  “Yeah.”

I can now check “cleaning cat pee off LEGOs in the middle of the night” off my Mom Bucket List.

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This is not the Bad Peeing Cat.  But I’m sure he got away with something when I wasn’t looking.  I will eventually discover something. 

8.  Cats Like Paper.

Make sure you don’t accidentally recycle them.  Unless you want to.

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This IS the bad peeing cat.

9.  You Will Have More Things to Hang on the Wall Than You Have Wall Space

Every post, every move, you “localize” your apartment.  When I lived in NYC, I bought a couple of black-and-white photos of the Flat Iron Building and the Chrysler Building.  During our European travels, we bought watercolors that I framed on base at the US Army MWR framing shop.  Africa added masks and batiks to our collection, and India some Bollywood movie posters, prints, and paintings.  Add that to family photographs, a curious cuckoo clock that always needs refitting after lying in storage doing nothing, and some Chinese ancestor paintings and we’re overloaded.  My advice to you:  Hang what you love.  Do a gallery wall.  And then store the rest unless you truly think you will never use it again.  Those NYC prints?  I haven’t had them on the wall since I left the City in 2000, but DB1 visited New York for Model UN last year, and they are now finding a new life in his room.  All that “me wall” stuff?  Awards, diplomas, stuff you hang at work but don’t want to look at while chilling in your rec room?  Two words:  Storage Space.

10.  Your Furniture Will Not Be Adequate for All Your Stuff.  Ever.

It’s a hazard of State Department life:  you never have enough bookcases.  The furniture that is assigned to your quarters will either be all new and complete or it will have been mostly given away and turned in by a string of predecessors.  We have never, ever, experienced the former situation.  Our house in Ghana was so bad and so lacking because the previous occupant had her own living room stuff, that we literally had ONE bookcase when we moved in.  ONE.

Most of us travel with extra tables and bookcases.  IKEA’s Billy line is excellent.  I figure we’ve owned about 245 Billy shelves since we got married.  When you leave, they are inexpensive enough you don’t mind passing them on or donating them, or selling them, and you can replace them at your next post.  Just be patient while you sort through your stuff and know you’ll have a few piles on the floor until you can make that IKEA or thrift shop run.

11.  You Will Forget This and Do It All Again.

Yeah, there are really 11 lessons here.  A wise person on my Facebook page compared moving to childbirth.  She’s not wrong.

 

*UAB – Unaccompanied Air Baggage.  A certain amount of stuff that goes via air, ostensibly arriving within 2 weeks to your new destination.  

**HHE – House Hold Effects.  All your crap.  Don’t ask me why there are two Hs involved when “household” is technically one word.  It sounds better, anway.  

 

Halloween Back Stateside

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I have to admit it – I kind of dropped the ball on Halloween this year.  Yes, we got to a pumpkin patch.  Yes, we did a few other fun Halloweeny things this year.  Yes, I bought candy, wore a costume, and carved a pumpkin.  I even sifted through all the slimy pumpkin guts to get to most of the seeds and roast them in the oven.  (Here’s a tip:  add about 1 tsp of raw sugar at the last minute for salty-sweet yumminess.) But I just didn’t go full-on like I normally do.

Most of my decorations were down in the basement, and when I walked past the last few boxes that need to be unpacked I just couldn’t bring myself to add to the repack/unpack mess.  I decided that it could wait until next year to swap out all the coffee mugs for Halloween mugs, and yes, I DO that.

We had a great time this year.  Overseas, Halloween is truly different.  You want Halloween, you make Halloween.  So we normally have a party – which once the DBs diverged in interests (scary movies v. candy relay and bobbing for apples), morphed into two parties.  It also is a chance to show your local colleagues some of the most fun American traditions.  The consulate went full-on this year, and I couldn’t be more proud of my colleagues who decorated the hallways and “really scared some of the kids”.  They made a really cute video of the celebrations – Halloween Awesomeness in Mumbai

It’s kind of strange to shift gears with respect to Halloween.  Here, I don’t have to do anything unless I want to – there are activities, pumpkins, and Halloween in yo face everywhere.  It’s not public or a sideshow the way it is when it’s that “strange American holiday that is all about lollies”, according to one of my Aussie friends, who was completely baffled about it all.

Our Halloween was kind of last-minute too – rain and conflicting schedules meant we packed it ALL into about a five-day period.

First, we visited a pumpkin patch.  We love Summers Farm in Frederick, Maryland.  It’s got all the fun things to do and apple cider donuts that make it worth the drive and calories.  We were supposed to go with DiploSis and her kids and DiploBro’s daughter, but we got rained out, so the next day, we headed out with just the DBs.  It was so much fun.  If you are reading this and have not experienced an American pumpkin patch and corn maze in October, you seriously have to do it.

We started in the small maze.  Decided it was too wimpy.  Waded through corn to get to the big maze.  Got hopelessly lost for 20 minutes.

Lots of other fun stuff to do.  And we did it ALL!

Still, due to rain, we couldn’t do the one thing we really wanted to do – go on a hayride to the patch to pick a pumpkin.  So we headed home pumpkinless.

We had about an hour’s respite before we were heading to The GLOW to meet some friends, so in true parent fashion, we told the kids to entertain themselves and took a nap.

When we woke up, DiploDad remembered a place nearby that would fit the bill for a quick pumpkin stop, so we headed there first.

Success!

We drove out to Lake Fairfax park to meet friends for dinner before heading over to The GLOW, a pumpkin experience featuring tons of awesome carved pumpkins.  Dinner was at a place called Kalpasi’s – South Indian – and I was so happy to see idli I almost cried.

The GLOW was awesome too!

After that awesome experience, we had a few days to prepare at home for trick-or-treating.

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DB2 made his costume himself.  Can you guess what it is? 

Pumpkins were carved . . . .

And then, we were ready for the tricks and treats!

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Bring it, smalls. 

And the actual event we’d been waiting for began.  DiploDad took DB2 out.

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“I got a rock.”  *

DB1 had two tests the next day, so he stayed home.  Until he just couldn’t stand it anymore and wanted to get some candy and have the experience so many people say he’s too old for.

IMG_6062So I was left alone with the DiploDog (grousing and acting all depressed that I made him dress up) to hand out candy.

Most kids had costumes.  But not all of them.  I have a simple rule:  you show up, you get candy.  But you have to work for it.  If you didn’t dress up, you have to sing me a Halloween song, tell me a story, or tell me your favorite costume from when you were little – it’s always the teenagers and pre-teens.  Mostly.  And most kids were happy to just engage.  Joke a little.  One tween girl was a bit snotty, but I still gave her candy.

And then, one boy, about 12 or so, came to the door alone.  No costume.  So I asked my usual questions.  He didn’t know a song.  And so I said to tell me what his favorite costume was from when he was little.

“I didn’t have one.  We didn’t have any money for one.  I still don’t.”

Boom.

“Do you want one?”

“Nah, I’m OK.”

“You sure?  How about my hat?”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  I have an extra, I’m sure.”

“Like, I can keep it.”

“Absolutely.

“Cool. Do I get extra candy too?”

Ha.  So I removed the satiny witch’s hat from my head, handed it over to him, and dropped two fat handfuls of candy into his plastic CVS bag.  He said thank you, waved goodbye, and ran off into the night.

I went back inside, took another witch hat from where it lay on the sofa and resumed my post.

The DBs came back with an appalling amount of candy.  There will be rules about this.  And Mommy Taxes.

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That’s 234 pieces of candy.  He counted. 

Halloween is over.   Which means that everything at the drugstore, at the party store, and the grocery store will be ridiculously marked down.  Makeup.  Masks.  Costume headpieces.  In short, everything I need to set up a costume table next year.

Because that’s what I’m going to do.

As my one friend said, “Some kids are lame.  But some kids are poor.”  And if I can make that a tiny bit better for a few little pumpkins, I will.

*Did you guess?  He’s a Charlie Brown ghost from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”  All his idea.  

The Last Ganpatis

Last week, shortly after I realized that really, truly the summer was over, the kids had spent a couple of weeks in school, and that I was NOT going back to Mumbai, I looked at the calendar – September 13.  Ganesha Chathurti.  My favorite Indian festival was happening, and the first Ganpatis would go to the sea the following afternoon.  And I was going to miss it.  As in really, really miss it.  

I knew that it would happen.  I’d go home, it would creep up and me, and I’d be sad.  So when just a street over from my home in the Lanes of Lalbaug the workshops started setting up despite the monsoon rains, I had to go out to see the Last Ganpatis.

DiploDad begged off and took a nap.  Of course I was irritated – how could you MISS THE LAST OPPORTUNITY TO SEE THEM?!?  Undeterred, alone, and armed with a camera, I set off for the streets in a rain jacket and with enough money to get a nimboo pani (fresh lime soda in a half-washed cup) from the old guy by the Ganesha Talkies.

Walking down the street from the train station on the corner I spotted my first little elephant gods.

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Yes, there you are!  Don’t hide, come out to play . . . .

There were artists inside – I saw their shoes outside, but when I snapped a photo, they glowered – the God of Joy and Happiness would definitely NOT approve, but as artists can be very sensitive about their designs, and because there were lots of other workshops, I just smiled, waved, and moved on.

A few meters on, I came to my favorite store and peered inside.

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This little corner store, cattycorner to Ganesha Talkies, right on the long walk to the train station, is the shop where the DiploFam purchased our “LifeLong Ganesha” three years earlier.  The owner was so nice – we went with our driver, D, and when we realized that the one my DBs fell in love with was already spoken for, the shop owner agreed to expedite a new one for the other family and to sell us the one tagged and on the shelf.  When I popped my head into his shop, slightly wet from the rains and leaning in so as to not have to deal with taking my shoes off to enter, he smiled, greeted me with “Hello, Madam!” and pulled back some curtains and aimed a spotlight.  I tried to explain to him this was my last visit to Lalbaug.  I’m not sure he understood, but he he knew I was sad, and said brightly, “Madam, it tik hai!” – it’ll be alright – before waving an arm around him and motioning to all of the brightly colored elephant gods.

Moving on a bit further, I followed the growing midday crowds down the lanes towards where they were building the pandal for the Lalbaug Raja, one of the most famous Ganpati pandals.  I went last year, and it was truly moving.  I made DiploDad get up at 5 a.m. to beat the crowds.  It was beautiful.  I’ve been a lot more active on Facebook than anywhere else over the last few years, so I did capture it here.  Lalbaug Ganpati 2017

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People buy these and put them in their homes.  I have a small one for my wallet.  

I took my usual route back from behind the market where the Raja is, visiting the shops that specialized in larger society and apartment complex idols.  Most of them were still in the casting stage, or just beginning decorations.

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Many societies specify the same pose, the same colors, and the same decorations, year after year.  They may alter the backdrop or the decorations.  All of them are ordered months in advance.

After wandering through a few tunnels of idols and breathing in plaster of Paris, I found myself back on the road home when this sign caught my eye –

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I can’t resist a good eco-friendly artisan.  Even though the BMC, the Mumbai municipal corporation, banned thermocool (we call that styrofoam) from pandals this year, a shocking number of them are still made of plaster of Paris instead of mud or clay.  The guy had some pretty neat Ganeshas – the color was slightly different, but once they applied paint, no big difference, really.

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There’s a certain skill in the painting of a Ganesha.  When you watch one getting painted, they are all relaxed until they get to the eyes – and then, nervousness sets in.

I wasn’t the only camera on hand that day – I ran into a local news photographer who was doing a feature story on the artisans coming to Lalbaug for the annual festival.  I snapped his photo too.

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If you ever run into another photographer and he or she is a little camera shy about being IN a photo, let me let you in on the magic words to make them relax:  “National Geographic”.   

Next year, I thought to myself, I’ll be in my home and not in temporary quarters and we can celebrate properly.  You see, Foreign Service Families take on a little bit of the culture of every place we serve and every place we have loved.  My kids realized they were going to miss Ganpati this year and made us promise that we would celebrate it wherever we are, adding it to Chinese New Year and African Unity Day on the DiploFam calendar.

As I was getting ready to leave that final shop, I took one last look around at all the elephant gods that would be finding homes across greater Mumbai in the next few months.  And then into the sea.  Without me.

Ganpati Bappa Morya.

 

 

Irani Chai, Ginger Biscuits, and Grumpy Old Men

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And that’s pretty much all you need for your own Irani café.  Chai is everywhere in India, but Mumbai, with its vibrant Parsi community, has a collection of cute little places that both individually and as a group, are and iconic part of the city’s cultural fabric.

A few years ago, the DiploFam and I took a Chai walk organized by the Mumbai Foodie Tours.  It was pretty amazing, and if I can ever find the photos I took, I’ll link to them here.  Unfortunately, a computer crash and the millennials who design shit at apple (I hate them all, every single one of them) have made it difficult to find them, and it’s entirely possible that the day will exist only in my memory.  Anyway. . . .

The Parsi cafes are from a time when everyone called Mumbai “Bombay”, and most of the regulars who frequent them still do.  They all serve the same items, although a few of them stake a claim to having a specialty, such as Yazdani Bakery and its apple pie, and Brittania for its berry pulao.  The pace can be fast or slow, depending on your need.  A quick breakfast served to a businessman or endless cups of Irani chai over an hour as you read your Times of India (or you pretend to while you’re really focusing on the page 3 of the Mumbai Mirror).

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You’re walking into a place where time is frozen, but the temperature is definitely not freezing.

The architecture is classic Mumbai, with a tiled floor that would make Molly Maid break out in hives, a back cooking and baking area that you can see through a glass door in the far back where the staff appear with plates of egg burji, butter bun, and mutton pulao, a few counters with an array of baked goods (including ginger biscuits, butterscotch biscuits, and mawa cake),

and finally, a desk at the front where the owner/manager sits and lords over the entire scene.   He’s not much to be photographed, so you’ll have to make do with a photo of the ever-present Faravahar over the doorway.

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He’s right next to it, I promise.

If it’s one of the bigger ones, there’s an upstairs balcony area with wrought-iron railings that were last painted in about 1992, and an assortment of old posters and signs advertising the bakery’s wares or with prints of Old Bombay.

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Damn those stupid fluorescent lights.

Many of them are on corners, because at the time the Parsi community arrived in Bombay, they were all available on the cheap as for some bizarre (and counter to today’s real estate philosophy) reason, no one wanted those locations.  That means that the cafes have an almost open-air feeling, taking advantage of the two sides and entryways.

My favorite place is Kayani Bakery in Fort near the Metro Theatre.  After my chai walk experience visiting all the old Irani cafes, I decided that I had to pick a favorite to make mine.  I ruled one out because even though it was my favorite blue color and the host was the friendliest person on the planet (and the ginger biscuits the BEST in the city), it was way too hot because of the proximity to the ovens.  I ruled another out because although I love cute grumpy old men, sometimes you have to draw a line.  Eventually, I asked my Parsi friend, A, and while Kayani is definitely well-known, I hadn’t been there yet.

Over the last few years, I’ve consumed my share of yumminess there.  My absolute favorite thing to eat is a butter bun, a traditional pav, fresh-baked that morning and smeared heavily with Amul butter, dipped into a cup of milky, minty, Irani chai.

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It’s one of the best ways to get your caffeine and empty carbs together that I’ve ever discovered.  DiploDad goes for something a bit more substantial and loads up on chicken samosas – an unusual thing in a city hell-bent on making everyone eat vegetarian ones in public.  I’ve found that the cafes will absolutely indulge vegetarians, but at the same time are unapologetically meat-heavy, which in the minefield of Indian food politics is interesting if nothing else.

I love to sit in the café and watch all the different people of Bombay filter in: the students with backpacks who just purchased books and pencils from the nearby shops; the local small-medium businessman who runs in for Second Breakfast like a rumpled Hobbit, glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose and his shirt collar unbuttoned; a housewife taking a break from shopping with her toddler to dive into a cupper and a cream-laced pastry that will eventually be all over said toddler’s face.  And the families.  The families come too, and take up one of the square tables and order food and chat and get in and out and fed for under $10 for everyone.  Irani cafes are simple food, good food, but also cheap food.  My bill today for two cups of chai, a plate of ginger biscuits (6, I ate 2) and egg burji that came with 2 pav was a whopping INR148.  That’s $2.25, people.

By this time, I’ve been enough times that I consider Kayani “mine”, but I’m pretty sure that no one really notices me, which is yet another reason to love it.  There are no “giraffe moments” at Kayani – I’m a customer, end of story, I get water, food on a tan plastic plate, and my napkins arrive after the meal.  There is no “firenge tax” or special attention.  I sit there and soak it in and look around while everyone else gets on with his or her business (wait, why am I saying “her”?  I’ve never seen a female working in an Irani café in my entire life.)

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Except for this guy. This guy always remembers me.

If you’re ever in Mumbai, stop by one of the many Irani cafes.  If you’re going to live there for a while, pick one to make your own.  Sit, drink your chai, read your book, and soak in the culture of a community that is dwindling and commit it to memory.

Just don’t bring a computer, ever.  I wanted to type this among the old railings, the noise of the customers, and the shouts of the counter boys, but the cranky old man overload doesn’t allow computers.

Soooooo . . . I’m typing this at Starbucks.  They have Internet, but the chai is awful and there’s not a butter pav in sight.

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Clubbing at Breach Candy

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About four years ago, I went over to my friend D’s house for a school mum coffee morning.  I’d just arrived, and it was one of my first “Mum Meetings”.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the morning was (in my mind) over-the-top.  Everyone was dressed in cute outfits (I’m pretty sure I’d showered that morning, but I wouldn’t swear to it), there were a lot of women chatting animatedly, there was an amazing spread of brunch foods, and although it was only about 9 a.m., the Sula sparkling had been poured.  I was new, still trying to remember if the person I was talking to was Vera or Veronica, and then suddenly D shoved a paper booklet in my hand and said, “You’re joining; you have to.  Here’s the paperwork.  V will sponsor you, I’ve signed, so you’re all ready to go.”

And thus, began our four-year relationship with the Breach Candy Club.

I took the packet home to DiploDad, who looked at it, thanked me for filling it out and then went to go pick his eyeballs off the floor, where they’d popped out and landed when he read the initiation fee.

“You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m not.”

“That’s a lot of money at once.”

“Yes.”

“It can’t be worth it.  There’s no way you can convince me it is.”

But DiploDad married a corporate attorney (recovering) and after I broke it down for him by month and calculated the costs for similar weekend activities, he was close to agreeing.  About a week and a half later, the club opened up full time after Monsoon, I clicked a few (forbidden) photos on my phone, and the application was submitted.  Now, we just had to wait.

On Halloween of 2014, we interviewed with the committee.  The interview was a little strange, but after we went through it, we were offered membership and then joined V, D, and a few other friends who had just been offered as well upstairs for a sundowner and watched the sun set over the Indian Ocean.

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Note:  All pictures taken in stealth. There are signs everywhere saying “no photography”, but if other folks aren’t listening to that, do you think I would? 

Over the past three and a half years, the BCC has been our oasis.  The first year here, DB2 was younger, and the mom group I hung out with all had memberships, so every Friday we landed at the Club.  We’d hit the club early when the Reception and Nursery kids got out, and then go off in shifts to pick up our older kids.  By sunset, some of us were heading home, some of us were ordering wine (which you used to be able to drink on the lawn during the weekends), and some of us were waiting for spouses to show up to order dinner.

Set right in the middle of Breach Candy, the Club boasted a host of leisure activities – a full guy, tennis courts, volleyball court, a basketball hoop, a lawn for soccer and other games, and a walking path that circled the large saltwater pool in the shape of a pre-partition India.

During “the season”, from the end of August to the end of July before monsoon began, we took full advantage of these.  Mostly, we went on Sundays, as Saturdays always seemed to be packed with some activity or commitment.  Sundays were just about family, so we’d head over around noon or just after the sun crested, to spend the day.  For the first three years, my friend, R, would join us.  R had been in Mumbai her first tour, and had a membership then.  She applied to join again, but was caught in the quagmire that has become a court battle over the fate and future of the club.

We would choose a place on the lawn and the grounds men would come assist us in set-up, magically appearing with chairs, tables, and umbrellas.  We’d order water, then take brisk walks in one of the few places we could walk in Mumbai undisturbed, and without a fear of falling.  After our walk, we’d have lunch, which was well worth the price and delicious.  A favorite dish was the “Awesome Okra”, which I never would have ordered if R hadn’t told me to.  I don’t think I ever visited the club after that without at least one big dish of it on my plate.  We’d hit the pool after that, and float along or yell at the kids not to stand up on the slide – this is a European club in India, people – no lifeguards, and let the kids just run amok and see what pans out.  Eventually, the sun would begin to dip under the horizon and we’d have a sundowner before packing up the bags to head home, exhausted, sunburned (me, usually), and ready to head back to work or school the next morning.

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The Club was great for the kids.  DB2 had two of his birthday parties there and went to several for his classmates.  The Christmas party was crazy and I’m sorry we only made it one year.  Seriously – Santa arriving in a zorb?!?

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There is controversy in Mumbai about the extensive club system.  I’m honestly not sure how many there are – I once got invited to a club in Bandra that I must have passed hundreds of times without knowing it was there.  Clubs all lease land from the government, and many of the leases expire soon.  The government, under pressure from some groups to free up green space for public use, and under pressure from others to develop green space, has been putting the screws to clubs off and on for the last few years.  Bombay Gymkhana, another club in south Mumbai, lost part of its parking, had to cancel its annual New Year’s Eve party when the BMC threatened to take action if someone walked outdoors with an alcoholic beverage in hand, and was eventually forced to give government officials lifetime memberships their kids could inherit.  Breach Candy, as a European organization, has come under fire for discrimination for its policy of only allowing Europeans to be on the board and nominate new members, and requiring all Indians to have long-term/lifetime (read: EXPENSIVE) memberships.  I’m not saying that’s necessarily fair, however, I’d like to call attention to the Islam Gymkhana and the Parsi Gymkhana, which also restrict membership on the basis of community, and to my knowledge don’t even make exceptions for any others like BCC does (i.e., Americans, New Zealanders, Peruvians).  There are also clubs that are de facto segregated, such as the Khar Gymkhana, which is pretty much all Sindhi, and a number of Catholic clubs in Bandra.  A friend recently said to me that “everyone here discriminates, but it’s our kind of discrimination and we’re fine with it.”  I’m not really sure what to think about that, but as an American, it doesn’t line up with what I’m entirely comfortable with, even as I did benefit from that system.

I don’t know what the answer is to this, but I know that if I go to any public park in Mumbai, I won’t be left alone.  Period.  Going to the park to have a picnic or read a book simply cannot happen without have 8 or 9 new friends who want to be in your space, share your food, or talk your ear off.  There’s no animosity intended, but culturally, the idea that you would want to be alone is something a lot of the Indian public doesn’t understand.

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My chair.  All alone.  No one around. Silence.

With the city noise, intensity, and lack of privacy, the club was a place I didn’t have to wear a particular kind of swimsuit (or a swimming cap), could eat meat and drink wine without any crappy stares, and could simply sit on the lawn alone for hours.  For someone who didn’t grow up in a big city or large family, it’s almost necessary so you don’t go mad.  DiploDad, after being inundated with people all week and working long hours, probably would have died without the respite it gave him.  In spite of his initial “are you crazy?” protestations about cost, he became the most enthusiastic user of the space.  Sure, I’m probably justifying it from the point of view of some people, but I don’t give a damn and I won’t apologize.  They don’t live here, and don’t realize that anyone who can, does find a club to join, whether they are Indian, European, or African.  As the city struggles with open spaces and more and more people either develop them in their communities or reclaim them from developers who have simply squatted, I hope public parks and facilities are available to more and more people.  Only time will tell.

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We’ll miss Breach Candy Club.  We’ll miss the sea breeze, and the open space, and the lazy days in an oasis of calm in the chaos that is Mumbai.  And I will really, really miss the Awesome Okra.

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She’s Got a Ticket to Ride

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A few months back, I discovered the train.  Not so much its existence, but as a viable alternative to sitting in Mumbai traffic.  My verdict:  it’s AWESOME.

Rail travel in India gets a bad rap, especially if you are a woman traveling alone.  Newspapers frequently have stories of women and girls on trains and the men who are arrested for “outraging” their “modesty”, which is pretty much code for groping and feeling you up.  While I certainly do not mean to cast doubt upon that, and I’m more than happy to acknowledge the need for safe spaces for women in public, I have to say that my personal train experience has been overwhelmingly positive.  If there’s a space in public that needs to be safe for everyone, including women and girls, it definitely should be the train.  (Get on that, railway cops.)

I have a regular appointment twice a week in Bandra, and by the time I’m finished, it’s smack in the middle of rush hour.  For several months, I called an uber.  I then spent anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour-and-a-half in traffic.  During festival season from October to December, it was absolutely sordid.  While I was taking a rickshaw to my appointment, those wondrous 3-wheeled death boxes of awesomeness are prohibited from entering Mumbai proper where I live, so that was out.  Too bad, because rickshaws can maneuver where cars cannot.  I will admit that even though they may be shortening your ride, rickshaws could possibly shorten your life every time you ride them.

So, I started to investigate the train.  “It’s easy,” said I, my friend, “it’s only about four or five stops.  It’s probably sixty rupees?”  Wow.  That’s like, less than a dollar.

Still, I wasn’t 100% sure I could figure out the system all by my lonesome, so I enlisted my helper, V, to meet me one day and then ride the train with me home.  V met me outside and we started the short walk over to Bandra Station.  We passed paanwalas, street dogs, various commuters, and goats.  Down the winding alleyway we went until we were confronted with the imposing and beautiful façade of Bandra Station.

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From there, we went to the ticket booth.  V asked about the ticket price, and I bought two, one-way, first class tickets for the station closest to home.  Each ticket cost me fifty rupees.  That’s seventy-six cents; about a fifth of the cost of my uber.

We joined the throng of commuters rushing off to their trains, and climbed the stairway up to cross the tracks to our platform.  Along the way, we passed children coming home from school, beggars out for their daily bread, office workers, deliverymen, and people hawking the latest in earphones, plug adapters, stationery, and cheap plastic toys on low tables and bedsheets spread out on the ground.  On platform 3, we moved along to the orange-and-red striped pillars indicating that the first class train would stop there.  A few minutes later, the train to Churchgate pulled up, and we were on our way.

The first class cabin was crowded and the door blocked, so V and I went to the cabin next to it.

We had a sleeping guest.

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Turns out we were on a “sick train” as V called it, for the infirm or ill.  Still, V decided that we could pull the “Firenge card” (foreigner) and stay there and keep a seat, because obviously, I didn’t know any better and could get away with it.  I wasn’t entirely sure that I could get out of that car, find the appropriate one, and get back on before the train moved on, so I just stayed put.

Since I was seated in a sparsely-populated car, I was able to look around a bit.  The skull and crossbones on the wall indicating it was a “sick car” was a bit off-putting, but overall, I was impressed.  Shiny, well-maintained metal surfaces, hard surface seats that were sturdy and clean-ish.  Only one homeless person.

One thing that IS kind of freaky is the fact that you will never hear, “doors closing” because people, that ain’t happening.  Train doors don’t close, and in fact I’m not sure there are any.  I’ll have to look during monsoon.  It’s a bit dangerous, and during certain times it’s so packed that you see folks hanging off the edge out the door.  It’s also a bit unnerving the first time you see people jumping out on the platform while the train is still moving, but I’d say about 92% of the locals of all ages do this.   It’s part of the reason that trains in Mumbai (and across India) have such a dangerous record.  In 2017, over  3,000 railway commuters in the Mumbai area were killed.

A train fire in India is believed to have killed dozens of people.

Photo Credit: The Guardian.  I cannot believe I do NOT have a photo of this, but I blame a lack of high-speed shutter on my iPhone.

By the time we arrived at our station, I was so excited to be home almost an hour earlier than usual that I was ECSTATIC.  V thought I was amusing.  I think that’s what that smirk meant.

These days, I ride the train regularly.  I even took the train from all the way out in Andheri one day and it took about an hour of solid travel, so I figure I’m a pro.  If you’re ever on the Western Line, look for the blonde lady in flip-flops with her hair in a topknot listening to her iPod next to the doorway, enjoying the breeze as the train flies by.  Just don’t expect me to jump out in front of you onto the platform while the train is still moving as it pulls into the station.  I’ll leave that to the truly intrepid.

The Newbie’s Guide to Throwing a Party

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I’ve been to four planned gatherings in the last month.  One of them was a massive-scale, official function, two were small gatherings, and one was a themed, open-to-all, casual party.  For most of these, the events went off well – the atmosphere was inviting and warm, the food and beverage well-planned, and overall – people had FUN.

See what I did there?  That last phrase was so important, I put it in bold, italics, and underlined it.  Because that’s really what parties are about.  Fun.

To a lot of people, throwing a party is an opportunity to freak out, and that’s always baffled me.  I suppose that unlike a lot of folks, I grew up with the idea that hostessing was something that you did, that was important, and I had great role models for how to do it.  DiploGramps was in the military, and so DiploGram did the traditional army wife thing – coffees for the ladies (who pretty much all stayed home – this was in the days before telecommuting was a thing or jobs were “portable”), bridge nights, and at least one barbeque or holiday party every year.  I remember passing around peanuts and m&ms and opening the door to welcome people in for bridge nights (that’s a card game, whippersnappers).  I was probably seven at the time.  DiploDad had a similar experience with his grandparents, also a career military couple, and his grandfather was a military attaché in Egypt and Taiwan, where entertaining became second nature to them.

But even beyond the realm of the 1970s-80s military entertaining, there were a lot of other places to learn the skill along the way – sorority formals and date parties, ROTC events, prom in high school.  Sorority and fraternity membership dipped quite a bit in the 1960s and I don’t run into many young adults these days who admit to wearing letters.  This is sad, because in all honesty, these organizations, for all their faults, teach organizational and social skills like how to throw a party.

For an expat community, or indeed any community, building a sense of belonging is often achieved by parties and gatherings.  It gives people shared experiences, a chance to talk in a non-threatening environment, and if you want to be crass about it – a chance to “network”.  At the risk of being snarky, it’s what adults do to make life at your post, in your neighborhood, and in your community better.

Because I have been hostessing for a couple of decades now, and because I am damn good at it – I’m going to give you the essentials, and I’m going to level with you.  To begin with, I’m not going to tell you that you can throw a party for nothing, because you can’t – it will require a bit of investment.  But I will tell you that I’ve been to parties that have been pretty basic with respect to cost that still checked all the big three blocks:  food, drink, and music.  One of the best parties I ever went to was an impromptu BBQ thrown by my neighbor and his best friend when neighbor’s wife was out of town.  He invited the entire street, and well, he only had a small tub of potato salad, a few bags of chips, and a one-pound container of coleslaw from the local deli for about 30 people.  But he had about six different kinds of meat on the grill and four separate sauces to choose from, a couple of coolers of cheap beer and wine, and a loud sound system.  Again, the basics: food, drinks, and music.

Food

This is where about 40-50% of your budget should go.  Two considerations here – cost and menu.  Cost is the easy one – cut costs by shopping at stores like Costco, ethnic/international grocery stores (great deals on produce), and buy stuff that’s in season or on special.  Make food yourself – you’ll have to plan to start baking/cooking at least 2 days in advance for pretty much anything, so consider your time and energy for that sort of thing when making a decision.

When deciding what to serve – play to your strengths.  Those two guys who hosted the BBQ I mentioned? – that’s exactly what they were doing.  If you are a master griller, but hate baking, outsource dessert – buy a cake at a bakery, or ask a friend who loves baking to bring his or her specialty.  If you are a baker, but not much of a chef, consider having a dessert party with coffee, liqueurs, a cookies and milk set-up, or go for the French tradition of 12 different desserts on Epiphany (January 6), and bake and buy a number of treats.

Another consideration is choosing food around the theme of your party, if you choose to have a theme, that is.  If you are having a party on Texas Independence Day – that’s March 2 – serve Texas-style fajitas, beer, nachos, homemade salsa, and “Texas caviar” – a black-eyed pea salad with a vinegarette dressing.  Top it off with an easy cobbler, and you’re done.  If you are having a coffee morning, you need coffee, tea, water, juice, a loaf cake (e.g. banana bread), a coffee cake, some small quiches or savory bites, some fruit, and perhaps some small bakery items like mini-croissants.

Think you don’t have time but still want to put out a big spread? “Cheat” – be shameless and buy or cater if it makes sense or if you just don’t have time to make your own salad, dessert, or side dishes.  Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa and hostess extraordinaire, actually has a “country dessert platter” in her first cookbook and encourages you to just beautifully arrange a  “delicious and beautiful assortment of cookies, bars, and pastries from your local bakery”.  If Ina says it’s OK, it is, trust me.  I would personally draw the line at passing the baked goods off as your own, as say, another well-known TV chef did with my friend’s bakery’s cinnamon Danish.  Tacky.

The biggest problem with food is not preparing.  One of the parties I went to in the last month had practically ZERO food – and they had asked for RSVPs to plan for it.  The hosts were woefully unprepared, which is not the message you want to give to your friends, coworkers, or family.  That said, if it’s clear you put in the time and volume but the crowd is either so ravenous or so large (i.e., it got crashed – awesome) that they’ve stripped the buffet like a bunch of piranhas, that’s fine.  If you can, look into back-up foods – a few bags of chips with some salsa, nuts, olives, maybe cheese and crackers or some quickly cut fruit or vege can supplement the food.  If you don’t have any of that stuff on hand, don’t worry – people will know you planned and forgive you if you have lots of booze, which brings me to my next point . . . .

Drinks

I’m going to assume you’re throwing a party with alcohol.  In my line of work, most people drink, and most people choose to serve alcohol at parties.  If that’s not you, just substitute the words “mocktail” where I have “cocktail”.

Know your audience, is what I say.  It makes no sense serving beer if no one you know drinks it, and if you have a cocktail party, you should serve cocktails, or don’t call it that.  Confused about what to offer when?  Here’s a quick cheat sheet:

  • Backyard BBQ: beer, soda, wine, water, Kool-Aid or juice boxes if kids attending
  • Cocktail party: beer, wine, soda, signature cocktail (premixed 30 mins before guests arrive and stored in fridge – but add anything fizzy at the last moment), gin, vodka, bourbon, scotch, tonic water, soda water, still water.  (If you have a massive liquor cabinet, feel free to add to the list – I’m just listing basics here.)
  • Birthday Party (kids): water and juice boxes or Kool-Aid.  It is a GREAT investment to buy one of those 2-gallon water coolers or two and use that to dispense drinks.
  • Brunch: water, orange juice, tomato juice, sparkling wine, vodka, coffee, tea.  Other juices are nice too, but I’d personally avoid grape because of stain issues.  Kids seem to really like it, but can’t keep from tipping it over.  Adding a flavored vodka will make your screwdrivers or bloody Marys even more awesome.  Try a hot pepper one.
  • Open House: see Backyard BBQ above.  Add on signature cocktail if you are celebrating something special like Cinco de Mayo or Christmas.
  • Coffee: Coffee, tea, water, juice or lemonade.

Don’t be intimidated by the idea of a cocktail.  Start simple – learn to make at least one great signature cocktail.  Invest in a book on mixology – I personally like “Mix, Shake, Stir” from Danny Meyer’s New York City restaurant group, and everyone should own a Boston Bartender’s Guide.  A basic set of tools for drinks is also a must, and while it’s great to have quality items, if you are just starting out, you can make do with a more basic bunch of bar tools and some kitchen gadgets – a shaker, a shot glass (break out that one you bought on spring break your senior year), a teaspoon, a tablespoon, and a glass mixing cup.

If the party has a “defined time” – such as “from 3-6 p.m.”, you should budget a minimum of one and a half drinks per person per hour, unless you know for a fact your crowd is heavy drinkers or you have an outside party in the hot sun, in which case you should budget at least 2 per hour, including water and soft drinks.  When folks are outdoors, they tend to drink more on average, and most of the time you’ll move the nonalcoholic beverages a lot more quickly.  As tempting as it is, I’d advise you to skip the individual bottles of water and go for a water cooler – go green, and save cash at the same time.  For 20 people, you’ll go through a 2-gallon cooler about every two hours.  Keep water chilling in the fridge if you have room, and ice separately to put in the water cooler when you need to refill.

Music

Not all parties focus on this, and most folks don’t think of it until the last minute.  Even if it’s not a theme night that requires a certain kind of music, such as 50s Night, or an Elvis Party, you should take a moment to think about the kind of vibe you want, because music is a big part of setting the tone.  If you’re throwing a holiday party, just make the playlist.  Christmas and Halloween playlists can be recycled year after year and updated with minimal effort.  Just keep in mind that you probably won’t want to play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at a sophisticated adult holiday party (unless it’s a jazzy number by Diana Krall) and “Santa Baby” isn’t appropriate for a kid’ party.

If you’re woefully overwhelmed and can’t think of a friend to enlist for this task, check out any of the great online streaming services such as Spotify or Google Music and look for publicly shared playlists.  Try them out in advance and see which one speaks to you.  Trust me, even if you can’t break it down yourself, you can recognize it, and then you can capitalize on all the work someone else did on this front and put your energy into another aspect of your party.

After the Big Three, Look for the Extras – but ONLY if You Want to

Once you’ve mastered the Big Three, or if you feel confident taking on more, you can branch out to the fancy stuff.  Whatever you are looking to celebrate, you can find tons of help on the internet.  I don’t personally spend much time on Pinterest, but lots of people do, and while there are great ideas, it can be overwhelming.  The biggest thing to keep in mind when you DO go down the Internet rabbit hole is that you don’t have to DO everything a crazy, over-the-top party planner does.  There are people out there who make a living doing this, and there are also people out there who post about their fantastic party and pass stuff off as theirs when they had a professional do it.  One big thing with impact – a fantastic dessert, a really cool table decoration, a signature cocktail – can make your gathering memorable and up the fun factor.  If you have an idea, just type it into google, and you’ll get tons of ideas and images.  My rule of thumb:  if you do more than three things “new to you” per party, you’re going to drive yourself crazy, so just don’t go there.

Just keep in mind, with a little planning, and some great food, drink, and music, you’re golden.  Party on.

How to Survive a Diplomatic Function

Let’s be honest – if you’re invited to such a shindig, it’s probably going to be something cool, not something to “survive”.  That said, there are ways to make the experience a BIT more fun and exciting.  Every time, I go away thinking “that was the best night, EVER!”, even with some of the social and practical challenges, and over time, I’ve figured out a couple tips for how to enjoy yourself, and to avoid making a mess of things (most of the time), or living through a minor (or major) gaffe.  You’re welcome.

  1. If you have national dress of the host, wear it.  If you are invited to an Indian Independence Day function, rock the sari.  If you are going to hang with Ghanaian peeps, bring out the batik up-and-down.  If you don’t have anything, take a good hard look at your wardrobe – do you have edelweiss earrings for the Austrian-hosted reception?  A Chinese-collar blouse?  If you have anything that pays tribute in some way and recognizes the culture of your host, no matter how small, trot it out.  This is what I like to call “fashion diplomacy”.  Not only will it be appreciated, you’ll stand out a bit, which opens the avenues of conversation and you’ll actually get to talk to your hosts because you’ve started the conversation with your outfit.  Wear that icebreaker.
  2. Don’t Dress Like a Slob. The fact of the matter is, you’ll be walking in next to the Italian CG and his wife, who have their clothing subsidized by Gucci, so, do NOT wear something that should have been consigned to the rag bag.  Don’t get me wrong – you don’t have to go full-on designer and I’ve actually worn Target to functions, but you have to make sure you are well-turned out and that what you are wearing looks good on you.  If you’ve gained a bit of weight recently, be aware that your shorter dress may actually be too short in the back, and when you bend over people will see a bit more of you than they’d like to.  Avoid the big blousy stuff unless you are tiny and can rock it on your frame with some good accessories.  If you are a woman, and you’re not wearing national dress (see #1 above), go for a nice dress.  If you wear pants, for the love of God, wear a blazer, otherwise you look like the wait staff.  Yes, you do – quit fooling yourself.  If you want, put a blazer on with a nice dress, and you’re not subject to the congressional dress code, so go sleeveless if you want to and you can pull it off, and do the sandals too.  And accessorize – reference paragraph 1 above, and if you don’t have anything that fits the bill, go for a statement piece or simple pearl jewelry.  Guys – shave, or trim that Millennial beard.  Shine those shoes.  Wear a tie.  And if you have them, break out the cufflinks, dude – it’s a special occasion.  The bottom line is that you should be dressed just as nicely as you would be if you were going to a wedding as a single person looking to hook up.  Not that you should at this particular event.
  3. Remember What Your Mama Taught You.   The old-fashioned kind.  Open the door for ladies.  Thank the gentleman who opened the door for you.  Say please and thank you.  Let elderly people go first and offer them a seat.  Make eye contact when you shake hands and talk to people.  Don’t crush anyone’s hand or give them a limp fish.  If the French CG leans in to air kiss you, do it anyway, even if he’s a bit of a flirt.  Go through the receiving line and treat everyone the same.  Introduce your plus one by name, not just “my wife” or “my husband” or “my partner”.  Put a comma in that sentence and continue it – “My wife, Amy Jones.”  Find something nice to say about everyone and everything.
  4. Watch the Booze. Sometimes, you may have a little too much fun, but if this happens at every reception, it’s going to affect your career, your relationship, and your life.  If you are not a drinker normally, and you are nervous, this is not the time to try Long Island Iced Teas.  If you are, know your limits.  This is not a frat party, and there are people you will be among who will discuss you later.  Yes, I mean the dude representing the Country Who Will Not Be Named who appears to be drunk and groping everyone in sight.  Trust me, he’s not that lit.
  5. Try the Food When Prompted by Your Host. Countries go to great lengths to procure their local cuisine in foreign countries.  In some places, it’s easier than others, but in every case, tracking down a chef who can make the obscure delicacy that is the ambassador’s favorite stressed someone on staff out.  When someone from the host nation tells you to try the food and you don’t have a good excuse (i.e., vegetarian, allergic, religious restriction), just try it.  You might be surprised at how good a fish eyeball tastes. If you never mastered the fake chew and swallow whole as a child, get on it now.
  6. If You’re Cornered, Escape Delicately. Even if you are unaccompanied, you can always escape an awkward or boring conversation delicately.  Simply ask for a business card, say it was nice talking to the person, and excuse yourself.  Then walk all the way across the room and join another conversation.
  7. If You’re Not Acknowledged, Move On. This happens.  Either the group is all same-gendered and bonding, you’re not viewed as important enough, or the conversation is where someone is trying to close a deal or discussing something they shouldn’t be opening up on in public.  If no one brings you into the conversation and eye contact or smiling isn’t melting the ice, just walk away.  If your spouse or partner is in this group, get a clue and don’t get pissed – this is business and sometimes your presence helps and sometimes it doesn’t.  You need to trust him or her enough to read the subtle cues.  If it’s your supervisor and you should have been introduced, bring it up in the office the next business day.  If it’s a subordinate, read the previous sentence.  If it’s a casual conversation and the clique is just being jerks, say, “Thank you, gentlemen/ladies.  It’s been enlightening,” and walk off.  Be smart enough to know that the last option is one you should use only 2 or 3 times in your entire life.
  8. If Someone Joins the Group, Include Them. Unless it is someone who will completely dominate the conversation and push you out or who will alter the tone of a conversation that needs to happen, throw the newbie a bone, especially if you haven’t met him or her.  If the newbie alters the subject in a way that doesn’t work for you anymore, excuse yourself and move on to the next group.  This is a reception where you network and meet people, not a personal clique.
  9. Bail Out Your Buddies. Don’t leave your husband with the overly touchy tipsy businesswoman.  Don’t let your wife be cornered by the boor who only wants to talk about how his cousin was refused a visa.  If you notice that your coworker, spouse, or friend from another mission is uncomfortably trapped, walk in and say, “Oh, there you are!  Excuse me, there’s someone I would like to introduce you to,” say a brief hello to the other party, and steer the victim to the other side of the room and to a new conversation.  Don’t pull the rookie move of introducing someone to someone within his or her own mission.
  10. Remember, You WILL Make Mistakes. Over the last many years, I have brought flowers to a hostess that she was allergic to, “misconstrued” the history of Eastern Europe at a dinner party, and knocked over a few glasses of wine.  Just last night, I dropped an asparagus on the floor.  (Thank God it was outside and Indian street cats eat EVERYTHING.)  When this happens, do not blame anyone.    Make it right – offer to pay the dry clean bill, send a note, a box of chocolates, or anything else to apologize, but don’t dwell on it.  If you’ve screwed up on the clothing front and are having a wardrobe malfunction, stand with your back to the wall, count 10 minutes on the clock past the national anthems and speeches, and then bail, unless it’s so bad you need to leave STAT.  Smile.  Laugh it off.  And know that sometimes you just have to wak away (see asparagus comment).  If someone else commits a faux paux and looks up, panicked, smile at them and tell them, “oh, things like this happen,” and don’t be a jerk about it.  Continue the conversation with them so they don’t feel horrible and sneak off, but if they are running, let them.  If you see someone else in a bit of a bind, change the conversation, offer up some safety pins, move to offer your napkin, or whatever else will help diffuse the embarrassment.  Trust me, what goes around comes around.

Although they are technically work, remember that these events can be a lot of fun.  It’s a great chance to meet new people, learn new things, and have interesting conversation.  Just keep in mind you’re representing your country, and put your best foot forward.  You’ve got this.