Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My nasal passages have been assaulted by two very distinct smells recently. The first is cheese - not a bad smell, in my book. Matt bought a load of cheese to take to our friends in Istanbul as gifts from afar. While Turks do salty, soft, white cheese really really well, the cheddar...not so much. Pork products and cheese are the currency of expats in Istanbul and while living there, I would have much rather received either than flowers at any dinner party I hosted.

But I digress. So he bought all this cheese, and then he forgot it. Oof. He also forgot the salami and parma ham. Those are stored safely in the freezer. But cheese doesn't freeze so well, so I'm left with a mini-fridge full of cheese. And now I'm looking for recipes to use up the cheese, preferably things I can freeze for later. Jalepeno cheddar scones caught my eye, and of course there's macaroni and cheese, but I'm not sure how well that would freeze. And while I will certainly eat some of it before he comes home, even I, cheese-lover that I am, can't eat that much.

So if you are in the Hong Kong area and are thinking, Hmmm, you know what would taste good right now? Some CHEESE. Just come on over. Apples and crackers will also be provided.

The other scent is the pungent odor of mothballs. I took the subway recently and the smell just about knocked me over. Strong and unrelenting, combined with a packed rush-hour train. Looooovely. Since the temperature dropped, everyone has raided their closets and dug out the winter wear. It's gone up above 70F/20C again, so maybe I will be spared for the next week.

Thanksgiving is just a few days away and I have to admit, after 6 years overseas, it's the one holiday that can make me a touch homesick. Why? I think it's the fact that Thanksgiving is a simple, uncomplicated holiday. You eat turkey, maybe play some football (or at least watch it on TV), enjoy crunchy fall weather (at least on the East Coast where we lived), and then eat leftovers. There's not much else involved. And it's a national holiday, with no attachment to religious affiliation. So just about everyone is doing the same thing. And if we were in the US, we would be too.

It's just the kids and I this year, so I think we'll have a turkey breast and the basic trimmings. With some cheese thrown in for good measure. And, if we get all the homework done, we can even watch the beginning of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade before bedtime.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Several Random and Completely Unrelated Recent Observations

1. I was at the grocery store the other day, laden with several unwieldy bags. Definitely time for a taxi. I approached the store staff member stationed by the exit door "Excuse me, can you please tell me where the nearest taxi stand is?" She looked at me, smiled, and said, "You want a taxi?" And in that moment, I understood. She did what I so often did in Istanbul. Someone would speak a relatively uncomplicated sentence in Turkish and I would respond with my understanding of what they were asking, in the most basic of terms. Hoping that I got what they were asking.

"Yes, I want a taxi." And thank you. I get it.

2. People here are spoiled. Absolutely no doubt about it. Anyone can find inexpensive domestic help. But... I was walking our dog Teddy the other day when I came upon two domestic helpers walking one small dog. 2 people, 1 dog. They paused by a garbage can, one of them pulled a roll of toilet paper out of her bag, and wiped the dog's butt. I. am. not. joking. Then, she pulled more toilet paper off the roll and wiped each of his feet. In my ever optimistic frame of mind, I hope that was voluntary and not required.

3. The weather dropped below 70F/20C for the first time since we've been here. Bundle up Hong Kong.

4. Halloween was 4 days ago, and the day after, apartment workers were busy unwrapping and preparing Christmas decorations. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Monday, September 21, 2009

So, I’ve been writing this update in my head for a good long time and am now actually sitting down to do it. For the most part, all is well and I cannot complain. Getting settled in Hong Kong is miles easier than getting settled in our last post on so many levels. First, there’s the fact that so many people speak English. We are living in a large apartment block with maintenance people and staff to call when things inevitably go wrong. Supermarkets are well-stocked with plenty of familiar items. But, it’s still a new place where we don’t know anyone.

The kids seem to be doing well at school, adjusting to the new curriculum and sailing along academically. Older daughter has started playing the flute for the band and is trying to catch up to her classmates who started last year. She’s actually doing very well, though she is frustrated that she’s not playing like James Galway from the word go.

She’s also taking swimming lessons that eventually csn lead to a swimming team. The pool is a 50-metre lap pool. HUGE! After the first lesson she wobbled to the stands on legs that looked like they were made of jelly. While she’s swimming (and I’m waiting) I watch the Chinese kids who train in the same pool for the pool’s club team. Imagine 25 kids in each lane, swimming lap after lap after lap, keeping a distance of about 2 feet between swimmers, never more, never less. Like a well-oiled machine they just keep going and going and going. For those practicing backstroke, they take an empty yogurt drink container and have to balance it on their forehead while they swim. Unbelievable!

She's made some friends though there’s some 5th grade girl meanness to deal with. One girl in particular is nice one day, not nice the next. We’re still learning the hierarchy but there seem to be a few small groups and then a large pool of mostly nice girls who sort of float between groups. Girl politics! Ugh.

The smaller boy has also adapted well and is boldly speaking Mandarin enthusiastically. He has a fantastic teacher who I think he feels very comfortable with. The teacher is experienced and encouraging while setting the bar high for the kids. He’s taken up basketball, karate and golf, with lessons each week for both. He’s also playing floor hockey at school. Next term, who knows. There’s rugby, soccer, cricket, tennis – you name it, they can try it!

I marvel at the way they’ve adjusted and then, BAM!, we’ll have a setback or a rough night with someone in tears. Tonight was the smaller boy's turn and I have to admit that I’ve not heard him sob that way in a long time. He was missing his friends from our last post, and named each and every one -- from his friends at school, to friends from our compound, to his favorite 13-year-old guy babysitter. I tried to comfort him by telling him we could send some e-mails tomorrow to say hello and he said, “I don’t want to just e-mail them, I want to TOUCH them.” It just about broke my heart. We’ve arranged for a playdate on Friday after school so slowly, slowly, we are getting there.

My husband's job is only a short 15 minutes away. It has been a real treat to have him often home by 6:30 p.m. for dinner when he’s not traveling. We can actually eat together, or at the very least, have him home to help with a bit of homework and tuck in the kids.

And me? Well there is certainly no excuse for being bored, as every possible activity ever invented is available for those who are interested. And yet, Hong Kong has a way of making you feel utterly and completely lonely sometimes in a way only a large, crowded city can.

I’ve signed up for 8 classes of Catonese which is ridiculously hard as we are not learning to read or write, just speak. Throw in 5 different tones and words that start with a “ts” or “ds” sound and it’s an 1 ½ hour brain scramble. We learned that if you say the word for 9 with a “middle” tone versus a “rising” tone you will instead be saying the word for male genitalia. Proceed with caution!

Grocery shopping, as I said, is relatively easy as there are plenty of familiar foods available. All displayed neatly next to the unfamiliar yet entertaining foods like chicken feet (imported from Brazil!), tongue, pigs hooves, and snacks such as BBQ-flavored shrimp puffs. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword because for so many years it was easy to keep my kids off crappy American snack food as we couldn’t find it or it was unbelievably expensive. Here, you can often find it and it’s merely more expensive. A slippery slope. And of course, there are 4 or 5 major chains and you can’t find everything you need at one place. Things come and go, so buy when you see it as it may not be there tomorrow!

The weather has gone from scorching hot to just blazing hot. When the humidity’s below 70% it’s bearable. And when it’s higher, yuck. The kids have off a week at the end of October so we’ve decided to stay here and play tourists, doing all the stuff we would have liked to do when we first got here but couldn’t because it was just too hot.

Ocean Park and giant buddha - here we come!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

So, two hazy days in Hong Kong - hazy for so many reasons. The weather's been alternately rainy, foggy, drizzly, cloudy, stormy, basically anything but sunny. And warm in a way that reminds me of an unpleasant visit to a 70s-era retirement home, or a crowded, stuffy doctors office when you don't feel well. My mind's been in an award-winning haze from the 12-hour time difference and jet lag, trying to pull myself out of it; wide awake at 4:00 a.m. (always with Lucas) and at 4:00 p.m. feeling like I'd stayed up all night and drank too much the night before.

Fun, no? While it sounds rather unpleasant, it's not. we are all happily, lazily, investigating our new surroundings. Swimming in between the raindrops in the super-duper pool downstairs. Spending time each day with Teddy in the quarantine facility. Discovering the small grocery store a short walk away. I just know Darcy is already imagining herself walking there to grab some milk. Taking the apartment shuttle that drops you in a completely convenient shopping street to try and find a hair dryer. Opening up a joint bank account (wow! I don't even have to have a work visa!).

Here are two of the oddest moments so far:

- in the bank, opening up our local bank account. While waiting for the bank rep to type in all our information, I was looking through the details of the rental insurance. Turns out, you can add Golfer's Insurance. It covers you for up to HK$3,000 (just under US$400) for Hole-in-One celebrations. I chuckled, and showed Matt, thinking it was some sort of vanity option. He told me, no, it's serious business. Apparently in much of Asia, and especially if you are playing with Japanese businessmen, and you score a hole-in-one, you are expected to share your celebration with everyone you are playing with, and you foot the bill. It's an extra US$5 per month. We'll decline and risk it.

- in a cab on the way back from visiting Teddy. I speak no Chinese. Not one word. I can't even say please or thank you, yes or no. Before moving to Turkey and Thailand, I did manage to learn a few words before getting off the plane. For no apparent reason, I've not made the same attempt here just yet. Will do, but haven't. But most people here understand the minimum of English to get by.

So when the taxi driver kept muttering to himself I wasn't worried per se, but aware. His muttering got increasingly animated and I kept wondering if we were offending in some way, if the kids were too loud, what the problem was. I also suddenly thought one of us has stepped in dog doodoo while visiting Teddy. Crap, he's pissed off at us. (no pun intended!)

Suddenly, he's waving at the available taxi that's in front of us as we approach a stop sign on a busy, busy road. I ask, "Are you OK?" and he says "OK, OK YOU GO THAT CAB". What?? In the middle of a major road?

Then he says, "I GO TOILET". Now, I am very familiar with the need to sometimes use the present tense of a verb in a language you don't really speak very well because at the very moment you need to speak that language, you are flustered and upset or in a bit of a crisis. I hustle the kids out the cab, and feel bad for the man that's hopefully speaking in the future tense, and not, poor guy, the present or the past.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

After four years in Istanbul, we are down to 3 more days. Incredible. Where did the time go? I keep thinking I have time for one more trip here, one more stop there. But I don’t. The packers have come and gone and the house is empty (imagine major echo here). There are a few things left; the dregs of a lively, laughing, sometimes screaming house full of… us. It’s so sad to see a stray hair clip or action figure leg lying helplessly in a corner.

The past 2 days have been a train that has picked up speed and is DEFINITELY on autopilot. I have nothing to do with any of it now. Our suitcases are packed and I expect to arrive in the US like a kid on a bike that hasn’t learned how to stop, careening in, slamming on the brakes, overstuffed suitcases leaking Turkish delight and stray socks and one last pair of silver earrings and lovely cards from much loved friends and last minute purchases of our favorite lentils tucked in to every corner.

Ahhhh, vacation. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it does keep getting brighter. A few more hurdles – award ceremony at school tomorrow, goodbyes to our great friends who are leaving for vacation, a half-day last day of school, no doubt full of tears and hugs and laughing. Turning over the keys, one last lap around the compound, a swim in the pool and our last night dinner with friends. Bittersweet. I’m not really one for cloying sentiments – I never liked those big-headed kids who were all over the “Love is…” paraphernalia of the 70s. But I did recently hear something that made me smile, a smile of understanding, sadness, and sweetness all rolled into one.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”
--Dr. Seuss

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Language...it's always all about the language

Do you remember being younger and singing the words to a song, and then finding out that the words you were singing were SO VERY WRONG! Blinded by the Light by Bruce Springsteen comes to mind.

If you don't understand what your are hearing, how can it be wrong?

Recently I took the kids and Darcy's friend to see the Hannah Montana movie. Yes, I took one for the team. Matt went to see the new Star Trek movie at the very same time. To say he owes me is an understatement.

Prior to the movie, there were the obligatory commercials and previews. Turkey is famous for what often turns out to be a half-hour of crap before the actual movie starts. So we sit through all of this, kids getting increasingly squirrely, and the last preview that comes on flashes a warning "This preview has been rated R" Wha-wha-what??

Why are you showing an R-rated preview at a kids movie?? It was for the fine cinematic creation called My Best Friend's Girl. The preview started with the term "blow job" in the first 30 seconds, included a scene in a strip club with a young lady on her hands and knees and a young man facing her posterior with both hands on her hips, and included more swear words than I've ever heard in 2 minutes. And I have been known to let a few fly.

Gulp! I complained to the manager who said, "Really?? I didn't know it was so offensive." Guess I wouldn't either if I didn't speak the language. I wish I knew the words in Turkish to explain the gravity of the situation.

Two days later, my cleaner showed up at work with a shirt for Darcy. She has seen one or two of Darcy's occasional pre-teen outbursts and has 2 nieces around the same age. She's very sweet and wanted to get her something special. So she shows up with a black tank top with silver writing all over it. A bit too old for Darcy but I figure I can get her to wear it one day, the cleaner sees her wearing it, and I'm off the hook.

Except when I look at it a bit closer, I realize that there is one word you can actually read. One word among all the silver letters that suddenly jumps off the shirt to me. The word is "orgasm". Oh....my....goodness....

I call my Turkish friend to ask what the protocol is when your cleaner gives you a completely inappropriate shirt for your 10-year-old and to ask what the word is in Turkish as there's no way I can get around telling her why I can't accept the shirt.

For future reference, the word is the same, just add an "i" to the end. I sheepishly point out the now very obvious to our cleaner, who is beyond appalled. Cok Kutu! she declares (Very bad). Cok comik! I reply (very funny). Hayir! Cok ayip! (NO! That's shameful!)

I can only imagine the language she will use with the poor unsuspecting stall owner when she returns the shirt to the Wednesday market. I'm sure there will be no misunderstanding.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I went with some girlfriends for a quick 24 hours away. We headed to Termal, a small, quirky and completely wonderful little place that proudly displays it's award-winning status "Voted gold medal spa in 1911" on the front cover of their brochures.

We had heard about their healing waters, their Turkish baths, steam room, and, most importantly, a break from our darling offspring. So, after a not-so-quick trip through Istanbul's legendary traffic, a short stint on a fast ferry, and a few wrong turns on the other side of the Marmara Sea, we arrived.

While Termal resort is a spa, think old school Eastern European taking-the-waters spa with 25-year-old decor, not shiny, white, fluffy towels-type spa. Our expectation level had been appropriately set and we were more than ready to hit the water, in this case, the thermal baths and hamam.

We started out for the mixed hamam which was also the entrance to the outdoor thermal pool. When I see "mixed", I think men and women, together. Turkish mixed, however, seems to mean "25 or so men wearing small swimming trunks and towels covering their hairy shoulders staring at the 7 foreign women who appear to be the only females of any kind who are about to strip down to their swimsuits in front of us. Yee-haw!"

We quickly decided perhaps this was not the section we were looking for and hightailed it out of there. Once we found the women's spa, we got into the groove. Warm, wooden changing rooms, warmer marble spa room with toasty soaking tub, and warmest steam room. Hea-ven!

After visiting some of the tourist hamams in Istanbul, which are still enjoyable, this haman was like comparing home cooking to carryout. Grandmothers with little girls, friends getting together on a Friday evening, old ladies brushing their hair, teenagers sitting together and singing Turkish pop tunes.

A couple of women started talking to me while waiting for our dried skin to loosen and rub off. One was an English teacher and one was a Religion teacher at a local school. The religion teacher was really interested in who I was and what I was doing there. She even asked my zodiac sign.

The conversation got interesting when she asked what religion I was. Christian, I replied. Then she asked if I went to church. When I said "not on a regular basis" she asked "Why?" I began to wonder if my mom had prompted her to call. Keep in mind that we were discussing religion in a mix between elementary Turkish and English for non-native speakers.

The best moment was a while later when we reconnected in the steam room. She wanted to ask just one more question. Sure, why not.

"In Islam, we have one god, Allah. There's the prophet, Mohammed, but just one god. In Christianity, you have three - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. How exactly does that work?"

What!!!!! I don't know if I can even explain this in English...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Oh, I have been such a reluctant blogger. I must be better about posting. Will make an early- to mid-year resolution to improve. I have to admit there have been times where I think "Oh, that would make for a good blog entry" and then convince myself that it's too boring or self-absorbed or complicated to explain. Then I find another blogger somewhere who's even more boring or self-absorbed or explaining something ridiculous and don't feel so bad. Or by the time I have the time to write about it, my middle-aged mind doesn't remember what I was going to write in the first place.

So what have been our adventures in expat parenting lately? Life in general, I suppose. Broken bones, school trips, homework supervision and the like. We spent nearly an hour in a clothing store with the 7-year-old boy trying on jeans and shirts to replace the jeans with holes in every knee and shirts that have suddenly become too small. Everything is European sizing in centimeters which I have figured out, though each time I shop I have to take a minute and remember. But, annoyingly, 7-year-old boy refused to let anyone else in the changing room with him and had to try everything on himself. This, as you can imagine, made the process take muuuuuch longer than necessary. He did manage to strike a pose every time he came out which did add some comic value of the entire procedure.

We are also processing through the fact that we are moving to Hong Kong in June. While everyone is excited, the impending move has thrown an emotional wrench into the entire family. Preteen girl is most susceptible and is a bit like a ticking time bomb at the moment.

I realized while thinking about moving that we will have been here 4 years when we move which is the longest I have lived in any apartment or house since I was 18. Now that's weird.