Saturday, March 8, 2014

My Love/Hate Relationship with 'The Help'

Since I've moved overseas, I've had a maid.  When I was being 'sold' on moving to the Dominican Republic, Kimi at Las Picharditas informed me that it was the done thing to have someone come and clean your house for you.  And it was cheap.  And they would do a really, really good job.  Sometimes, you could find a maid who liked to cook and then you would have dinner waiting for you when you came home.  Um.  Okay.  Sounds great.  Where do I sign up for that?

When we got the fur-babies in Kuwait, we needed someone to come and walk them during the day and Vivien appeared.  She was magical with the dogs but we lived in a teeny-tiny apartment and didn't really need someone to clean everyday.  So she cleaned three days a week (dog hair) but did the dishes and made the bed every day.  It was only the weekends that we were aware of exactly how much the dogs shed and how lazy and sloth-like we had become in caring for our own home.

In Guatemala, we got our first NANNY.  Obviously we needed one as the Ladybug, at two months old, was hardly capable of taking care of herself while we were at school, advanced though she is.  The dogs were also no help in that area as neither had learned to cook and making bottles was difficult without opposable thumbs.  Andrea came every day at 7am and left promptly at 3:30pm.  She would babysit on a weekend on the rare occasion that we both wanted to go out and I was even brave enough to leave her for an overnight trip once for our farewell weekend.

It was hard to leave the Ladybug everyday but I knew she was safe in Andrea's capable hands.

Here in Bahrain, you not only have a maid, but a live-in maid/nanny is the thing to do.  As far as I know, all houses are built with maid's quarters- ours is on the third floor alongside the washer/dryer.  I wasn't sure how I felt about having a live-in so the first nanny we hired came over each day, just like Andrea.  It was okay at first, though truthfully, she and I never really clicked.  She clearly preferred the Sprout (a teeny-tiny thing) to the Ladybug and was happy to sit holding the Sprout, watching the Food Network while the Ladybug, at 18 months old, tried to amuse herself.

We let her go.

And we hired Luz.  And Luz wanted to live at our house.  So we said okay.  Luz is amazing- she takes care of my kids, feeds my dogs, does my laundry and keeps my house clean.  I can ask her to cook dinner if I know we're going to be late and if the Rugby Star and I both have something to do one night or we want to go out, she's there to babysit.  She clearly adores my kids (probably the Sprout a little more than the Ladybug if I'm being honest, but the Ladybug is a little sassier, so...) and they like her.  She knows a lot of other nannies in the neighborhood and will take the kids out the park in the afternoons to play and burn off some energy.  At night, when we take the girls up for a bath, she sneaks downstairs and cleans up after dinner so that when we're done getting those pickles in bed, we're done for the night.  It's pretty awesome.

The title of this post is My Love/Hate Relationship... and you might be asking, "What in God's name is there to hate?!"  And the truth is, there's only one thing.  And that is simply that I want to be doing the things she's doing with my kids.  Sometimes, depending on when I'm getting home, they'll just be heading out to the park.  I want to grab them both and take them back inside with me or go to the park with them.  But dinner needs to be made.  And they need to socialize.  I could ask Luz to make dinner but, unless she's made it before, it takes much longer to explain everything than if I just do it myself.  Also, I won't lie- it's nice to be alone in the house sometimes.

But that makes me feel guilty.

If she wasn't there, I wouldn't have the choice of dinner or playground- it would clearly be one or the other.  But this is the way it's done in Bahrain.  there isn't really another option, aside from getting another nanny who doesn't live with us, which would just be bad form at this point.  And I like having the option of going out with the Rugby Star whenever I want or popping over for a grown-up play date now and again.  Having a live-in nanny takes a lot (A LOT) of the stress out of my life.

Part of me doesn't mind letting someone else (besides just me and the Rugby Star) help me raise my kids... but clearly the bigger part does. 

The Ladybug had her birthday party this weekend.  Fun was had by all.  Minions were involved.  

Everyone has fun at our house... whether they want to or not!

Good try, Sprout!
Not even a little Despicable!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Five Things I Love About My Expat Life

I've found another link-up... and apparently I'm an expat blogger now.

My friend and fellow blogger (and sometimes running buddy when we aren't feeling too lazy) Becky and I were talking a few weeks ago about being an expat and what it means.  We discussed the quote I mentioned way back in our Expat Blog Challenge run by my friend Cristin at In an Opal Hearted Country- friends will listen to you talk about your expat life for a minute before tuning you out- your real friends will listen for two.

We were talking about how it shouldn't be that hard for non-expats to relate to us.  In general, we're doing exactly the same things, day in and day out, that our friends in the States (or wherever home is) are doing.  A typical day for me involves getting up, getting ready for work, walking to school (which admittedly is pretty different from the long commutes some of my friends have), teaching all day, walking home, hitting up the grocery store, playing with my kids, watching some TV and going to bed.  On the weekends, we might go to the rugby club, a birthday party here and there, the zoo, the water park, or just hang around, playing on the trampoline or playing with the neighbors.

Moving to a new country is a little lot like being in a new relationship- it's exciting and wonderful and you can't stop talking about it.  There are butterflies and adventures and 'first times' and you want to photograph everything... at first.  And then, it's just part of life.  Our 'at home' friends think they can't relate anymore because it all sounds so wonderful and so they might stop asking questions.  We also forget that what we're doing is pretty amazing and we get bogged down in the day-to-day of just living.

And then we start complaining.  It's so easy to find a million things that aren't like at home (or my previous country).  There are too many people, not enough people, the island is too small, this city is too big, everything is so expensive, I can't find Doritos, Chinese food doesn't taste like Chinese food, where are the damn black beans, why do I have to drive to a different store and pay $30US for a pound of bacon and DEAR GOD WHY IS IT SO HOT?!?!?

Sometimes it's hard to remember why we do this- why we travel the world, moving every few years, having to learn new languages and customs and rules.  It's too easy to get frustrated and agitated and spend your days longing for Target and reasonably-priced bacon.  So I thought this link-up, led by Amanda at Expat Life with a Double Buggy was a great way to remind myself of all the great things about being an expat.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

So here's my list of Five Things I Love About My Expat Life:

1. I love the adventure.
Each new country is an adventure- you don't know what you'll find or who you'll meet.  You don't know if you'll love it or hate it or feel sort of indifferent.  When you step off the plane for the first time, you have no idea when you'll be leaving and what memories you'll be taking with you.  It's undeniably exciting.

2. I have changed my views on the world.
There is more to life than my little hometown and I love that I know that now.  I'll never know if I would have been happy enough, content enough if I had stayed home, but I know that I'm really very glad that I didn't.  I have seen so much, done so much and met so many fantastic people who have broadened my scope on life (for all those love-birds out there, read on-I Roam Around, Around, Around). 

3. Airplanes are fun!
I don't know if this comes from the fact that I didn't get on an airplane until I was 17 or not but I love flying!  It's much harder now with the Ladybug and Sprout to pack for and keep track of, but I still like the whole process of traveling.   Airports are exciting, planes are exciting.  Knowing that you're going somewhere, be it back home or to your expat country where people will be happy to see you.  It makes me smile just thinking about it.

4. Vacations can be relaxing.
How can you not love life with that
little face to come home to?
Well, this isn't as true as it used to be, not with a one- and three-year old to amuse... but still, a lot of the pressure is off when we plan vacations.  We can go just to relax.  We get to travel a lot and it's relatively easy and cheap, especially around the Middle East.  This means that sometimes we can take a vacation just to vacate.  We don't have to worry about sight-seeing because we'll probably be back.  We could go spend three days at a hotel in Oman and not leave the hotel.  Or go to Dubai and skip Ski Dubai... this time.

5. It's a Small World After All
The international teaching community is a lot smaller than you think.  It doesn't feel that way when
we're recruiting and battling for jobs, but truthfully, it's a miniscule population of the world... it's just that we're spread out everywhere.  But when you figure out that someone knows someone who knows someone- instant friendships!  Or instant tour-guides.  Or instant places to stay when you visit.  It's an unbelievably wonderful community that you almost have to see to believe.

It's nice to remind myself every now and again why I love the life I'm living.  That's not to say that I forget- it's hard to forget with my two best girls and the Rugby Star smiling at my every day.  But sometimes the frustrations of expat life can get you down.  It's good to take a step back and remember why life is so amazing.

What are five things you love about your life?? 

Where Can I Get Pom-Poms (or Where I Shop)

One of the most fun and often frustrating parts of moving to a new country is figuring out what you can and can't buy... and where to find it.    In the US, we are accustomed to a one-stop shopping experience, especially with the explosion of Super Walmarts and Targets.  What?  I can get groceries, a dress, two pictures frames, a new headlight, a stability ball, a new DVD player, and modge podge all from the same place?  Don't mind if I do!   I'm sure you can also agree that it is easy to find things we didn't know we needed when we step into these palaces of stuff- Omg!  I did not even know they made hummous-scented candles but I totally need one!  And what if, God forbid, Walmart doesn't have the thing you went in for?  Well, then you probably didn't need it that much anyway, because you sure as heck aren't driving to another store- you've already been in Walmart for seven and a half hours, when you just ran out for milk.

The one-stop shop is almost an option here.  We have mega-stores but they are not as convenient as Walmart- one floor is groceries and one floor is household goods and never the two shall meet.  If you go shopping in one, you must pay for your items and then leave them at the counter before going into the upstairs or downstairs part of the same store.   And while the grocery section is pretty good, the household goods section is a bit like K-Mart- kind of cheep and sad.  You are almost guaranteed that they will not have whatever it is you've come for (this week it was no paintbrushes and the trike that I wanted for Ladybug's birthday... it was missing it's pedals... but it was still on the 'showroom' floor... for sale... *side eye*).

Bahrain is a lot like all of the other countries I've lived in where one of the biggest trials is figuring out what food you will have access to at the grocery store.  If you're lucky, you will be able to find all the ingredients you need for whatever you're cooking at Lulu or Gaent.  Except pork.  If you include pork on your list of things to eat, you will have to go to a different store that has a specific section just for pork products.  Many times, however, you'll get four of the five things that you need to make your chicken-a-la-something and, as you go to pick up that last item from the place it usually is, it won't be there (last week, this was cornstarch for me).  So you have to scrap that plan and figure out what you can make with what you have instead. 

I've gotten better at shopping and being prepared for food-related disasters since I first moved to the DR.  Initially I think the shock of what I'd done culture shock was enough that I needed the comfort of food I knew and liked.  So I spent a lot of money buying American brand foods so at least one part of my life still felt like 'home.'  Now, after so many years, it's just part of the adventure of being an expat.  Oh, you want to make Mexican casserole tonight?  Well, sorry- no black beans for you!  Ok, so you'll switch to stuffing meatloaf?  Nope, no stuffing.  Maybe PB&J sandwiches... no peanut butter. 

A man knitting booties in Shanghai
When I lived in Shanghai, I learned to knit.  I learned to knit because Shanghai was completely overwhelming for me and I was not happy in my job, so I spent a lot of time sitting on the couch watching TV.  As time passed, I became restless and unhappy that, after the end of a boring weekend in my apartment, I had completed nothing, done nothing.  Now this didn't spur me to get up and go anywhere- no, I still wanted to sit on the couch, but I wanted to be doing something.  Knitting seemed the obvious answer.  Shanghai was great for knitting.  Old ladies and men sat on street corners just knitting away.  There were little shops filled with gorgeous wools and yarns and, with enough pointing (or my friend M who spoke fluent Mandarin) I could get suggestions for whatever project I was working on.

Since I've started crafting, I've started asking more 'will I be able to get' questions as we prepare to move to a new country.  Yarn, I asked, upon my move to Bahrain.  The answer- a boisterous laugh.  It's the desert... who's sitting around knitting?  So I've had to find fulfillment in other crafty ways. 

Last year, a colleague responded to a school wide email I sent out, asking where I could find felt.  I was certain that the Ladybug needed a felt Christmas tree to make her life complete and I was determined to make her one.  M (a different M) took me to the... school supply store?  I don't even know what to call this place.  In Guatemala, we called it a sh!t shop.  Because it had any and all of the most random sh!t you could think of.  Need some hand lotion?  Check.  How about a baby doll?  Check.  Oh, you need some Smarties- got 'em.  The sh!t shop was like a very miniature, foreign (because you will never find the same thing twice) version of Walmart. 

So this store is like the Bahrain version of the Guatemalan sh!t shop.  Except it's gigantic.  It literally
Need a ball, lanyard or a plastic car?
has anything you could think of in terms of schools supplies.  And crafty supplies.  And paper.  And plastic food.  And magnets.  And felt, and bobble heads and key chains and face paint.  And yesterday I saw a laminating machine.  You have to turn sideways to get down most of the aisles and if someone else is also coming down that aisle, you will have to move into another aisle.  Carrying a basket, which you need because you will find exactly one million things that you NEED, is a recipe for disaster as you will knock something off of some shelf.  There are rarely prices on anything.  The owner adds everything up on a calculator and then gives you a discount.  Once, when I brought some of the newbies, just to show them where it was and what they could get, he gave me a free key chain because I gave him new business.  I don't imagine that happening in Walmart...
Or maybe stencils, canvas, or a book bag?

How about paper? 

It's a super-miniaturized version of Michaels... though much less organized.  Going shopping here is a little like going on a scavenger hunt, really, and everyone loves a scavenger hunt!  The shop is not easy to get to and is actually harder to get home from.  But at least I know where to find felt.  Do I wish that I could have a one-stop shop in Bahrain where I could just get everything I needed at the same time?  Yeah, most of the time.  Is there something to be said for knowing where to find googly eyes when your daughter wants a minion party and getting a free key chain from the sh!t shop owner?  Yeah, most of the time. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Ladybug is Three!

Yesterday on FB, I started to write, "At this time last year, I was waiting to have a baby," or something like that.  It took me a minute to realize that it was this time THREE YEARS AGO.  Oh my goodness, how the time has flown!

If I'm following the Expat Blog Challenge format (and I mostly am), Tuesdays are about blogging.  During February, we looked at our 5th post, thought about what we wished we'd done differently when we started the blog, showed off another blog/blogger we admired, and revisited an old post to say more about it.  Ever-so-briefly, I'm going to revisit a couple of old posts, because Lord knows I've got more to say :)

If you're interested in the Ladybug's birth story or the craziness of getting her passport in Guatemala, feel free to check out this post from March 2011.  It's not too gory or graphic... unless you talk to the Rugby Star who got caught on the wrong side of the c-section sheet! 

At the hospital on her very first day of life
The Ladybug Cometh.   I did not know what I was in for.  Three years later, I am overwhelmed with the amount of love I have for this little girl, even when she is trying my patience to the very edge of sanity.  This morning, she woke up, rolled over (she climbs in bed with us each night, usually around the 2am mark), smiled a sleepy but genuinely happy smile and said, "I love you."  It was all I could do not to eat her alive.  I mean really, just consume her and her sweet little face.  I sang her Happy Birthday and she smiled again and said, "Thank you." 

The Ladybug at three:  She has such a funny personality.  She's moody like her mom, watches TV and movies like her dad, gets angry like... well, probably me again, and laughs outrageously like her sister, Z.  She will chase and tickle the Sprout and then turn around and punch her in the stomach.  She has started singing along to songs on her CD's and in movies and gets unbelievably excited about cheesy pasta.  She likes to dress up now and again and her toys have started having conversations with each other- mostly about snuggles and cheesy pasta, which is adorable.  She doesn't have access to commercials the way some kids do, so she doesn't ask me for stuff and I really had to guess what she might want for her birthday.  She loves running and jumping and has discovered that she can stand up to swing in the big-girl swing. 

She likes building sand castles, coloring and painting.  She really likes crafts and sensory stuff and is finally using the felt projects I spent hours cutting out almost a year ago.  She loves books and reading and chooses to sleep with books over toys many nights.  When she stays up late, I catch her reading in bed, versus playing. 

She says "I love you" a million times a day. 

And I know that three is going to be hard.  It's already started, truthfully.  The tantrums have gotten epic, comparatively.  The screaming is so loud I have to cover my ears and she can go from loving to hateful in 2.2 seconds.  But we'll make it.  We'll figure it out.  Other people have made it out of three alive... I'm sure we will too!

Happy Birthday sweet girl! 

My First Linkup- The Unexpected Challenge

‘The Unexpected Challenge’ – share something that you had not expected that was a challenge to overcome (it can be a positive or negative challenge). You can share how you dealt with it, or are still trying to – anything that you want to write about. End with three tips on how best to face an unexpected challenge whilst living abroad.

I have mentioned before that I have a terrible, somewhat irrational (somewhat not) fear of getting lost.  This fear is multiplied when I live in a country where I don't speak the local language fluently, like Guatemala and China.  Living in Bahrain has helped quell that fear... a little.  It's an island so, unlike Guatemala, there's no danger of driving off into the night and ending up in Mexico.  And pretty much everyone speaks some English at least, which is particularly helpful as my Arabic is... lacking is a nice word.  I know when I go out exploring in Bahrain that, should I get turned around, I'm either going to end up at the entrance to the Saudi Causeway, which I am not allowed to cross or in the ocean.  In either case, I can turn around and, following the numerous signs to the BIC (Bahrain International Circuit- the F1 track), I can find my way home. 

But the fact is, Bahrain, like all many of the countries I've lived in, does not believe in street names and signs in the same way we do in America.  I love street signs.  LOVE them.  I panic when I can't figure out what road I'm on or if I'm meant to turn here or there no matter where I am.  Of course, in the States, I can just ask someone.   And while I can ask someone in Bahrain, usually without language restrictions, their ability to explain how to get where I'm going using phrases like, 'turn left at the palm tree, drive across the sand, then when you see the beige building look right," is entirely unhelpful.

Case in point: a couple of weeks ago, some students asked me to come watch their show jumping competition and I thought, "Hey, the Ladybug and Sprout might like that," so I agreed to go.  Then I set about trying to figure out how to get there. 

Google Maps works in Bahrain, as long as someone has already entered the name of the place you're trying to go.  There are street numbers but I'm not sure anyone really knows them and I've never really seen them marked, so they don't seem to serve much of a purpose.  I put in Twin Palms Riding Centre into Google Maps- no go.  I asked the girls if they could tell me how to get there... "Our drivers take us."  Not helpful.  So I went to the website.  These are the directions: 

From Manama: Take the Saar turn off Sheikh Kalifa bin Salman Highway onto Avenue 13, at the T junction turn right, driving past St Christophers Junior School. Turn left and follow the road up to where it becomes desert, carry straight on along the desert track and you will find TPRC straight ahead of you.

I'd like to tell you that was the first time I've gotten directions that told me to drive into the desert, but that would be a lie.  Twice now, when trying to buy something off the Bahrain version of Craigslist, I've had to cross the desert to get to people's apartments.  Twice now, they've had to come out to meet me somewhere and let me follow them home.  Directions like these don't work for me.  I need roads and signs and landmarks.  I need a kind voice telling me to turn left now. 

It's been the same in almost every country I've lived in.  The DR and Shanghai were slightly easier for me as a traveler/explorer because we mostly relied on taxis which was great except if they didn't know where they were going.  Kuwait and Bahrain have been better because of the language factor and because they basically have two big roads and once you're on them, you'll eventually end up where you're trying to go.  But the cities are confusing and roads are going one way and then they're not and you can easily get lost back in the small barrios if you're not careful.  Guatemala was a whole different beast and I still get nervous thinking about the times we got lost, mostly because of the danger factor.  

I get uneasy when I'm asked to go somewhere new.  Not having road signs or street names is a major
Turn left at the second camel on your right
challenge for me and not one I'm likely to overcome.  All I can do is continue to explore and become more familiar with my surroundings so that when someone tells me to cross the desert, past the apartments and the camels then turn half-right onto a bit of a track, I won't be so freaked out.

Three Tips on How Best to Face an Unexpected Challenge Abroad:

1.  Stay calm.   You can't figure anything out if you're panicking.  This goes for everything from driving to picking out what may or may not be ketchup when you first move to China.
2.  Phone a friend.  If you know someone who can help, call them.  Veterans (usually) love helping newbies, at least in my experience.
3.  Ask lots and lots of questions.  Try to understand if the challenge you're facing is just a challenge for you or is it challenging for everyone.  Then you can ask for advice on how to deal with it.