Sunday, February 22, 2015

When in Rome- An Approach to Child Rearing

My kids cannot behave in the airport.  I don't know what it is, but they literally cannot stand still and just wait for the Rugby Star to make his appearance after a weekend away.  Maybe it's the pure excitement of seeing Daddy again, maybe it's that they know, even at their young ages, that the airport is a magical place that often means getting to see friends and grandparents again in person.

Maybe it's simply that they are two and almost-four and squirming and wiggling and running circles around me is just what you do at that age at the airport.

Whatever the reason is, it's the only place that they truly embarrass me.  There are too many people standing still just watching their behavior.  And watching my behavior.  I feel judged.  I feel like people are judging my girls who are normally less-psychotic in public.  These strangers don't know that my children say please and thank you without being prompted (well, the bigger one anyway).  They are unaware that just that day, The Ladybug said, "Excuse me, could you please pass me that random toy... thank you!" to a little girl she was playing with.  These Airport People don't know that my kids can sit on a nine-hour flight without so much as the tiniest scream or kick of a chair.

All they see are the tiny, manic people circling me, singing their ABC's at the top of their voice.  They see two little heads, one brown and one red, squishing themselves between the barriers and peering around the corner, waving at anyone who will look at them.  They see the little one leaning on the big one until she falls over, then crashing on top her, laughing hysterically.  And they see this momma, grabbing a tiny arm, pulling the little delinquents in close and hissing, "If you don't stop, we're going home. Right. Now."  

The truth is that, more than likely, no one is even paying attention to me or my kids.  There is a slightly different approach to child-raising here than how I grew up.  Children in this country are allowed to be children.  I have run across very few adults who have glared or given me a side-eye for a wily child running through the mall.  Most people smile and try to touch them or take a picture of them.  Women frequently ask how old they are and if they're twins (not even close).  No one seems to mind when they peer over into their booth at a restaurant; in fact, most people play peek-a-boo with the girls, inciting loud, raucous laughter from both tables.  

There's a comfort in knowing that no one is judging your children or your parenting skills.  I think the Mommy Wars have instilled a sense of fear in most mothers- am I doing this right?  What if I'm not?  Who will tell me?  How will they tell me?  I feel lucky- in public spaces, there always seems to be at least a couple of kids who are behaving worse than mine and no one seems particularly bothered by any of them.  I take a certain satisfaction in knowing my kids are not screaming or deliberately running into people.  It doesn't seem to matter either way- no one is paying attention here.  

This is a culture of children raised by nannies- nannies who are afraid to discipline (or not allowed to) and parents aren't really interested in doing it, so children are allowed to behave as children will.  There is something to be said for spending a meal time chatting with your friends while little Johnny and Suzie run through the restaurant, dancing, screaming, knocking things over and generally causing a ruckus and not caring.  Not even glancing up.  Coming from a 'sit still and stay quiet' culture, the ability to let kids have fun without being embarrassed or feeling like you need to yank them out of the public eye is almost magical.  As a parent, it's certainly tempting to sit back and say, "When in Rome..." and let the little buggers have their fun while Momma sips her coffee and checks Facebook.

Look at the mischief in those eyes...

Maybe I should step back and let them just run and play.  Maybe if we let children be children, they'd stay children longer.  I don't remember getting taken out to restaurants very often as a kid.  It's probably because our parents knew we couldn't sit still.  Now, with iPads and phones and games and Kindles, you can go out to dinner and everyone is entertained.  But is it even nice to force a child to do that- go somewhere and sit still in one place, quietly and wait for food?  Do they need to learn how to behave in that situation this young?  Can I let them climb over and under tables and chairs while we try to eat?  Parents here seem perfectly happy.  I see them chatting and lingering over meals and coffees.  It looks nice.  It looks peaceful.  It looks like something I could do- just let them be kids.

BUUUUUT... on the other hand, I don't want my kids to act like hooligans.  I would like them to at least try to sit still when we're out at a restaurant, for a few minutes anyway.  Pretend the knife and fork are friends who are just meeting for the first time.  Try and build a fort with a napkin or heck, just color in the kids menu.  Maybe even have a few minutes on the phone or LeapPad when the sitting gets too tough.  I would like to take them to the airport to pick up the Rugby Star without threatening to leave, oh, eight-ish times in the first ten minutes.  I would love for strangers to smile at them, not because they are so adorable (which they are) but also because they are so well-behaved.  Those strangers could think, "What well-behaved children!  Their mother must be fantastic at this parenting business."

At the end of the day, they're kids and they will act as kids do.  I have a moral responsibility to teach them to behave as non-crazy as possible when they're out in public. And they have the responsibility to do just the opposite to the best of their ability.  Whether people are or aren't judging me or my kids, well, that's their business I suppose.  I'm doing the best I can and, for now, it's definitely good enough.

**Evidenced by the fact that the Ladybug just came downstairs in her pjs and, when she saw me, smiled so big (I was out to dinner with L tonight).  "Momma, I saved you a pie so you could eat it when you got home.  Want me to get it for you?"  That, ladies and gentlemen, says I'm doing something right.

What differences in parenting styles have you noticed when you travel?  Are Americans too hands-on?  

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Little Taste of Home

The first time someone said, "Hey, you wanna go get some falafel?" to me back in 2002, just after my initial move to the Dominican Republic, I remember thinking, "What the falafel is falafel?"  I had never heard of such a thing and wasn't quite sure if it was a food, a drug, a drink or the latest bank of sandal.  After discovering it was indeed edible, the various descriptions that friends were giving did little to inspire confidence that I would enjoy this falafel. 

"Oh, it's fried, mashed chickpeas," said one.  Uh okay.  What's a chickpea?

"It's good.  It's weird because it's green on the inside.  But it's good."  Right.  Using weird in a sentence describing food is never a good idea, unless you're the Bizarre Foods Guy from the Travel Channel.  Or the Food Channel.  Or both.

It was several invites later before I finally agreed to go to this little hole-in-the-wall falafel place in the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo.  A plate was brought out, I hesitated, then tried one.  And was instantly... okay about the whole thing.  I mean, thirteen years later I enjoy falafel.  I've had enough to tell the difference between a good falafel and a bad one.  I probably could've lived my whole life without tasting one, but I'm glad I did.  At the time of my falafel discovery, no one in my home town circle knew what it was.  Aside from just moving out of the country, I was eating strange and exotic things.  I was so cultured.

Four countries later, I can say I've definitely eaten things I might never have tried if I hadn't left the US.  I've had refried black beans for breakfast, CHINESE food for dinner. various fried this and that for lunch, street food, stall food, local food, imported food and variations on everything from Spaghetti Bolognese to fried chicken.

The travel snob in me likes being able to say, "Ooh, I love Thai!" and "Hell yeah!  A new Indian restaurant is opening down the street!"  I like knowing the good places to get hummus and that American Chinese food does not actually taste like Chinese food.  But sometimes, you need food you know, food you grew up with.  Comfort food.  And in most of the countries I've been in, that's been the hardest thing to come by.  Sure, there's McDonald's and Chili's and KFC and Papa John's.  Kuwait boasted an Applebee's and Buffalo Wild Wings that we frequented.  In Shanghai we went to Blue Frog for burgers and wings.  It was never quite right, however.  Never 'home' food for me.

Oh, it's true alright!
Until Bahrain.  Bahrain has Ric's Country Kitchen and an IHOP.  We took L out to Ric's for her birthday last night- she's from the south(ish) as well and had never been.  We ordered pulled pork sandwiches with mac and cheese and coleslaw.  When she bit into the sandwich, she stopped and said, "Well, I wasn't expecting that.  This is uh-mazing!"  And she's not wrong.  Ric's offers all-day breakfast, including grits.  I have had to bring grits with me or have people ship them to me since I left GA in 2002 but here is a restaurant in Bah-freaking-rain that serves them.  And just as good as any Southern diner (or Waffle House) that I've ever been to!

They serve pulled pork and fried turkey legs and peach cobbler, the likes of which your granny might be jealous of.  They have sweet tea.  For real sweet tea, brewed in one of those big ol' industrial sized coffee makers and poured steaming hot over a cup-full of ice.  There are free refills as well, in case you were wondering.  Country music blasts from the speakers.  And it's decorated to look like a Folks restaurant back home.  I can't feel anything but 'at home' when I'm in there.

The IHOP is an IHOP, but without the grits.  The menu is a little smaller and they only serve beef bacon (eww) but they still have the large glass of orange juice, the unlimited coffee and the four types of syrup on the table.  It's familiar.  It's comforting.

I don't need to go to these places often.  In the two plus years I've lived here, I've only been to Ric's maybe four times, and three of those have been this year.  I've been to the IHOP two or three times since it opened last spring.  Both places are about 30+ minutes up the highway (depending on traffic) so you kind of really have to want to go to make it happen.  Or already be out in town.

It's nice to know they're there, though.  On the days (or months) when I'm missing home and all things Southern, it's nice to know that I can at least find a little taste of home in the Middle East.  It makes it feel like it's not quite so far away.

Do you have a restaurant that feels like 'home,' wherever you live?  Or have you ever traveled somewhere and found an unexpected place that reminded you of home?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Wordless Wednesday- Feeling Nostalgic

The Ladybug is going to be four in two weeks... 

... I'm not sure what to do with that information.
The Ladybug and her Sprout- ready for the roller derby...
... Just like their mom and Cousin before them...

The Jenny Evolution

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Maybe I Do Want to Go Home... A Little

I didn't get any homemade, adorable Valentine's from my kids.  They don't do Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas crafts at school.  We've never been to a pumpkin patch.  They don't have the slightest inkling who Martin Luther King, Jr, is (admittedly, they are two and three but still...) and they won't color anything green for St. Patrick's Day.  Living in Bahrain, not having cable TV, and having such small kids, we could get away with never celebrating anything.

They had no idea there was supposed to be chocolate or candy involved in their yesterday.  That was okay.

Thinking about all the reasons I'm not ready to move home only made me more aware of all of the reasons that I want to.  Every few months, I get homesick- like pack your bags we're getting on the next plane homesick.  Sometimes it's because I see something on TV that reminds me of home.  More often, a friend posts something on Facebook (see above pumpkin patch) and it forces me to accept that, while my life is pretty fabulous, I've given up some amazing things to live it.

The most obvious trade-off is friends and family.  We have friends here and our international family, but nothing makes up for life-long friends, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents nearby.  The Ladybug and Sprout now recognize the sound of a Skype call and run to talk to whichever Grandpa we're calling that day.  FaceTime means we get to call Sissy whenever the mood strikes us, but it's not the same as meeting up to hang out or having Grandpa Jeff and DeDe pop over or spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa's.

Another trade-off is school sports (I know, I know, go ahead and laugh- me, missing sports??).  I grew up watching my sister play basketball.  High school and even some college Friday nights were spent cheering as Sissy ran up and down the court and, I can admit it, I got just as into it as the next guy.  No, that's not true.  The next guy was my mom and she got really into the games.  I clapped and screamed appropriately.  My mom clapped and screamed less appropriately.  But I miss that.  The Rugby Star has started a really good program here, but games are held immediately after school and very few students and almost no parents attend.  It's silent and awkward and completely lacking in school spirit.  Growing up in a Southern high school, I'm used to a certain level of team spirit.  It's missing here.

This weekend, my car died at the mall.  The Rugby Star had just left for Dubai and the girls and I had stopped for a little energy burn at the indoor play area before heading off to a birthday party.  When we got down to the parking garage, the battery was dead.  Completely.  Lucky for us, a very nice man in a thobe pulled in next to me and was able to jump us off.  On the way home, I debated- should I head home and go to the party or go try to get a battery?  Nothing feels simple here.  I've been warned that I will be ripped off because I'm Western and a woman.  I also, truthfully, had no idea where to go to get a battery.  I couldn't just pop into the Walmarts and grab one, now could I?  In the end, it was far more simple than I could have imagined.  There was a garage near our house and I pulled in and asked where to get a battery.  They pointed me down the street and I was in and out in about twenty minutes, with a complimentary oil check and a fill-up of anti-freeze.  The process wasn't that difficult, but the not knowing was- in the States, I could handle it, no problem.  Despite the ease of the whole situation, by the end, I felt like Superwoman, getting my battery changed all by myself.

I have mentioned this before but it bears repeating.  I sure as heck miss driving safely.  I mean, come on.  Strap your kids in a car seat, drive near-isn to the speed limit, don't flash your lights or swerve like you're trying to win a Nascar race and it'll all be okay.  Less death.  More getting-to-where-you're-going.

And just because I'm in Bahrain, I'm really over the dust.  In the DR, it was the humidity.  In Kuwait, the dust.  Shanghai- the pollution.  Guatemala- the rainy season.  Now I miss the rainy season.  And I could definitely live without the dust.

No life is perfect anywhere and I'm happy with my Rugby Star, the Ladybug and Sprout and our Bahrain family.  I like that I can easily get Lebanese food and Chili's delivered to my door.  I enjoy walking to work and spending $12 to fill up my little SUV.  I love what we have here.  But I do get homesick.  And maybe it would be nice to get a Valentine from school every now and again.

What do you miss most about being 'home'?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Pooping Where You Eat- Or How I Feel About Living with my Colleagues

The Ladybug, Sprout and I have just come from a birthday party down the street.  Three doors down the street, to be precise.  The birthday girl is the daughter of my principal and our school's librarian.  Their house looks exactly like ours except everything is flip-flopped.  When you walk in our front door, the stairs are on your left and the bathroom is on your right.  When you walk in theirs, the bathroom is on the left and the stairs are on the right.  But it's the exact same stairs and the exact same bathroom.  It is both comforting and disconcerting. A bit like living on the same street as your principal.

In two of the five schools I've worked at, the staff have lived all together.  In Kuwait, all the foreign hired staff lived together in two apartment buildings.  Here, we live on The Street- a long row of townhouses that back up to the school.  There are some definite pros and cons to this type of living situation.

- Someone always has milk.  Or eggs.  Or sesame oil.  Or extra pillows, an air mattresses, toothpicks, toilet paper, bread, money, wine, ice, bleach, glitter, internet, or detergent.
- Someone always needs to go to the store for one of those things.
- We are lucky because we work with a lot of families with smallish children right now- that means birthday parties and play dates are happening right out your front door.  The older kids run back and forth to each others house.  Randomly, kids will knock on your door and ask to come in to play or ask if your kids can go out to play.  It's all very kid-friendly and social.
- All of your neighbors understand your lifestyle and you don't have to try and explain that you will only be there for a couple of years.
- Impromptu bonfires and barbecues.
- Thursday afternoons (our Fridays) mean a slow walk home, stopping at whoever's house you get to first for a weekend beverage.
- If you need to grumble to a coworker about work, you can just walk next door and do it.
- You almost always have someone to walk to or from school with.

- You almost always have someone to walk to or from school with.
- It can be slightly stifling at times.
- You usually know when something is happening that you haven't been invited to.
- You feel guilty for not going to an event when it's within walking distance to your house.
- You can't get away from it- many topics of conversation revolve around school.
- It's challenging to make non-school friends.

Our house, in the middle of our street
For me, honestly, it's okay.  In Kuwait, when I only had myself and then the Rugby Star to look after, I was constantly bored.  There were often too many hours in the day and I found myself seeking out friends and neighbors just for someone else to talk to.  It was frustrating at times to see and hear parties or other gatherings that you weren't part of.  Here in Bahrain, because we are spaced down the street with concrete walls serving as the backyard fence, it's really easy to separate yourself from school and school friends when you need to.  By the end of my school day, I only have about two hours of time with the Ladybug and the Sprout.  I don't mind shutting my front door and being with just my family for that time.

Some days, though, it's nice to walk down the street and let them kick a soccer ball and climb a tree while I have an adult conversation.

International friends- which do you prefer?  Living with your colleagues or not?  Why?  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Five Reasons We Won't Go Home... Yet

*First off, I know it's been almost a full year since I've written on this blog.  We're just going to go ahead and move past that, like it never happened...*

An amazing opportunity presented itself to our family not too long ago.  The Rugby Star and I had decided to do a 'soft search' for jobs for the 2015-2016 school year- that is, we would get our resumes together, get some updated references and just tell a couple of perfect schools that we were interested in moving on.  We had a couple of good leads at great schools, but the jobs weren't perfect, mostly because of me.  At one place, there wasn't actually a position for me.  In another, they wanted IB Theatre and I don't have that experience.  We were slightly bummed but not really.

Then a rather Fantastic School came knocking- THEY wanted to interview us.  We had two amazing interviews but, because we were only doing a soft search, we had a deadline to let our current school know if we were staying or going.  That deadline just didn't work for the other school.  We all had to say 'thanks but no thanks.'

And it was hard.  The jobs at Fantastic School would have been perfect for us, the kind of things that only come along once in a blue moon for specialists like us.  We (read: I) had also just managed to wrap my mind around packing up, saying goodbyes, not being here next year when the decision was made that we would be staying.  It was disappointing.  There were bitter feelings.  It made us think about what we really wanted out of our lives in this profession.

We started wondering if we should go home.  And then we very quickly came up with the five reasons that we won't be going home anytime (real) soon.

1. It's all just so exciting.  It was a definite whirlwind of emotions as we hoped and prayed to stay and go, all at the same time.  It was frustrating and disappointing to not get a job that felt so right, that seemed so made for us, but it was also really exciting.  To plan out the adventure of the next place.  To not really know what country you'll be in next, who your friends will be, where you'll buy your groceries.  I imagine the whole process of job hunting is like a really slow version of jumping out of an airplane and waiting for the parachute to open- terrifying, exciting, and then, relief, no matter which way things go.

2. We're not financially ready.  We've got to save a heckuva lot more money before moving back to the US of A where stuff like gas costs money.  And we have to have two cars.  And pay for day care.  And the RS may or may not be able to work, since he's a foreigner.

3. I want my kids to remember some of this experience, too.  We get to meet so many cool people and see so many awesome places- I want the girls to remember some of it.  I want them to be shaped by the different people they meet from the different cultures and be open-minded and kind to everyone.  And it would be pretty cute to hear them speak a few words of Arabic.  In'shallah.

4. The traveling.  I'm going to Italy in eight weeks.  Yep.  That's happening.  I'm also going to Dubai in a month.  Over the summer I plan to hit New York, England and France.  Because I can.

5.  This is so not me... and I'm not ready to be me again just yet.  No one is more surprised than me that I'm living this life.  I miss home, I miss my friends and family, but it still feels like I'd be giving up if I went back now.  Like it was all just a tiny experiment or a semester abroad.

It's a couple of months after the Fantastic School interviews and, truthfully, we're still a little disappointed.  But there's a comfort in knowing where you'll be next year.  There's no packing or planning to be done, just the same ol' same ol'.  Visions of 'home' dance through my head now and again, but, for now, we're pretty happy with our lives.  It's good to be home.

Have you ever had to make a big decision about moving?  What made you stay or go?  Are you happy with your choice?

Expat Life with a Double Buggy