30 August 2013

More Moaning

I feel like I'm having a really hard time fitting in with the new group of expats I'm hanging out with. I'm not even overseas yet, but we're all sort of cooped up in what feels like a holding pen while we're waiting.  Since I have a five-year-old, I spend a lot of time at the playground and talking to other parents (if I'm not reading).

I really like many of the people I've met.  They're interesting to talk to and have lived in interesting places.  They have nice children and spouses.  Many were born in other countries (love that).

But a common theme is that our employer doesn't do enough for us/pay us enough.* As expat jobs go, this one is pretty average.  It is very, very easy to find other expats who get WAY more money and benefits than we do.

For example, take a business expat in Singapore.  Like a lot of expats, they get a cost of living addition to their salary.  Singapore is expensive, yes.  But that cost of living benefit alone is more than our monthly salary.  I don't even want to know what their salary is. And that doesn't include the housing and schools and travel to your home country and so much more. It's not hard to feel poor in Singapore if a lot of your friends make that much money.

But from my perspective, this new job makes it so much easier for us to go overseas. In Bishkek most expats expect to get some sort of hardship pay in addition to a cost of living benefit.  For people working in the same line my husband does, that extra hardship and cost of living pay per month is more than what we got per month on our grant- and that was everything we got.  Nothing extra for airfare, housing, or schooling.  Or hardship. Airfare alone ate up several months' money. But it was easy to live on that amount in Kyrgyzstan.

I also didn't have very many expat friends. We did have a few who were "volunteers," and while they were definitely better off than we were, they still are often some of the least well-off expats. Nearly all of our friends were local and it's pretty hard to feel poor when your best friends are unemployed, or living off measly pensions, or even making $500/month, which would have been wonderful.

So I spend a lot of time being quiet about the financial aspects of this job because I'm just not feeling it.  And the few times I've tried to explain how I feel, I don't think I managed to explain things well.  It's like I lived in a completely different expat world.

*Another favorite discussion/complaint is household help.  I have to shut those conversations down immediately or I'd run screaming from the playground.  It's one thing to complain about your temperamental electric dishwasher, but if your dishwasher is a human being you've hired to work for you, I am not at all sympathetic if you don't like them.  I wouldn't want to work for you either.

The End of Your Life Book Club

I really enjoyed this memoir in many ways.  The author and his mother are intelligent and worth reading about, and even though I thought it might be sentimental, it wasn't at all.  And there are plenty of good books in here, even if they criticize ereaders.  I might not have a pile of books around me when I die, but there will be plenty in my head and I'll probably have more years to read for not having to haul them around the world.

My only complaint is that the author's mother is portrayed as practically a saint and that got old.  She's also the type that seems to love to tell others how they ought to spend their money and live their lives.  Even though I completely agree with every one of her causes, I think I prefer my mother.

27 August 2013

Cardamom Cake

This is from My Bombay Kitchen and is heavenly.

4 large eggs
1 1/3 c sugar
1 1/3 sticks butter (150 grams)
1 T cardamom seeds
1 1/3 c flour
pinch salt

Heat the oven to 350/175 and liberally butter and sugar the bottom and sides of a 9-inch cake pan. Beat the eggs and sugar together for 5 minutes till everything is thick and tripled in volume.  Melt the butter and bruise the cardamom.  Add the flour and salt to the eggs and sugar, then fold in the butter and cardamom.  Mix well and tip into the pan and give it a bang on the counter to settle the batter.  Bake for 30-35 minutes or longer till the cake is dry on top and a knife comes out dry from the middle.  Let it sit 5 minutes then run a knife around the edge and flip onto a cooling rack so the sugared part is on top.

This is lovely served with whipped coconut cream. 

Pad Thai

There are plenty of versions of Pad Thai out there and this is how I make it.  This is based on Duguid and Alford's recipe in Hot Sour Salty Sweet.

It can feel like there's lots going on with Pad Thai.  So I do it in chunks so I don't lose track of things.

First, cut a lime in half and put it on the table.  Put a couple tablespoons of sugar into a small bowl, then add about 1/2 cup of vinegar and as much cayenne as you can stand.  Put that on the table too.  If you'd like to slice some cucumbers, do that and have them join the other stuff on the table. You can also put some chopped roasted peanuts on the table.

Then get a heaping tablespoon of tamarind paste soaking in hot water.  Don't put it on the table.

There are three basic parts to these noodles- the noodles (obviously), the protein, and the vegetables. I serve everything separately so everyone can build their noodles the way they want to. If you don't want to have everything separate, you'll combine it all at the end.

The noodles are easy- just cook whatever size of rice noodles you like in boiling water till they're just done.  It's nice to soak and fry them instead, but we're keeping this simple.  You can cook the noodles ahead of time if you rinse them with cold water, but it's not hard to make them as you go along. I use 1 pound of dry noodles and put them on the table when they're done.

The vegetables are just bean sprouts and greens onions so there isn't much prep.  Slice a bunch of green onions into ribbons and put them in a colander with about 4 cups (or more) of bean sprouts and rinse well.

For the protein, you have lots of choices.  We use eggs, meat, and tofu, but you can just do one or two of those.  Since my husband doesn't like tofu, I fry it separately and put it on the table, but it can be cooked with the eggs and meat.  I use a 10-oz package of pressed tofu.  You can use chicken or pork.  If you use meat, slice it thinly.  You can use just a little, or half a pound if you like.  Beat 3-5 eggs with a pinch or two of salt.  Saute 2-4 cloves of minced garlic in oil briefly, then add the meat, if using, and cook till it changes color, then add the tofu, if using, and cook a little longer, then add the eggs and cook till the eggs are set.  Transfer to a plate and set aside, or put it on the table in whatever you want to serve it in.

By this time your tamarind should have softened nicely, so press it through a strainer.  Add 1-2 T each of soy sauce and fish sauce.  You'll also want some shrimp powder on hand to sprinkle in, if you want to use it.

Saute the vegetables in oil over high heat for about 30 seconds, then add the dried shrimp and stir briefly, then add the tamarind mixture and cook for about 30 more seconds.  You can mix everything together at this point (noodles, vegetables, and protein), or just stick the vegetables on the table.

You might want to put some fish sauce on the table too.  Let everyone create their noodle dish the way they please.

Chile-vinegar sauce (vinegar, sugar, and cayenne)
Cucumber (if you want)

1 pound dry rice noodles

1-2 tablespoons tamarind paste soaked in about 1/2 cup hot water
1-2 tablespoons soy sauce
1-2 tablespoons fish sauce

2-4 cloves minced garlic
Pressed tofu (if you want)
Sliced chicken or pork (2-8 oz)
3-5 eggs beaten with a little salt

About 4 cups or so of mung bean sprouts
1 bunch green onions
1 tablespoon shrimp powder

Sweet and Sour Chicken

This is based on the recipe found here.  My version is a little less sweet and a little easier.  And there's real garlic. And I doubled the sauce.

Cut about 2 pounds of chicken into 1-inch chunks (I just cut it up with kitchen shears directly into the pan) and saute in some oil till the chicken is getting a little color but not cooked through.  Dump it in a baking dish- 9x13 or 8x10 is fine. You could also leave it in the skillet if it's ovenproof.

For the sauce, combine 1 cup of sugar, a small can of tomato paste, 1 cup of vinegar, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 2-4 cloves of garlic (I pound it in the mortar, but you could use a garlic press or mince it), and salt to taste (maybe 1 teaspoon?).  Stir that up and dump it over the chicken.  Stick it in the oven for about 45 minutes at 350.  That's it.

2 pounds chicken
Oil for sauteeing

3/4 cup sugar
1 cup vinegar
1 6 oz can tomato paste
2 T soy sauce
1 tsp salt
2-4 cloves garlic, crushed

DC Wanderings

I've really loved living in DC for the last few months.  I haven't gone into the District very much in the last month or two because of the crowds and the heat (although it really hasn't been too hot most of the time), but we've still gone in a few times and we'll go more now that school is starting.

Anyway, Saturday's trip was totally unique, but also totally expected for Washington.  We ran into a student from the university in Tokmok who recognized us. We'd been talking about Uzbek when she introduced herself, so we first thought she'd overheard us (and really, who talks about Uzbek on the metro?), but she recognized us from Tokmok.  It was so fun and random to talk to someone from Tokmok.

Then we went to Eastern Market which is one of my favorite places in DC, especially on summer Saturday mornings before it gets too hot.  We went to the Central Asia cool stuff store first, of course, and then into Eastern Market itself which reminds me of Bishkek City, then wandered around the craft stalls (I had to avoid the vegetables because I would have spend all my money there and then had to carry everything home) where we found some interesting old maps of Central Asia and Mexico.  And got some ideas for framing them in Mexico.

And then we walked back toward the Lincoln Memorial because it was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  That was one of the best things we've done in DC.   We saw a few people who'd been there 50 years ago- one even had the sign he'd held then.  It really was an amazing experience.

The metro driver was great with the crowds.  It's always fun when you get a driver with character and this one had a lot.  And there was a friendly feeling on the train anyway because so many were going into DC for the anniversary.  

I wish we lived closer to Washington.  If we ever get to come back here for at least a year, I'd love to live right in DC.

21 August 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

I really enjoyed this.  It was even better because I lived in Seattle and it's such a Seattle book, but even if you've never been there, it's fun.

Stuff That Doesn't Deserve Its Own Post

I needed a new yogurt starter recently and decided to try buying yogurt instead of using the powdered starter (the first batch using my usual starter is so mild that none of us can stand it).  Since Greek yogurt is the thing, that's what I ended up with.  I almost never buy yogurt, and I'd never bought Greek yogurt before, partly because the name drives me nuts, but I got some Chobani.  I wasn't very impressed.  I thought it has been strained a bit too long and it really didn't have much flavor.

I keep running into people who tell me that don't eat vegetables when they're overseas.  This boggles my mind, but I finally figured out that all these people only eat raw vegetables. Sure, I didn't eat lots of raw vegetables in Kyrgyzstan, but there's a whole world of cooked vegetables out there that's delicious. And you have to eat an awful lot of spinach salad to get a decent serving of greens.

In relation to that, my middle son was reading the package info on his typhoid vaccine (apparently he lost the lottery three years ago when he ended up getting the two-year typhoid injection instead of the 5-year oral vaccine the rest of us got since there weren't enough doses to go around- I imagine this makes me a not very nice mother, although I have no recollection of his being the one who had to do it) and decided that life would be boring overseas if you followed all the rules for avoiding typhoid.

The ataulfo mango season is over. But there are mangoes in Mexico.

We talked to a friend from a few cities ago last night.  She's been all over Mexico for research and is probably moving to Guadalajara too.  It was so nice to hear her talk about Guadalajara since her perspective is totally different from what we've been getting from the people we've had access to so far.  But it was also the first time we've had to tell someone about how much different things will be for us now.

I was dreading summer in DC, but it has been amazingly pleasant.  Sure, there are plenty of hot days, but there have been few unbearable days, and we even had the windows open for an entire week.  In August.  In DC. In a seventh floor apartment. Really.  I think it must be some sort of record.

19 August 2013

A New Sort of Place to Live

We've moved into lots of houses where we'd just seen photos of the place- I think I just counted up seven.  It's worked out fine, although I didn't exactly notice that our house in Tokmok had no kitchen plumbing or that the house in Charlottesville seriously lacked kitchen cupboards and drawers (I was just glad for a sink by that point).

We've also moved into places where, even though we've seen it before, we didn't have much choice about where we lived.  That's worked out fine even it's nice to pick your own place.

Our house in Mexico is going to be our typical international scenario in some ways- we didn't choose it, and the first time we'll see it is when we arrive from the airport to live there for years.  It has a front door and windows and a heating system and all that good stuff.

But it's also not going to be typical because:

There are enough bedrooms for everyone to have their own room.  I don't think I've admitted it before here, but my five-year-old has always slept in the corner of our bedroom or in our closet. Always.  Because there was no other option.

There is a dishwasher. I'm still getting used to having a dishwasher in the US.  It feels like I don't even have to do the dishes when I can just stick them all in a machine and push a button. I don't really  mind doing the dishes, but I use the dishwasher.

There is a dryer.  I won't use that.  We haven't owned a dryer in eight years and even when we rent a place with one, I don't use it.  Dryers are not as fun as dishwashers.

There are about a million toilets that could potentially need to be cleaned.  Fortunately only one person in this family is not old enough to clean a toilet. Everyone else knows that he has to clean any toilet he uses, thank you very much.

There are miles of floors to be cleaned.  We will need an army of dust moppers in addition to toilet-cleaners. The five-year-old will be enlisted.

Those floors also have nothing on them, nor do the walls.  Visitors should bring sunglasses since both are quite white.

There is a yard, although it's tiny and boring.  Tokmok will always win in the yard competition.  There were fruit trees, a huge garden, stray chickens from the neighbor's yard, a swing, places to dry clothes, an outhouse, a qazan, room to build a fire, a scythe, a summer kitchen, a huge patio for broom hockey, grape vines everywhere for shade, lots of roses, a well, a compost pile, and a huge gate.  And probably more.  And we used all that, except we left the chickens alone. They would have been free range though. This is not supposed to be about Tokmok though.

Anyway, it looks like a new sort of adventure.  One that involves much cleaning but less sweating (because there's an air conditioner!)

16 August 2013

The Observing Expat

One thing I enjoy doing is seeing/reading about how other expats do things while they're overseas. There are the integraters whose goal is to be mistaken as a native; there are the people who stick with other expats; a subset of that group are people who stick with expats like them (business, government, missionary, etc); there are people who pretend they live somewhere else; and, of course, lots of other options.

Integration has never really been an option for me- no one would ever think I'm Kyrgyz, or Arab, or Mexican, no matter how well I speak any given language. Also, I never have and never will get the clothes right. I've never had an expat community of any type to hang out with. We've never had enough money to pretend we lived somewhere else, and I wouldn't want to anyway.

I've decided that I'm an observing expat.  I love to see how things are done in other countries and to figure out my own way of doing things. I don't really want to see how other expats do things, but instead I want to see how locals do them and use what works for me and skip the rest. And I love to just watch how the world runs in other places and learn as much about the country/city as I can.

Something that worries me about moving to Mexico is whether I'll be able to be the type of person I want to be. For the first time we will have a defined expat community and I'm feeling a little like I'm being pushed into being a certain type of person.  And that's not the person I want to be. We'll see how that goes.

13 August 2013

Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Address, One Family

I was happy to see this memoir by Melissa Dalton-Bradford is now on Kindle.  Unfortunately the Kindle edition wasn't edited very well (which is one reason why I think ebooks should be cheaper- publishers too often skimp on their ebook editions) and the changing fonts drove me nuts.  The sections where everything was in italics were especially annoying.  It got less erratic as the book went on, at least.

Anyway, I really loved this book in so many ways, so I have lots to say about it.  But it'll be choppy because I didn't quite know what this book was trying to be.  It's marketed and largely reviewed as a memoir of raising a global family (the subtitle makes that perfectly clear), but it feels more like a memoir of grief.  Dalton-Bradford says toward the end of the book that she doesn't identify primarily as an expat or a global citizen or anything like that, but as a mother who buried her firstborn son.

Parker's death completely changes the tone of the book, as it obviously should.  Both parts were well-written and worth reading.  They were just so different from each other and I think I'd rather have read two separate books, especially if both subjects could have more detail.

So the second half is heartbreaking and lovely and inspiring and horrible and so many things.  It doesn't matter where you've lived or what you're doing, Dalton-Bradford's story is engrossing.  It really is an excellent grief memoir and worth reading just for that.

But, not surprisingly, and since the book is marketed this way, I have a lot more to say about the global family parts of the book.

First, this family isn't much like ours even though we've already beaten them on the addresses and we're going to make a good attempt on the countries.  This is an integrating type of expat family.  They put their children into local schools (although that's more reasonable if you're living in Norway instead of Kyrgyzstan) and seem to try to become as local as possible.  I think this is a great way to be even if it's not my style of expat life.  I can't even manage to do things the way Americans do them while I'm living in the US; I can't manage to figure out how to be Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan. I also think it makes a huge difference to be in Europe where, even though it's nothing like the US, it's a lot more familiar to USians than Central Asia is. I would have very much liked to have read more about their short time in Singapore, but mostly she wrote about poverty.

But even though we don't integrate the way they do (largely because we've chosen to homeschool, a decision I do not regret at all), that doesn't mean that we don't dig into the place we're in.  We're still people who "move, dig in deeply, move again, and take a healthy layer of the last soil with them."  And that, my friends, is why I'm having a hard time adjusting to the idea of Mexico.  I feel like I've dug so deeply into Central Asia in the last eight years, and in the Middle East for 10 years before that, that I cannot imagine the idea of doing the same in a country that borders the US and is not Muslim.  I'll survive, though, I imagine.

I truly (you can't imagine how truly) understand why she ships her huge table everywhere, but I could not do that myself. I just can't justify the hassle and expense of doing it even if I wasn't the one paying or being hassled.  I have to find smaller things that go everywhere with me, but that symbolize what that table means. Moving to new countries with just your two suitcases each readjusts things in a different way.

I was delighted to find someone who thinks it's harder to speak to someone on the phone in a foreign language than in person. That was one of many I-know-exactly-what-you're-talking-about moments. MANY.

It was fun to read about their church experiences, even though they were only lightly touched on- this is not a Mormon book.  Since we've hardly ever been able to go to church overseas, I don't really know much about the international church from personal experience.

I know I already said this, but I'm so glad we homeschool.  I think dealing with new schools (including some seriously sub-par ones in Kyrgyzstan) would have put me over the edge as quickly as homeschooling would for a lot of families I know. 

There was always more I wanted to know. The second half of the book is far more intimate in many ways than the first half- I felt like I was just seeing into one tiny part of her life in the first part of the book- mostly just getting the children integrated and some stories about learning new languages.  But it was also refreshingly free from so many pitfalls of books about international life.  I fully expected to be annoyed, like I usually am with books like these, and I almost never was (it would be too much to expect that I wouldn't be annoyed at least a few times).

This also reaffirmed that I really should never live in France.  Norway- yes.  I could settle in there nicely.  But France wouldn't really be for me.  But I think my heart will always be in Asia.  We'll see if Mexico does anything about that.

It's probably time to stop there.  I need to find someone to talk about this with, don't I?

07 August 2013

Wisconsin Cheese or Why I Quit Blogging

I sort of disappeared.  I don't think I've ever gone more than a month without blogging.

But a lot of that time was spent in lovely Wisconsin.  There are lots of good things about Wisconsin, especially my sister's family who lives there, but what I want to write about is the ice cream and cheese.  I am pretty sure I only missed one day of eating ice cream in the entire two weeks I was there.  And there was lots of fresh cheese curd.

But I didn't try Blue Moon ice cream.  I'm sorry, but bright blue Fruit Loop flavored ice cream isn't my thing.  They also had other unique flavors that I had to have explained to me.  I skipped the Superman ice cream too.

And the cheese.  There is a cheese factory along the road where I drove often so I'd stop to get something interesting for dinner.  We had some amazing pasta with aged gouda and fresh mozzarella.  So good.  And Wisconsin has a lovely Italian sharp cheese that turned out to be really good.

Then I stocked up for the rest of the time we're in the US.  We didn't love their 1-year and 4-year aged cheddars, but their 7-year aged cheddar was amazing. That was obviously the most expensive, so we got a smallish hunk of it.

And there's gorgonzola, brie, habenero jack, parmesan, gouda, kasseri, feta, and mozzarella.  And butter.  I think that's everything.

I suppose I'll have to blog again since the ice cream here just doesn't come close to what I could get in Wisconsin.

A Walk in the Woods

It was nice to read this after living near the Appalachian Trail for the past year and having my oldest hike it for 50 miles a few weeks ago.  And Bill Bryson is always fun.


I liked this in some ways, but it all worked out too neatly and was really predictable. 

The Winter Sea

I really enjoyed this even though it worked out so neatly at the end.  I suppose it helped that the convenient coincidence happened a long time ago.