Thursday, May 30, 2013

Foreign Service Fridays: Do the Thing You Fear the Most

(I just posted this over on Most Eligible Family, but it's relevant here too, I think...)

I'll be the first to admit I have a lot of fears in life. Fear of heights, fear of failure, fear of getting old. I'm also a firm believer in facing your fears, because even if it doesn't rid you of that fear entirely, it helps you grow as a person, or at the very least understand your fear a little better.

Some fears are easy to face. Public speaking? Take a class, or go to CLO training, where they will force you to speak in front of your fellow CLOs whether you like or not. Heights? Cross the balance beam at the playground chanting "I think I can" over and over (okay, maybe that was just a seven-year-old me, and I can't say it rid me of my fear. But it did feel like a big accomplishment at the time). Some fears you can't help facing, try as you might. No amount of anti-wrinkle cream or plastic surgery is going to stop you from aging, sadly. I had no choice in facing my fear of being alone when John deployed the second time. The good news there was I actually did conquer my fear, and I gained so much in the process (not that I recommend forced separations or anything, but it worked for me). And my fear of failure? That mostly comes down to my writing, and I face that fear every time I start another novel after shelving the last one, every time I receive a rejection letter or don't get a request in a contest, every time I come this close to giving up - and don't.

So, what does this post have to do with the Foreign Service, you might be wondering. Well, aside from the fact that I was seriously afraid of moving to Russia (for what I'm pretty sure are obvious reasons), I also have a fear of people. I've never written this in public before, but I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder when I was nineteen. It was something I had recognized for years - speaking in front of the class, participating in team sports, even walking across the quad at school were all incredibly stressful - but I didn't know there was a name for it until then. I took medication for it for a long time, and I avoided situations that put me in contact with strangers. I wasn't a joiner, or if I did decide to participate in something - like a book club - it took serious strength to get to that first meeting, to overcome my fear that people wouldn't accept or like me. Sometimes the anxiety it caused didn't seem worth the effort.

But, eventually, I learned to face my fear. I took the job as CLO because I knew it would force me out of my shell, to be friendly to people I didn't know, to put me in situations I found unbearably uncomfortable so I'd learn how to bear them. I mentioned my anxiety to a few people at CLO training, and they all seemed surprised to hear it. Sometimes I try to mask my anxiety by faking it - acting outgoing and extroverted, even though I am neither of those things - and apparently I've gotten pretty good at it. The amazing thing is, it works. Despite how uncomfortable I may be at first, once I get to know people, I really am friendly! I like being social, even though it is my phobia. It's weird, but then, I'M weird.

I was invited to an English club here in Yekat a while ago, but I didn't go. I was - you guessed it - afraid. Then we went to a bird sanctuary last week, and I met a really nice French girl who told me she goes to the English club, and I decided to give it a shot. It required taking public transportation, alone, to a part of the city I'd never been to before (I realize this is small potatoes or a non-issue to most people; it's seriously stress inducing for me) and hanging out with strangers for a couple of hours. And it was really fun! I think I may have even made a friend, something I'm seriously lacking here in Russia.

I know that I'll never get over this fear. It's a part of me, probably deeply ingrained from being a twin and always having someone with whom I could - and still can - retreat into a private world that was utterly safe. But just like I won't give up on writing, I won't give up on facing my social anxiety. Little by little, it gets easier (never easy, but easier). And in the end, facing your fears, no matter how small, is always worth the effort.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Writing Wednesdays: A Room of One's Own

"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” 
 ― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own 

I am extremely lucky to have the former (enough, anyway), but I've never really had a room of my own to write fiction. I had a desk in a basement before moving to Russia, and that was good enough for me. But since we've moved, I haven't had anywhere to escape to write. I had visions of finding a cozy little cafe to write in a couple of times a week, but I never found what I was looking for, and the computer in our bedroom just isn't conducive to working (especially when I have a small boy running in and out every five minutes).

But a couple of weeks ago, my friend introduced me to an adorable cafe near my house that serves wine, chocolate, tea, and coffee (a pretty fabulous combo, I think you'll agree), and on Monday I had a chance to go there and write for a few hours. It was so quiet and pleasant, with delicious tea for a couple of dollars, and the waiter speaks English, bless his heart. So I made a decision that, until this novel is finished, I'm going to try to go there a couple of days a week to write. Between 5,000 words Monday and 1,500 today (not bad for an hour), I think this little escape will be just what I need. 

Not exactly a room of my own, but not too shabby. And hey, this one even comes with chocolate.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Foreign Service Fridays: Drum Roll Please

To find out where in the world we're going next, click here!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Whining Wednesdays: How Health Food Ruined My Life

It's been a while since I last complained about John's mistress, Running. Rather a shame, since that was some of my best material. But it seems I've gotten used to the other woman in my life. A four or five hour rendezvous on the weekends doesn't phase me anymore. I dismiss John as he heads off for his forest trysts with a wave of my hand. "Have fun," I say. "Try not to get eaten by wild dogs." Then again, maybe John's just gotten better at hiding his affair. He sneaks off during working hours so I'm none the wiser, or wakes up early to get in a little extra lovin'. Whatevs. I'm over it.

So now, you'd think my life would be that of the carefree wife who knows exactly what her husband is up to and no longer cares. The trouble is, a new mistress has stepped onto the scene. Apparently one wasn't good enough for my man. And this bitch makes Running look like my BFF, if you can believe it. Her name is Health Food, and she's boring, bland, unsatisfying, and crunchy in a "I don't even need to wear deodorant" kind of a way. Even worse, she's decided to stick her nose exactly where it isn't needed or wanted: MY diet. And that, my friends, is a step too far.

The good ol' days.
Some of you know about John's weird food habits. It started with Vespa, his wasp larvae extract that helps him burn fat instead of sugar on long runs (or something). With the Vespa came the high-fat diet, which was all well and good at first. John was baking up a storm! There was butter everywhere, even in John's coffee (if he hasn't told you his "Bulletproof Coffee" schpeal, and you insist on hearing it, can you do me a favor and ask when I'm not within earshot?). If anything, I was annoyed at Miss Fatty always showing up when I was trying to be good. "Leave me alone!" I'd scream. "Can't you see my metabolism isn't what it used to be?" Then she'd pat me on the back with a greasy mitt and offer me a cookie.

At any rate, I got used to constantly smacking away Lardo's sticky fingers, but I wasn't prepared for Health Food. She kind of snuck in slowly in the form of weird supplements: chia seeds, spirulina, fruit-flavored cod liver oil (a personal fave). But whatever, John was still baking, butter was very much a part of my life, and no one had dared mention anything about carbs. And then, one wretched day, John stumbled upon Vinnie Tortorich's podcast and No Sugar, No Grains, and my life has pretty much been ruined ever since.

Mommy is drooling (and weeping) off-camera.

I'm not going to get into the science behind all this crap, mostly because I don't understand it and I don't particularly care to. The bottom line is, sugars and grains are bad for you. And that was news I simply didn't need to hear. Ignorance is bliss, and I have slowly been dragged by my once-loving husband into the fiery pits of knowledge, aka hell.

We spent two weeks in Spain and John wouldn't even look at the gelato, let alone breathe in the yeasty smell of freshly baked bread. If you know John, you know he (and I) used to live for dessert. We literally had dessert every day, sometimes twice a day. It's how we ended our day together - dessert in front of a favorite TV show. John and I were perfectly healthy NORMAL people. We exercised, we didn't eat a lot of processed food, we ran marathons (okay, in my case, marathon). We didn't need Health Food showing up and waggling her bony fingers in our faces, scolding us for the occasional french fry. But that's exactly what she did.

All the stuff I didn't get to eat in Spain.

As the weeks have gone on, more and more foods seem to disappear from John's repertoire. First went the grains of any kind, followed swiftly by added sugars. Since we don't eat meat, that basically limits us to veggies, the occasional fresh fruit (god forbid I nibble on a dried apricot every now and again), nuts, and fish. Even dairy got the ax recently, and John was practically living on sour cream for a while. I managed to ignore all this for a long time. John would glance pointedly at my plate of pasta and I'd whistle innocently and look the other way. Or he'd casually drop in a line about my breakfast of Kashi and milk and how my blood sugar was not going to thank me later. Then, the other day, when I was blithely licking peanut butter from a spoon, he did the unthinkable: he mentioned trans fats, and how I was basically killing myself by consuming my most favorite thing in all the world.

So you know what I did? I decided to prove to him that I didn't have a dependency on sugar and grains, that my lifestyle is a choice and I can take it or leave it at will. For about two weeks now, I've been on this b.s. diet of no sugar, no grains. Granted, I refused to give up cultured dairy, but for the most part, I've stuck to my word. I've been living on nuts (So. Many. Nuts.), the hideous dirt-covered veggies available here in Russia, fish when I can get it (seriously, if I hadn't started eating fish, I wouldn't have the strength to type this right now), fruit when no one is looking, and, for dessert, two squares of dark chocolate at the end of the day. And you know what?


Yeah, I admit it, I am a freaking miserable wreck. All I want is a giant baguette covered in butter and maybe even honey, or worse still, jam. I want pasta drowning in alfredo sauce, and I don't even like aldredo sauce. If I never see another cabbage, beet, or carrot, it will be too soon. If someone offers me another dried out, over-cooked, nasty ass piece of salmon, I'm going to shove it down their throat. And I'm sorry, but 95% dark chocolate shouldn't even count as chocolate. But I'm so hungry I savor those two piddly squares a day like they are creme-freaking-brulee. Creme brulee! Someone get me some goddamn creme brulee!

Um, where was I?

Oh yeah, Health Food. John takes offense at me mislabeling his mistress in such a fashion. He prefers Madame Whole Food, presumably, or Ms. NSNG. But call her what you will, there is no room in my life for this nonsense. John promises that when Western States is over in a month or so, Health Food will leave and I'll have my husband back. But I don't buy it. I don't believe he'll go back to baking once a week or that bread will ever make an appearance in this home again. Because he can never un-know the things he knows, and unlike me, he can't live happily ever after with the possibility of inflammation and clogged arteries. Honestly, I don't know what his problem is. It's almost like he's addicted to Health Food or something.

Go figure.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Mommy Mondays: The Right Thing

Lately, I've been asking myself if what we're doing (you know, this whole living in Siberia deal) is the right thing. Not for us, but for Jack.

During our two weeks in Spain, Jack was noticeably happier than he is here. "Duh," you might say, "of course he was." He was spending every day with Mom and Dad, he got to go to the beach and eat yummy food and play outside without putting on eight layers of clothing. But I sort of think it was more than that. Even when we were in Moscow for three weeks, Jack loved his daycare. He ran in every morning without looking back and actually cried a couple of times when I picked him up. He kept talking about the American kids and his teachers, and during that brief time he learned new songs and new games. He did the things he'd be doing if we lived in America, even though we were still in Russia. And he got to play with other kids on the compound, kids who spoke English and had the same cultural references and didn't reach into his stroller and grab his head like some random Russian kid did in the airport last week.

Jack has been to four different preschools here in Yekaterinburg, and this week the nanny wants us to try a different one. She says he has stopped paying attention in class and doesn't want to be there. And can I really blame him? Where else is a three-year-old expected to spend 15 minutes doing one activity exactly the way the teacher demands before being escorted to the next activity for another 15 minutes, where no one smiles, no one can do things their own way, and the kids don't even interact with each other? There is no outdoor play time, no free time, no story time, nothing. It's music, art, articulation (?!), math. Boom boom boom. I wouldn't want to do it either!

There is currently one child left in Jack's play group who speaks English (the other two speak German and Swedish). That means Jack's entire peer social experience is limited to once a week, if the other family is in town, for two hours, with one child (a five-year-old girl). It's not even necessarily that I'm worried he's going to be behind once he starts school in the US (although I worry about that, too). I'm just worried he's not happy. He has told me multiple times in the past month or so that he wants to go to the "America house." It breaks my heart, especially since what I really want to say is, "ME TOO!"

Yesterday, John and I took Jack to the "playground" closest to our house. It consists of a small slide, a janky teetor totter, and swings that were occupied by two preteen girls. The playground is adjacent to the dumpsters where we take our trash (about a block from our house, which is a special treat in itself), and while Jack was going up and down the slide, a couple of men came to sift through the dumpsters. That's my kid's playground. I know all parents ask themselves if they're doing the "right thing" for their kids, but I feel like this is a little different than Montessori versus Waldorf. Every child, no matter where they are, should have other children to play with. Denying my child that makes me feel, now more than ever, like a pretty crap parent.

For the most part, Jack seems relatively happy. But he's three! Would I know if deep down he was really unhappy? How does a toddler convey something like that? What is the right thing? I just don't know...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mommy Mondays: Traveling With Toddlers

Hello all! I'm back from two glorious weeks in Spain, the only downside of which was the whole "I'm back" thing. Seriously, we've traveled a lot since we've been in Russia, but this was the hardest it's been for me to come back by far. Between the weather, the food, the glory of being able to communicate in a second language (one I haven't studied in 15 years; that's how much easier it is than Russian), and the fact that some time in the last four or five months, Jack got a hell of a lot easier to travel with, it was truly one of the best vacations we've ever taken. And I think at this point (after countless flights in the USA and international flights with Jack to Russia, back home, and back to Russia again, France twice, and now Spain) I can speak with some authority on the subject of traveling with a toddler. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I've learned.

First and foremost (okay, this one IS in a particular order, because it's crucial!): Get thee an iPad! This thing has been an absolute God-send for our family. Not only can Jack watch his favorite movies (the flavor of the month is A Bug's Life. Pixar is another God-send for parents, btw; cute, funny movies that everyone in the family will enjoy), but he can draw, play with various apps, read Thomas stories, do puzzles and matching games, and generally keep himself entertained for hours (and we rarely pay for an app). Even if your child doesn't watch TV at home and isn't allowed to occupy himself with your iPhone during normal business hours, I say all bets are off when traveling. You do yourself, your child, and everyone around you a disservice if you don't have something to occupy them with for up to ten hours at a time (and I can't think of a single other self-contained, mess-free item out there that can do what an iPad can).

Heimlich, quite possibly my favorite Pixar character ever.

Second, snacks are great (we have gotten very good at stocking up during layovers at the Star Alliance lounges; a perk of so much international travel is all the miles you log!), but nothing keeps a kid quiet and their ears pain-free like a lollipop. I don't give them to Jack on a normal basis, but the Trader Joe's sugar-free all-natural ones are great for flying. I never leave for a trip without several in my purse.

The Go-Go Babyz device is amazing. We use it to wheel Jack around when we need a car seat but not necessarily a stroller on a trip. Jack loves it, it's super maneuverable and lightweight, and relatively easy to use (I have a hell of a time getting it off the car seat sometimes, but other than that, it's great). We got ours on Craigslist for less than half the retail price; definitely worth keeping an eye out for it. On this trip, we used our jogging stroller since we knew we'd be renting a car and the car seat was free, and we wanted to be able to jog with Jack and wheel him around on cobblestone streets.

Even though it means sacrificing activities sometimes, if your toddler is still a napper, let them nap (at home, in their bed if possible). I credit some of our success on this latest trip to Jack's napping; he didn't nap every day (and some days it was in the car), but we really tried to get in at least an hour of downtime when we could. Since different cultures have different schedules and expectations, you often have to go with the flow when you travel abroad. In this case, "going with the flow" meant eating dinner late, since most restaurants in Barcelona and Girona don't open until after eight. So several nights, Jack had to be out much later than usual (he normally goes to bed at 8, and keep in mind that Spain is four hours earlier than where we live). When we first arrived and were still adjusting, we cooked in our apartment so no one would have to deal with a cranky toddler (including us).

Speaking of apartments, has been amazing for us. Traveling as a family is expensive, and John and I don't like to sleep in the same room as Jack (he's a loud sleeper, and I personally refuse to go to bed at 8 every night or keep my kid up until 11). We have now rented several apartments this way, and they have all been cheaper than a single hotel room for two or three bedrooms, a kitchen, a washing machine, and most of the household appliances you could want or need, all with more charm and convenience than a hotel. Yes, it's lovely to stay in a hotel and order room service every now and then, and growing up, my family often did just that. But John and I don't travel on the same budget my parents did, and I love this new option. I can't recommend it enough. We're doing it again next month in Geneva for well under half the cost of a hotel room.

One of the bedrooms in our Girona apartment. It was GORGEOUS!

Sometimes, traveling with toddlers (unlike babies, who are, and I quote, "basically luggage that poops," according to John, and older kids, who have a little more patience and are slightly more rational) means making sacrifices. Museums, I have found, are a recipe for disaster. You pay all this money to see Gaudi's house in Park Guell, and your child decides that he wants to touch everything (including the original furniture, nearly giving the poor museum security guard a heart attack) and scream for no reason whatsoever. Or you end up basically running through the ancient underground ruins at the Barcelona history museum. Even when you do things you're sure your child will love, like a boat ride in the park or a trip to the aquarium, there's no guarantee he won't decide to do everything in his power to capsize the boat or that the only thing he will look at in the entire aquarium is the octopus. But your odds are certainly better than at a museum. So I say stick to the parks and the gelato shops, and give yourself a shot at maintaining your sanity.

If you have a pair of delightful friends who don't have children but happen to love them, might I recommend asking them to travel with you? We got lucky this time; our friends Michael and Stephanie were coincidentally going to Spain at the same time as us, and for reasons still unknown, they actually seemed genuinely happy to spend time with us for much of the trip. Not only was it great to spend time with another couple and catch up on where their Foreign Service life has taken them since A-100, where we met, but they also were an extra set of willing hands and eyes when it came to our little monster. Who knew such a thing existed? Honestly, our time with them was one of the highlights of the trip. If you can travel with friends (and I imagine friends with kids of their own would be equally awesome to travel with; built-in fun for the whole gang!), do it!

Michael, Stephanie, me, the monster, and John after a delicious meal by the sea.

Most importantly, when it comes to traveling (and life in general, I've found), a sense of humor will make traveling with toddlers tolerable, and even enjoyable in ways you never expected. Jack tried calamari and fried sardines, learned a smattering of Spanish, built a sand castle by the Mediterranean, rode a "sky train" to an ancient fortress, ate blue gelato, explored a 12th century church, took a cruise of the Barcelona harbor, and got chased around the town square by a rather forward 18-month-old Catalan girl. All in all, I'd say it was a rather successful trip.

Too bad he won't remember any of it.