Change has been one of the few constants in our lives over this past year.  I’ve been reflecting a bit on all of it as we come to the 1 year mark of officially leaving home in Tennessee.  So many bittersweet memories populate the pictures in my phone from May and the first days of June 2017, faces of those we love and dearly miss, places that were part of our daily and weekly rhythms of life – school, neighbors, church, friends, parks, our garden, our swing set, our cul-de-sac, our HOME.  We still grieve these things deeply, each in our own way, and often at times that catch us by surprise.

On our front porch in TN shortly before our move last year.

Just the other night, Wes got up shortly after having been tucked in for bed and came and found me in my bedroom.  I initially thought he was just stalling (not an unusual occurrence), but then I realized he was a little teary as he wrapped his arms around me.  “I’m homesick, mama.”

“What does that mean to you, buddy?  What are you homesick for?”  (I have to ask this, because the poor kid has been thoroughly confused about what places constitute home this year.  After 3 weeks in Greece and only one of those at a sweet little air B&B we loved, he was frequently “homesick” for Greece when we got back to Central Asia.  Me too, bud, me too!)

“I miss my train set.  The one I used to have at home in Tennessee.”

I resist the urge to comfort him by brushing it off and reminding him that he has a new train set now.  It’s so hard to just sit in the sadness sometimes, but I’m learning it’s important.

“What about that do you miss?”

He goes on to describe it a bit, but he stops short and his big blue eyes well up again.  “I’m starting to forget what it looks like, and I don’t want to forget.  I want to remember it, Mama.”

I hug him tight, mostly as a means of concealing my own tears.  He is eventually consoled by the promise of me finding a picture of the train set tomorrow so he can look at it and remember, and I carry my growing boy back to bed.

The moment struck me in so many ways, and I have continued to let my thoughts linger here for a time.  He expressed something pretty profound for a four-year-old, and I think it’s something I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on at times.  While last year we experienced the wrenching sadness of all of the loss that was happening in real time – something sharp and definitive – I’m realizing that this sadness sort of evolves as time moves along into something perhaps less debilitating, but no less real.  It’s softer around the edges, but it sneaks up and surprises you in the strangest ways, and perhaps in the hardest way of all…the realization that time marches on without you, and you are left with real and wonderful memories that can sometimes feel a bit slippery to hold on to.

While change often means loss in one sense, it also means that there is something new in its place.  After all of the goodbyes, we ultimately got to say a lot of new Hello’s as well.  Hello to a new country, new friends, new neighbors, new classmates, a new language, new food, new parks, a new school, a new HOME.

As the kids wrap up their first school year here in CA, I am also overwhelmed with gratitude for the “new”.  They have had wonderful teachers that have loved them and guided them so well through all of their crazy transitions, and they have grown by leaps and bounds in this new place.  They have grown academically – Caroline has literally read dozens and dozens of chapter books this year, while Ellie learned to read!  And Wes has wowed us all as he begins to sound out words, do math problems with his big sisters, and has learned a great deal of Russian!

But perhaps even more importantly, they have grown in the less tangible ways of empathy, kindness, and patience – learning to have grace with those learning English even as they are learning Russian, extending sympathy towards friends who are feeling sad or nervous about starting something new, and even sharing in the excitement of their friends who have family come to visit or receive a fun package from home (especially when there are American goodies involved 🙂 ).

When I look at the nervous faces of our first-day-of-school pictures, and compare them to the confident, happy kiddos I am sending to their last days this week, I am unbelievably grateful for how very far we have come.  I have never in my life been more proud of my kids than I am now, to see them wrestle through the hard days of transition and yet finish the school year with awards for excellence (Caroline) and faithfulness (Ellie).  I am fully aware that there will still be plenty of hard days in front of us, but for this moment, I pause and recognize that they have come a long way, and I am grateful.

And then there’s this tiny peanut I left Tennessee with last year…

Who is now a full-blown toddler, and I can’t hardly even talk about it!

I’m pretty much a goner with this one.

I guess the end of school always has me feeling a bit nostalgic, but this year of change has raised the bar a bit! Here’s to hoping this next year ahead involves lots more growth and learning…but perhaps with a bit less change along the way.

Winter in CA

Hi friends!

I don’t feel like I have much inspiration to write about today, but I just need to exercise this writing muscle a little more often – so here I am, in hopes that I can be here a bit more often.  As I’ve mentioned before, always feel free to lend me some inspiration by asking questions or suggestion topics 🙂

January and February have not exactly been the fastest months on record.  We have been deep in the throes of winter – a whole new experience for our Tennessee babies!  January kicked off with temps dropping well into the negatives, though WHAT negatives is always a bit confusing since everything is measured in Celsius here.  Thank goodness for weather apps that allow me to choose Fahrenheit!

There has been much to learn about how this culture deals with the cold, snowy winters.  First and foremost, hats are a must – and the bigger the better when it comes to the kids!  Hence Lydia and Wesley’s 🙂  But the adults are not off the hook either.  One simply doesn’t leave the house without your head covered, and if you happen to slip up (especially where the children are involved), any random Babushka (grandmother) on the street is likely to give you an earful!  Needless to say, our kids got the hang of it pretty quickly.

Winter also doesn’t really slow anyone down here.  School continues to roll on (a SHOCK to my poor Southern kids who had regular snow days for the slight dustings we would get at least a time or two each winter), as does work and everything else included in day to day life.  Our kids have learned to get in and out of their snow gear on their own (including double layer coats, snow gloves, snow pants, boots, and of course the hat and hood) as they bundle up each morning for the walk to school.  One of my favorite customs we’ve learned here is that upon arriving at school, they each remove their snow gear and boots and change into slippers, which they all then shuffle around in for the rest of the day.  It seemed cumbersome to me at first, but I quickly realized how wet and sloppy those feet get every single time they step outside, and the classrooms are in much better shape because of it.

They also continue to play outside for recess almost every day, unless the temps drop too low (I’m not sure what their cut-off is, but it’s COLD).  So they bundle up again mid day and head outside with their friends – they absolutely LOVE it!  Even Wesley’s preschool class managed to get all those little ones out most days.  Most classes have a drying rack set up near a radiator to dry all of the pants and gloves so they’re good to go again by the end of the day.  I mean, it’s like these people have done this before or something!

We had one week in particular that brought some brutally cold temps (reminiscent of our college days in Iowa!), and it was unfortunately that same week that the city-wide heating system went down.  And by city-wide, I mean the whole entire city.  It was COLD.  We are very fortunate to have some additional heating in our floors in our apartment, so we were uncomfortable but never downright freezing like some folks.  The kids ended up having 4 days off school that week since the temps inside the school building were too low!  But Dan and I continued to have language, even though that building was frigid.  I snapped these pics on one of the coldest days, our teacher wrapped up in a blanket while she did an impromptu lesson on weather.  Not pictured:  me in my long-johns, jeans, extra layer of wool socks, long sleeve shirt, warmest sweater I own, knee-length down coat zipped up with scarf, hat and gloves ON.  I was not even messing around.

The kids had some fun with book week at their school and were able to dress up for a parade of characters one day.  Wesley’s class did a little presentation of the book “Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do you see?” in which he played the outstanding role of the lion 🙂  Caroline’s class dressed up as characters from C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” which was fortunate for Caroline as it is one of her favorites.  She dressed up as Lucy.  And Ellie’s class did a bit of a play, for which she was the narrator and read the whole story!  We are very proud of our newest little reader.  While she didn’t actually need a costume for her role, she decided to go in her little house on the prairie dress anyway.  I thought it was a nice touch.

We also were invited to our first local birthday party, which was an exciting foray into the culture, and more importantly, a huge blessing to make some new friends.  The kids practiced their Russian when they made some birthday cards, and we were so proud of the way they just jumped right in and played with the other kids (definitely some great language practice!).  And check out those candles!!

As I finish writing this, the sun is shining and the snow has melted to reveal an unthawed ground that we haven’t seen in months.  We are hopeful that Spring is on its way, though the sunny appearance is a bit deceiving as temperatures are still quite chilly!  I have recently seen lots of pictures pop up on Facebook & Instagram revealing a Tennessee spring in full bloom, and I can’t help but be a little homesick every time I scroll past those bright yellow buttercups.  Wherever you are, we hope that winter was kind to you and that spring brings you fresh hope and joy. If you need me, I’ll be busy directing the troops for spring cleaning 🙂

Made from Scratch

If you know me at all, then it is no secret to you that I love to cook.  I love the process of preparing something with my own two hands, I love the end-results of a nourishing meal, and I especially love the part where we get to gather around the table together – whether it’s “just us” on a busy week night or a table full of friends and family with ample time to linger.  The nourishment of body and soul isn’t really possible without the preparation, though.

As you might imagine, cooking overseas takes a bit of imagination sometimes.  And I will be the first to admit that imagination is not one of my strong suits.  Truth be told, I’m kind of a recipe girl.  And by “kind of” I mean “totally and completely”.  If the recipe calls for long-grain rice, you better believe I’m not going to be substituting minute-rice, even if it is a short cut (and this, my friends, is where my sister and I could not be more different).  I like to create my meal plan, make a detailed list, and be fully prepared when I hit the kitchen.  Or I should say….that’s how I used to do it before I moved my family of 6 to a foreign country.

I’ve always loved the challenge of making things from scratch (thankfully), but that has taken on a whole new meaning these days.  I never really thought we used that many “convenience” foods in our home, but I have realized how wrong I was since moving here!  Let me give you a few examples:  One of our go-to meals has always been a Chicken divan, a recipe my cousin Barb gave me way back when I was just a newly-wed.  It’s really simple, basic ingredients:  Chicken, rice, broccoli, cream of chicken soup, mayo, chedder cheese, parmesan cheese, and corn flakes.  When I found cornflakes in the store one day, I quickly thought of this recipe and thought I’d try putting it together.  So I rounded up the ingredients.

First, the rice.  I’ve always used minute rice in this (because that’s what the recipe called for, dog gone it!), but definitely can’t find that here.  No big deal, regular long-grain rice it is.  Oh, but first I need to soak it?  For a couple hours??  Ok, check.

The chicken I found in a store who’s freezer I trust.  I pay a bit more for it, but I’m just not quite ready to buy the whole chicken hanging in the open-air market.  I know how to handle boneless, skinless chicken breasts.  Check.

Broccoli.  No problem. I find a head at the local store.  But first, it must be soaked in vinegar water, then washed in our good drinking water.  Then chopped.  Got it.  Done.

Mayo.  Check.  Whew, finally something easy!

Cream of chicken soup.  Ummm….crickets….nothing like that here.  Pinterest to the rescue!  I find my own recipe for the home-made variety.  It tastes SO much better, but definitely added a few more steps.  Ok, check.

Be jealous of my awesome giraffe whisk!

Cheddar cheese & Parmesan.  I carefully read the labels in Cyrillic and am elated when I find that the words for Cheddar and Parmesan are actually phonetically the same!  Score!  But first, they both need to be shredded…no easy dump-and-measure here.  Ok, check.

And the corn flakes!  I know I have these because they were what inspired me in the first place, right??  But I scour my drawers for a Ziploc bag to crush them…something else I can’t seem to find here.  I finally track one down in my bedroom that I had used to pack something (clean…I think…).  Cornflakes…check!

I compiled this meal in one of our first weeks here, and let me tell you…I was utterly unprepared for the length of time that meal would take me.  But let me also tell you, we were SO excited to eat something that tasted like home – all of the kids actually told me it tasted better than they remembered it (I attributed it to the homemade cream of chicken…mostly).

After that first laborious attempt to create a familiar meal, I set out to find ways to feed us in a much more timely manor, but also in ways that were healthy and familiar.  While we enjoy experiencing the new foods here, we also find a lot of rest in making our home feel like, well, HOME.  So I thought I’d share with you a few of the foods I’ve created from scratch to bring a bit of the familiar to our new foreign place.

Dan buying several kilos of apples from a local lady in a village.

Applesauce was pretty high on my list of “missing staples”, but I was also a bit gun shy because of the labor-intensive process of peeling and chopping a bazillion apples.  Once apple season hit, however, I found my courage and made a batch.  I think everyone’s eyes rolled back in their heads with the first taste of warm, cinnamon applesauce.  It has been added to the regular rotation here, needing to be made about once every other week.  I may never convince them to go back to the jarred variety if ever we have the opportunity.

Granola bars were another staple that I absolutely always had in our pantry back in the States, though I’m realizing that might have been for my own benefit as much as for theirs.  I would actually look forward to the days we needed to go somewhere and I could enjoy a granola bar on the drive 🙂  My mornings are busier now than ever as I have to run out the door by 8:15 to make it to language lessons 3 days a week, and I was missing that quick, easy bar to grab.  So I created my own!  I have been very pleased with the results, and am playing with different varieties as I find different ingredients (although, I still miss that handy-dandy packaging sometimes).

The next one is a pretty simple staple that I didn’t know I took for granted…half and half.  Not a hard fix, but it took us a bit of time to get the ratio right.  As it turns out, “half and half” is not exactly right.  We finally figured out the percentage of “sleevkie” (cream), the percentage of milk, and the ratio of the two mixed.  Finally our coffee tastes good again!

The last one is something I’ve been making for a long time, thanks to my Mom’s careful teaching…apple pie.  There’s nothing more American, right?  But as it turns out, Crisco is also pretty American.  So I determined to find a new kind of crust with ingredients I could find here (but first, a moment of silence for putting to rest my all-time-favorite pie crust recipe.  Sigh.).  Fortunately, pinterest won the day again and gave me a wonderful all-butter crust that turned out beautifully!  Next time I think I might try the vodka crust, since I have certainly never lived anywhere that sells vodka for less than water 😉

I’m sure I’ve lost most of my readers by now, so I’ll stop for today.  But I may revisit this topic from time to time as I discover new ways to cook here in Central Asia.  A quick shout-out to my Mom and Grandmas and many Aunts who passed on their love of cooking and the art of making things from scratch.  I’m so thankful I learned how, even when I didn’t always have to.

The Learning Curve

We survived our first week in-country!  That may seem like small potatoes, but in full-disclosure there was a point around day 3 at which Dan looked at me and said, “Do you think we can make it a week before we go home?”  (Insert laughing/crying emoji here)  Week one felt like it lasted about three months, but we’re still standing!

We arrived here on August 9th, Ellie’s 6th birthday, and after a three-hour wait in the visa line in a small holding-area-of-sorts in the airport (with only a squatty-potty and no drinks to be had), we finally made it to baggage claim.  We were thrilled to count and collect every single bag we had checked in on the other side of the world, along with our stroller, carseat, and a few too many carry-ons.  Traveling light is always advised, but I just haven’t mastered that with small children.  Maybe someday.

Once we finally made it out of the security area of the airport, we were warmly welcomed by our new co-workers and friends.  They collected all of us, all of our bags, and we finally got our first glimpse of our new city.  After roughly 34 hours of travel, it was certainly a sight for sore eyes!  We were delivered to our apartment where my new neighbor, co-worker & life-saver had organized and prepared a birthday breakfast of pancakes, whipped cream, sprinkles, strawberry sauce, fresh fruit, and plenty of other breakfast “fixins”.  My kids were ecstatic at the welcome, and after a quick tour of our new apartment, we promptly settled everyone in for a rest/catatonic nap from which I wasn’t sure we would ever awake.

But awake we did.  Especially around 2am for the first few nights.  ALL of us…for several hours.  It was a party!  Jet lag is no joke, y’all.  And for some reason, convincing a 10-month-old to go back to sleep just doesn’t work!

Our accomplishments this first week have mostly revolved around the essentials…sleeping, eating, cleaning (thank goodness I packed my Norwex!), and shopping 🙂  As the sleeping piece has improved, the others are slowly gaining some clarity – but let me tell you, feeding my family has never seemed so insurmountable as it has this past week.  Poor Wes just asked me this morning why we don’t have much food here — I promise I’m working on it, buddy!  But walking to the store, locating and deciphering items, paying in a foreign currency, carrying it all home and up 3 flights of stairs, then preparing it in a new kitchen with appliances in metrics and Russian…well, let’s just say it’s all a bit more complicated than my former trips to Publix in my handy-dandy mini-van!

But we have had some successes as we are learning the ropes here.  Dan and Ellie headed to the bazaar a few days ago, and triumphantly returned with the promise of two dressers to be delivered later that day (and they were!).  We located a fabulous little cake shop where we purchased two birthday cakes just a few days apart  (Wes’s birthday followed Ellie’s just five days later),  and we found a toy store after much searching at a local mall where the kids were able to pick out a couple of birthday gifts.  Our new friends arranged to have a small bus take us all to a local water park on Wes’s birthday, which was quite nice and we all enjoyed a bit of relaxation in the sunshine.  And just yesterday, the six of us ventured out together to the bazaar and successfully purchased a couple of rugs for our apartment.

Piece by piece, bit by bit.  I suppose any move involves a significant learning curve, but the cultural and language barriers obviously add some goliath-sized obstacles.  Patience and perseverance must become my closest companions in the days ahead as we seek to settle in and begin to make this place feel like home.

Thanks for coming along for the ride!  I promise some more exciting posts in the near future when my head is a bit less fuzzy and the world stops spinning beneath my feat.

A Hobbit’s Tale

As I sit here on my parents’ front porch listening to the rain drip around me, I feel a world away from my new home that awaits.  Largely because I AM.  It feels impossible to think that we will be boarding a plane in less than 36 hours, heading into hyperspace…

This summer has been an absolute whirlwind for our family.  I feel a bit like a hobbit as I recount our journey – “there and back again” – from Tennessee, to Missouri, then north through Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, and ultimately landing in Colorado where we spent the bulk of our summer.  And then back again, to my parents’ house in Missouri, to the bedroom I grew up in that I still refer to as my own.  It has been so incredibly full-circle to return to this place where I was born and raised, the place where backyards and city-limits were the size of my borders for so long — to leave from HERE to go to the ends of the earth??  I really do feel rather like Frodo, so very common and ordinary, and quite incapable of imagining all that lies before me.

But if I can stretch this analogy just a wee bit farther, sometimes Gandalf knocks on the door of your comfy little hobbit hole, and you have no choice but to follow him out and on to the journey.  I mean, who is a hobbit, after all, to question Gandalf?!

But hobbits and wizards aside, it’s time for our journey to finally begin.  Or continue, really.  And so we set out tomorrow, unsure of where this new road may lead.  I mean, who ever really knows, after all?  But we are very sure of Who goes before us, behind us, and WITH us every step of the way.  And no offense, but I’m rather glad it’s not Gandalf 🙂