Sunday, December 21, 2014

Report Card


A Stitch

Last weekend, Elise and I took the kids to a holiday party hosted by Sam's school at the Westin in Velacherry. We had gone to the same event last year and had a blast. We had arrived in India only a few weeks before. Everything was still new and we didn't have any of our own stuff yet. It didn't feel much like the holidays (Christmas is understandably not that big a deal in India) so were grateful for an international hotel with a giant Christmas tree and Santa's village set up in the lobby. We had also yet to fully realize that the international hotels were--not only the only places one could get a drink or a glass of wine in town--but peaceful oases among the chaos of Chennai.

We met a lot of other Americans living in Chennai but not affiliated with the Consulate community which was refreshing and a treat. (I am fascinated by the types of work that move people globally and how they make the move without the same support system my work provides us.) The kids got to decorate Christmas cookies and wrap presents. The food was good and there was mulled wine. They saw Santa, and Elise and I won a cake, a goodie basket, and a free date night in the raffle.

The week leading up to the party was especially hectic. Though Elise and I had a relaxing weekend in Mumbai without the kids, I had to stay in Mumbai for the week for work. When I got back to Chennai, we had trouble negotiating the fine ballet that is work, school and family. It seemed as though neither of us could catch our breath. Even the morning of the party, I was short with the kids, unable to get them to listen to anything I was saying without yelling.

But as soon as we started getting ready for the party--and especially as Sundar drove us to the hotel--our mood became more festive; we had all been looking forward to this evening.

When we arrived, I got a beer and Elise a glass of wine, and the kids immediately got started decorating Christmas cookies. A short while later, dinner was served and it was even better than I remembered from last year (they served beef tenderloin!). Like last year, too, we met new friends from the U.S. who had a young son Peter's ago who might be in his kindergarten class next year.

But as the evening wore on, we soon realized that there would be no Santa and no raffle. Though still fun, the evening wasn't quite the same as it was last year. We were getting ready to leave, and Elise was exchanging contact information with her new friend. Their son was jumping on the booth behind us. His dad, sitting at a table several feet away had just told him to settle down--something we constantly tell the boys to do at home so that we don't have to tell them the same thing when we are out. He jumped up and tried to grab a decorative metal divider separating the two tables, but the divider was not fastened to the back of the booth and he pulled it down on top of himself.

The divider hit him on the head and cut him on the forehead. There was blood everywhere. His mother became distraught. The boy was wailing in pain; and our kids went white. The wait staff rushed to attend to the boy, but didn't know what to do to help. The mother began to grow hysterical. She asked if there were a doctor on staff. The wait staff looked at each other. The manager shook his head. Elise got up to help, but there was little she could do.

"Do they have a driver?" I asked her to ask them. "They need to go to the hospital."

Meanwhile, still several feet away, the father had not moved. He did not get up to see if his son was okay. He finished his glass of wine while I broke out into a cold sweat.

When he finished his wine, he got up and walked over to the table where his son lay on the booth crying. He took one look and said, "Yeah. That'll need a stitch." Then went back to his table and sat down.

The wait staff finally carried him away. Elise consoled the woman, telling her how resilient children were and that he would be fine.

Someone asked the father if his wife would be okay. "You know how mothers are," he told them.

Elise received a text message later that night. He had needed a stitch. Two, in fact.

We were flabbergasted by the father's complete lack of interest in his son's welfare. Yes, he was going to be fine, but only if the dad stepped up and took control of the situation. I still do not know if he ever did. Elise wondered if the woman later kicked her husband in the nuts for his lack of response.

Our children had been well behaved all evening, and I told Elise that that couldn't have happened to one of our kids because we drill into them the importance of proper behavior when we go out. Elise corrected me, however. The boy wasn't acting that crazy, and the divider had not been attached; it could have very easily been one of our kids. I was grateful it wasn't.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Letters to Santa






Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tiny Titans

I am currently in Mumbai for working, learning how the same job I do in Chennai is done here. I was excited to come to Mumbai; it was a place I really wanted to visit while we were in India, and while our weekend in Colaba was wonderful, the work week has brought homesickness. I miss Chennai.

On Sunday afternoon, I dropped Elise off at the airport. As I kissed her goodbye in front of the domestic terminal and the cab pulled away from the airport, I was immediately saddened. I wanted to go back to Chennai with her. Sometimes, it takes getting away from the incessant chaos to remind oneself that lying beneath the din layer there are smart, funny, and kind children making all that noise.

I found the apartment in which I would be staying, a bachelor’s pad (not mine) in Bandra West, a tree-lined neighborhood that was supposedly home to several Bollywood stars. According to locals, it had at one time been characterized by quaint bungalows decaying before one's eyes beneath the effects of several decades--if not centuries--of  monsoons. Those were now, however, being snatched up by hungry real estate developers and demolished. Modern residential high-rise towers were now rising from their ashes.

I was unimpressed with my new home. I didn’t like the idea of staying in someone else’s apartment, but I tried to think of it as an Air BnB. Which was hard to do with poop in the toilet, dirty dishes in the sink, and laundry strewn over the furniture. I walked to the market and bought a fifteen dollar jar of peanut butter and a bunch of bananas, along with six bottles of Kingfisher. I vowed to eat well this week, but it has been hard. I am ashamed that I have become less self-sufficient than I was when I was single.

By far the highlight of the week has been my morning runs. Sunday night, I slept no more than three hours, but I still got myself up at a quarter to five to go running. Surprisingly, there was less traffic on the cobblestone streets of Mumbai at this hour than there was in Chennai. No cows munched trash on the side of the road, though I did hear a rooster crow from inside a dark and seemingly abandoned building. I ran under the full moon, the morning surprisingly cool. I ran west to the Arabian sea and found a promenade that hugged the edge of the land.

Eventually, the promenade ended, spitting me out into a fishing village. Sleeping auto rickshaws lined the road, and out of each one stuck a pair of bare feet. I heard the occasional snore as I ran by. I watched as villagers tip-toed over the rocks into the sea to bathe or go to the bathroom, holding their cellphones in front of them to light the way. A hundred tiny emerald lights floated above the water like a cloud of fireflies.

After my run, I made coffee, showered, and got ready for work. I called home and talked to Sam. He had gone to library and checked out two new books, Star Wars and Tiny Titans, fittingly titled. I wished I could read them with him.

I know getting outside of one’s comfort zone is good. It keeps one mentally nimble. But I traded efficiency in the office for a chance to come to Mumbai. The systems and processes are different, sometimes in simple, surprisingly frustrating ways. The office is located in a new industrial location, an office park built on top of a filled-in swamp that is now like a desert, treeless, lifeless and far, far from any urban amenities. It’s not easy to go for a lunchtime run from my office, smack-dab in the most bustling part of Chennai, but here it would be impossible.

The office itself is enormous and so new and modern as to be sterile and without character. In Chennai, our building is old. We trip over each other. We hear each other’s conversations, and our cubicles are practically stacked on top of one another, but in that there is charm, and the lack of space necessitates we get along. This room is as big as a football stadium. But they do have a nice gym with three working treadmills and a commissary that stocks $12 bottles of Absolut.

I am a little disappointed in Bandra, as well. I was hoping for something a little more hip, a place to grab a really good hamburger, or a bar. Instead, there is more noise, more traffic, more people than Chennai. The fruit stands do stay open later, but the Starbucks I was hoping would be around the corner from my apartment is still on the other side of town.


Perhaps, I am not being fair. Maybe it is not about Mumbai or not having easy access to a frappucino at all. I’m guessing it has more to do with not coming home to our little Hall of Justice filled with Tiny Titans and the woman I love. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Open House

This morning, Elise attended open house at Peter's pre-school. I am in Mumbai for work and so wasn't able to go, so she emailed me the following report:

"It's nothing we didn't know, but I wish I could have Skyped you in on my conference with Peter's teacher today. Mostly he is a genius. He begs for more math homework EVERYDAY, mazes, puzzles and challenges. They tried to come up with a point for each child among the teachers, that they could tell the parents that the kids needed to improve on and the consensus among three teachers was that Peter challenges THEM intellectually instead of the other way around. There isn't anything he doesn't do well, or fast or beg for more of, except writing letters again and again. They said he is the most well behaved and gentle boy in class and he listens incredibly well. She said he finishes his work before all the other kids, he has already completed his math book for the semester with two weeks left to go. He does five puzzles in the time other kids do one and at cleanup when the teachers can't do a puzzle they'll turn to Peter and he can always do it. He says every maze is 'too easy', and after 45 minutes of math they have to drag him away from his lessons.


I was nearly in tears. He is incredible. More math. He could change the world, this one."

I guess I knew all this on some level, but it is still nice to hear. When I think of Peter, the image that comes to my mind is of him racing back and forth from the living room to the dining room, making "pew pew pew" laser noises, his hands missles flying through air, and I can only imagine what is going through that brain of his. 

Now, I know. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

36 Hours in Bombay

Elise and I snuck away from the kids last weekend for the first time in over three years. I had to come to Mumbai for a week for work, so Elise and I decided to make a date of it.

We landed in Mumbai at sunset on a Friday. The earth looked dry and the city hilly. The dirt was a deep red hue from the setting sun and made the ground look like the plains of Mars. Mumbai’s infamous slums cut into the sides of hills and stepped one on top of the other like Jenga towers, blue tarps pulled over the eaves to keep the monsoon out. The sun was a bright red ball sinking into the Arabian Sea. As we rode in the shuttle bus from the airplane parked on the tarmac to the terminal, the sun set to the right while the full moon rose to the left. Flocks of pigeons flapped between the two, as though in each sphere’s competing gravitational pull, and I had the distinct feeling that I was not flying into Mumbai, but Bombay.

Mumbai, the most populous city in India, changed its name from Bombay at the behest of the Marathi nationalist Shiv Sena political party in 1995, stating that the name Bombay reminded of the unwanted legacy of British Colonial rule, but many Indians today still refer to the city by its original name, and, I think, in the minds of many, Mumbai has become the place and Bombay the spirit of that place in much the same way Madras is the spirit of Chennai.

My first piece of advice is if you ever plan to fly into Mumbai, please do not do it at rush hour on a Friday in a city of 20 million people and a notorious traffic problem. It took us two hours to drive from the airport to our hotel in the old Colaba neighborhood of south Bombay, a neighborhood characterized by cobblestone streets and old buildings built in the Gothic revival style, not to mention the ever-present street vendors.

Elise has been to North India, as I teasingly can’t stop reminding her, but I haven’t. In fact, in a year in Chennai, I haven’t traveled anywhere except for one short work trip to Bangalore. I told Elise that though I have lived in India for a year, I only now felt like I was travelling to India, the perception of India as I had always imagined it, loud, hectic, colorful, vibrant.

We arrived at our hip, modern hotel, Abode, shortly after eight, dropped our bags and immediately set out in search of food. Elise had a splitting headache, but we had to get something to eat. We settled on a restaurant around the corner of our hotel called The Table. We immediately ordered a glass of wine, a Kingfisher, and truffle fries. The head chef heralded from San Francisco, and you could tell from the menu. We ordered a Caesar salad with kale standing in for romaine. I ordered fish tacos, and Elise’s headache had sadly eaten her appetite, though she did rally in time to share the chocolate tort.

As soon as I woke up the next morning—low and behold—I was sieged by a horrible stomach bug. Welcome to India! But…but…but I've lived in India. For over a year! I have gone one entire year with nary a gurgle, and now, exactly one year in, Ive had a stomach thing no less than four times in three weeks.

There was a Le Pain Quotidian right around the corner of our hotel, so we decided to go there for breakfast. Elise and I have a special relationship with Le Pain; immediately before I asked Elise to marry me in Central Park, we stopped for breakfast at the Le Pain Quotidian at 7th Ave and West 58th. Most people would not come to India and breakfast at Le Pain Quotidian, but we eat idly, vada, sumbar and chutney every single morning for breakfast. Given the opportunity to order a warm chocolate croissant and granola and yogurt parfait, we were going to take it.

The eggs benedict did little soothe my stomach, however, and three Immodiums later, I still wasn't better. After a few minutes back in the hotel room, eyes closing, searching for inner gastrointestinal peace, I pulled myself together. There was no way we were going to stay in the room all day. I was going to have to fight it.

Elise knew it was bad when we went to Starbucks and I didn't order anything, but we soldiered on. We hailed a cab to take us up to the Chor, or Thief’s, Bazaar on Mutton Street. It was past eleven and the day had grown hotter and the streets more crowded. The cabbie took us on a jerky ride north. I rolled the window down and tried to get some fresh air. As we drove along the sea I was okay, but as we turned toward the center of the peninsula, car sickness piled on top of my already week stomach.

I looked out the window longingly at the street gutters. I formulated a back-up plan in my head. I pictured myself ordering the cabbie to stop, me throwing the door open and retching in a drain if I had to. Sweat poured off my temples and ran down my spine. It was the closest I have ever come to finding myself in a Hitchcockian horror sequence. Events were no longer passing before my eyes in a continuous stream, like video. I was seeing images flash before my eyes: a street completely covered in garbage, goats eating from the road, a movie promo poster from an Indian terror film. The crowd and noise and stench were pressing against me, then, mercifully, we were there. Elise stopped the cab. We got out, and I was dazed. She asked me if I was ok, but I couldn't answer. I couldn't even speak. All I wanted to do was sit down. I wanted to feel better, but desperately did not want to puke.

Elise got our bearings and we found the Thief’s Bazaar. We entered Mutton Street, slightly cooler in the shade. Elise spent the next few hours in heaven, digging through a treasure trove of Indian antiquities, antique plates and saucers, old photographs, and used equipment. We even bought a gold olive spoon. I was happy that she was happy and that the shop keepers were kind enough to offer me their stools in the shade. I was finally comfortable and, in looking around me, found myself immersed in the India that I only knew through my pre-conceived notions of the place: a snafu of wires crisscrossing overhead, goats chomping on rotting cilantro, children on the way to the water pump. A Muslim man asked me where I was from. I managed to answer, “The U.S.” “How is it?” “We have good days and bad days.” He chuckled, “Good answer!”

Elise would still be there if she could, but we decided to try and find something to eat. We hopped in another cab in search of a restaurant nearby that served a North Indian thali that was to die for and came highly recommended by a friend.

After a late lunch, we went back to the room to cool down, but with less than a day and a half at her disposal, Elise could not sit still and we were soon headed out the door for more window-shopping, followed by drinks and then dinner.

For cocktails we stopped at the Harbour Bar at the Taj Mahal Palace, the oldest continuously running bar in Mumbai. We had both a view of the Gateway of India and the brilliantly-lit Victorian horse carriages adorned in strings of lights galloping by. There, we toasted to having finally sold our townhouse. We listened to the annoying prattle of a table of loud twenty-somethings getting drunk--probably worked for an NGO--and speculated that the guy at the table next to us was either Michael Douglas or David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the Great Britain.

After drinks, we stopped at Bade Miyan, a shish kabob stall a half block from our hotel. The “restaurant” is merely a grill on the side of the road. One guy rotates a hundred skewers of chicken tikka, tandoor chicken and chicken kafka, while on the opposite side, another guy makes mountain bread, slapping stretched dough against an inverted bowl, heated from within, a reverse kiln. In the street, waiters come to your car (if you happen to drive), pop the hood and place a soda bottle under it to make it level to the ground. Then, they lay newspaper on your hood and take your order. A few minutes later, the shish kabobs and bread come. You eat, then the waiter take the newspaper away, wipes down your hood, closes it, and sends you on your way.

If you don’t have a car, you crowd the grill in search of a bearded man in glasses and a brown flannel. He doesn't write down orders, but a dozen eager, young diners bark orders at them, pushing to the front. There is shouting, cacophony, scream of “The side!” as waiters come through with trays of gravy, chaana masala or daal. I was experiencing a true Anthony Bourdain moment (only without the savvy, Hindi-speaking guide), an experience atypical to most travelers, when you are so immersed in local culture that the lines are completely blurred and there is no tourism, travel or vacation anymore, just the experience. There was no mercy for the Westerner. My brown loafers were completely covered in dirt, but somehow, over the din, I was able to procure food for Elise and I, like a hunter bringing home the kill. I threw 500 rupees at the bearded man in the brown flannel (there was no price) and he nonchalantly tucked it into his front shirt pocket. 

The trip was short, but it was long enough for Elise and I to reconnect and vow never to go that long without an adventure like this one again. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

An End and a Beginning

Nearly five years ago, Elise found me crouched in the our master bedroom closet, sobbing. We had just finished doing a final sweep of our now empty townhouse, making sure we hadn't left anything behind. All of our worldly possessions had been packed into the back of an Atlas Van Lines semi driven by Carl and headed for a warehouse in Hagerstown, Maryland.

The next day, Elise and I and our two tiny, young sons would leave Jupiter, Florida and drive to Washington, D.C. to start a new life that would first take us to Brazil and then India. But before we did that we had to make sure the townhouse was empty and that we had packed every last pacifier, stuffed animal, running shoe, and interior design, watercolored by hand on foam board.

And it was. The silence was deafening. Every sound echoed in the void. We were leaving the only home our family had ever known, the place where we brought two tiny babies home to, where we had our first Christmas together, the place where Kitty threw up on the rug to voice his jealousy of Sam, the place where Elise and I slept on the floor--enveloped in only our new love--before I even had furniture. The house was just as empty then, too, holding only promise of a future together. Six years later, we had filled it with memories, and on that night, all those memories came crashing down upon my frame, weary with holding a two-month old sleeping Petey through pack-out, like boxes accidentally upset from the top shelf.

We sold that townhouse on Friday. Finally. The sale brings no new emotion. we had already said goodbye. It brought relief, a weight lifted. No more worrying about shoddy tenants. No more worrying that the home might flood (twice) while I am in the middle of a UN conference.

Elise and I found ourselves in Bombay on the night of the closing, the first time we had escaped without the kiddos in over three years, since before Clementine was born.

I asked Elise if she could have ever imagined all those years ago that we would be here, in India, in Mumbai.

She told me that when she first saw me walk into Kee Grill she knew on some level, "Yes." Maybe not specifically India, but yes, we would go places together.

For some, a closing is a beginning. For others, an end. For us, it is both.