Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve

When we lived in Falls Church, I rode the shuttle every morning to work. It was a short commute, usually lasting twenty minutes. On the way to work I would listen to Pandora Radio…specifically, the Rogue Wave channel as Rogue Wave is one of my favorite bands.

Other people on the shuttle read the news, checked email, and studied flashcards, but, invariably, everyone was glued to one wireless device or another while I gazed out the window…firstly, at snow flurries, then summer showers, and lastly, at trees with leaves changing colors. I haven’t listened to Rogue Wave radio since we left Northern Virginia almost two long months ago.

Recently, I tried to pull up Pandora on my iPhone, but Pandora doesn’t have a license in India. I put the iPhone away, discouraged. Until I realized I could pull it up on my laptop, connecting to the internet through a VPN which disguised my computer and made it seem to the internet that I was dialing up from the U.S. instead of India. But, unfortunately, my computer has less than stellar sound quality. No sub-woofers or tweeters here. I have iPhone speakers, but no way to connect them to my laptop. I found a random cord in a plastic zip-lock bag. It was a cord that came with the treadmill we bought right before we left the U.S. to connect an iPod to the treadmill’s auxiliary jack (it’s a pretty fancy treadmill). Low and behold, the cord fit! I was back in business.

Sunday mornings, Elise has been intrepidly leaving the house at 5:45 a.m. and joining a photowalk somewhere in the city of Chennai. You can see the fruit of her efforts in the margins of this blog. That leaves me solo piloting for most of Sunday mornings. Hardly an unpleasant, but rarely an easy task. By way of example, my homemade Martha Stewart pancakes that I made last Sunday morning turned out more like Olympic discuses after I mistakenly substituted baking powder for baking soda. I miss Bisquik.

It is interesting to me how certain sounds and smells can sometimes more easily evoke a time and place than sights can. Whenever I smell gas, I am still reminded of Sitti’s kitchen in West Palm, the only gas cooking appliances I had really ever been around until we moved into our home in Brazil. When I plugged in Rogue Wave radio last Sunday morning, I was immediately transported back in time a few short months to our home in Falls Church…and all the good and bad memories of the place came flooding back.

I immediately scooped Clementine up in my arms and we danced around the kitchen much the same way we used to in our small two-bedroom corporate housing apartment. Her muscle memory, too, is keen and she easily fell into step.

Music, especially familiar music, can bring a sense of calm, happiness, and reassurance. I had been without these things until I returned from my work trip to Bangalore a week and a half ago. The music helped.
Never let it be said that moving your family halfway across the world is easy. It is not logistically easy, nor is it a mental exercise for the faint of heart. The jet lag alone is reason enough to think twice. I don’t know exactly what it was about Bangalore…I don’t know what happened there…but once I had returned I felt much more at peace with the decision to bring my family to India.

The first month we were here I was incredibly anxious. I was quick to temper and slow to patience. I wasn’t sure if I had done the right thing.

I was stressed out.

I wasn’t sure if the change would be good for my family or if everyone would contract dengue fever and we would spend the next two years medivac-ing back and forth between Chennai and Singapore or, worse, the States.  On some intuitive level, I thought India would be good for us. It looked good on paper…a good international school for Sam to start kindergarten in…good, challenging pre-school for Peter…affordable domestic staff to help around the house and let Elise and I re-establish the connection we had in Brazil, but that had frayed under the stress of living in Washington, D.C….no end to the wonders awaiting Elise’s photographic eye. But being good on paper is one thing. Being good in reality was something entirely different, and the long commute to and from Sam’s school, the pollution, and the mosquitoes made me second guess myself. It would only be natural to wonder if I had done the right thing, and there is no way to know if one of the children won’t get sick. In India, it is a near certainty.

I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it didn’t, I finally relaxed.

The reason it didn’t drop is because Elise didn’t let it. My sometimes unrealistic optimism would not have been enough to get us through those difficult first weeks. It was going to take no-nonsense, pragmatic adaptability. Which she demonstrated in spades. All I have to do is go to work. My exposure to India is a fraction of what hers is. I am incredibly proud of the way she has embraced our new home. I don’t know anyone else who could have dove in headfirst the way she has. I know, already, India is loving her back.

Before we came to India, I had heard it said that it is a place that you either love or hate. You either can’t get enough of it, it brings about in you an insatiable appetite and appreciation for noise, color, smells and tea or it revolts and frustrates you.

It is cliché to say that India will change our lives or become a seminal turning point. It surely will, but in as of yet unfathomable ways.

When I turned on Rogue Wave radio, I was reminded of another seminal moment, another life changing span of time that will often be overlooked as I think our time in Falls Church was much more difficult than our time in Chennai and India ever will be and will go much further in shaping our lives. It has already gone further in bringing Elise and I even closer together than India ever could…for all the good and the bad that happened in that tiny, two-bedroom shit corporate housing apartment overlooking a cemetery that was either freezing cold or boiling hot and…….

…filled with love.

It goes without saying that 2014 will be a very, very interesting year.

Happy New Year, Hewie.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

One Point Two Three Seven Billion Stories

When you live in a country of 1.237 billion people (2012 census) you wonder where they all are. You imagine that every square mile of the country must be covered by one endless city, like Coruscant in the second Star Wars trilogy, an endless sea of buildings and towering spires, and that every square inch must be covered by humanity.

I travelled outside of Chennai for the first time earlier this week. I flew to Bangalore, a short forty minute flight over the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It was the first time I had flown over India in the daylight. As we climbed above Chennai, the city gradually gave way to grassy lots overgrown with weeds and, eventually, to fields.

The land between Chennai and Bangalore was wide and green. Between rolling hills, it had the same geometrical divisions one might see flying over the American Midwest, agricultural fields. There were few roads, a few villages. I wondered where all the people were.

Of course, India is nothing like Coruscant or the neon city in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.  The fact that the country can hold 1.237 billion people and still have forests, fields, and villages is a testament to the country’s vastness.

Before I left for Bangalore, I took the boys to lunch at California Pizza Kitchen. No, you did not misread. Yes, we have CPK in Chennai!!

My work was hosting a lunch for the newcomers to India. Elise and I had already purchased tickets to go to a Christmas gala hosted by Sam’s school at the Westin (read below). At $65 a pop, the tickets did not come cheap…especially by Indian standards. We were committed, but we couldn’t not go to our own welcome lunch either, so Elise stayed home to make sure Clem had a nap, and the boys and I went to the Lego Store and lunch.

As we were driving down Velacherry Main Road, on our way to the Phoenix Mall, we passed pineapples piled high on wooden carts and spiral-horned cows munching garbage. The side streets were narrow. Hardly streets at all, they were more like alleys. We drove fast, but I tried to look down each alley way. Lines of drying linens criss-crossed the lanes. Maim dogs limped through puddles of stagnant rainwater. Each alley was like a small community onto itself and each alley was filled with hundreds of narratives.

This sense that I was surrounded by millions of tales was exacerbated in Bangalore, a city roughly the same size as Chennai only much more spread out. Bangalore had Kingfisher and nice weather, but I missed my home in Chennai. Where Chennai is a sleepy village, Bangalore is a city. The streets are wider, like highways. The skies are more open. The buildings taller. There are fewer trees. The side streets, therefore, are not alleys, nor are they narrow, and they do not hold communities or towns, but entire cities. Hence, the lives of the people in these cities, their stories, fill the ether. You can almost feel them swirling about you in much the same way you can almost feel cell phone calls, emails, and text messages zipping by your head invisibly through the air.

You may think that being one person among such masses might offer some sense of smallness, some sense of anonymity. I know I felt that way in New York City, but in India quite the opposite is true. I stand out. 
Myself, Elise, and the kids are stared and gawked at. They are particularly enamored with Clementine whom they call "Nene" and Peter whom they regard as though he were a reincarnated Hindu idol. Being American makes you somehow super-human. Above others. I asked our driver to stop so I could buy tea from a roadside stand. He wouldn’t. He said that tea wasn’t for me. It was for a working person. I wasn’t sure if he was saying I was too good for the tea or the tea wasn’t good enough for me. Or, possibly, he meant to say that the tea would make me sick, in which case I wanted to, at least, find out for myself.

The fact that we have a driver at all sets us apart.

A less humble man could feel like a god here. The mass of humanity doesn’t bring anonymity. It could bring a sense of invincibility. One could feel like their money could heal any malaise and with but a wave of one’s hand you could either cure all evil or rain down lightning and destruction from above. Maybe this is how the British felt. But is dangerous to feel this way. Fortunately, I am a humble man.

Nevertheless, you can't go a day without seeing tens of thousands of new faces...the faces on the young girls in khaki police uniforms sitting on corners under sheets of corrugated aluminum siding in wooden police outposts...the faces of the old women sweeping the streets with brooms made from palm fronds...the wrinkled faces out the car window of the distinguished old men riding scooters beside you...and you can't go a day without wondering where all these people are going and what all these people are doing, and yet knowing on some level that they are all as eager as you are to get home and see loved ones, and in these millions of disparate, parallel narratives passing by one another more commonalities may exist than one might initially suspect.

In Bangalore, I saw houses made of cardboard, with roofs made from plastic tarpaulins layered atop one another and held in place with bungie cords. I saw naked babies bathing in dirty puddles. I saw yellow chicks following their hen mother across the street. There is poverty everywhere. The growth of the Indian middle-class is not myth, but the Indian definition of middle-class is very different than the American--or even Brazilian--definition of middle-class. It would be easy to let the poverty, filth, and stench of India overwhelm you. If it not for the wealth of peace and happiness, the abundance of clear, pearl white smiled on dark-skinned Tamil children in the streets (the same ones Elise is photographing), the smell of tandoori grilling or samosas frying in a large vat of popping oil. Even the wild dogs in India are mild-mannered.

And I am sure they have stories to tell, too, thus upping the count.  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

First film eye candy has arrived!

Take a stroll on over to www.elisehanna.com and check out some of my first rolls of film emerging from our days here in Chennai. First up the National Art Museum grounds. All the best stories told with words here as always, and the best images of the kids, of course, but don't miss the visual stories on my website.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Monday, December 23, 2013

Old Number 13 New Number 35

One of my favorite, interesting (read: weird) things about Chennai are the addresses. Every address has an old number and a new number, which seemingly indicates that at some point in the past, all the houses were renumbered.

I know that many streets, too, were renamed. Many street names were switched from their British Colonial names to new Indian names (in much the same way Madras became Chennai), and Livingston Lane became 
R. P. Ramaswammy Lane.

Fascinatingly you need both the old number and the new number to find where you are going. I can’t imagine that the Indian postal service renumbered all the houses to make things more complicated, to make people remember two numbers instead of just one, so I am cautiously optimistic that at some point in our two years in Chennai, we will only need the new number and can forget the old number.

But for some reason I don’t think that’s going to be the case. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Jetpack the Cat

Pete loves cats.

He obviously gets this affinity for cats from me, his father.

A week or two ago, we drove to the south of the city to a used car dealer by the sea to look at a used Mahindra Scorpio. We didn't end up buying the car, but did almost come home with a ten-day old kitten.

I've recently backed off my promises to buy a cat upon discovering a sleek black cat hanging around outside. Occasionally, he can be spotted napping in the sun on the windowsill, tucked behind the metal grate over the window.

When we did talk about getting a cat, Pete and Sam talked about names. Pete wanted to call him "Jetpack".

Yesterday, Elise and Pete went grocery shopping. Pete insisted they buy a tiny plastic dish for 10 rupees (16 U.S. cents). He also wanted to buy a giant bag of cat food, too, but this was neither cheap nor, in anyone's estimation except Peter's, a good idea. We didn't want the black cat to become too attached or we'd end up ultimately becoming responsible for his well-being and never getting rid of him. I'd already had to say goodbye to one cat and if there was one thing that I am most afraid of when it comes to cats is having to say goodbye to another one.

Pete tried the hard sell when it can to the bag of cat food, promising Elise that he would love and "protect" (his words) the cat, but he was happy enough to settle for the plastic dish.

This morning, we poured a small amount of milk in the plastic dish and set in front of the window in the kitchen where he likes to nap before heading out. When we got home from our morning outing, Jetpack was happily lapping the milk from the bowl.

It appears, now, that we do, indeed, have a cat, and his name is Jetpack. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Book of Morgan | Chapter II

You know if you hang around here much, that I live my life powered by family. The idea of it, the people within it, the people adopted into it and those that live along all along its feathered lines.  It shapes my home, my business and my relationships.

I’ve always been a wanderer.

When one packs up their life and moves from one side of the country to another and from one continent to another, one has to allow themselves to be adopted; especially when you believe in the power of family like I do.

Paul and I have our own families, we've created our own family, but we’ve also allowed ourselves to become a part of other people’s families in some other giant spiritual family realm.

When we chose to adopt the expat life we chose to split our hearts in two. I feel every seam rip open and divide each time the landing gear pulls up, half left at home with my mom, dad, brothers and friends, and the other half settling in to it’s new more spacious cavity here in Chennai.

But you have to have family everywhere you go.

Morgan recently shared this article that describes the indescribable quite perfectly.

Voluntary Kin [noun]: People who feel like family, but to whom we are not related by blood or law – are a significant part of peoples’ support systems.

I don’t know that you ever consciously go searching for these people, but instead you find each other somewhere in the middle of looking for something else. Someone finds them in a hallway for you, you find them passing you in a foot race, you find them on your doorstep when you need someone most. 

The heart always finds what it needs.

When babies fall and break their teeth, continents away, in the middle of the night, you have to call someone to watch their siblings while you find the local emergency room. You need to have people to share your turkey at Thanksgiving, your joy at Christmas and your sorrows as they pass through. Then somewhere, sometimes, the quotation marks fall off, and what you’re left with isn’t any kind of textbook idea of “family” or people that you casually refer to as “family.” They become unequivocally spiritual flesh and blood Family.

They are there as time wears away the sharp edges of unfamiliarity, and are a part of the smooth familiar feeling that is left behind when things begin to feel magically just like home. They erase lines. They make no apologies and require none.

Home isn't ever an easy feeling to find in a new country. I know I didn’t feel at home in Oakwood until long after we’d arrived, long after I began to feel at home at the Loosli’s new home across town and I even though I love it here in Chennai, this place hasn't at all felt like home since we arrived. It is simply the empty shell of the word home; Not waiting to be filled with furniture or people or a refrigerator of food, but waiting to be filled with memories, laughter and stories of our days. 

I said in Chapter One that our friendship, would never be the same after we left Brazil, but I was so naive.  It was better. It wasn’t as easy, but all things that grow, grow with purpose.

We knew when we left Brazil that we had this crazy "Nine Month Tandem DC Family Tour." The impending separation of our families, lovingly sewn up at the seams in the past three years was still on the horizon, but too far off to see.

We were geographically, too far apart for the time that we got to be in the same city again, but it never really mattered. Home is the place, where you are with the people you love. So, we spent mornings on Teddy Roosevelt Island in the shadows of the man, running through cool sprays throughout the city’s parks, and at the zoo. We camped out and we camped in.  We met for coffee, salads, cupcakes and photo walks when we could in Georgetown and followed the kids around on their bikes at the waterfront when we couldn't. We weekended in New York, in Shenandoah and in our own backyards.

We put India on the back burner.

As time drew nearer to our departure, I watched Phinny and Simon one night while Morgan and Phill went out to dinner. As I tucked them into bed and pulled the door closed I said, “I love you boys.” and as easily as it has slipped out of my mouth they sleepily responded, “Love you, too.”

They are not only the product of two incredible humans, but I’ve witnessed the blood, sweat and tears breathed into their first years. I’ve celebrated their birthdays and their first days of school, I’ve worried about their coughs and their bumped heads as if they were my own. I’ve been there in one-way or another, text, phone or in living color and will continue to be.

But, until I arrived here, on the other side of the world, I worried that might all change again.

Our house feels as rough and unfamiliar to the touch, as Brazil's did in its early days. I’ve wondered and worried how I’d do it all again without Morgan just a few conjuntos away. But as I watch Clementine carry “Miss Mogan” around on my iphone while they Facetime, and put her in her tiny backpack to pretend to take her to school and to show her all the latest books she’s reading and kiss her face on the screen, I realize that the miles are as insignificant as my worry.

The kids talk about Phinny and Simon, Morgan and Mr. Phill like they are still here because we don’t talk about them like they are far.

Clementine draws pictures of Morgan, and talks about her all day long. We write their names, and we draw pictures of their house. We make play dough breakfasts for them and we call them on the phone and sometime even on the television remote control. The boys talk about “Midder Phill” when they play legos and we thumb through tiny personalized picture books that Morgan made of each of their adventures with the Looslis since our family of nine was born was born.

As I sat rocking Clem to sleep the other night, the house began to ooze that familiar softness of home for the very first time. The one you search for, try for, decorate and organize for, cook for and cry for. As the warmth of familiarity swirled about the darkened room as I held my sleeping girl, I realized that I have not been searching for it alone. My best friend has made herself, very purposefully, as she always does, a part of the erosion of unfamiliarity here in India, even though she is thousands of miles from her family here.

Dude, I love you. You guys are with us every day.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Elf Off The Shelf

Everyone: "You have to get an Elf on the Shelf! The kids will love it! It is so magical and mischievous and gives you like, HOURS of extra work to do after the kids are in bed."

Me: "I DO need more work at the end of the night, yes, but I already have an elf. She isn't on a shelf, in fact she is often off the shelf and she makes messes with things from the shelves and is mischievous and dances and sings 'Happa Burtday' naked in front of my Christmas tree, but I'll pass. Thanks. I like my elf off the shelf."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tis the Season

This weekend we went to a lovely Christmas party at the Westin, care of Sam's school.  We all got ready, together. Clementine may have tried to drink a bit of my Dior foundation, but I'm ignoring it on account of her good taste. Sam painstakingly looped his own belt and Peter wore the tiniest and cutest tie you've ever seen.

Just for you, we posed for a snap on the "Road to Nowhere." It still goes nowhere. Although they have paved all the way to the end of our street. Sort of. Today our driver braved the ten inch drop to the shoulder and into our driveway, which was quite the morning jolt. But, in lieu of any kind of decent coffee, I think I'll just have them keep our driveway as is. I may not have to even ask.

We were greeted at the door with hot mulled wine, eggnog and hot chocolate. The kids were given Santa hats, strung into mini-aprons and put to work decorating their own tiny gingerbread men. The adults were treated to a cooking demonstration, which, honestly we missed, mingling with new friends and on the frosting assist, but it looked and smelled lovely.

We helped wrap Santa's presents, place giant gingerbread bricks on a life-size gingerbread house and decorated the tree. Clem spotted the jolly old man himself before anyone else, with eyes as round as saucers, and shouted to me, "Mommy! Mommy! Sata! Sata!" Moments later he descended the staircase and all the kids had a turn on his lap.

After a final round of Christmas carols, we sat down to a lovely buffet dinner. Peter went right to sleep, Sam nearly begged us to let him fall asleep and Clem was busy eating and being chauffeured around by the waitstaff, who couldn't keep their hands off of her. Paul and I won a chocolate cake and dinner for two in a raffle; to return (childless) to the Westin on another night. 

All photos courtesy of my iphone, the enjoyment of a family filled night, a little wine, a few Kingfisher and a whole lot of Christmas cheer.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Road to Nowhere

When we arrived in India, the road outside of our house was incredibly potholed. To call it a road at all is extremely generous. It was a rocky path between two buildings that you might see in a Jeep Grand Cherokee commercial, the kind of road used to demonstrate off-road capabilities of giant American SUVs with trail ratings.

Evidently, the “road” had not always been like this. Of course, we didn’t know this. It had been torn up a few months before our arrival in preparation for a repaving that hadn’t come until this week. The paving started last weekend. For some reason, they only pave at night. The first night of paving wasn’t too bad. Then, monsoon rains came and there was no work for three days. The next day, I received an email from work notifying the residents affected by the street work that the paving would resume that evening, but that there could be no guarantee as to when the job would be completed due to a sand shortage in India.

Yes, a shortage of sand.

Anyway, the construction would be inconvenient for most people. Fortunately, we are not most people and are already becoming incredibly patient with the machinations of various bureaucratic processes (among other types of processes such as: registering the birth of your child born outside of a hospital, transferring the registration of a vehicle from one state to another, ordering pizza delivery, and figuring out how the cable remote control works) in foreign countries.

That being said, our driver (yes, we have a driver; you would, too, if you saw the traffic in Chennai) can’t pull into our driveway, so I have to walk three incredibly heavy car seats half a block to install them in our rented car, an activity which, in and of itself, borders on absurd, since most other children in this city ride without a helmet sandwiched in between their mother and father on the back of a scooter weaving in between cars, cows, and autos travelling 40 kph.  Moreover, I have been receiving giant Amazon boxes at work filled with Christmas presents from the States which I have to haul through a construction site in order to get them under our tree. I only got small amounts of wet cement on my work loafers last night.

As I was saying, construction resumed last night. Let me just say, a team of twenty Indians pouring cement in the middle of the night is not quiet.

Besides the hollering, praying, and honking, a generator droned powering giant lamps that shined into our bedroom windows all night long.

Okay, so enough complaining, already. Let me tell you about the new “road”.

The new road is a giant slab of concrete about six to eight inches higher than everything else around it. Which begs the question (which I posed to Sam the other morning as we were waiting for his school bus): How is a car going to either get up onto the new road and, once having gotten up on the road, get back down again?

There are no ramps or drives. Just a giant slab of concrete that now covers about half the road out in front of our house.

As I said, they only work at night for some reason. I would blame it on the heat, but it’s not even hot out. It’s actually quite pleasant. I almost think they think they were doing us a favor. So, not much happens on the road during the day.

During the day, it is covered with wet burlap sacks. Stray dogs leave their paw prints in the wet cement, and an old man in a V-neck t-shirt and turban squatting on the side of the new road bangs two rocks together like something out of the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It has all made for an interesting entre into life in India. In Brazil, there were two houses at the end of our street that were under construction for the entire two years we lived there. Here, you can regularly see women carrying baskets full of stones on their heads to and from work sites. For that reason alone, you can understand why it would take so long to get anything built. I just hope our new road is not like the houses in Brazil.

Pray for sand. 

Pamboo Hunter

My job in Chennai brings me into contact with many interesting people. So far, many of them--the most memorable--are students who want to study in the United States. I meet lots of people travelling to the United States for work. A lot of them work for companies like Cisco, Intel, and ADM. Every once in awhile, I meet someone who does not fit nicely into any neat category.

Yesterday I met a small, old man. He had dark skin that was two parts weathered by the sun and three parts tinted by his Indian heritage. He had deep wrinkles on his forehead, denting the red and white tilaka powder mark smeared there, and a frizzy thatch of bone-white hair.

When I asked him in Tamil who he was going to visit in the United States he gave me a passionate and enthusiastic response little of which I understood. One word did stand out to me, though, "pamboo" (snake), and I wasn't sure at that time if he meant it literally or figuratively. Then, he showed me a letter from the University of Florida Department of Zoology. The man was a member of the Irula tribe, a small tribe world famous for their prowess in catching snakes. He had been invited to wrangle alien pythons from the Everglades.

Only three weeks in and I had already met my first bonafide Indian snake-charmer!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Legos to the Rescue

It is Monday, but I am feeling refreshed after a mostly peaceful weekend. Sunday was especially therapeutic, despite, or because, I spent most of the day searching for random Lego pieces.

I don't know how most families store their Legos. I know when my brothers and I were children, all of our Lego bricks, tens of thousands of them, were kept in a bed sheet folded in the corners, then tied Tom Sawyer-style. This is, I think, my mom's invention and is, actually quite genius. Whenever we wanted to build Legos she would just untie the sheet and we had a ready-made play surface. Then, when we done, she would just tie the sheet up, and the Legos would pick themselves up.

But throwing all the Lego pieces together into one giant pile is more appropriate in a day and age when the Legos were just bricks. Nowadays, the Legos are more like models than raw building materials, and the pieces are incredibly specialized. I won't get into whether I think this is an evolution in Lego or a devolution. I can understand how this specialization and the need to follow a booklet of directions an inch thick might be perceived as depriving kids of the opportunity to build more free form and creatively. But I think the models are cool, and following directions can teach, too. Especially to Pete and Sam. Not that they have trouble following directions, but a little practice never hurt. I think it teaches them engineering skills and manual dexterity. Plus, despite his present infatuation with Chima, a land of talking animals who fight over a mystical substance not unlike Austin Powers' mojo called "chi" or "chai", I'm not sure which, he still builds amazingly abstract and beautiful buildings. I hope he is an architect someday, because he makes me wonder why there can't be more creativity in modern architecture. Why do all buildings have to cubes?

Since the Legos are more like models and the pieces are so specialized, it becomes essential to keep the sets separate. If you want to construct the model, then disassemble it, then re-assemble it again, as these boys want to do, then it becomes very important that all the pieces stay together and none get lost. To this end, I bought each model a plastic bin from Target to live in.

When the boys went to Washington last summer to visit Ma and Granddad, I dumped all of their Legos onto the living room floor and rebuilt all the Legos, so all the right pieces could be in the right box. This took me a week to do. Okay, it was kind of silly to spend a week while my kids were out of town building Legos, but they did get a kick out of seeing my progress on Skype.

Eventually, the pieces did get mixed up again after their return to some extent, but for the most part, the models stayed separated until we packed out of our corporate temporary housing. For some reason, I did not think to tape the plastic bins shut.

I wasn't home when our air shipment with most of our toys from DC arrived in India, but according to Elise their was at least one giant cardboard box filled with random Legos. Of course, all the bins popped open in transit and all the Legos were reunited and had one big party somewhere over the North Atlantic.

Some might think it ridiculous to ask the American taxpayer to fly our Legos to us, but I would challenge those persons to live with three children five and under in a house with no toys for three weeks and see how much they would be willing to pay for toys.

When the Legos did arrive, Sam spent one entire day, from sun up to sun down, building Legos. Sunday was spent in much the same way. Both Sam and Pete want me to build Legos with them...which really means they want me to find pieces for them. Nothing more. Of course, many of the models were now missing pieces and both Sam and Peter asked me to locate for them incredibly tiny, incredibly specialized pieces in specific colors. Normally, I would demure, citing the improbability of successfully finding the piece. Literally, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But I humored Sam the first time and, to my amazement, I found the piece he was looking for at the bottom of another bin. So, when asked again, I again accepted the challenge and again succeeded. I found three more pieces this way, proving that no matter how ridiculous a request from one of your kids may seem initially, sometimes it pays off to just say yes, when your initial inclination might have been to say no. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Making Salsa with a Soup Ladle

I’m half my mom and half my dad, maybe 60/40. Sixty percent rainbows and unicorns, creativity and eternal optimism and forty percent creative, No BS, “Will of Ox.” On a normal day I expend just about that and when one is used up, I break straight into the second like our backyard generator; sometimes you don’t even know the power went out, but suddenly you’re on reserves. Some days they are intermixed like a finely woven rug of magical ass kicking all of which is needed for survival in this sometimes uniquely challenging lifestyle.

I usually give you the rainbows here, because even though the water here is toxic as hell,  I'm still a "Glass is half-full" kind of girl. Also, because this blog is ultimately the diary of our family, and while I want to keep it real, I also want the kids to know that despite the bad stuff, the good always prevails.

What we are experiencing in our house right now is what I like to call “Survival Mode.” Survival Mode is when we are completely out of our family routine, we have none of our stuff and we are making salsa with a butter knife, both literally and figuratively. 

It’s like camping in a multimillion-dollar house, that has nothing practical in it.

“Here is your five bedroom house, filled with beautiful (albeit creatively dead furnishings) but please, go make a beautiful dinner for your family that makes your new home really feel like home, salsa perhaps, and chop all the ingredients with a soup ladle. Enjoy!”

I hear myself saying things like:

“I finished off the wine because I needed to use the bottle as a rolling pin.”

“Are you ok with eating soup off of plate, because our three bowls are dirty?”

“The cheese grater won’t grate cheese, but try the slotted spoon!”

We are in a country this time around that speaks English, or so I heard. It’s really more like “Tamlish” Sentences that are several minutes long will only include three English words, “Ladies” “Gentlemen” and “No problem.” When I do understand the things they are saying, I don’t quite believe the things they are saying:

“You won’t have snakes because you have a mongoose, but because you don’t have snakes you may have rats.”  

Which, yes, we did have. So I don’t know whether to get a snake or get rid of the mongoose.

"Green snakes are not poisonous, NO NO madam, don't worry, not poisonous. Green snakes, they only attack your eyeballs."

So I'm wearing lab goggles on a regular basis even though: Mongoose! So I think I'm safe.

I was also told yesterday “Don’t use your air conditioner because it uses a lot of energy, but don’t open your windows because you will have mosquitoes.”  To which I was unable to respond because I was still running on the power of the unicorn.

I think, sadly, people often fear that the people that will be the most dangerous and rude to them when they arrive in a new country are the locals. I've learned that often the most toxic people, though very few and far between are other Americans, or other disgruntled expats.

Tuesday was a battle of wills and I felt like I was losing. You see we are provided our travel and our housing, even some of our utilities, but the State Department does not tell us how to live, until yesterday that is. I was almost positive the rat problem had been solved, but apparently they come in through the front door, too.

The most important thing we do when we arrive in a new country is to make our home safe both physically and emotionally and when someone dares to mess with that, I trade my fuzzy unicorn spire for my ox horns like Superman, but I don't mess around with the phone booth. But, I was blindsided and out of respect for one of my husbands peers I took a beating that I later beat myself up so badly for  taking "Thank you ma'am may I have another condescending speech on how to live my life," that I vowed to not let it happen to another innocent newcomer again. May she regret tousling my magical mane forevermore.

I am certain that by now I could most likely win the new Food Network show, “Cutthroat Kitchen” making Beef Wellington with my hands tied behind my back, blindfolded, in bare feet, standing on a bed of coals, fired by cow dung. The show’s premise is that contestants are given a menu to cook, and the other competitors can use their cash to buy your knives, pans, stove, etc. They can buy it all, I'll still win.

"Tonight on Cutthroat Kitchen: Elise vs. The State Department."

Recreating our home is always headed up by cooking my favorite meals for my family, eventually even cooking those same meals that actually turn out like my favorite meals.

There is a learning curve in each new country and I have come to believe that part of the training to become a chef should include being dropped in an unfamiliar kitchen, ten-zillion miles from home and left to scour new markets in a foreign language and nothing but a dull butter knife to prepare the meal with.

I can now make you lasagna in three different languages on nearly any side of the world and mostly always with a smile on my face. I can make you corn muffins on a cookie sheet with whole corn kernels and a single wet match.

We’ve had our ups and our downs in the past few week. Rats, homesickness and the weight of millions of miles on our hearts..

But, we pull together, not apart. I go to bed on empty, but I always wake up again ready to fight, pixie dust or long horns.

Friday, December 6, 2013

If a mother screams in the forest....

and no one hears her, is this any different than me screaming in a house where everyone seems to be listening? 

A forest sounds really nice right now.

Anyway, yesterday our air freight arrived. We had our new maid over to play with the kids while we unpacked and the kids rejoiced at the sight of all their toys.

"Yay! No more sticks and rocks!" They shouted.  

So, I decided to give the kids (and my delusional self) a mental health day. Sam stayed home from school. I stayed home from four hours of driving to and from school with two screaming toddlers in the back seat so that a good day of play could be had by all. 

Peter, Sam and Clementine dragged their sleeping bags into two giant boxes, that I always rescue from the dumpster when our stuff arrives, and pretended to watch TV. They stayed in their pajamas until 10:00 and I made homemade pancakes, took a long shower and straightened my hair for only the second time since we arrived to my hairs personal hell India. So the morning was off to a good start. 

Alas a mental heath day with Peter is like a mental health day at the psych ward.

If I live to see Peter turn 18 it will be a celebration for us both. Maybe we'll be having it in the psych ward.

There isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't make me want to laugh and scream and cry and laugh and bang my head on the wall all at the same time.

I told him to pick up his pajamas from the floor today four times. I asked him to put them in the dirty clothes and he vowed that he did it each time: 

"Yes Mommy! All done!"

"Are you sure Peter? In the laundry room?" 

"Yes Mommy! I love you Mommy!"

"You picked them up off the floor and put them into the laundry box*?"

"Yes Mommy!"

"Are you sure?"

"Yes! I did it! Juice please!"

"Because if you didn't you will be in trouble. No cookies, no TV, no good?"

"It's done Mommy!"

We had this conversation four times. FOUR.

The first time: He didn't do it and they remained on the living room floor.

The second time: I found them under the stairs in our entry way. 

The third time: I found them on the bathroom floor. 

The fourth time: I found them under the guest bed.

Any of these places is farther to travel in our palatial home than it would have been to put the pajamas into our dirty clothes box. 

The fact that he took the time to move the pajamas to a secret location each time, blatantly disregarding my request and promising whole heartedly with that angel-Peter face that he had done it, is the story of Peters childhood. 

The first and second time I was mad, the third time I just threw my hands up in the air like I just didn't care. I cared. The fourth time, they had all just laid down for naps (he was not napping, never did)  I came back downstairs and spotted something under the guest bed. I don't mess around with my eyes playing tricks on me in a new country and certainly not after our furry visitor on Night One, so I did a quick double-take to see that, yes, those were still Peter's pajamas in a new and thoughtful location.

Enter head banging (not in a "I am so jiving to this music" kind of way, either) and a hands in the air and an uncontrollable laugh welling up from my throat right along with the fury because who does that? Who takes the time to go out of their way to relocate something to four different locations knowing that with each new discovery I will burst a blood vessel and likely take away his toys and return the rock and stick? 

Peter does that. 

Bounding tester o' boundaries. 

Better luck next time with the mental health day.

*Yes it is a box, we don't have our hamper yet. We're keeping it creative.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Village of Eight Million People

Recently I have been riding the shuttle to work. I am the first one picked up in the morning, and the shuttle winds it way through the streets of Chennai, picking up my co-workers, before depositing us all safely at the office. The entire drive takes anywhere between thirty and forty minutes, but the time passes quickly.

There is an argument to be made that while in Washington we had a lot of time to imagine and worry and wonder what India would be like. But I knew it was going to be so foreign and so different that I don’t think I ever had any clear idea of what to expect from India. I could never form a mental image of what India was like. I didn’t know where to begin.

So, it seems silly to say that I am pleasantly surprised by India, because this implied I had some base set of expectations when, in reality, I really didn’t. At the time, I was so focused on the bureaucratic logistics of just transferring from the States that I didn’t have a lot of time and energy left to wonder about the future. As we have written here before, that is one of the wonderful things about kids, too. They keep you in the moment. With three kids five and under constantly running underfoot, we did not have the luxury of thinking ahead. There were too many juice boxes to pry open, dirty diapers to dispose of, and Legos to construct…and disassemble…and re-construct.

I am in no position to comment on India’s socio-political landscape on this blog. Moreover, I don’t think I could write anything that has not already been written or make any particularly interesting comments. This blog isn’t about India. It is about our experiences in India and our perspective of India. Nothing more. So, yes, what you will read here is only a slice, a sliver, of India, but it is our India. It is what we see, what we take pictures of, and the stories it gives us. That’s all. It may seem a little rose-colored at times, and I write this fully acknowledging the social, economic, and environmental challenges India faces, but I think one has to see the beauty in a place to live there well.

I am constantly told that we arrived in the nicest part of the year. The weather is pleasant. It is almost cool in the mornings. Except if it has rained, then the humidity descends upon you with physical force. It is the middle of monsoon season, and though Chennai has experienced light monsoons of late, this one has proven (so far) to be formidable. Yesterday morning, our front lawn was entirely underwater. The mosquitoes are clever and bright, but I am told as summer comes the mosquitoes go. I don’t know where they go. 

Chennai rises late, and as we wind through the city’s streets, we find them relatively quiet. In our neighborhood, Alwarpet, and the neighborhoods around us, Poe’s Garden, Mylapore, and others, the city is completely blanketed in a tree canopy. It’s kind of like living in the Swiss Family Robinson tree ride at Disney World. It is has if the city insinuated itself within the jungle or the jungle insinuated itself into the city. Coconut palms sprout from unlikely places. The roots of gigantic banyan trees intertwine with buildings so you cannot tell where the thing organic stops and thing concrete begins.

The streets are narrow. There are no sidewalks, and woman weaving flowers, bicycles piled with fruits and vegetables, pregnant dogs with their teets dangling beneath them, tea carts, and people sweeping the streets with palm fronds crowd the traffic. It is more like a village, and less like a city, a village of eight million people.

The traffic, regardless of the time of day, is always vocal. Sitting in my office, I can hear it through the cement walls and metal doors, a constant bleating like the largest flock of sheep in the world being herded over a cliff. But, surprisingly, it is not an unpleasant noise. Elise described the beeping as a conversation. The cars and autos and the motorcycles are all talking to each other, alerting each other of their presence. Though seemingly chaotic and cacophonous and without reason, each beep does, in fact, have purpose. As our driver approaches our front gate, a long beep alerts the guard to open the gate to let us in. Then, when the driver sees that the other guard at the far end of the street has already started running toward our front gate to let us in, he makes two short beeps to call off the other guard. Similarly, as we weave through traffic, he beeps constantly, and I have to believe that each beep has a purpose. Or maybe I am just naïve. 

The traffic does not follow orderly lines. Cars do not queue up behind one another at traffic signals. They all crowd to the front. One does not line up behind the other, rather they inch forward filling every physical space like drops of water in a river. Like a creek it flows. If there is an opening between two lorries, a scooter will fill it, and then if there is a physical space between that scooter and the lorry, a bicycle will squeeze in between the two. Somehow, pedestrians cross in between them. And so these rivers flow, and in their confluences stand traffic cops in khaki uniforms and officer’s caps waving them in what seems an incredibly futile exercise as the traffic now has a momentum and consciousness all its own.

I have not seen all of our new town, but I have liked what I have seen. I love our neighborhood. I know hotter weather will come…as will additionally hardships. But so far spirits are high despite the traffic and blue smoke sputtering from the straw-thin exhaust tubes on the tuk-tuks.

Not every day is easy. Sam’s adjusting to the long days at school. He is in class until 3:30. Add a forty-five minute commute to each end and you have a boy who welcomes a seven o’clock bedtime with open arms. Days are made longer stuck in traffic, held captive by exhaust.

Monday evening, after his first day at school, we attended a Christmas tree lighting party for his school at a nearby large hotel. The tree was at least thirty feet tall. Everyone had a blast. How do I know? When we returned home, there were three naked toddlers dancing in our room and inserting their naked tizus in between our sheets, giggling maniacally the entire time until all collapsed from sheer exhaustion.

I could tell Sam was still tired the next morning. He was cranky and easy to cry. Not a great way to start the second day of school, but when I turned his attention to the sounds of the birds that surrounded our house, a sound only slightly less ominous then the cackling soundtrack from the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name, they gazed at the windows and walls in wonder. The sounds of the jungle seeped into the house.

They do every morning. Just like in Brazil. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Arrivals and Departures

Whenever we get to a new place I call to mind a chart that floats around the web describing the typical cycle of an expat in their initial months in a foreign land. The chart marks the first days and weeks as typical highs upon landing in a new place “The honeymoon phase” and the following weeks with lows as the newness wears away and finally fades to acceptance.

I see the chart, sure, and then I wad it up and throw it away like I do to just about anything else considered “typical.”

I never really liked charts much anyway.

I proudly walk a tightrope over typical, straight to a place somewhere on the other side of that.

I didn’t experience typical in Brazil and I don’t really feel it here.

I felt scared and bewildered in Brazil. Eventually, though as you know I just fell in love. The culture and people, the food and the climate all swept me slowly but surely off my feet, and set me down in a place that brought the greatest balance to our lives and to our family. I hoped the same thing would happen here in India and although it’s too early to tell, the signs point in the same general direction-only with strangely different characters. This time I feel like I am simply moving in to a space carved out for me and without the fear and isolation despite the fact that I know not a soul.

The most overwhelming feeling I have upon our arrival here in India, however is a sense of purpose and clarity.

I spent this year battling the stress of the unknown. I think I have finally realized, that the unknown is the worst part about this lifestyle. I fought the good fight, though and I finally know who I am and why I am here. I put in a lot of hours at home, personally and professionally to assure I'd be ready for this, but I am also sure I didn't get to this place alone. I think, I’ve finally found my purpose in this calling to meander the world and in addition to standing beside Paul as I've promised to always do, to bring up three smart, worldly, open minded and caring humans, I have a gift that I feel obligated to use up in it’s entirety, lest I stand at the gates of heaven (or wherever I may end up) with even a drop left unused.

I’ve accepted that the assignment won’t always be the same, but that the teacher always will be. There will be many pop-quizzes and the words, fragments of sentences and paragraphs that I will create that may not make a bit of sense, but will all form one beautiful story in the end.  

I’ve learned to ride the waves.

I’m learning how to achieve balance.

I’ve accepted that my business will shape-shift with each move, but instead of fighting the current I’m letting it sweep me away. 

Someone asked me the other night what I was shooting. I confidently responded that I hadn’t arrived there quite yet, that just one week into my latest mission, I haven’t made any decisions, but as I've made my way out into this new place with my camera, I've found myself looking for the very same things I always do, the beauty and the humor in everything.

It is as hard to find here as it is anywhere in the world, unless you are patient and wait for it.

People keep telling me how challenging it is to live here, but I think it is challenging just to live. Each place has its strengths and weaknesses, but I vow to find the good in each day and in each place.

I’ve fired off my first few rolls of film. I joined a photo-walk with a bunch of local photographers the other night and with a new confidence in my craft and in myself I took to the streets of Chennai.

I’ve already found the beauty and I only fret about how I’ll document it all in just two years.

I’ve lost all the doubt that I harbored in DC that this was the right path for us, I can’t imagine having stayed behind like I threatened publicly to do in the security check point at Dulles' international terminal in our final moments in the USA. And like Paul implied yesterday, I feel like instead, I was always meant to arrive right here.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Don't You Dare Send Me Back to Washington

When we landed in Chennai it was almost two in the morning. By the time we corralled all our luggage and car seats, went through security to get out of the airport, successfully navigated the throng of Indian men willing to tote all of our luggage on their heads out of the airport, and drove home, it was after two. We arrived at our new home in the middle of the night. Of course, we couldn't go right to bed. We explored our new house in all its palatial enormity (There are several rooms we have no idea what to do with). By the time every one settled down and went to sleep it was close to five. 

I awoke at 7:30, showered, put on a necktie and went to work.

I grasped my leather attache, a hand-me-down from my father-in-law, but an item I already know will serve me well for the duration of my career, and I stepped outside. It was morning, and in the daylight, I saw India for the first time. 

Flower petals drifted to the ground from the green canopy of trees that shaded our house. Parrots darted overhead, and sunlight filtered through the trees. 

I walked to the gate and stepped outside onto the dirt street in front of our house. Soon, a driver, Raju, that had been sent for me swung by. I climbed in his small van, and he whisked me off to work. We weaved through the tree-lined streets of our quiet neighborhood. Giant banyan trees shade the roads here, and our sprawling modern megalopolis is more like a village, sometimes sleepy, most times noisy and frenetic, but rarely intimidating. Older men in polo shirts and sweat pants were on their morning walk. A few ran. Without sidewalks, they shared the street with bicycles, tuk-tuks, and cars. There is an interesting vehicular hierarchy here. Size does not matter. Cars defer to tuk-tuks. Tuks-tuks defer to motorcycles. Motorcycles defer to bicycles, and bicycles defer to pedestrians. All stop for cows.

The minute we pulled out of our quiet neighborhood and forced ourselves into Indian traffic, I felt something familiar and exhilarating, something I hadn't felt since we left Brazil. I felt at home. I felt like I was where I belonged. 

Traffic in India deserves a blog post of its own, but as we drove past dogs sleeping in the road, curled in piles of sand, long-horned water buffalo cows harnessed to carts or left to their own devices, beside scooters zipping around cars and bearing entire families of four, among and around swarms of motorcycles and tuk-tuks that darted around us like hornets, I immediately felt a familiarity and comfort that had been lacking since we left Brazil. 

I think the kids feel it, too. We live in different countries spread all across the globe, but my work buys all its furniture from the same vendor. So even though we are several continents separated from Brazil, I think everyone--Elise and myself included--immediately took to our new house, because the tile floors were familiar, the parrots were familiar, and most of all the Drexel-Heritage furniture was familiar. 

Of course, they are out of sorts, and the jet lag was staggering. For a week, we found ourselves waking up in the middle of the night, coming downstairs for a snack, watching some television, before falling back to sleep at dawn and sleeping in until almost noon. 

During our second night in India, Elise and the kids were up. I slept, having gone to work that day. They were about to come downstairs when they noticed droppings on the stairs. Elise paused, and Sam suggested they wake me up to investigate. To paraphrase Elise, I think he said something to the effect of, "I don't want to face that thing. Do you? Let's get Dad." I expected to see a lizard. Elise, holding Clementine, and I crept down the stairs into the dining room and were greeted by the most ginormous rat I have ever seen in my life. I am not exaggerating when I say this thing's body was easily a foot long. I followed it to the electrical "cabinet", a wooden fuse box with a bundle of wires I discovered to be completely open to the outside. 

 I don't care if you are moving to London from the States, the first 24 hours are going to be hell and the first week is going to be only slightly less challenging. There are so many unknowns. Everything is harder in those first few days. Especially when you move to a land where you can't use the water out of the tap to brush your teeth and the fruits and vegetables need to be rinsed in bleach. The mosquitoes have been are biggest nemesis. They feast on Clementine as though she were her namesake sweet orange. They bit her on the thin skin of her upper eye lid, and it swelled to such a size, her entire eye squeezed shut. 

It has only been a little over a week, but we are finding India, and Chennai in particular, immensely fascinating, exhilarating, and endlessly interesting. Naturally there are moments when we all cry and say we want to go "home", back to America.

The other night I had a dream that my work said my assignment to India had been a mistake and I would have to go back to Washington for a year. We were all devastated. We didn't want to leave. I am not sure if this is more a testament to the merits of Chennai and India or more a referendum on Washington, D.C.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Passage to India | Part II

Just when I think Elise and I have done the most difficult thing we will ever have to do in our lives, we will tackle an undertaking that is the most difficult thing we have ever done in our lives. When I look back on what we have accomplished in the last two weeks I am stunned and proud.

Two weeks ago today we left our temporary corporate housing apartment in Falls Church, Virginia, a place we had called home for nine months. We piled into a giant black Suburban and drove to Dulles and got on a plane bound for New York City. There, we took three small children into the heart of Manhattan. Elise and Peter ice skated in Bryant Park. Elise starred in a movie. We climbed to the top of the Empire State Building. Saturday night, we got on another plane at JFK and flew to Frankfurt, Germany. We got off the plane, checked into our hotel room, and hopped on the subway--with no knowledge of German--looking for a mall we would find closed on a Sunday night. Instead, we bought the boys McDonald's (Clementine, exhausted, slept in my arms). We walked through a very cold and very windy and almost deserted Frankfurt. Over cobblestones, past church spires, and beneath flocks of ravens.

Finally, we returned to our hotel, miraculously navigating the subway system. There, in anticipation of arriving in a dry Tamil Nadu state, pounded two Warsteiners and ordered brauts and schnitzel room service for Elise and I. The next morning, we boarded our last leg....10 1/2 hours from Frankfurt to Chennai.

Five hours into the flight, Elise leaned over. I had been watching the cinematic release Man of Steel, so I removed my ear buds. "How much longer?" she asked me.

I hesitated to answer. I thought about slipping my ear buds back in and ignoring her query, but she was persistent. I finally answered, "Four and a half hours."

Elise said, "I don't think I'm going to make it."

With our options somewhat limited at that point, we swapped seats. I piled in between the three kids, and Elise sat in front of the two Norwegians who had had two Warsteiners each and two tiny bottles of Finlandia each before we had even ventured out of German air space (If you have to be near two men who are going to get completely schnockered on a flight, I recommend they be Norwegian. These two gents were on their way to watch the World Championship of Chess being held in Chennai).

When we finally landed in India, the sky was hazy and orange. It was almost one in the morning. We emerged from the airport into a cacophony of people, tired, disoriented, and desperate to keep our children close...which was difficult since Peter insisted on pushing one of our carry-ons through the mass of humanity clamoring to carry it on their head for five rupees.

We have been in India for one week, and one blog post cannot possibly capture the breadth of all we have already seen. I am playing catch-up now. Thankfully, it only took one week for our internet hook-up.

I will skip ahead and say that on Thanksgiving morning, we discovered a new coffee shop close to our house, went to look at a used Mahindra Scorpio and almost returned home with as ten-day old kitty, and had a very warm Thanksgiving dinner at my new boss' house. Though beer has been scarce, bottles of Budweiser were available and welcome. Beggars can't be choosers.