Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ten-Year, Multiple-Entry Hug

Recently, it's been hard to get out of the house and to work in the morning.

After I get out of the shower and get dressed, finishing by knotting my necktie, I can usually find the kids done with breakfast and playing in the sun room, many times dressed and ready to go to school, sometimes not.

They hear the clop of my dress shoes on the marble floors and know I am leaving. I go through one round of goodbyes in the play room, hugs, kisses, runny noses, hair sticking to my face. Two times. Or three.

Then, I head downstairs to finish packing my work bag, grab my Blackberry and my wallet, sometimes, my thermos of coffee, running bag, lunch, the garbage that needs to go out. By this point, I am a beast of burden, carrying three different satchels, cups, bags. Then, the kids scamper and sprint down the stairs for a second or even third round of goodbyes, hugs, kisses, runny noses, hair sticking to my face. Two times. Or three. You would think I was going off to battle or sailing around the world.

Elise--in her infinite wisdom--initiated the farewell line, inspired, perhaps, in part, by a new snake-line we initiated at work to queue visa applicants. In our goodbye line, applicants have to give their dad their hug for approval. They squeeze my neck hard and plant snotty, wet kisses on my lips and beard. After which, I deem them all ten-year, multiple-entry hugs.

They ask, "How many years was that?"

"Hmmmm.....Ten years!"

Peter will cry, "I want 100 years!"

Clementine will ask, "Multi-entry?"

Yes. Multiple-entry. Always. 

In God's Own Country

The only thing I knew about Kerala before Elise and I came here for two nights away from the kids was that it had a 99% literacy rate and was run by the Communist party.

It seems as though the Communist party has been booted out of office since the last election but you wouldn't know it by the proliferation of red flags bearing the hammer and sickle. But that's not the only thing you'll find in Kerala, a South Indian state tucked away in the southwest corner of the sub-continent. In short, it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Kerala--the Backwaters to be specific--joins a short list of places on Earth that are, in my estimation, the most amazing I have ever visited: New York City, Paris, Rio. A place so unbelievably verdant, filled with the kindest, warmest souls, could only be Eden. Maybe, hence the nickname, 'God's Own Country', a moniker I may have at one time thought a bit egotistical, but now can know the place by no other name. I know the slow insinuation of Christianity, brought by early Portuguese and Dutch colonists from Europe into a predominately Hindu society, has a lot to do with the nickname, too, but the abundance of ice cold Kingfisher (which needs to be drunk quickly in the late March heat) and spicy, coconut-infused seafood sure doesn't hurt its reputation much either. 

Elise and I crawled out of bed at 4:00 in the morning to catch a 6:00 flight. I should have been surprised that Mrs. Rita had gotten up at 3:30 to get the coffee make started, but I wasn't, and when I came downstairs, tip-toeing through the darkness, two steaming mugs of java were sitting on the counter in the laundry room--each with a saucer over the top to keep them warm--waiting for Elise and I.

When we landed in Kochi, it was hard to believe we were still in India. We walked from the plane across the tarmac, careful to avoid the revving engine and luggage carts racing across the jetway, toward a squat, one-story terminal that was vaguely Polynesian in design. Other passengers took selfies on the runway. Elise and I grabbed out bags and found our ride.

We arrived at our hotel, Malabar House, early enough to enjoy a second breakfast as our airport idlys and sumbar had worn off. We were treated to what would be the first of many amazing meals on this trip, and for the first time all year, I would eat three huge lunches three days in a row.

We spent the rest of the morning wandering the old town by Fort Kochin, old Catholic churches, abandoned Dutch forts, small cemetaries holding the remains of European explorers, spice shops and the old Chinese fishing nets.

They are commonly known as "Chinese fishing nets" in India, because--as legend has it--they are sufficiently unusual in India and different from usual fishing nets. So, take that, China. Long, heavy logs hold horizontal nets. Each structure is at least two to three stories high and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights at the other end. Each installation is operated by a team of up to six, sun-darkened, weathered fishermen. (I'm paraphrasing from Wikipedia here)

The system is sufficiently balanced that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is enough to cause the net to descend into the sea. The net is left for a short time, possibly just a few minutes, before it is raised by pulling on ropes. The catch is usually modest: a few fish and crustaceans which can be sold to passers by within minutes.

If they don't catch anything, and you are a tourist looking to score a few photos of the fisherman at work, they may guilt you out of 100 rupees. It seems fair.

We headed back to our hotel for a seafood thali for lunch and a long nap. We did get up at 4:00 a.m. remember. Every meal should be a thali, served on a banana leaf, a mound of rice, a piece of spiced-rubbed fish, and ten different side dishes and sauces, including pickled something that I love, but that is not Elise's favorite. One is pieyasum, or dessert.

For dinner, we walked down to the ferry terminal. We had been given a dinner recommendation, and while the food was good, the atmosphere was stuffy. Think Kee Grill or Waterway. We would have been better off staying at our hotel; when we got back from dinner, a dozen tables ringed the plunge pool and a flautist entertained the small crowd with a floating, almost haunting melody that drifted up through the mango trees.

The next morning, after a breakfast of idlys and sambar (of course!), we drove south to the shores of Lake Vembanad, the longest lake in India. We arrived at Malabar House's sister property, aptly named Purity, where we were welcomed with a glass of juice and guided immediately to the dock. There. we had to wait a short ten minutes before we heard a steady chugging coming around a bedn in the lake--our very own houseboat for the night.

We would have our very own captain, chef and steward for an overnight cruise through the Backwaters, a watery labyrinth along the palm tree-lined banks of the lake. Our bags were lofted aboard, and we boarded the turquoise-painted boat. It soon pushed away from shore, and Elise and I proceeded to the second deck to take in the view and the breeze.

We had lunch, fish curry and naan. I had a Kingfisher. She had a glass of white wine. The lazed the afternoon away as our boat cruised. According to the internet, the houseboats started out as rice barges, and we did see rice transported from the paddies by smaller skiffs. They have since been transformed into floating hotels, originally housing royalty. Now, just housing little 'ole us, made to feel like royalty. We saw thousands of water birds and flocks of white-backed egrets flying in undulating clouds.

After a few hours, we started back across the lake to our nightime anchorage. We tied up, and Elise call and checked in on the kids. Afterwards and before dinner on deck, we walked into town, just a short stroll past brightly-painted houses hidden behind banana plantations.

As the sunset, we had dinner. You could hear the choir from the church floating through the palms. Fishermen lowered and lifted the Chinese fishing nets methodically, catching nothing. The sky gradually turned violet then indigo and small stars emerged. The scene was something I will never forget, the food was amazing. We were first served a terrine of chopped fish, chilis, coconut, peppercorns and green onions. For dessert, we had chocolate samosas on mango puree. Yes. I even burned my finger on one in my careless excitement.

This trip was the best trip I had been on since the October 2011, when Elise and I went to Rio right before Clementine was born. I haven't even gotten to the part yet where we spend the following day lounging by the infinity pool, watching the houseboats drift by as if in a dream, a jungle-green, tropical, beautiful dream. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Couch to Couch

Recently, there have been few meals we have sat down to eat as a family where one of the children does not end up in either my lap or Elise's lap. As you might imagine--especially if it is Sam, but now even Pete and Clem as they, too, sprout up--this makes eating one's own dinner extremely difficult. 

Mostly out of sheer necessity to eat, Elise suggested to Clementine one day, "Why don't you just pull your chair up to mine. Like a couch."

Now, we get frequent requests to eat 'couch to couch', our chairs pulled right up next to the kids' so that it makes one big, contiguous cushion like, well, a couch.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Going Out of Business

There is an Indian airline, SpiceJet, that has been threatening to go out of business since we arrived in Chennai a year and a half ago. We've been discouraged to buy tickets on it because they may just stop operating one day. 

A plane flew overhead while we were at the pool--right over us so you could see the white underbelly--and Peter identified it as a SpiceJet.

"I think it's Air Asia," I told him. "SpiceJet is going out of business.

Later, back at the house, he asked me, "What does 'going out of business mean?'"

I said, "When a company doesn't make enough money to pay its bills it has to go out of business.

"Like SpiceJet....they can't pay all their bills."

Peter: "And what happens to the planes? Do they crash?"

Me: "No, they don't crash. They never take off."

Peter: "They just drive to where they are going?"

You just can't make this stuff up.  : )

Monday, March 16, 2015



You are Three! 

You are the best daughter ever. Ma tells me that I'm the best daughter ever and I always wondered why, I mean, I always tried to be good, but sometimes I feel like I'm falling short. Then I had you, and I realized that the simple gift of being a daughter is pretty awesome. Even on your worst days you are the wind in my sails.

You keep my feet on the ground and my arms reaching for the moon. I watch you-watching me and I watch me-watching myself as a little girl. I try to be more gentle with you remembering how sometimes uncertain and overwhelming it is to be a little lady. I try to grow older gracefully to show you that change as it relates to a well lived life is always something to be thankful for. 

I beg you to wear your hair in a braid or a ponytail and you won't stand for it. I pretend to weep and move on because I wouldn't have done it either. You are all "sweat pants or high heels," like your mama. You wear your "princess dress" or "running clothes," but mostly you don't have time for looking into your closet; It has a back and a top and sides and you need the whole wide world. 

You call me "Unicorn Princess," and "Cat Mama" when we play and you are strong willed and know just what you want. You bake cakes with me, play "Don't drop my eggs!" with my tiny blue robin's egg soaps and we laugh hysterically when you drop them all. We put horrible blue eye-shadow on each other, play "Jail trap" in my bed and we dig in the dirt, tend to our garden. We race on scooters and play super-heroes and you are comfortable doing all of them without getting hurt, dirty, fancy or tickled.

I read a quote the other day that said, "Never do anything for a child that they think they can do themselves." I'd give you the whole wide world, but I know you'll get it on your own. 

You do dance shows and sing and make up songs about everything from ear-aches to rainbow ponies. I look at you and see all the women in our family at different times and in the most fascinating and beautiful of ways. 

You are a good girl, but Monday's are your best day. Monday is the day the boys all head back to school and work and you and I head straight from pre-school drop off to "Ladies Breakfast." You beg for the western style cafe because it has eggs  and cake and Christmas decorations when I really long for idly and filter coffee. I give in three out of four Mondays. You draw tiny pictures and make lists and we make up picture stories over our meal. 

You love your brothers and they love you. You wrap you legs around Sam as he leaves for school and he sweeps you off the ground each morning before he can leave. You fit easily into any of the wild imaginary scenarios that Peter dreams up for you. He makes you his princess, styling your hair like his favorites and then makes you his sea lion prey when he wants to be a blue whale. 

You love your dad like crazy. You have such a casual and beautiful relationship with him I'd think you'd known him much longer than your three years, but that's the way I felt when I met him, too. 

You still fall asleep next to me in "Dad's and Mom's" bed at night and just like the night you were born three years ago, I've never wanted it any other way.

You still have your paci. I still don't really care. We promised you'd throw it into the sea for the sea babies when you turned three, but I don't quite know how that is going to turn out yet.

You make me proud to be a woman and safe as I grow up myself, knowing you'll fight for everything all the women in our family before you created. 

You planned this party with me, helped me cook, made lists, shopped, decorated and directed our household staff. It didn't turn out quite the way we planned, things never do, but you didn't let that bother you and you shined like a billion stars in the night sky when we sang "Happy Birthday" to you. You could have been winning an Academy Award and I felt like I'd won, too. May we always share our ideas, successes and failures with each other like Ma and I do and add links to the strong chain of women in our blood.

I love you sweet, brilliant baby girl.


(Ps pictures of our the party and a small tour of our downstairs living space. It's taken a lot longer for this house to feel like home, but it finally does.) 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Disappointment = Expectation Divided by Reality

I feel like I have a newborn again.

Elise asked me last night why I put the pineapple in the sink.


"Yeah. You put the pineapple in the sink. It had the lid on it."

Oh boy.

Clementine and our nanny, Mrs. Rita, took it upon themselves to move Clementine's crib out from under the mosquito netting and to replace it with her "big girl bed", making it her primary sleeping spot. Before, she would only occasionally nap in her big girl bed, but now she was sleeping in it every night.

She turns three on Sunday, so this may seem like a natural time to make this transition, but Clementine is still a little spoiled in some ways. Only up until very recently did we ever force her to go to sleep in her own bed. Call us lazy. Call us exhausted. Call us giving in to the wills of the youngest child. Call it what you will, I let Clementine fall asleep in my spot in our bed. After she was fast asleep, I would gently move her into her own bed.

Now, we are attempting to get her to fall asleep in her own bed. This isn't without some resistance. Elise lies with her to help her fall asleep. I lie on the floor next to her, my head on a couch cushion. Invariably, she wakes in the middle of the night, sneaks out of her bed and into our room. Once, I caught her headed downstairs.

Yesterday, after not falling asleep until 10:00 p.m., she woke at 3:30 a.m. and never fell back to sleep. I craddled her back to sleep on the couch, but when I attempted to move her back to her own bed, she woke, complaining, "I can't sleep." Au contrare, my dear Clementine, you were just asleep! Then, I laid down next to her in her own toddler bed (yes, it is about as comfortable as it sounds; my feet propped up on the hard, wooden footboard). She fell asleep (again), but when I attempted to extract myself from her bed (still difficult even though I've been doing more sit-ups. Imagine a contortionist unfolding oneself from a small, glass box in front of a crowd on the Boardwalk), she woke up again, still complaining, "I just can't sleep." But you were just sleeping! Again!

Elise and I keep telling ourselves she will get better at staying in her bed. Clinging to this hope is about the only thing that isn't keeping us from running down the road, screaming.

After staying up with Clementine from 3:30 until the boys woke up at 6:00, I felt like my skin was crawling. My insides were churning, and my skin couldn't hold everything in. I felt like I would overflow and burst. I thought I would scream. As Sundar drove me to work, it took every molecule of my being to calm myself, to keep from flinging open the car door and go running mad into the busy, Chennai streets. I needed to run, but I left my running shoes at home. What a fool.

The lack of sleep has compounded an impending sense of doom brought on by bidding. We are currently in the eye of the storm, in the tumultous heart of trying to figure out where we will go when our time in India is up. Initially, the process was rather anti-climactic. I emailed my interest in four jobs and then.....waited.

I even tricked myself into thinking this bidding things wasn't so bad after all.

Then the first "No" rolled in, and I quickly realized I needed to get thicker skin. I confided in one of my favorite colleagues at another post who counselled me to "not fret the rejection.You're gainfully employed."

I'm taking this advice to heart. I know on some level everything will work out, but the not knowing is a killer. Probably way more so for Elise than me.

The hardest part of it all will be to keep the anxiety from affecting the kids. I ran nine miles on Sunday morning and immediately felt better, liked I had been wrapped in a cloak of calm. I played Twister with the kids. We sat on the floor in the sun room for the long time, playing Legos, putting together Pete's Z-95 Starfighter. We ordered pizza and watched "Horton Hears a Who".

No one wants to hear "no" unless they're asking their doctor if they have a communicable disease. Part of me feels like I'm perfectly suited for this job. I've worked harder at this job than any I have ever had before, and I feel like in a short amount of time, I have had some impressive accomplishments. It's hard to think that maybe someone thinks I may not be perfectly suited for this job, that I need to work even harder, or that my impressive accomplishments may not be so impressive,

Dealing with disappointment is a true character builder. I need to remember that. And I also need to remember that no matter what happens, I will still be drawing a paycheck and that there are always three little people who expect nothing more from me than to keep building legos.

Now, I have my second interview this evening.

Wish me luck.

No no no. Oh not with the interview! With keeping Clementine in her bed tonight!

The Great Indian Cycle Rickshaw Adventure

Before Elise and I moved overseas we would visit the homes of those who had lived overseas. Their homes were invariably filled with mementos from their time spent overseas, a wooden, hand-carved coffee table bought off the back of an elephant in Thailand, a paper fan painstakingly water-colored by a real Japanese geisha, shot glasses from a bar in Edinburgh won in a drinking contest with a decedent of the real William Wallace.

When we moved overseas, we, too, wanted to collect memorabilia from our time overseas, so we resolved to purchase one signature piece from each of the countries we would live in. You could call it a tradition of sorts, but we've only purchased one item so far--a piece of abstract art Elise bought at the Hippie Fair in Ipanema in Rio. We framed the painting and it is now in our stairwell in our home in India.

We have crossed the halfway mark of our Indian tour, and the time has come to start thinking about what our one major buy from Chennai would be. I originally thought it would be a wooden statue of an elephant. Sitti had a collection of wooden elephants--they may even have had real ivory tusks--but I am not sure what happened to them, but recently I was struck by a different, much more awesome inspiration.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am somewhat obssessed with fish tacos. I even told Sam recently it can be as important--especially as a cook--to do one thing really well than to do a lot of things average. In most things, I am guilty of the latter. But in cooking, I try to stay true to this manta. I don't know how to cook a lot of things, but what I do know how to cook, I try to cook really, really well. Like French toast. And fish tacos.

After working at Zolo, I had a dream to open my own Southwestern restarant. This is still my favorite type of food and my favorite type of restaurant to go to. I don't really think anything can beat a marg, chips and salsa and chicken enchiladas or fish tacos (hence, I can't stop thinking about my latest creation, a SW-Indian fusion: tandoori chicken rolled in naan enchiladas with cilantro-curry leaf and coconut chutnies, but more on that some other time).

I've since scaled down my retirement dreams. Instead of opening a whole Southwest restuarant, I would be content just having a food truck that served the best fish tacos in town. But even more recently, I scaled back again. In Brasilia, people opened up cafes at the food of the JK Bridge out of the back of the trunks of their cars. They would set up 3 - 4 folding card tables and metal folding chairs and create an impromptu cafe, selling cans of beer out of a plastic cooler and grilling queijo coelho on a small charcoal grill. Maybe this is all I need to do.

One of Elise's friends, Ms. Morgan bought a "bucket-bike". My description will not do the bike justice, but it is a really big bike with a large bucket most perfect for toting kids around town. As best I understand it, she started a business selling homemade toast and artisinal spreads out of her bucket-bike. A recent peice on NPR describes the up-and-coming food bike and bicycle bar movement, bars on bikes? Yes! (click here for more info.)

So, now all I want is a fish taco bike. Cool, huh? But a bucket bike can run one up to $2,000 in the States. But what if I could get a bike like that for much, much less?

Anyway, I started this blog talking about collecting memorabilia from overseas. Elise and I have spent the last year brainstorming...what would be our memento from India? What could we take from here that we would always have with us that would always remind us if India. Then, it struck me. What says India more...what is more quintessentially India than a cycle rickshaw. It was perfect!

So, last Saturday morning, I convinced all the kids to go with Elise and I on what could have easily have turned out to be a very long, very hot wild goose chase. The only intel I had to go on came from our driver, Sundar. When I asked him where I could go to buy a cycle rickshaw, his first response was to laugh. Why would I want a cycle rickshaw? I had a car. I didn't bother explaining, just asked again until he told me there were a lot of bicycle shops in Parry's Corner, an area of town characterized by narrow, crowded streets filled with women carrying buckets of water on their heads, goats and chickens in the roads, kids playing naked, running from building to building, ox carts and hot oil frying vada on every corner. In other words, the real India, far, far from our comfortable oasis in the bourgeois Boat Club neighborhood. Even the name is gentrified.

After a long drive, we arrived in Parry's Corner around 10:30...only to find all the shutters drawn on all the bicycle stores. Sundar hopped out and asked, and we soon learned they would open between 11:00 and 11:30, so we turned around and drove to a fabric store Elise had been wanting to visit to kill some time.

Forty minutes later, we went back. We pulled everyone out of the car and walked into one of the bicycle shops and asked the guy there who barely spoke English if he sold cycle rickshaws. He said, "One year." Which Elise and I immediately interpreted as: it would take one year to make. One year! Then we followed him to a row of colored plastic, and he pointed to a child's ride-on toy. "One year." That's when we discovered plastic kiddie cars are also called rickshaws.

Sundar came busting into the store a moment later after parking the car and explained to the man what we were looking for. Words were exchanged in Tamil. Something about a "chicken shop". We made sure to clarify that we were looking for a cycle rickshaw and not chickens. Sundar seemed nonplussed, and we all climbed back into the car and set off, deeper into the maze that is Parry's Corner.

We made a left, then a right. Sundar hopped out no less than four times to ask for directions. We passed several chicken shops, coops stacked high on the side of the road. There were even quail. There was a chicken on a cutting board about to become tikka masala, and I told Clementine to turn her head. Elise said it would be good for her to know where her food came from, but I didn't know if I was ready for Clementine to become a vegan just yet. She hasn't even given up her pacifier yet.

We finally turned down a narrow alley and, low and behold, right in front of us, was Kannagi Cycle Rickshaw Works. We tumbled out of the car and to the front of the open air garage. Two men were punding on a piece of sheet metal with wooden mallets. A man was delivering brand-new, shiny front forks. The wooden body of a cycle rickshaw leaned against the corner of the shed, light filtering in through the gaps in the beams in the roof.

Sundar called the number painted beside the office, and the proprietor of the Cycle Works, Selvam, soon appeared. We told him what we wanted, and he gave us what seemed like a fair price. I couldn't tell you what I was prepared to spend, and I'm sure we could have negotiated, but we are buying a custom cycle rickshaw here, people! Can you really put a price on that?! Elise is to return with paint and leather swatches.

I wanted to take the model for a test run, but the street was a little too crowded for my liking. I would've been hit by a tractor. I tested the weight. 130 kilos. We may have to shed some worldy possessions to fit it in our HHE. On the spot, Elise and I were already making a list of the heaviest items we could jettison, like a balloonist in the basket of a balloon trying to make it over an oncoming peak. We still don't know where we are going to store it. We were thinking the garden room. It wasn't until we got home that we realized we would never get it in the garden room door.

We really don't know what we'll do with it after we leave India, but we will always have it. Elise lamented briefly that if we get rid of all of our heavy furniture. we would have no family heirlooms in the way of furniture to leave behind for our kids. Then we both quickly agreed that Ikea furniture may not make the best family heirloom.

I added, "We just bought one."

The cycle rickshaw may never have fish tacos in it, but it will be fun for peddaling the family around the neighborhood. Maybe Peter or Sam will take their first dates out in the cycle rickshaw instead of my car. The possibilities are endless.

We take delivery in only 10 days. Stay tuned for photos!