Friday, October 30, 2015

Bread that Tastes Like Rain

Last night, I came home famished. I plowed through the front door, threw my work bag on the counter and went straight for the fridge. Rita and Elise had ordered Afghan chicken from Zaitoon, arguably the best chicken on the planet. It comes with pita and hummus. Neither are that great. Chennai is not known for its Mediterranean cuisine. I ripped a bite out of the rubbery pita. "This bread tastes like rain," I said to no one in general. It tasted like that mossy, earthy smell after a fresh rain. It could have been the rain or the antibiotics I am taking to ward off a particularly stubborn butt fungus. Sorry. Maybe that was TMI..."Too Much Information".

Elise had spent the day brainstorming for an upcoming photo shoot. It would be her biggest break yet, and even though we were leaving India in five days, she had strategically plotted every shot she needed in order to fulfill the assignment. She was floating with excitement. The soles of her feet did not touch ground.

A few moments later, a second email came through saying confirmation for the assignment has not yet come out of HQ in NYC. She came crashing back to Earth, shattering into a million fragile shards.

She poured herself a pint glass full of wine, then accused me of jinxing her assignment by sharing the news in my excitement. Maybe I did (she would apologize later), but her disappointment was palpable...and understandable. The thing is...the assignment may still be hers...she just won't be in India to fulfill it.

I cut up Afghan chicken in silence, saving all the dark meat and skin for myself, guilty pleasures. A scream cut through the air. Coming from the living room, it shattered whatever relative calm had settled in the kitchen. Peter was sobbing in the living room, and Elise and I rushed to his aid, wine in her hand, chicken slime on my fingers.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

Peter could not stop crying. Sam stood in the door frame separating the living room from the stairwell guiltily.

"He chased me down the stairs," Pete finally managed.

"Why are you chasing him?" either Elise or I asked.

"I want to play with him, but he doesn't want me to be the ground forces!" he spurted accusatorily.

"So, you chased him down the stairs!?"

"He could've fallen!" Elise added.

Eventually, Pete stopped crying, and we all slinked away. Dinner was served. Pete was talkative at dinner, telling us about the Halloween decorations hanging at school.

About halfway through dinner, though, he edged closer to me. He looped his arm through mine. Conversation turned to recess. Sam plays soccer everyday at recess with a group of young Brits. He is popular and athletic and has no trouble assimilating himself into the matches, even if older kids try to wedge him out.

Not Pete.

It's not that Pete is nonathletic or unpopular. It is dangerous to label a kid so young. Any kid, for that matter.

"I don't have anyone to play with," he whispered.

Elise and I immediately challenged this notion. I told him the day I came to school and surprised him, I saw him on the playground playing with two little girls, and Elise asked him who else is on the playground that he might ask to play with.

"There's nothing to do, but make footprints in the mud on the slide."

I don't believe that Peter will always be that kid wandering the edge of the playground by himself. He may not even be that boy now. It's difficult to parse the truth from what little we know about his school day or to know how much of what he tells us is just how tired he is at the end of the day. I suppose it may not matter if that's what his perception is. Does it really matter if one day he plays with one or two kids if he feels as though he has no one to play with?

"What about Louie's sister? Can you play with her?"

I didn't know what else to say, but I refused to let my heart empty. I wasn't going to have the same visceral--and ultimately useless--response I had when I heard kids were picking on him on the bus. I just wish everyone could see how hilarious Pete is.

I already read a few articles online that might help. It's hard to know which behaviors are normal parts of growing up and which are products of our upcoming move from India.

Probably, they are a little bit of everything.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Saddest Boy on Earth

Last night, I got home from work a little late. I didn't leave the office until 5:30 and--after stopping at the store--it was after 6:00 before I walked in the door.

The usual cacophonous din seemed a little more pitched than normal, as though the molecules in the room where vibrating just a hair faster than they usually do. The house is always crazy when I get home. The boys have usually just gotten home and are unspooling from a long day at school, ditching shoes and stripping socks, dropping backpacks at the door, stomping off to the kitchen for a snack, bowls of Cheerios, chocolate milk, or idly. Maybe it wasn't any crazier than usual. Maybe it was just me.

When we sat down to dinner, the chaos continued. Since school started, dinners have not been the quiet, restorative affair we might want them to be. The times when we all sit down together, catching up on each other's days often disintegrate into fighting over who will give thanks, crying, name-calling, someone lying down in their chair or hiding under the table, dissections of the contents of their plates, refusing to eat, drinking all their milk then asking for water before eating anything, wiping ketchup on their clothes, arguments over eating vegetables, threats to withhold dessert. I don't think this is unusual for families with kids this age.

Peter's school day is long. I don't know how long the day is for kindergartners in the States, but Pete gets on the bus at 7:30, drives an hour to school, goes to class from 8:30 to 3:30, then gets home at 4:40. He has two "specials" a day which can include Indian Studies, Art, P.E., or Music. He has two snacks, three recesses, and lunch in any given day. No wonder he's tired. It makes me completely exhausted just typing it all out.

Add all this to the fact that he is often the first to rise. Pete gets up between 5:00 and 5:30. Many days I get up before him, but every once in awhile, I am woken by the sound of his opening the door to the downstairs or by the swish of him walking in his pull-up or by one of his tiny rooster sneezes.

But even though Pete's school day is long, he gets up early, he comes home exhausted, and he is often surly in the evening, last night, he was more surly than usual. I should have known something was wrong. He snapped at Clementine, "Shut up, baby!" Which, in and of itself, is, sadly, not uncommon, but he was snapping at everyone. He told me he hated me. He may have called me "old man".

Sam told us how annoying Pete is on the bus. Pete told us that Sam never sits next to him. The next thing we knew, Peter burst into tears, crying, "They say I eat off the floor!"

It hit me like a punch to the stomach...that moment when your son is hanging out there and all you want to do is protect him but can't.

One of the older boys teased Peter when he saw him pick something up off the bus floor that he had dropped. The fact that it happened at all makes me sick. Evidently, Sam saw the whole thing happen and didn't come to Pete's defense. We're not raising perfect children, but Sam caught an earful from his mother about what it means to be a big brother.

I didn't know what to say. Transported to having suffered through similar moments at a similar age, I was too stunned to say anything. All I wanted to do was hold Peter, but Elise made me snap out, telling me it wasn't going to do any good to feel sorry for Peter; we had to give him the tools to deal with these situations on his own.

She's right. Of course.

I may not have been the saddest boy on Earth, though sometimes it felt like it. I have to make sure the same fate doesn't befall Peter.

Monday, October 26, 2015

One Week

Sadly, we have only one week left in India.

Elise and I have been spending a lot of time telling the kids about the wonders of America, but I don't think we are fooling anyone. We are not going on vacation. We are leaving our home. Perhaps, this is the only home the kids really know. Certainly, Clementine and, probably, Peter, know no other home, and Sam--though he professes to remember our apartment in Falls Church and our sweet little pousada in Brasilia--most likely remembers them as places and not as home, a place that is with family and familiar and safe.

On Sunday, I woke up feeling listless and unmotivated. I had meant to get up early to go running, but couldn't make myself get out of bed. Uncharacteristically, I told myself, "What's the point?" Later in the morning, I thought I was depressed. Likely, I was being too self-analytical, but it's times like these, I tend to take for granted moving is one of life's major stressors. The fact that we have moved five times in as many years, doesn't make it any easier, and it will most certainly be as hard to leave India as it was to leave Brazil...maybe harder. I guess what I have to tell myself is that it is okay to feel sad.

Come to find out, I may have been fighting something. Later in the day I had a sore throat. Sometimes, the reason we feel a certain way is more simple than we make it.

When Elise and I took the kids to see the Taj Mahal it was a four-day sojourn. Intentionally so. Some may be able to fly from Chennai to Delhi, drive from Delhi to Agra, see the Taj Mahal, drive back to Delhi from Agra, and fly back to Chennai from Delhi in a single day--maybe two--but with three kids, we felt the best way to travel was to break each leg up into one manageable day. On the second or third night, exhausted, in a strange hotel bed, Peter burst into tears, wailing for his own bed. I am dreading that moment that I am sure is to come....when Peter again bursts into tears, wailing for his bed in India, under the mosquito netting, and Elise and I are filled with crippling sorrow and longing and all we can do is hold Peter, hold onto each other, and hold our family together.

Last night at the dinner table, conversation turned to the inevitable, our upcoming departure, now only one week away.

Sam starred off into space. It became clear a moment later that he was thinking deeply. "I have a lot of friends here," he murmured. His bottom lip began to quiver. Elise's eyes welled up with tears.

I had lunch yesterday with my new boss who has been in the business for several decades. His kids, too, were raised overseas. I asked him when the moves started to become especially hard for the kids. He noted one move when their oldest was 16 and hated the U.S., everything that America stood for, and didn't want to leave South Africa or his friends there. He qualified this by explaining the United States was at the nadir of its global popularity, but still I gathered that I had at least eight to ten years before I really had to worry about dragging truculent teenagers around the world.

To be clear, Sam was not being truculent, nor would I ever accuse him of being so. But his sadness did dissolve into full-on moaning later, induced by exhaustion from the too-long school day. We're all tired. Exhausted. As nauseous gases float back at us from the toilet or shower, we imagine that these invisible vapors  that we have been inhaling for the past two years can't possibly be good for us and, yet, we cannot imagine a future where a day doesn't begin with chanting floating from across the Adyar River, through the windows and into our house at 4:45 a.m., or the bathroom doesn't smell like raw sewage.

It is a little scary for all of us. This is our home. Like it or not. Love it or leave it. Right now, we have no where else to go. Next week--after spending a few nights in London--we will be sleeping on blow-up mattresses on the floor in my dad's empty oceanfront condo, eating off paper plates with plastic silverware. We are excited to see friends and family, eat hamburgers, drink beer. We know a new adventure awaits us and that we will have a new home soon, a beautiful, comfortable home that at some point in the future we will dread leaving, too, but for now we have to tell ourselves it is okay to be sad. We don't have to be more excited to eat Taco Bell than we are sad to leave our home in Chennai.

This will be a hard week.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

India Day!

Every day is India Day for the Hanna family, but today was extra special. Dhotis and tiger tooth necklaces for their India Day school assembly. Mr. Sundar helped the boys pose traditional South India-style for the portrait. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

For the Birds

Last week, I stepped out of the car and got pooped on by a crow. We were getting out in front of Jasmine Tailors where I was having a custom-tailored suit made. Fancy, I know. I was just about to get Clementine out of her car seat when I feel something hit my head and shoulder. Sure enough, it's bird poo. I remembered instantly how much we made fun of Carlie when he got pooped on by a seagull when my dad took my brothers and I to Busch Gardens. It was the end of the day, and we were waiting for the tram to shuttle us out to our car baking in the parking lot. Fortunately, the crow poop was nothing like the seagull poop which fell on my brother that day. He was covered in a splash of white poop like you would see splattered across docks or the bows of fishing boats in port. Not surprisingly, none of us could stop laughing...except Carlie who could not stop crying.

Fortunately, my incident wasn't nearly as hilarious...until Sundar, our driver, insisted upon trying to clean it off me. I was actually really appreciative and I'm sure Elise was, too, because if Mr. Sundar hadn't leaped to the task, I would have had to ask Elise to try and wipe bird poop out of my hair. Mr. Sundar had no compunctions, and immediately started wiping it out of my hair with his bare hand. Then, Elise handed him a bottle of water, and he bent me over and started pouring water over my head. For the most part (I think), we got it all out, and we could go on with our day, but the whole thing wouldn't have been very funny at all if it weren't for Sundar going waaaaaay above and beyond the call of duty.

Evidently, it is good luck in India to be pooped on by a bird. We'll see. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Five Stages of Saying Goodbye

The five stages of loss and grief are well-documented. Originally proposed by Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross "On Death and Dying", they are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We went through something similar after leaving Brazil. It was a change we were reluctant to make. I remember one evening shortly after moving into our furnished corporate housing in Falls Church during the dead of winter. I slunk slammed a few beers and slunk off to bed without saying a word to Elise. The next morning, she called me out on it and said if that was the way it was going to be here then she wasn't going to put up with it. Of course, that wasn't the way it was going to be in Falls Church, but I don't think either of us knew at that point in time what it was going to be like.

I was truculent, and only after a few months--when spring started to pop its head up again--did I begin to hypothesize that maybe I was suffering a little but of seasonal affective disorder. It would not have been unreasonable to think so. We had just spent two years in sunny Brazil after spending ten years living in sunny South Florida.

Perhaps, I am making too much of our transition back to the States. I think about it a lot. I am usually not one to make a big deal of nothing. We may not have experienced all five stages of loss and grief after leaving Brazil. I don't think there was anger, per se. It's not like we lost a loved one. But there was definitely some depression, acceptance, dealing with emotions we were not used to dealing with. I imagine it will be much the same after leaving India.

First of all, the kids are going to freeze their butts off. They get cold when the mercury dips below a frosty 85. We can be swimming at the pool, and it literally--LITERALLY--be 100 degrees out and one of them say that they are freezing to death. After South Florida, Brazil, and now South India, we could be moving to the desert and they would be cold. Plop them down in Eastern Washington State in December or, maybe worse, as unbelievable as that may seem, Falls Church in January and they might as well be going on a polar expedition to Antarctica. It doesn't help that they have no winter clothes. Thankfully, Elise has started to replenish their winter wardrobe, culling various internet retailers for off-season specials.

I believe I am experiencing stages of saying good-bye to Chennai. There may be five. I don't know. Gone, now, is Stage 1, the phase where I am completely exasperated with everything and everyone Indian. It was short-lived, perhaps a week or two, capped off by a bout with some mysterious tropical, perhaps mosquito-bourne, illness, but seemed to last forever.

By way of example, the roads in Chennai are narrow. Oftentimes, for lack of anyplace else to park, cars line both sides of the road, meaning what was once a two-way street, in essence, becomes a one-way street, but going in both directions. It seemed to me, during my "completely exasperated with India"-phase that every time we would take one of these roads, a car would come in the opposite direction.

The oncoming car would flash its lights--presumably, a single to stop; it was coming through. Mr. Sundar would not stop, and in some absurd game of chicken, both cars kept moving forward even though there was only enough room for one to pass, until both cars were essentially wedged into the street with nowhere to go, because now traffic was piling up behind both of them. It was maddening to watch, when I could so obviously see how this was going to turn out and it could so clearly have been avoided. Again, in a country of one billion people you don't get anywhere by backing down from a game of chicken or ever yielding the right of way, but, ironically, now both cars were immobilized. It seems like a metaphor or an allegory, but for what, I dare not speculate.

Thankfully, that stage of saying good-bye is over, and now can watch two cars wedge themselves into inescapable logjams feeling only weepy sentimentalism.

I ran to work this morning, taking advantage of the fact that I have a driver whose only task at that hour of the day is to drive my clothes to the office for me, a luxury I most certainly will not have in Washington.

It was cooler, though still humid. I ran down Chamiers, and took a quick left at the corner of Greenways. I came up on a guy washing a car on the side of the road. I approached the car from the rear, quickly, as he was washing the hood, and just as he doused the front windshield with a bucket of water, I ran by the side view mirror. He didn't see me coming, and I didn't see the bucket of water coming, and I got drenched. The young man was instantly apologetic, and I could not be mad. The guy, actually, had just done me a huge favor. And I was almost brought to tears by his profound and genuine regret. Damn you, India. I waved him and smiled. He seemed relieved. I ran on.

So, now I am at the stage of saying goodbye to Chennai (the second stage?) where I am just overly sentimental and in love with everything about it. It helps some that the heat has tapered off somewhat.

Recently, a colleague who will soon be moving to Hyderabad sent me a message on Facebook asking me if I would extend our two-year assignment in Chennai a third year (we can't; this is all hypothetical). I replied without hesitation, "In a second."

It hasn't always been easy, but it most certainly hasn't always been hard either. We haven't been back to the U.S. in eighteen months. Do I need a break? Yes. Would I come back after a few weeks in the States? God, I wish we could.

This morning, Elise sent me an email, the subject of which was "woodlands?": "When can I take you to woodlands for lunch?"

Me: "I was just about to email you about this!!!! can you do today? what time do they open? the earlier the better. are they close to the Consulate? I don't have any money until after lunch : ( "

Woodlands is one of Elise's post-photowalk lunch spots that she has been raving about for the last two years. For some reason, I've never got around to going. We rectified that today, two South Indian thalis later. Surprisingly, they do not offer filter coffee after 12 p.m., so we had Mr. Sundar pull us up to the filter coffee stall outside the fruit market we frequent. Two coffees was fifty rupees or thirty-eight cents each. The coffee comes boiling hot, and we poured our coffees back and forth, South Indian style to cool it off, as we stood at the one table outside.

Traffic passed as we chatted, about her brothers, about Sam.

"How did you know I would say yes to go to Woodlands today?" I asked.

"Because you ran to work this morning, and I knew that you wouldn't be running at lunch."

I loved that she knew this about me. I shouldn't be surprised after ten years that she would. So, there will come a stage, perhaps, where everything old becomes new again. As we start to visit usual haunts that have become unconsciously familiar, we will rediscover that which made them special in the first place. It will be a long goodbye. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

It's All in the Genes

The kids' great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-grandfather! 

Monday, October 5, 2015


Yesterday, Sunday morning, Elise and I took everyone out for dosas at Saravana Bhavan in Mylapore. I don’t drive very often in India, which is probably a good thing. As we entered Mylapore, a bus stopped in front of us. “What should I do?” I asked Elise. She has been out and about in the city much more than I have, and I turn to her when I get to the point where I just don’t know what to do in the city.  

“Just go around,” she said.

I pulled out from behind the bus, only to see another bus coming straight at me from the other direction. I ducked back just in time to avoid a head-on collision, and the bus in front of me, soon after disgorging its passengers into the general melee of the city, moved on.

I then pulled around and exclaimed, “Ah!” at the sight before me.

“What is it?” Elise asked.

“There are just so many people.”

Understatement of the year.

I remember a year and a half ago, returning to the U.S. after spending the previous six months in India. My mom picked me up at the airport in West Palm Beach, and drove me to her house in Jupiter on Alternate A-1-A. The stretch of the highway between Donald Ross Rd. and Indiantown Rd. is four lanes, two in each direction, with a twenty-foot wide median between them. There are no trees alongside the highway and there are never more than a few cars on the stretch of highway, rocketing down its length at a startling 55 mph (we never drive faster than 40 kph in Chennai).

I remember gasping for air, a heretofore unknown sense of agoraphobia gripping me. There was just so much…

Last night, family move night, we watched Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a great movie. At the end of the movie, Mr. Fox—voiced by George Clooney—the Fox clan—along with the other wild animals—find themselves having to live the rest of their days in the sewer, but discover a secret passageway that leads them up to a supermarket which they can sneak into at night (“Early closing on Sundays!” Mr. Fox exclaims) and eat as much food as they want.

“A supermarket,” Sam breathed, somewhat awed, as Mr. Fox revealed his find to his kin.

On a whim, I asked Sam if he had ever seen a store like that before.

He shook his head, no.

It has been a year and a half since we’ve been in the United States. We’re set to go back at the end of the month, and I think—up until this point—I’ve underestimated how big a change it is going to be for the kids and how much of the United States they actually remember. Clementine is 3 ½. How much could she possible remember from a four week trip taken almost half her life ago?

I’ve read stories from colleagues about their respective returns to the States after being posted abroad and recall well our initial days in the U.S. after returning from Brazil, but—for the kids, at any rate—this cultural adjustment will be drastic. The contrasts between the two places could not be starker. India is familiar. The U.S. is foreign. And even as an adult looking in, I wonder if even I know that place anymore, a country where the conversations are more divisive than ever, partially because it is the lead up to an election year and partially because it seems every year the political dialogue becomes more polarized. A world where Donald Trump is a serious presidential candidate just can’t be real.

We are excited to go back to the States, but also terrified. For every yearning I have for a Chipotle burrito and Fat Tire, I think about a mass shooting taking place. It’s not will there be another one; that is a certainty. The question becomes: Where? When?

I told the kids I was going to buy them two pounds of turkey at Publix when we get back, but they don’t know what a Publix is. What else will be new? Do they know what turkey is? Peaches?

The first time we went the supermarket after coming back to the States from Brazil, Peter, then three, pointed a pineapple and squealed, “Abacaxi!” (the Portuguese word for ‘pineapple’) That memory makes me excited to see how they adjust to all the changes about to come down the pike and also reminds me to be gentle with them as they enter a strange, new world, America. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Brunch Bunch

After nearly two years we finally treated ourselves to one of, arguably, the world's finest brunches. It wasn't that we didn't deserve it all along, it's just that we prefer lazy mornings and casual south Indian breakfasts at Sangeetha. 

Off to the Leela Palace we went.

This week we bid adieu to my friend and photographic parter-in-crime Ed Malcik. I am a mess of stupid emotions that always accompany goodbyes for me. This never gets any easier and if it did it wouldn't be worth a hoot. Brunch was a group of acquaintances from the consulate and our dear friends Ed and Sue. Worthy of spit shining this Band of Hannas for brunch at a palace and springing for the champagne upgrade. 

There have been so many reasons I've neglected posting here more frequently in the past two years, probably the same ones that have kept the bounty of written words from the heart of my husband at bay, but now that things wind to a close I hope to open up the floodgates that have been holding my thoughts from becoming words and pages and pages of words will be set free.

In short, this place in complicated, it's pleasures as bountiful as it's pain. A thing that I'll always hold close to my heart in photos and the quiet glances with the people that bravely walked this path with me.