Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas!

We've had a great week this week preparing for Christmas, but it surely has been busy!

Christmas really snuck up on me this year, suddenly it was the 20th of December and I hadn't made serious plans for our family activities. But we've already enjoyed some pre-Christmas fun; here's a few highlights. . .

We had a baking marathon at my friend Rachel's on Friday. The plan was to arrive at about 5, eat a quick meal together, and then put the kids to bed (we can manage to get all four of them to bed in one house by some creative means!) and then start baking. But the best laid plans sometimes get postponed a little. It seemed like there was one child or another crying until about 9:30 pm, so our baking efforts were somewhat interrupted. We did manage however, to turn out around 135 cookies or so, including classic Christmas cut-outs, snickerdoodles, and peanut butter cookies. The last cookies were out of the oven and the oven turned off at 11:50pm! John and I didn't get home until about 1:30; it was definitely a marathon event, a real memory-maker! Around midnight or so, the combined effect of lack of sleep and sugary cookies made for some pretty funny moments!

Our idea was then to package them up, take them to a busy downtown location today, and give them out to people, hopefully with an opportunity to share about the true meaning of Christmas. I think this will be a new tradition for us here in our city. It went really well today and we were glad to share with a few folks, though it is so easy for us to attract a crowd here that it was tough to give out anything to one person without 27 other people wanting to see what we were doing. There must have been several thousand people milling about this public square, and we only had about 30 packages to give away. But it was a great opportunity and I'm really glad we did it.

Last night our house helper, Mimi, invited her family and friends to join us at our house for a Christmas party. They came, three different families bringing three children, all between 1 and 2 years of age. We ate snacks, showed them how to decorate cookies, sang lots of Christmas songs around our piano, and read the Christmas story. Other than that, the children (five altogether including our two) ran the show. It was true chaos. The kids played and fought over toys and spilled their drinks and dropped bits of cookie all through the house . . . you know, all the things kids do. It was great fun though! Take a look at a few more pictures:

We gave them some gifts at the end that included a CD of Christmas music, a movie that included the story of the first Christmas, and some other great reading material. Though our house was a huge mess after they left, we were so glad to be able to share with these dear people. I have to say it was really fun for me to see Clara Anne running around and having a great time with little Asianese kids. They just play, they don't worry about the language barrier!
Tomorrow we have some other fun things planned, including a special birthday breakfast for Clara Anne. My little girl is two years old! Amazing!
That's all for tonight. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Adventures in Shopping, etc.

Last Friday morning we took both of the girls out on an adventure--shopping at a huge wholesale marketplace on the western edge of town. According to our ever-resourceful house helper Mimi, this is THE place to go to get great, cheap stuff. Never mind that the taxi ride over there cost more than some of the items we purchased, Mimi insisted that we go there since she was going to introduce us to her friend there who could meet our needs perfectly. And what was it that we needed? We wanted to choose some fabric and then have some Asianese traditional clothes made for the purpose of wearing when we're back in the States. In actual fact, most of our Asianese friends very seldom wear this type of clothing, and maybe don't even own anything like it, but we think our western friends are going to love it.

When we walked in, I sucked in my breath in shock--it literally felt like we were entering a walk-in freezer. It was warmer outside! The cold was due to a combination of factors: it was a warehouse style building, unheated, with a huge, high ceiling, the floors and the walls cement block which were just emnating cold. At first it felt cold, really cold, but as we chose styles we liked from a book for all four of us, chose fabric, got measured, etc, and time went on, soon my feet and hands became stiff from the cold and hardly workable! I cannot imagine how people can work in that environment every day! But Mimi was true to her word--there were SO many choices of Asianese silk in every conceivable gorgeous pattern, and her friend seemed like he could sew all of our things quite easily. The items should be done around the first of the year so we shall see how they turn out! The great thing about tailoring is that we can always get them adjusted if they don't fit quite right.

Our house has been known to be overly warm during the winter--we have the regular steam heat which is regulated by the government. There is a huge coal-burning factory on the edge of town and then the hot water is piped in so we have steam heat. Once the local government decides to turn it on, it's on for everybody until they decide to turn it off in the spring! In the past I had often complained about it being too warm (sleeping with only a sheet covering during the wintertime seems a bit crazy) but on Friday I was truly thankful for my warm home. It took us all about an hour to warm up after arriving back home again!

Here's the "etc." part of this post--a few random pictures from the last few days. They aren't even very good photos, but at least you can get the idea! Here's Chloe showing off her sitting-up skill!

This one could be called: All My Children. Clara Anne seems to have equal love and attachment for all three of her dolls. Two of them (the left one and the center one) were mine when I was a little girl, and the one on the right is a recent acquisition--she came with the stroller that we bought for Clara Anne recently. Lately I've had to limit Clara Anne to only one doll to sleep with, as she would gladly take them all to bed with her every night. In this picture she is trying to spread out her blanket to wrap them up.

This is an action shot from a Christmas party we attended on Saturday night. Of course our camera battery decided to give out after this picture was taken, though I think our friends did get a better family picture of us later--we'll have to get that from them. But you can see us in our Christmas clothes, at least!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

'Tis the Season, Part 2

Thursday night was family night this week, since John's regular Thursday committment got cancelled. He called me from his bike on the other side of town, wondering if I wanted to get the girls ready and to meet him at Pizza Hut. He didn't need to ask me twice!

As I've mentioned before, the Pizza Hut here in our city is a really nice dining experience. It is decorated beautifully, spotlessly clean, and has the nicest public bathrooms of anywhere I've been in this Asian country. The service is very good and the pizzas taste almost exactly like American pizzas. And if we bring our student ID card, we get 20% off our total bill, every time! So that means we can get a large pepperoni pizza and a pitcher of Coke for just under $10. It's an affordable luxury.

Lately the Pizza Hut has been all decked out for Christmas, complete with a Christmas music soundtrack and the waitresses wearing Santa hats, with one waitress wearing an entire special Santa outfit. There's one waitress in particular who has served our table just about every time we've visited. After the second time, I asked her name and since then have tried to get to know her a little bit.

The last time she served us, she was wearing the Santa outfit and had a bag of candy gifts that she was handing out. I took the opportunity to ask her if she knew what Christmas was about. She seemed to have no idea. She knew it was December 25th, and that was about it. I was able to share just a bit with her, but I found it highly ironic that there could be such emphasis on decorating for Christmas, and celebrating Christmas, when there was almost no understanding of what Christmas celebrates.

My hope for her is that she will read what I gave her and come to accept it, and have a real reason to have joy in her heart and a truly Merry Christmas.

Listening to "O Come, All Ye Faithful" on the soundtrack, eating pepperoni pizza, enjoying Clara Anne and Chloe's antics, and sharing the reason for the season--now that's the way to spend family night!

'Tis The Season

The cold season, that is.

Yes, I know, it's also the Christmas season, and even in this Asianese city there are Christmas decorations everywhere. The major hotels have lovely, classy decorations; the nicer restaurants have nice-looking decorations too, and even the local small eating joints have tacky looking Santas and Christmas tree vinyl clings in their windows. We've got the whole range here in our city.

But for our family this week, it was the cold season. I think Clara Anne was the first one to fall victim to a runny nose about a week ago, and then John got a cold which has now descended into his chest, and Chloe's nose has been running too. Bleh! It's no fun to be sick, especially around Christmastime. Last year at Christmas we had so many parties here in our home, and were so busy, that it was after Christmas when we "crashed" and John got the flu, sicker than I've ever seen him. It was pretty bad; at one point during that week he was so weak and had such a sore throat and high fever that I had to help him sip through a straw from a cup of water, he had no strength to lift it himself. Needless to say, we're hoping to avoid that this year!

Thankfully I am feeling allright--someone's got to keep the house running! But I have a confession to make. When I was a teenager, I did lots of babysitting, and I always secretly despised snotty-nosed kids. You know the ones. They are happily running around playing, as their noses are running two rivers of snot down to their lips. I always thought it was so yucky and I did not enjoy wiping their noses. But this week, I realized that now I have two snotty-nosed kids! There was one memorable incident when Clara Anne had been playing by herself for awhile and her fine, flyaway hair had gotten stuck in the "stuff" under her nose. When I noticed her hair in her face I tried to smooth it back and tuck it behind her ear, and it was dried there. Eeewww! Snotty-nosed girl strikes again!

We have been keeping the Kleenex manufacturers in business this week. We'll hope that next week is better!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

"Ouch!" and "Ahhh"

So lately my back has really been bothering me. I often have lower back pain, especially as the day wears on and I get tired. I think it is a combination of factors--an old injury from a car wreck in 1999, abdominal muscles with the consistency of noodles from having two babies in 18 months, doing lots of lifting and carrying of my children, and also doing food prep in my kitchen which has limited counter space so I end up using my kitchen table, which is too low. My sink is also too low--I have to sort of lean over to do the dishes. Anyway, I have started doing some abs exercises to help improve this problem and I'm happy to say that it is helping somewhat. But my back is often still really tired and somewhat sore at night.

Then the other day, on a whim, we decided to weigh our children. Clara Anne was the first one on the scale, and she was even willing to stand still on the scale by herself so we could get an accurate reading. The result: 31 pounds! Wowza! She is tall for her age, I think, so we didn't realize that she is such a lug!

Chloe was next and we were interested to discover that she is around 17 pounds right now. So you can do the math . . . this means that when I take both girls out, with Chloe in the Baby Bjorn and holding Clara Anne, plus all of our assorted items and lately, with everyone bundled into winter clothes, I am lifting and carrying over 50 pounds! No wonder my back is tired!

Now, on to the "Ahh" part of the story. Previously, showering at our house is not a luxurious activity. For one thing, we don't have a separate shower stall, which is common here in this Asianese country. Here is a picture so you can get a visual of what our shower is like:

See the large tank hanging on the wall above my towel rack? Well, that is what we fill with water and then plug it in to make the water hot--it's not hot all the time and automatically refilling like a hot water heater in the States. This is a bit inconvenient, since you have to plan about 45 minutes ahead of time when you want to take a shower. However, compared to the dorm where we lived when we first arrived in this country, where the hot water is only on for a few hours at certain times of the day, being able to have a shower whenever I want is truly a blessing.

So you can see the tube for the shower simply comes out of the bottom of the tank and then the water comes out the shower head, like any other shower. The only problem is if you want to take a long shower, there is only as much hot water as fits in the tank and so you have to be careful not to end up all soapy and have no hot water to rinse off with.

Also, since as you can see, we have no separate area for the shower, every day, everything gets wet. The bad part is having to clean that up every time we shower, but the good part is that my floor gets mopped every day! As well, I know in some Asianese homes the shower is so crunched for space that technically you could sit on the toilet to take a shower, but our tube is not long enough so we have a small plastic stool to sit on while showering, since we found that standing really decreases the water pressure to a trickle.

So we have found ways to make our shower work fine, though as I said, it was never a luxurious experience of hot water cascading over you, creating a steamy environment. But last week, unbeknownst to me, my house helper took on a little project of her own. She noticed that the shower head was pretty grimy, so she took it apart to clean it. At first I just thought, oh, it's nice to have that clean again. But there was another benefit I hadn't anticipated.

Somehow in her cleaning, she managed to open up the nozzle more so that the water pressure was increased A LOT. I was surprised and delighted to find the next morning that my humble shower in my tiny bathroom was suddenly a luxurious experience! The hot water gushed out of the shower head and made me feel like I was staying at a nice hotel, not in my dinky bathroom! The downside, of course, was that I went through the tank of water quite fast, so I had to be careful to get all the necessary washing and rinsing done before I just relaxed under the hot spray. But, despite the time constraint, how lovely! It's amazing what a difference a small change (like a clean nozzle) can make.

The other truly wonderful thing was that I recently got a package from my parents in the States which included some Warm Vanilla Sugar creamy body wash from Bath and Body Works. So though I have no bathtub to relax in, my showering experience is now almost as good. Thanks, Mimi, (my house helper) and Thanks, Mom and Dad!


Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Week in Pictures

Here's a glimpse of our week! Yesterday we went out to a local market where there are hundreds of vendors selling their wares all inside a huge building. This place has every small item you could possibly need for your home! From contac paper to toys, from hammers to teapots, it's all there. I happened to see this stroller which I knew Clara Anne would just LOVE so we splurged the $5 and bought it. Clara Anne could hardly be bothered to eat supper last night, she just wanted to play with the new doll stroller. She also was too busy playing to pose for pictures, so here's an action shot.
And here's our mama Clara multitasking--feeding her doll while playing the piano and giving a silly smile to the camera.
Chloe had an abundant supply of smiles this week--I love to see those smiles!

John and Clara Anne spent some time drawing on her Magic-Erase Board and practicing the ABCs. Daddy and daughter time is always fun!

Open wide, Chloe! This is her first time tasting cereal, and she seemed to enjoy the face-to-face time just as much as the new food.

Quote of the Day

Happy Saturday, everyone!

Clara Anne has already won the quote of the day award, though it isn't even 10 am yet. Lately she's been stringing together longer and longer phrases (not exactly sentances, but a valiant effort nonetheless). I guess this quote originated partly from my habit of asking John if he has keys and money when we go out. So this morning, though we have no plans to go out today, Clara Anne came to me in the kitchen as I was doing breakfast dishes and said in a hopeful voice: "Mama, keys money outside Emma's house today?"

Sorry Clara Anne, not today! Maybe next time!

Friday, December 08, 2006

The One Constant: Transition

Well, we've come to the end of another week. It's Friday night again, and our friend Robert is here with us, hanging out and helping John work on his Asianese. Actually, I hear them speaking English right now so maybe Robert is working on his English tonight! Lovely smells are drifting from my kitchen as the second (and final) layer of some apple cake is baking. I meant to get it done right after supper but my daughters had other ideas, so now it is 9:24 pm and we still have not eaten dessert. Oops. Good thing I have some decaf (not regular!) coffee on hand.

Clara Anne and Chloe must have had a private conference earlier in the week, deciding amongst themselves that all of the changes they've recently gone through were not enough. On December 1st, Chloe began her transition into the world of adult food. Well, maybe rice cereal cannot quite be considered adult food, but anyway she has started on that path. It didn't take her long to catch on--about halfway through an ounce of milk she started figuring out how to swallow it and was impatient for more. I must confess that my heart sunk a bit, knowing that now begins the discipline process with my sweet Chloe girl. She will have to learn how to keep her hands off the bowl, not to grab for the spoon, and not to blow raspberries as she's eating. Thankfully she is already doing pretty well with those things. Now we will have to work on those impatient half-whines between bites! Yet another transition!

Chloe has also been doing really well with sleeping nearly 12 hours every night, so John and I decided that it was time for her to transition into sharing a room with Clara Anne. Then during the day, Clara Anne can nap on our bed to help train her for preparing to move her to a big bed at night. So far, they are doing all right in the same room. There have been occasional times this week where they woke each other up, but hopefully soon that will decrease as well as they get more used to the other being in the room.

Clara Anne used to be my sound sleeper who needed about 17 hours of sleep a day. That has now transitioned to about 15, and even those times are interrupted somewhat by her crying out, needing to use the restroom. Most of the time she truly needs to go, but sometimes I fear that she is using that as a "get out of the crib free" card. She knows the magic words that will move Mama's heart to let her out, "Pee-pee more?" I have seen the truth of Paul's words: "The Law was added as transgressions increased." We've had to establish new rules as Clara Anne keeps testing the boundaries! I am trying to make sure that her efforts to manipulate me into letting her use the bathroom "one more time" are never productive.

Speaking of which, Clara Anne has stayed dry at night for the last 10 days, at least, so we have graduated to all underwear, all the time. No more pull-ups! She is really becoming a big girl. It's hard for me to believe her two year birthday is coming up in a few weeks!

Well, it's time for me to go and frost my cake. Robert recently was in a larger city nearby where there is a Starbucks and came back with some Decaf Sumatra for me. I think it will go perfectly with that apple cake!

Check back tomorrow for some pictures from this past week!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Oh, the Things We'll Do!

Yesterday morning my friend Rachel called, saying that she and Emma were going to play at the indoor play area at our local Carrefour (a large grocery store that has lots of other small stores built into its building.) Would we like to come? The weather was gray and cloudy so I jumped at the chance to take Clara Anne on a fun outing. But then as I was rushing around trying to get everyone ready to go, the thought occurred to me, "Oh, this will be Clara Anne's first time going out for a longer time where there isn't a western toilet. I wonder how we'll make that work..."

The background on this is that in this Asian country, in public places especially, there are no western, sit-down toilets. Instead there is what is called informally, a "squattie potty." For those of you who have never seen a squattie, the concept is pretty simple. There is a narrow porcelain basin set in the floor between two slabs where your feet should go. It takes a little bit of skill to be able to squat down, hold your clothes out of the way, and use it successfully. The nicer ones flush. The worst one I've ever used was just a trench--no stalls, privacy, or ability to flush whatsoever. Toilet paper is never available, so it's bring your own or drip dry. Most of us westerners who've been here awhile have developed the skill of successful squattie usage--if it is a question of being uncomfortable for hours on end or simply using a squattie, you learn pretty quickly to use the squattie. Also, you learn to always use your own bathroom before leaving the house so as to minimize the number of experiences in public toilets.

I personally do not mind too much using a squattie, since technically you can use one without ever touching anything. No seat to sit down on also means no germs. But I had not yet taught Clara Anne this skill. We have a western toilet at home, and the few times when we were out with her eating, we happened to be at places that had western toilets. So yesterday was a first. But I just thought that I would have her go before we left the house, and then maybe she would be able to make it until we got home again.

Well, as is the case so many times, I thought wrong. I had not planned well at all--I had dressed her in a onesie turtleneck with denim overalls. My original thinking was that I would have to help her in the bathroom anyway, so it didn't matter. Unfortunately it turned out that it did matter, quite a bit.

We got to the play place and Clara Anne immediately began having a fabulous time. There's a trampoline to bounce on, several large slides, climbing areas, a ball pit, a swing. . . you name it. But we were hardly there 15 minutes when Clara Anne got that awful look on her face which says. . . help, Mama! I rushed her out the play place gate, not bothering to put on my shoes (first mistake) and ran around the corner with her to the bathroom. Trying to dodge the dirtiest parts of the extremely dirty floor, I quickly chose a stall and tried to simply get her pants down so she could position herself over the squattie. That was my second mistake. It soon became evident that her clothes were going to have to come OFF--overalls and panties both, not just down around her ankles. I got her there just in time! Oh my, the things we'll do for our children! She was proud of herself but I was a little harried from the experience, not to mention my socks touching all of the unmentionables on the floor. Needless to say, my socks went straight into the dirty clothes hamper when we got home!

So we were gone a total of four hours (we ate lunch there too) and during that time Clara Anne needed to use the bathroom THREE times. This is unprecedented for her, and was truly a hassle for me since I needed to remove all of her clothes every time! I'm sorry to say that the third time we got there too late (thankfully I had another pair of undies) and that's when this mama decided it was time to be getting home.

Now I know why the locals use those split pants that I've mentioned before! It really would be easier not to have to undress them every time. Maybe I'll have to buy a pair. . . just kidding! There might be lots of things I'm willing to do for Clara Anne, but letting her wear split pants is not on that list. Next time, though, no overalls OR onesies! I learned my lesson!

Before I became a mother, I remember one seasoned mom telling me, "Yeah, before I had kids I thought it was so gross to have to clean up their dirty diapers and stuff. But now my attitude has totally changed--if I think my daughter is about to throw up, I run in front of her and cup my hands." That stuck with me as an example of the extraordinary things that moms will do for their children. I guess I'm learning that being a mom is being a servant leader. Probably I should be thanking Clara Anne for all these opportunities to humbly practice my servant leadership skills. But she's already asleep tonight, so in the meantime, I think I have some laundry to do. Good night!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Just Three Words

Today I have only three words for you. . . Molten Chocolate Cakes.

Last night was Ladies' Night. This happens twice a month when John takes care of the girls and I get to go and spend some fun times with a few other American ladies. We chat and laugh and sometimes cry. We tell stories of our kids' antics, where we found that great imported cheese, and how things are going in our life with Father. Usually food is involved in some way; several weeks ago we met at Pizza Hut (yes, we have a Pizza Hut in our city and it is actually almost a fine-dining experience) where we tried their version of cheesecake and pronounced it "very good."

But last night Ladies' Night was at my house. True, it did mean that I didn't quite get away from the children, though they both agreeably went to sleep fairly early in the evening. Also, since John was managing them (except for nursing Chloe) I still was able to do my fair share of relaxing and chatting. And last night I had found a great recipe that I wanted to try for Molten Chocolate Cakes.

It was in the Joy of Cooking, hidden way away near the end of the cakes chapter. Their chapter on cakes is so extensive that I had never really read the whole thing until recently. But when I found this recipe, and looked over the ingredients, I was surprised to discover that something so decadent and rich could be easily made in my kitchen.

There are only five ingredients: chopped semisweet chocolate which is melted slowly with butter, egg whites which are beaten stiff with just a touch of cream of tartar to stabilize and sugar to sweeten. Then the egg whites are folded into the chocolate mixture and baked in a muffin tin that has been buttered and sugared. The mixture puffs high and then falls dramatically after being removed from the oven, and the centers stay gooey.

Voila! Molten Chocolate Cakes!

The Joy of Cooking said these were worthy of a elegant dinner party. Well, I am happy to tell you, they were also worthy of a lovely ladies' night. We ate our cakes, topped with fresh whipped cream, in my sparkly, twinkly living room, with our feet up on the coffee table and the Charlie Brown Christmas CD playing its jazzy themes in the background.

Ahh. Now that's nice.

And Don't Forget The...

John and I have been making plans for awhile now for our trip back to the States. It is going to be here before we know it! Some major planning (mostly on John's part) has already gone into our trip but we still have a lot to do in order to get ready. My house, for one.

Since we're going to be gone for almost six months, we are trying to decide exactly how to proceed with our household belongings. It is truly amazing to me how much stuff we have accumulated since moving overseas. I'll never forget preparing to move here, and selling or giving away so many things that everything we owned fit in our (hand-me-down) station wagon. What a great feeling that was! I felt so free! But then we moved here. . . and bought it all again. The inescapable fact remains--you need stuff to live. Silverware, pots and pans, lamps, a blender, a vacuum cleaner, towels. . . they're all really handy for living. But now it seems that despite my best intentions and frequent de-cluttering efforts, we have gradually built up an enormous amount of stuff again.

Part of that, no doubt, is having two children. With kids comes stuff. Most of it is useful, some of it is just for fun, but there's no denying that our possessions have multiplied as our family has grown.

So the question is, what to do with all this stuff?

We plan to move to a different house soon after coming back to Asia since our family of four is a little cramped in our current location. So probably before we go, I will do LOTS of sorting, organizing and packing since there is no need for all of our things to stay out while we are gone. We plan to continue renting this apartment while we're gone, since there isn't another good option for storage. (And because the rent is quite cheap!) But at least that will be convenient, we can leave all our boxes here.

Anyway, I can see that I will have my work cut out for me in January, preparing and dealing with all of this stuff. But recently when I was telling Clara Anne stories about our upcoming adventure to Grandpa and Grandma's house in the States, I was asking her what stuff she thought we should pack along with us.

She thought for a minute and said, Telephone. "That's a great idea, Clara Anne, except that our cell phones won't work in America! But we can take your toy cell phone." Next on her list: Doll. "Certainly," I affirmed. "We won't want to leave Doll behind." I prompted her to think of one more thing we should take with us. She thought and thought, and then very confidently said, "Butter."

Well, happily for Clara Anne, we should be able to find butter at pretty much any grocery store in the States. Plus, I don't think it would pack very well...:) But I'm sure we'll think of lots of other things we won't want to forget!