We should have known there was something nefarious happening when all three older kids were quiet for a full ten minutes. My parental radar was thrown off, however, by how much I was enjoying standing in the kitchen having a glass of champagne with our dear friends (we’ll call them Sheila and Rob). Their lovely daughter (we’ll call her Anya) and our two older boys had been playing happily albeit noisily, and the sudden hush came as a welcome respite until we realized just how long it had gone on.

We found them all in the master bedroom, where they had locked the door. Danny talked Stephen into opening the door, and we were immediately assailed with nail polish fumes. Which makes sense, since it was EVERYWHERE. The kids had decided to play “princess and princes,” which apparently involves painting toenails. And fingernails. And the soles of their feet. And the curtains, the bedside table, and the bathroom floor. Anya, who was wise enough to realize the situation was not going to end well, had climbed into our bed and pulled the covers up, presumably to hide the evidence, so there was also nail polish on our sheets. Stephen (the one responsible for locking the door in the first place) was wearing a classic deer-in-the-headlights look, and Nathaniel (the least culpable of all of them, being only 2 and unable to reach the nail polish or lock the door) looked slightly confused and apprehensive.

My normal reaction to such a scene, particularly since it happened at the end of a day in which the two older boys were fighting nearly nonstop, would definitely have involved a raised voice and a lot of angry words, throwing the kids into time outs in separate rooms, crying, and maybe throwing the cotton pads I was using to clean the polish off the tile floors into the trash with more force than was necessary. Probably all of those. This time, however, Sheila was there, and I really didn’t want to throw an adult temper tantrum in front of her. Sheila is one of the kindest people I know, always gentle with her words. I would be ashamed to lose it in front of her, and I was pretty sure it would freak Anya out. I took several deep breaths, and purposefully made my voice as quiet and controlled as I could while I scrubbed as much of the nail polish off of Stephen and Nathaniel’s skin as I could.

What stuck with me from that incident was not the anger at Stephen’s disobedience (I had told him, repeatedly and recently, that anything on those bathroom shelves was off limits) or the irritation about the red nail polish on the curtains that aren’t ours. It was the realization about how much leeway I give myself to lose it with my kids because most of the time there’s no one around to see it happen. Sometimes I tell myself I’m doing it so that they’ll really understand that what they did was wrong, sometimes I justify it because I “just can’t take any more” or I’m “so tired,” but the fact is I wasn’t any less tired the night of the Great Nail Polish Debacle, and the kids had been just as exhausting that day as they were any other day. They understood that what they did was wrong.

I wish I could say that since that day I’ve never raised my voice or lost my temper with the kids. I’d like to think it’s been less frequently than it could have been. What is certainly true is that I can’t stop thinking about that moment when I almost lost it and stopped, the realization that I would be embarrassed for someone else to see what has become my normal reaction. I’m trying to take a deep breath or three before I open my mouth. If I can do it for Sheila’s sake, shouldn’t I be able to do it for theirs?

I debated starting this up again, but the lure of having somewhere to write down thoughts and experiences too lengthy for Facebook has lead me to give the blog another shot. I considered starting a new site, but since the only people that really read these posts are my friends and family, perhaps you can forgive me for the old posts and glaring gaps.

We just got back from a trip to Paris, spending twelve glorious days (okay, so ten glorious days and two days that were half-glorious and half consumed with air travel) reveling in the comforts of the western world. It was amazing, frustrating, relaxing, stressful, and exactly the break we needed. It seemed random and almost silly to be taking a trip to Paris with three very young children (2 months, 2 years and 4 years are not exactly ages renowned for flexibility), especially since our primary reasons for choosing Paris as a venue included a nonstop flight and the fact that Stephen is attending the Ecole Francaise d’Amman. Several people observed that we were either very brave or completely insane to voluntarily undertake international travel at this stage in our lives, but despite the normal headaches that accompany traveling with little people this trip was one of the most enjoyable we’ve had in the past few years. Danny and I were discussing why this was, and I thought it would be nice to record some of our observations.

What we did right:

- LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.

  • We picked a destination that included plenty of what we enjoy, and that provided things that we can’t get in Amman. Danny and I wanted to shop at farmers’ markets, take long walks, and see some greenery and water. Stephen is obsessed with dinosaurs and sharks, and he and Nathaniel both love being able to run and play outside. Simon doesn’t really have many opinions at this point. ;) Paris, surprisingly to me, was chock full of great stuff to do with the kids. We spent hours at the Museum of Natural History (real dinosaur skeletons!), at the Paris Aquarium (real sharks!), at the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution (life-sized models of all sorts of animals), the Jardin de Plantes (museums, open spaces, gardens) and the Jardin du Luxembourg, rode on the Batobus (water taxi), and generally enjoyed being in a beautiful city full of life (and about 20 degrees cooler than Amman).
  • We picked a location within a reasonable distance from Amman. As much as we love seeing family, the trip home is a minimum of 15 hours travel and involves a 7-8 hour time difference. With little kids, this is just brutal. It takes about a week for them to recover from the jet lag going west, and closer to three weeks coming east. The flight to Paris was nonstop, and only 4.5 hours long. Plus, the flight times were relatively reasonable (which is more of a challenge than you would think, as most flights out of the Middle East leave in the middle of the night).
  • We found accommodations that were close to what we wanted to see, so once we got there we could get everywhere we wanted to go on foot or with a very short taxi or ferry ride. We stayed in the 5th Arrondissement (the Latin Quarter).

- We kept our agenda to a minimum, but we identified a few things we really wanted to do. Our actual agenda only had two specific items on it: the Museum of Natural History and the Eiffel Tower. Beyond that, we wanted to visit lots of markets, enjoy foods that we can’t get here in Amman, take lots of walks, and let the boys play outside surrounded by actual plant life as much as possible. Anything else was bonus.

- We rented an apartment. Even pre-kids, Danny and I preferred to stay in self-catering vacation rentals rather than in hotels, but with little people involved I think having our own space makes a crucial difference.

WHAT WE WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME:

- We rented a two bedroom apartment, which was okay but not ideal. The kids don’t tend to sleep as well when we’re not at home, and the first night in Paris Stephen woke Nathaniel in the middle of the night to play, which lead to Nathaniel throwing a full-out temper tantrum at 3am. We ended up putting Nathaniel in a pack-n-play in the bathroom (thankfully the toilet was in a separate room from the bath) to save our sanity.

- We really should have brought an extra bag. We pared down what we brought as much as possible and managed to fit everything in two suitcases (not bad for a family of 5 for 10+ days!), but on the way back we had to pay overweight baggage fees. We were well under our checked bag allowance, so if we had brought an extra bag we could have avoided that.

- The amount of walking we did was great for Danny and me, but the older kids got frustrated at spending so much time in the stroller (especially Nathaniel). Since next time we do a family vacation Stephen will have to walk (or we’ll have to bring the single AND double strollers, yikes!) we will probably have to change our m.o. a bit.

- When Danny got out Euros from the bank in Amman, they gave us 500 Euro notes. We used most of them to pay for our apartment, but were left with one that was near impossible to break. We actually had to go to the Bank of France and ask them for change, as after three days we couldn’t find anyone who would accept it. Next time we’ll make sure to get smaller bills.

WHAT WAS FRUSTRATING BUT UNAVOIDABLE:

- Traveling with a 2 year old and a 4 year old. Simon is an easygoing baby, and I’ve found that babies under 6 months old are easier to travel with than any other age. Stephen and Nathaniel are good travelers for their age, but they’re still little kids. There was a lot of whining and fighting. Nathaniel threw some spectacular tantrums while we were out and about. We tried various interventions and ultimately determined that we just had to wait them out, so we’d strap him into the stroller (so he couldn’t go into the street, which he tried to do on several occasions to get away from us) and wait. We took pictures of a few of them, and started naming them based on where they occurred. There was the Eiffel Tantrum, the Arc d’Tantrum, and the BioTantrum (at a “bio marche” or organic market), plus several others.

- This goes along with the point above, but there were lots of things that just weren’t feasible on this trip. We didn’t eat in any restaurants, for example, because at this stage in our life that experience is just too stressful to be enjoyable. The Musee d’Orsay is Danny’s favorite museum in the world, but it wouldn’t have been enjoyable to do with the kids right now.

I wouldn’t have necessarily expected this to be true, but this was one of the best trips we’ve ever had. We like living in Amman, but were really ready for a break, and Paris was the perfect escape.

This is not the first time we’ve travelled with small children.  In fact, counting them up, I realize that it’s our 8th transatlantic trip with one or more children under the age of 3 in the past three years.  And yet, every trip is different.  Kids seem to react differently according to their personalities, the circumstances surrounding the travel, and their age at the time, which should be obvious but seems to catch me unaware every time.

Stephen, at almost three, has been easier to deal with this trip than any other since he was about 8 weeks old.  He slept for 6 hours of our 12-hour flight, and on the second and third legs of the trip he was content to sit and watch movies quietly on the DVD player or iPod.  He survived the 8-hour time change and the lack of sleep during the trip with grace and style, and only had one significant meltdown during the entire 27 hour odyssey.  This is the first time that Stephen has seemed to really enjoy the new experiences so much, he’s soaking up the attention from his grandparents and delights in discovering new places to play and explore.  If he weren’t so busy, and if my arms weren’t nearly always full of a squirming, fussy Nathaniel, I would constantly be pulling Stephen into my lap to kiss him and tell him how happy and sad it makes me to see him growing up and maturing like this.  I still tell him, but I’m not sure he can hear me over Nathaniel. ;)  I’m humbled by his patience and his sweet, accommodating spirit.  It gives me hope that travelling with them will indeed get easier as they get older.

Nathaniel, at almost 9 months, has had a harder time adjusting.  I’m not sure if it’s the jet lag, the temporary sleep deprivation that inevitably comes with such a long trip, the change in scenery and new people, his personality, his age, or a combination of those factors, but the two days since we arrived Stateside have been challenging.  During the journey here, he actually did fairly well — he also slept for about half of the long flight, and he slept for at least part of the two flights after that.  Since we’ve been stationary, however, he’s been a handful.  For me, specifically, since he won’t allow anyone else to hold him without screaming himself hoarse.  He’s up every two hours all night long, fighting naps during the day, and nursing as much as a newborn.

It’s hard.  This is one of the consequences of living our lives halfway across the world, and one that I’m only really starting to realize.  My family back here, my parents and Danny’s parents and our siblings and best friends, for the most part don’t get to see our kids at their best.  Our parents have been able to come and visit us where we live, but a lot of our loved ones have only seen the boys when they’ve been uprooted from their home and subjected to a horrifically long trip and a 7- or 8-hour time change.  I’m sure everyone still loves seeing them, but the truth is that none of us are at our best under those circumstances and our kids are no exception.  Stephen is whinier and more emotional, and Nathaniel is clingy and fractious.

I’m trying very had to maintain perspective, which is not easy for me to do.  I need to remind myself several times a day that they didn’t ask to live so far away, that they don’t understand jet lag or why none of their toys or familiar things are here, or who all these people are who are touching them and talking to them.  I tell myself that the people who love us will understand that we’re all tired and not in our element, and that I don’t need to apologize a hundred times for Nathaniel’s screaming or Stephen’s sobbing meltdown or my exhaustion.  Our life overseas has numerous benefits, but quality, low-stress, consistent time with loved ones back home is just not one of them.

There are so many ironic things about life in general and mine in particular, but right now I’m mostly thinking of moving-related irony (not surprising given that we just took delivery of 7,000 pounds of our stuff on Friday).

Every time we move, we get 2 shipments — the air freight, and the regular slow-boat shipment of household goods.  Last time we moved, I did a fairly terrible job of planning our air freight.  For some unknown reason, I was obsessed with the idea that we NEEDED to have Stephen’s crib in our air freight to get it there as soon as possible, so over 200 pounds of our 400 pound shipment was his crib.  The rest of the weight allowance was taken up with a few sheets and towels, and maybe a few books and clothes.  I put all of Stephen’s fall and most of his next-size-up clothes in our regular shipment, figuring it would get there by the end of August at the latest, before it got cold and he needed bigger clothes.

Of course, our air freight arrived 2 weeks after we did, but our household goods took 4 months to get there.  We left the U.S. in early June, and it arrived in October.  By the time it arrived, it had been cold for a month already, we had purchased a bunch of larger clothes for Stephen, and he had outgrown a bunch of the stuff in the shipment without ever wearing it.  The Bumbo seat that would have been a sanity-saver when Stephen was 4 months old and wanted to be able to see everything but couldn’t sit on his own arrived when he had already been sitting up independently for nearly a month.

This time, I vowed I was going to get it right.  I made lists, I edited those lists, I agonized and planned and worst-case-scenario’d it.  We packed out in July, arriving in Jordan in September.  In our suitcases we carried everything we would need until early October.  I put everything we would need to survive until Thanksgiving or Christmas in our air freight.  All of Stephen’s favorite toys that were too big to fit in our suitcases, and the second-string books that weren’t popular enough to carry around but still important enough to want to have quickly.  Nathaniel’s bouncy seat, Bumbo seat, playmat, and next-size-up clothes and diapers.  Our entire spice cabinet, our favorite knives, our favorite pots, measuring spoons and cups, colanders, the VoIP phone, all our sheets, the list goes on.

So the irony?  Our air freight and household goods arrived here at about the same time, but we got our household goods this past Friday and our air freight is still stuck in customs at the airport.  So we have lots and lots of stuff, but none of the things that we use on a daily basis.  We have a Bundt pan and muffin tins and no measuring cups.  We have our big TV and the surround sound system, but none of our movies.

I’m not actually complaining, as it’s pretty much a miracle that our household goods shipment is here less than a month after we arrived.  I’m just appreciating the irony of having carefully planned for every contingency…except this one.  And I’m sort of patting myself on the back for what a great job I did identifying the most important items in our home, because pretty much everything in our air freight shipment is something we notice not having.

This is one of my favorite parts of our yard — it’s an open-sided structure with a roof of woven, waterproof material.  There’s a similar structure over the front part of the patio where we park the car, but this one is in the corner of our yard.  At this time of year, it’s shady and cool under there until about 11:30 in the morning, and sitting in it I can see our whole L-shaped yard and patio area.  This morning I took both of the kids out there right after breakfast.  Nathaniel lay on a towel kicking his legs while Stephen played with his trucks and we read books.  Stephen and I came back out during Nathaniel’s morning nap and I taught him how to play a very basic version of dominoes.

I’m amazed at how much of a difference it makes in Stephen’s temperament and in the tone of our day for us to have some time outside early on!  In the afternoon Stephen is much more content to play with his toys indoors if he has had some time outside, even if we’re doing the same thing outdoors that we would have done in the living room.  I really want to get some outdoor floor cushions of some sort so we can make the area a more comfortable place to sit, as I plan to spend a lot of time out there!

We’ve been in Amman for almost two weeks now, so we’re past the worst of the jet lag (although not totally out of the woods yet) and starting to get a little bit better idea of what living here will look like.  Rather than waiting until I have the time to write a comprehensive “here’s what’s happened in our lives in the past several months” kind of a post, I figured I would jot down a few of my thoughts about this place in which we’ll be spending the next three years of our lives.

Our apartment rocks.  Seriously.  We have a ground floor, 4-bedroom apartment with a huge living/dining room, separate sitting room, and best of all, OUTSIDE SPACE.  We have a tile patio that runs the length of the apartment, and a small grass yard in the back.  It certainly isn’t one of those huge suburban yards with tons of open grassy space, but its outdoor space that’s ours, and that I don’t have to go down seven stories to get to.  I love it.  Another great thing about this place?  The internal walls are all concrete.  While that makes hanging pictures a little tricky, it means that having the boys in rooms right next to each other is no problem.

Amman is a real, cosmopolitan, international city.  You can get pretty much anything here.  Not that I NEED to have American-brand everything, but believe me it’s nice to have the option.  It’s more than the availability of products, though.  There’s an awesome Children’s Museum here, for instance.  The streets are well-marked (although this is apparently new).  Practically everything is in Arabic and English.  People don’t stare at us as though we have three heads when they hear us speaking English in public.  There are more than two Protestant churches to choose from.  The list goes on.

One thing I do miss about Ankara is the produce markets.  Our grocery bills for the first two weeks have been downright painful.  Part of that is just the expense inherent in starting up a pantry from scratch, but food is also a lot more expensive here.  The basic rule of thumb is that the price tag is the same as it would be in America, but with the exchange rate you’re paying almost 150% of the back-home price.  This is particularly hard to get used to after two years of doing most of our grocery shopping at the farmers’ market near our house where everything was super cheap and amazingly fresh or at a military commissary, where everything was subsidized.  Of course, cooking is one of our primary forms of entertainment, so we’ll just have to find a way to make it work.

Jet lag in a toddler is really miserable.  We’ve been here 12 nights, and of those there have been two in which Stephen wasn’t up and wandering the halls in the middle of the night.  On the really bad nights, it took over 3 hours to get him to go back to sleep, and he screamed, thrashed, and cried the whole time.  On the good nights, we were able to take him to the potty (he still wears diapers at night but “I have to go to the toilet” is his favorite excuse for being out of bed) and get him back to sleep without much fuss.  To be fair to Stephen, he’s dealt with a LOT of change in the past few months, what with getting a new sibling, seeing all our stuff get packed up, hopping from place to place for two months, and then travelling halfway around the world to a new home that doesn’t feel much like home yet.  Any of those things are enough to cause some sleep disturbances in one as young as he is, but that doesn’t make it any more fun at 4am.

In general, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.  Once our households goods get here and we get unpacked, I think life here is going to be very comfortable and for the most part really fun.  Our belongings are currently here in Amman, so once the Turkish moving company finally makes the promised payment to the Jordanian company, we will be able to set up our home.

So much has happened in the past month, I don’t even know where to begin.  Our family of three became a family of four on 8 June, when Nathaniel Judah was born, and we found out that we are leaving Turkey a year earlier than planned, for starters.  Those are the biggest changes, although each of those life events brings with it a host of details and complications that have consumed our days and nights.

Nathaniel is now almost seven weeks old (how did that happen so quickly?), and things seem to be evening out for him a bit.  He’s both easier and more difficult than Stephen was as a baby, which is to be expected I suppose.  He’s a great eater and is growing quickly, and in the past few weeks we’ve been treated to his first smiles.  He’s colicky, so we have spent a lot of the past month and a half holding him, rocking him, walking with him, and most of all with him in a baby carrier of some sort.  A sling, wrap, or mei tai is the fastest way to calm him down when he’s really upset.  The spells of inconsolable crying and screaming are decreasing in both frequency and duration, but we’re not out of the woods yet.  My apologies in advance to everyone who’s going to be on any of our many flights this summer.

Stephen has handled the transition as well as any two-year old can possibly be expected to do, especially when you consider that his whole house also got packed up and all of this things disappeared to his nebulous “new house” shortly after his brother’s arrival.  He’s had to deal with parents who are sleep-deprived and sometimes fairly frantic with the stress of trying to pull together an international move on less than two months’ notice, and he’s done it with amazing equanimity considering that he is, after all, only 28 months old.  Having Danny home for four weeks helped, and having my parents here during the pack out was invaluable, as it meant that Stephen had someone to interact with while Mom was tied to her nursing pillow and/or trying to console a wailing newborn.

As for the move, well, we leave tomorrow morning.  Whatever hasn’t been done is unlikely to get done at this point, and there’s something liberating about that knowledge.  The bags are almost all packed, the house is cleared out, and we’re ready to get home.  Neither Danny nor I are particularly looking forward to the 20 hour trip with two little ones, but we’ve prepared as well as we can with snacks and distractions for Stephen, and we’re crossing our fingers and toes and hoping for the best.  We’re excited about our new posting in Jordan, and looking forward to the next chapter in our family’s journey.

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