July 2006

I made another batch of yoghurt this past Sunday, and this time tried an experiment of draining it in a colander lined with paper towels for about an hour or an hour and a half while I was getting ready for work in the morning. It definitely came out a bit thicker and creamier, and the flavor was better as a result. Now that my powdered milk, thermometer and cheesecloth have arrived from netgrocer (the next best thing to a commissary), things can only improve from here. Up until now I’ve been guesstimating the temperature of the milk by sticking my finger in it periodically to see whether it feels approximately like a hot tub (the milk was supposed to be somewhere between 104 and 115 degrees), which I’m sure is neither the most sanitary nor the most precise method. But it’s better than my first brilliant idea, which consisted of putting a regular thermometer in the milk only to discover that mercury thermometers do not, in fact, like to go above 104. Their preferred method of protest appears to be self-destructing. Needless to say, that batch had to be dumped out and everything thoroughly washed. I suppose I really should have been able to predict that outcome, but once again my notorious lack of foresight has reared its ugly head.


We all knew it was going to happen eventually — it’s been nearly a week and I haven’t written a thing on here. But the wild craziness that was this past week has finally calmed down, so I’m back again.

Random observation 1: An interesting by-product of the difference in time zones is that when we come home from work late at night daytime TV shows are on. Nothing like coming home from a long day at work and still getting to watch Oprah and Dr. Phil. At least we don’t have to engage our brains to keep up with what’s going on.

Random observation 2: In a country with nearly zero humidity, the difference between the temperature in the sun and the temperature in the shade is actually quite noticeable. Suddenly the fact that this place used to be a summer escape hundreds of years ago makes a little more sense.

Random observation 3: Weevils love boxes of oatmeal that are shipped in the middle of the summer and take three weeks to arrive. They do not, however, seem to be attracted to cinnamon graham crackers.

Random observation 4: Petroleum jelly is a really good eye makeup remover. If one were a clever marketer, one could sell petroleum jelly for twice the price of ordinary Vaseline if one put it in a cute tube and labeled it “eye makeup remover” on a website that didn’t list its ingredients. Not that I personally would have fallen for that, of course, but that’s what I’ve heard. 🙂

Random observation 5: When there is no escape from one’s coworkers, it is best to remain on good terms with them because otherwise a long day can be made to feel infinitely longer. Even if one hated confrontation, for instance, better to get it over with than to sit for hours next to someone who is seething at the sight of you.

Random observation 6: When one lives in a place that doesn’t observe daylight savings time, during the summer the sun comes up at 4 in the morning. Every morning. Through the window right over your bed that doesn’t have blinds on it.

Well, I’ve recovered from my wretched illness…actually I was back up and around on Thursday, but trying to get caught up at work has been so wild and crazy that I’ve hardly been home. Somehow when one normally works 12 hours a day, missing one day of work is a lot more painful than just a few hours of scanning through old e-mails. It was indeed a version of the virus that’s been going around — I ended up having to give in and take some anti-nausea medication by Thursday afternoon because I couldn’t afford to miss any more work and I was still not able to eat or drink much. But things are pretty much back to normal now (or what passes for normal in our very not normal lives right now!), so that’s a relief.

I actually have a bunch of stuff that needs to get done at work so further posting will have to wait until later, but I wanted to reassure everyone that I was no longer at death’s door. Okay, so I wasn’t actually ever at death’s door, but it sure felt like it for a day or so!

One of the downsides of living, eating, and working with the same small group of people is that when one person comes down with something unpleasant, everyone usually ends up sharing in the fun before it runs its course. The latest nasty little visitor to our ivory tower is some sort of 24-hour bug that has been striking my co-workers over the course of the last two days or so, and it seems as though I too have fallen prey. The up side is it means I got to leave work at 9 tonight (and it’s not even date night or a holiday!), the down side is of course that I feel rather gnasty at the moment. (Thanks, Catherine, for reminding me of gnasty with a “g”!) I’m clinging to the idea that by this time tomorrow I will feel better.

It’s times like this that I think of the things my mom used to make me when I was sick. If it was in the morning, I usually got black tea with sugar and dry toast (my schizophrenic blood sugar meant several mornings of nausea growing up), later in the day it would be ramen noodles or Lipton Cup O’ Soup chicken noodle with ginger ale. I would totally love to have some of that noodle soup right about now! For some reason I still love to eat that when I’m sick even though I still don’t like ginger ale much because I associate it with being nauseous. Same thing with apple juice, actually, because we used to have juice boxes of it in the car on long trips and I almost always got car sick. What things do you crave as comfort food when you’re sick?

My husband makes me what he calls “sickles soup” when I’m under the weather, which usually consists of chicken broth, black beans, chicken, lots of garlic and thyme and some noodles, with sometimes a little bit of gravy stirred in if we have any saved in the freezer. He says it’s adorable when I’m sick because I usually just curl up in a ball under as many blankets as I can find and try not to move until the sickness goes away…I guess I’m lucky he thinks it’s cute since I’m fairly pitiful and unsociable. Unfortunately for me he’s working late tonight so it’s just me, the computer, and X-Men 2 on TV for the evening. I think it’s about time I crawl under some blankets and curl into a ball and whimper for a little while.

One of my favorite things to do to relax is to knit, especially since I like to do something else while I’m watching a movie. Unfortunately I don’t have a ton of time to do it lately, since I’m not terribly conversational when I’m knitting and I don’t get a whole lot of time to talk to Danny as it is. Today, though, I decided to try to use up some of my left-over yarn to make something but I had to size it down from the pattern to make what I wanted. This is where the trouble started, since sizing down knitting patterns involves fractions and proportions and things that I’m generally not all that great at. So we’ll see if the project turns out horribly awry (is that how you spell that?), because I get sort of mixed up when there are too many numbers involved.

Right now I’m working to finish a V-neck sweater for Sean, who is almost a year old. I think it’s going to be really cute, actually. I’ll post a picture of it when it’s done. Of course, in order for it to be truly done I will have to do my least favorite part of a knitting project and actually sew it together. I don’t know why, but I’ve never enjoyed that part of it. It seems like sort of a let-down after the fun of actually getting to make something out of a ball of yarn to have to sit there and sew all the parts together, especially since it’s never as perfectly seamed as I want it to be. If I lived near a knitting store I would totally pay them whatever they asked to sew my projects together for me!

I think the danger of such a hobby is that I have a lot more fun thinking up projects and buying yarn for them and starting them than I do finishing them — once I’ve gotten bored with the pattern or the yarn I usually end up setting them down and not picking them up again for months. Either that or I work on them obsessively until they’re done (a la the baby blanket I made when I was home on R&R — one whole blanket in a week!). So right now I have the raw materials for at least three or four projects and two that I started months ago but don’t want to look at right now all just sitting around, and I just went out and found yarn for a new project yesterday on the internet. I think I’m going to have to put a self-imposed ban on buying more yarn until I finish at least one of the projects that I’m working on. Either that or I need to figure out how to make these balls of yarn that are stowed away in every free space in our bedroom into a conversation piece/art display. 🙂

I’ve finally remembered to upload these — first, a picture of my semi-successful yoghurt with my very successful sour cherry compote and the crumbled Wheatabix (which tastes a lot like cardboard if you eat it on its own, but is pretty good either in yoghurt or with lots of sugar).

And also, to show you what can be done when Danny is willing to schmooze the guys who run the cafeteria, here’s a picture of the best dinner we’ve cooked so far here. It’s some steak and shrimp, whole wheat coucous with a sort of a gremolata of cilantro, lemon, and garlic, and grilled squash and mushrooms. That is not normally how we eat here, but it was a most welcome change of pace! We have a small charcoal grill that lives on our concrete box (aka the “balcony”) that we fire up every now and then. We usually use it on our “date night” since that’s the one night of the week that we can count on going home at a reasonable hour like 8 and not having to go back to work. A little sad that we have to have a date night in order to do that since we don’t have children yet and that’s usually something you do when you have to have a babysitter, but it’s the only way I can get out of work before 10 or 11 at night.

I wrote a whole post yesterday about my initial swimming experience, and then as I was trying to post it realized that our internet connection had died again, so the entire thing was lost. Very irritating. Basically, the story in a nutshell is that I discovered that I’m more out of shape than I thought (either that or swimming really does kick one’s proverbial butt more than running on a treadmill), and that having an audience of local nationals who have never seen a real live woman in a bathing suit before is probably not the most comfortable experience for one who doesn’t like wearing bathing suits in public anyway.

But here’s the interesting thing that I realized during a discussion at a local dip function yesterday — those men were probably just as embarrassed that I was seeing them with their chests bare as I was about them staring in bewilderment at me in my modest black one-piece bathing suit. Which got me thinking. One of my favorite books is “A Return to Modesty,” which I think started out as an undergraduate thesis for a girl who graduated from Williams’ College, but the details are getting a little fuzzy right now. Basically, the author, Wendy Shalit explores the concept of modesty and how it has been lost and derided in our culture. She comes from a Jewish background, so a lot of the writings on what constitutes modesty is framed in the context of tzniut (modesty rules of Jewish law), but what she has to say is applicable in a non-Jewish environment. What I found fascinating was her whole discussion of how modesty actually provides a rich environment for private naughtiness, as it safe-guards that part of our persons and our mentality and protects it from over-exposure and becoming jaded. I’m sure I’m not doing a good job of explaining that, but suffice it to say that the book is really interesting and very well researched. Some of her hypotheses may not be everyone’s favorite, and I’m not saying that I’m going to adopt wearing a wig or headscarf as do devout Jewish women after they’re married, but the idea is very interesting to me.

The reason I got on that topic is that this is one of the few places I’ve been where the men really are expected to preserve modesty almost as much as the women. That may sound weird since the men are not expected to wear scarves or cover their faces or anything, but they are generally expected to cover their head with some sort of hat, and to wear long sleeves and long pants that are not tight or revealing. And, as I mentioned, they are very embarrassed about exposing their bare chests in front of strange women. Although I as an outsider can’t really comment on what it would be like to live that way every day, and I do enjoy being able to wear whatever I want back home without people staring at me, I have to say that I think there’s something to having a little more modesty in our public lives.

And, as a side note, it really irritates me when people come to a place like this and demand that the local population accept our way of dressing or acting without comment. I mean, if I go to a restaurant here without covering my hair (only for official business and only to one of the approved restaurants, but it is sometimes possible!), I do it accepting that the locals are going to stare. Not because I’m that beautiful or because my hair is Pantene-commercial perfect, but because they don’t normally see that. The same way that when a woman walks down the street in the States with one of those full-face black veils on, people stop and stare at her because they’re not used to it. So when my coworkers tease me about “going native” for wearing a scarf when I go out it grates on my nerves a bit.

Which brings me to the reason I actually started this post, the dip function I went to last night. Functions such as these are somewhat rare here but becoming more common as the situation continues to be relatively stable. What was funny to me was that about half the people there were actually affiliated with NGOs (non-governmental organizations like the UN, for example) and not with embassies. What I found hilarious was that the only people who really had interesting things to say about the meaningful work they were doing were these NGO people, who the embassy types typically ridicule for being granola, hippy types who have all “gone native” in their style of dress and such. (“Going native” is pretty much the cardinal sin of embassy life, I’m discovering, much worse than, say, hooking up with your married co-workers. But I digress.) I found myself wishing so much that I could run off with some of the NGO types (taking Danny with me, of course) and do what they do instead of my job, though, because it really seems as though they’re passionate about what they do and believe that they’re making a difference in the lives of others. Most of the embassy types, by contrast, mostly talk about how lame the party scene is here, how much longer they have here, and when the next party is.

I realized that I often fall into the habit of counting the days until my R&R and wishing I were somewhere else, but in my defense most of that is because I feel trapped in an ivory tower of the worst kind. I feel completely cut off from the place where we live — it’s bizarre how radically different everything is inside our walls and outside. Because of security concerns (which are legitimate, if I suspect that sometimes the security folks go a little overboard in the interest of keeping us safe I can certainly understand why they do) we’re forced to live in a completely unnatural environment. We’re surrounded by concrete and brick and razor wire and guns — how can we really even say we’ve lived here when the most “local color” I’ve experienced in nearly five months is when the cafeteria brought in a local band one night? It’s very surreal when I really start to think about it that my life bears absolutely no resemblance to that of anyone who lives within hundreds of miles of me, and yet I’m plopped down right smack in the middle of their city. Maybe that’s why I’ve been dreaming of gardening and working the land — the largest patch of “land” here is the strip of grass in front of the embassy and I’m totally cut off from anything resembling real life. I won’t continue to rant, but I think I’m on to something here.

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