Dear Kids, There’s a story behind the candles on my cake tonight. Lopsided, mismatched, but clearly spelling out my age–41–even though I can barely believe I’m older than 25. Where did the time go? It was your nanny, Patricia, who frosted the chocolate cake today and fished the numbered candles out of the box that holds the birthday stuff: cute gift bags, rumpled tissue paper, a package of smashed bows. I have this box now because I have you two–because you two are invited to a parade of birthday parties that require me to wrap presents at the drop of a hat on any given weekend. Of course I didn’t wrap my own presents today. Your dad did that, with lots of “helping” from you guys. It was fun to see your faces, expectant and waiting, as I ripped into the paper to open my gifts. I never knew if I was going to have children.
After 43 glorious days, 516 daytime hours of splashy fun, six weekends touched with castle magic, and countless moments of almost free entertainment, the Jumpy Castle is gone. In the end it all happened so quickly. A short text message announcing the impending end of the castle’s Reign. The appearance of the delivery man, looking different than I had seen him last, in 2015, when he, like everyone else in town, was lit up from within by the joy of Christmas and his month of holiday bonus pay. Now he looked, as all of us do, like just a normal guy in the drudges of February, that bleak zone without celebration. (Presidents’ Day in Botswana is observed in July, and if you don’t get a day off from work, it doesn’t count as a real holiday, Valentine’s Day.) He quietly set about dismantling the fortress that for so long has stood sentry on our dirt patch of a lawn. My daughter asked him in a plaintive voice why he was taking the Jumpy Castle away while my son shot off a few pre-verbal reproachful glances and tried to stand on the deflated castle while it was being folded into a neat bundle. I’ll admit that it was time.
The Castle still stands. Its continued presence in our lives defies all logic, makes a mockery of prediction, reminds us each and every day with its rainbow-hued mass of the impossibility of full knowledge and the futility of control. I was sure the delivery man was coming to pick it up today. The reason is simple: today was the first day that I made a plan with the Jumpy Castle in mind. (Please note the capitalization now, out of respect. The Jumpy Castle has become an entity, a fixture: not simply an inflatable vinyl bag shaped like a house but an important, abiding part of our lives.) Until today I didn’t want to make any assumptions. For each of the 22 days of Jumpy Castle Jackpot that we have enjoyed before this one, I counted no chickens and made no playdates. If neighborhood kids caught a glimpse of bobbing on the other side of our fence and wanted to partake, they were welcome to join the party, chosen children blessed by the bouncy house. The gates were opened for a jumpy house free-for-all while my daughter’s wardrobe was tapped to lend out an assortment of old bathing suits and cotton t-shirts to clothe the masses while they splashed. But I made no arrangements.
Jumpy Castle Watch: Day 14. What can you do to spice up the holidays on a hot, quiet December day before Christmas? Rent a jumpy castle: Gaborone’s answer to all your child-related entertainment needs. I suppose the term is actually “jumping castle” (or jumping house) but in the quick casual Motswana way of speaking, what I always hear is “jumpy castle,” so that’s what I’m going with. In America of course we would call it a “bouncy house.” Two days before Christmas I decided to get my daughter and her five friends who are visiting from Zimbabwe a jumpy castle for the day so they could squirt each other with water, play around on the slide, and work out some good sugar-induced energy in the inevitable sweets-laden week before the holiday.
We are deep in the middle of holiday season now, having blown by Halloween and Thanksgiving to arrive next week at the grandaddy of them all, Christmas. And it won’t be too long before New Year’s, Valentine’s, St. Patty’s and all the rest roll around again. For many expats, leaving home and never again having to show up at your in-laws’ door bearing pie ranks as one of the perks of moving overseas. But for others, any holiday can be a hard time of missing family, country, and traditions left behind. Here are ten ways to enjoy yours holidays as an expat, no matter what time of year:
One of the many misconceptions I had about Pakistan before moving there two years ago was that I might not get a cheeseburger during my time in the country. I pictured a diet solely of rice, spicy curries, barbecued meat on skewers, and a few other dishes that I found on Wikipedia under “Pakistani cuisine.” But where would I get a regular old hamburger with cheese? (Other misconceptions I had for those keeping score: 1. That Islamabad would be in a desert wasteland like the Middle East, which it is nowhere near, 2. That I would always have to wear a head scarf in public, and 3. That I would definitely want to live in the “cool” diplomatic enclave near the Embassy which turned out to be neither cool nor a place I would ever live.)
There is a new Thai restaurant in town called “Mango Tree,” and I tried it for the first time on Friday night. I didn’t go there though: I invited a few of my closest friends over and had the food delivered so we could sit in a cozy room, spread the feast out over a long table, fill our plates, loaf around on the sofas, and catch up. Delivery is called “takeaway” here, not take-out, one of those sneaky remnants of British culture that linger in Pakistan like driving on the left side of the road and the popularity of teatime. We had satay and green papaya salad and tamarind red snapper and curries and noodles. We had chocolate cake for dessert and I steeped a pot of hibiscus tea from Vietnam, the tight buds turning into loose, floating flowers in the hot water. There is only one other Thai restaurant in town, and it is at the Marriott, which has good food but lost its atmosphere after the bombing in 2008. We exclaimed over the peanut sauce, decided we ordered way too much, and pronounced Mango Tree a success.
I feel like I should say something about Christmas…about spending Christmas in a different country for the first time in my life, about spending Christmas in a Muslim country where they don’t celebrate it, etcetera. But instead I am just so excited I am going to Thailand on Friday that I am feeling over Christmas. (Quick highlights version: it was very nice, I had a few lovely holiday events with the other random few expats still left in town over the holidays, I didn’t buy one single Christmas gift or hear one single Christmas song in an elevator or store. Certainly a first.) The end of the year (decade!) is almost here and it has certainly been one of change for me. A year ago, I had no idea I would be moving to Pakistan, would be starting a new career in international development, or would know how to say “I’m hungry” in Urdu. I didn’t know any of the many people I now know in Islamabad, both friends and colleagues, and I had never even been to Asia. I went from never having paid anyone to clean my house–ever–to having a housekeeper that comes in almost every single day and even does the dishes. I also have a gardener, a driver, a guard, and a house manager to keep this massive effort together. This is worthy of an entire post all by itself, titled: “Move to Pakistan and Ruin Yourself for a Return to Middle-Class America Forever.” I went from eating a nearly-vegetarian, largely organic diet of mostly salads and whole grains to eating the kind of thing that most Americans eat: refined flours […] Read More
I finally found a place to live. After hours of driving around Islamabad’s various sectors, tramping up lots of stairs, and poking in corners of countless empty houses, I have found a spot to call home. It’s totally unfurnished, which is crazy because this means I have to buy everything, including such luxuries as a refrigerator and heaters. But it was either this or live in a cramped apartment with furnishings that resemble brothel decor or rejects from a seedy motel in Reno. I just couldn’t do it. This does mean I may be sleeping on the floor for a little while. As I imagine a near future that doesn’t include me living in a hotel room surrounded by 739 pounds of my personal effects in cardboard boxes, let’s take a moment to look back and reflect on the guest house that has been my home for two months. After all, this is the place I have spent the vast majority of my hours upon moving to Pakistan: living upstairs, working downstairs, and trying not to eat anywhere due to my deep suspicions about the sanitary conditions of the kitchen. We’ve all made the joke a million times: “This is the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house in Islamabad, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting Real.” Other than the “taped” part (well, I got what I could on my little Flip camera), that’s scarily accurate. And we’ve managed to have some fun along the way. In addition to putting a roof over my head, this guest house has been […] Read More