Monthly Archives: September 2014

Happy Birthday to George!

We started this morning with a birthday seizure which was not the gift I would have wished for George. Sitting in the fridge right now are their McDonald’s plain cheeseburgers. They each received a bright orange and green canvas duck with squeakers so they could make new kinds of music. Dinner will be served at the regular time here at the zoo.

The duck is mine, damnit!
The duck is mine, damnit!

Happy Birthday to Henry!

WP_20140923_002 WP_20140923_006He is 9 today. Thought you might like a view of the birthday festivities. As you can see, George is hovering like a shark. It was a birthday dinner of plain double cheeseburger mixed with romaine and avocado. I had to sneak some greens in there. Needless to say, it was a hit! They also each got a new toy with a squeaker in the tail because Henry really loves to make his little music and George likes to play tug of war.

I just subjected them to my banjo practice. The second song I am learning is “Goodnight Ladies”. When I play it, I can hear Henry’s thoughts “I wish she would say goodnight already and give up this racket”. George is thinking of becoming a back up singer. He has quite a range of howls.

I was invited out to dinner tonight at the home of Tamara and Joey. I got to meet their twin daughters who are a little over two. The girls had such fun putting on my big shoes and trying to walk in them. It was really nice to be in the chaos of a family again, complete with dog and grandfather. We ate Indonesian food which was totally great! The girls had mini pizzas. And soon it was bath time so I made my way home to practice my banjo before tomorrow’s lesson.

The weather changed sharply yesterday, lots of wind. I like that kind of weather. I am still resisting the urge to get out the jackets because that means summer is really over.

Leonard Cohen has a new album out today. It is not available here yet. It seems fitting that it should fall on Henry’s birthday since he has a bit of that old charm as well. But what it really reminds me of is my mom. And taking her to see him at GM Place in Vancouver. Last night before I went to bed, I had an almost physically overwhelming wave of grief at the thought that she was really gone. I think part of that is the result of September will now always be colored by everything related to finding out she was sick and the first frightening trips to the hospital. It doesn’t pass, this grief, just changes shape.


Last week, I drove 1000 kilometers for work. When you consider how relatively small the Netherlands is, that’s a lot of time on the road. This week’s schedule for driving is much lighter so far. I am sitting in my office, waiting for a conference call with the US to start and George is snoring deeply.

Since it is the first day of fall, the weather has changed right on cue. Today it has been very windy. I don’t mind that at all, I like the wind. I am not yet putting on a jacket because I feel like I once I do, I will really be giving in to the idea that summer is behind us and we are headed for the rainy, dark winter. Now if that’s not uplifting…

Yesterday the boys and I drove north to Robert and Pauline’s. Robert is Astrid’s doctor. We went walking along the dunes with their dogs and kids. In the middle of the walk, it started raining. Which is pretty much normal for here. We marched through the touring German couples that were trying to take shelter under various small trees. I would think that the climate in Germany isn’t much different than the Netherlands and a little rain wouldn’t be unexpected. But they looked stumped by the rain and very uncomfortable. We had a great late lunch – which lead us to a spirited debate over what to call it? Linner? Dunch? On the way home, I filled Astrid up again and we went through the carwash. I was almost tempted to stop at the McDonald’s and get the boys a double cheese. But Henry’s birthday is tomorrow and they will have one then. Can’t have them spending their whole allowance on junk food! After all, I am trying to teach them the importance of saving their allowance.

On Saturday, I met Marianne for our junket around the Noordermarkt combined with a big slab of appeltaart from Winkel. So yummy! Saturday night we tried out the newest movie theater in Amsterdam and saw “A Most Wanted Man”. It was the second time for me and I still watched it hoping it would have a different ending. That’s the mark of a good movie, I think. After the movies, we sat on a terrace and proceeded to solve a few of the world’s business problems!

Friday night, craving the spicy flavors of Ethiopia, I met Sjoerd and Marieke for an Ethiopian dinner to celebrate his birthday and her nursing graduation. I did enjoy introducing them to the concept of eating with their hands (right one only!) and sharing a communal plate made of injera. They served St George’s beer. I know exactly where it was brewed because the brewery was right next to the building I was teaching in.

Last night I went to bed at 9pm, I was so tired. You know it’s bad when your manager looks at you and tells you to go take an afternoon off – soon! 😉

Crossing the country

From my continent crossing jaunt last week to crossing the Netherlands this week, I am certainly putting my time in travel. Yesterday I drove all the way north to Groningen and today I had to drive all the way south to Tilburg. In two days, Astrid and I have logged about 500 miles which is pretty significant for a country as small as the Netherlands.

Coming back down from Groningen yesterday, I stopped by Marum to talk to Mom. Yesterday was really difficult for while I wanted to (and did) tell her all about Africa, I realized how much I wanted to be telling her these things in person like I always used to do after coming home from work travel. And still whenever the plane lands, my first inclination is to send her a text telling her I have landed. The weather was beautiful and the stone was warm which was a nice change because usually my forehead gets cold while I lean against it.

I thought a lot about my mom last week too. Like what she would have done in Ethiopia during the day while I was giving training. And what she would have made of the fabrics – or shall we say started making and then jumped off to another project! And how many pictures she would have been taking and then the technical support demands that would have come when she wanted to view the pictures on something other than the camera. Mom had no patience with technical matters, her expectation was that personal electronics from e-readers to phones should just work all of the time. She’s not the only person in my life that has that expectation. Which makes it a good thing that I troubleshoot for free and until the problem is solved…

I noticed that on my journey to Addis Abebe, everyone seems to use the stairs. Especially in airports. Even coming in on the big 747, we disembarked via stairs instead of using a jet bridge. The airports have them, they just seem reluctant to use them. And then you get directed to shuttle buses which take you to a staircase and you climb stairs and then descend again as many times as needed. Pity my Fitbit had a dead battery! But that’s not my point really. In airports, with people and baggage, stairs are a hazard. When I was leaving for Nairobi, I had been watching a mother with a young son (under 2) and a daughter of about 8 in the boarding area. I was watching them because mother and daughter were both wearing a large hijabs and full length dresses. I was wondering where they were going and the daughter was so animated, playing with her brother. And also, I was thinking that I would not be able to get used to that kind of clothing and what ideas it represents. And how grateful I was that I had another choice.

As we were being assembled to go down a flight of stairs to the airplane somewhere out on the dark tarmac at 3AM, I ended up behind the family and their suitcase. I knew it was never going to work with the little girl carrying the suitcase down the stairs with her mother carrying her brother and all that fabric just waiting to be tripped over. So, I switched my carryon and said to the Mother “Let me help you” while reaching for her suitcase so I could carry it. It didn’t occur to me that she might not speak English – I just did it and grabbed for the suitcase. She turned to me, very surprised and said “thank you”. I would repeat this several times over the next couple of hours with all the stairs between Addis and Nairobi. Each time on the ground, I would give the suitcase to her daughter. All of a sudden the little girl looks right up at me and says “you are American, aren’t you?” I was so surprised that I blurted out “yes. She then proceeds to tells me that they live in Minneapolis and wants to know if I know where that is. She merrily begins chatting away about how they are coming to Kenya for a visit. She was adorable. The last words I said to her when I put them on the bus at the gate in Nairobi was that being a big sister was a very responsible job and I could see that she was doing a great job helping her mom. She positively glowed.

I remember thinking at the time when I left them to go to my connecting flight, how glad I was that she would be growing up with chances that would be different than those she would have had if her family didn’t live in the US. I have been thinking about her for the past couple of days. I realize what really drew me to them was the memories I had of travelling by air with my mom when my brothers were small and needed to be rodeoed. I remember taking flights with my mom as the family was moving again. My dad would already be on his new ship and we’d be coming along after the fact. Mom would be carrying Rupert and I was in charge of the twins. Which is probably the root cause of all their problems now 😉 Sometimes I would get to trail behind the flight attendants, passing out water, blankets, etc. But only after the boys were all asleep because they would have been jealous!

Back in the flatlands…

I got home yesterday afternoon. Lientje was missing and in the middle of the night last I saw her on the roof of the shed. She finally came around this morning and she has a wound on her cheek under her eye. She seems rather rattled so I think something must have taken her by surprise while I was gone. She looked like she had been doing some rough living. Moortje has obviously been busy because the tablecloth on the dining room table is looking rather the worse for wear. That gives me an excuse to get a new one, I just have to take the right measurements because you can buy them from a cutting off a roll at the Albert Cuyp market. Right now, the dogs are securely next to me. Henry under his fleece blanket and George pinning him down from outside the blanket. They had a bath this afternoon after our walk through the park. They don’t seem to make the connection yet between roll in something questionable and you get a bath when you get home!

Where to begin? My trip was just amazing. I am so glad that I went, that I didn’t get lost in the idea of how scary it might be. Addis Ababa is a city of contrasts. On one hand, you see eight story buildings going up and the scaffolding is not metal but rather made from tree trunks. It looks like it couldn’t possibly be substantial enough to hold people and equipment and it goes all the way up the buildings. On the same block are buildings that have been imploded or torn down and people have built tiny shelters in the rubble. And they live there. If you want to buy clothing or other goods, you walk down the streets and some of the more established storekeepers have a small lean-to set up like a store, with mannequins etc. But no doors and only three walls. Or you walk further and more junior storekeepers have a tarp or cloth laid out with their goods for sale. If you want shoes, you go to the ones who are selling shoes. Each one seems to specialize. And in between are countless shoeshine stands and women roasting ears of corn over a brazier or selling lemons or other single items.

In Ethiopia, coffee is served with popcorn. This is a surprisingly good combination. On the ground floor of the building I was working at, a lady had set up a small coffee salon in the entryway. She had a charcoal brazier and she would spend the day making coffee and popcorn. You tell her how many coffees you would like and then you take a seat on the very low plastic chairs (which I was worried I would break but they are surprisingly sturdy). She then begins the preparation work. Coffee beans are hand roasted over the charcoal, then ground in what looks like a very deep mortar and pestle. Then the ground coffee is put into a big pitcher style pot and the water is slowly added. They heat it over the charcoal and then turn it various ways. The pot is designed to be balanced even at an angle. And when it is perfect, they pour it into tiny cups and offer it to you with sugar. People are accustomed to this way rather than ordering at drive through. You can also get tea or a combination of coffee and tea called sprice. I had the sprice more than once, it is delicious.

I was invited to Eleni’s house for the coffee ceremony on New Year’s. There we had the full ritual, three pourings. I though I was just going for coffee but she cooked lunch for us and her sister. She made a vegetarian meal for me. I was so honoured. There so much work and effort that goes into the daily tasks of living in Ethiopia. Her house does not have running water so for everything that requires water, they get it from the well. And they use a lot of water.  You wash your hands in a ritual. The coffee cups and spoons must be washed between each serving of the ceremony. While at her house, we talked a lot about travel and family, loving your country, birth order (she is also the oldest) and how the education system works.  She has two university degrees.  When you are in high school , you are given a series of tests. From the results, a board decides what university program you will go into. There is no choice. Her first one was agriculture. So she has a major in that and worked in that field for a number of years. But her real passion was computer programming and software engineering. So her father found a way for her to go to the university a second time. And she majored in what she wanted. She is working on getting her driver’s license so she can go to visit her family more often since they live 275 kilometers away. I so enjoyed talking with her.

Friday night I was taken out to dinner to a restaurant that also serves as a cultural center. In other words, they have live music from many of the different Ethiopian tribes and dancers. It was so colorful and enjoyable! And since many people fast in Ethiopia on Wednesdays and Fridays, I only had to ask for the fasting menu, which is completely vegan! I couldn’t choose which was my favorite.

My flight back left at 425AM so that meant heading to the airport at 2AM. Transiting back through Nairobi, we had to go through an Ebola check at the terminal. I passed.

I will write more tomorrow. Right now I have to go and catch up on work from last week. Working on a Sunday evening, American style!

Happy New Year!

As much as I am writing in my journal, I have to say I miss adding a few posts. So, this will be a quick one because as I have learned over this past week, electricity and network connections are not to be taken for granted.

Tomorrow is the Ethiopian New Year. They have a thirteen month calendar. 12 months of 30 days and then a 13th month of 5 days. They also have a self imposed time system of plus six hours. This took me a couple of minutes to get used to. For example, instead of saying we will start at 9am, it is we will start at 3. This isn’t a time zone change but rather the way they choose to tell time.

I have been learning a few words. For example, coffee is binna. And I learned the word for “thank you” – ah me sa gen la ho . If I think about the syllable order, I get tripped up so my method is to spit it out as fast as possible.

Tomorrow I have been invited to a traditional coffee ceremony at someone’s house so I am looking forward to it. It is a very big honor.

I am having a little difficulty seeing people walk around with the live animals that are shortly on their way to becoming dinner. You buy your protein live and take it home. And here, the green peppers are the deadly hot ones not the red ones.

This is has been an amazing experience so far. That seems like such an inadequate adjective. I’ll write more when I get home. I miss the pets and could not imagine them living here.

Laundry and stuff

I kind of chuckled when the doctor gave me my vaccinations on Sunday and then told me what I would experience. I would get a mini case of yellow fever, etc. Not me, I thought, side effects are for the 1 in every 50 that they are always talking about at the end of drug commercial. But that’s not actually what he said. He said everyone experiences these symptoms. I have been walking around with a set of non contagious illnesses this week. It has made paying attention to people and meetings very difficult.

And tomorrow I start the malaria tablets. Much better safe than sorry and the instructions say to take them daily, at the same time with a fatty food. Actually the literal translation is a fat rich food. Nice. Perhaps ice cream? Or French fries or pizza? My options are endless as long as I remember to take them at the same time every day!

Doing laundry right now and downloading all kinds of things to my computer so I can be fully prepared to teach next week even without internet or other infrastructure. Tomorrow I will drop off Astrid – she’s going to get a new radiator while I am gone.

I will pack tomorrow while the boys are out with their dog group. All the pets get weird when they see the suitcases come out. Moortje has picked up a new habit of sleeping on the dining room table. Don’t worry, it is covered with a table cloth and I swap it out when guests come 😉 He is curled up here right now, snoring. You would think I didn’t have various pet beds all scattered around the house with comfortable cushions! Apparently he doesn’t like comfort while he sleeps either!