29 November 2013

Guest Post: Mama Congo Mama

This week's guest post is by my mom, Barbra (spelled like Streisand) Humphrey.  In the context of this blog, she is a "Mama Congo Mama."  When Sarah wrote the first in her Moving Abroad series, my mom had what you might call a visceral reaction.  For good reason. Johan and I are BOTH only children (I know...crazy) and therefore, Eli and Loulou are the only grandchildren...and in 2011, we decided to move the whole lot to CONGO.  In literally one day, my parents went from living 1 mile to 7,000 miles away from our little family.  Gulp.  

My mom is apparently a remarkably forgiving person, as evidenced by this response - written after 2+ years as a parent/grandparent of expats:

I’m a Mama Congo Mama - Jill’s mom, and Eli and LouLou’s Omi. It was Sarah’s mom who first referred to us as the “Mama Congo Mamas.” We bonded as we talked about our children who lived so far away. In addition, there are, of course, also 2 Mama Congo Mama-in-laws. The four of us have had a lot in common for the past 2 ½ years: we all live in or near Harrisonburg, VA, USA and our children and (wonderful, beautiful) grandchildren live in Kinshasa, DR Congo, Africa. Who could have imagined this scenario?

Well, the truth is, I could have. Oh, I didn’t have the details clearly in mind, but by the time Jill was in high school I sensed that she would never be satisfied without adventure and travel. She met fellow students from other countries, had many friends who had been raised abroad, went to Europe with her school choir, and fell in love with someone who was more than willing to share in her adventures. And she kept traveling.


And so, when one of the Mama Congo posts was entitled “5 Tips for Moving Abroad”, I couldn’t help but think of it from my perspective: the Mama Congo Mama’s perspective. I wrote some thoughts in a comment, but here is my extended grandparent-version of 5 Tips When Your Kids Move Abroad:


1) Let go: they’re going whether you approve or not. It’s their life, not yours.  Share your fears and your sadness and then let go. Often easier said than done, and it takes time, but it is possible. And it’s ok to backslide: the ache of missing them envelopes you again, anger explodes, tears fall, words emerge that you wish you could take back. Just do your best, and your best will get better.

2) The hardest part is the leaving. It was difficult to wave goodbye to Jill and Johan when they moved to Seattle, WA but that was nothing compared to waving goodbye when they left for the Congo. Of course, this time grandchildren were involved. 

Considering the various options for distant and exotic locales.

The night before they left, I put the grandkids to bed (Jill and Johan were still frantically packing their many trunks).  As I walked around the room rocking LouLou to sleep (she was then just a little over a year old), tears ran down my face in the dark. And I knew then why it is called a “broken heart.” It hurt. Physically hurt. Terribly. It was almost a relief at the airport the next day when they disappeared into the elevator on their way to their plane and I didn’t have to anticipate that moment any longer.  Yes, thank goodness for Skype and email and Facebook! 

Skyping with another Mama Congo Mama: G-ma!

It helps, but it doesn’t ever completely fill the hole left in your heart and your life. No candy-coating anything here, wish I could. It is what it is, and it is hard.

3) No, really – we’ll keep your things until you return. My husband and I did it to our parents and now it’s our turn. The problem is, I’ve become attached to the extra couch in my living room, the funky dresser in my guestroom, and those gallon glass jars that now hold my flour. We’ll talk, Jill….

4) Expect to regret it. We have no one to blame but ourselves for the fact that our daughter now lives 7,000 miles away, at least that’s what my husband and I believe. Why did we take you abroad when you were young? Why did we tell you stories of our wonderful year spent living in Great Britain? Why did I rescue the book Girls Can Be Anything from the library so you could read it time and time again? ARGHHHH! We didn’t mean it – we take it all back!!! What were we thinking???

Yeah Mom, what were you THINKING giving me this trash to read as a small girl child?

5) You won’t regret it. Do you wish they were living next door? Of course! But are you so proud of them you can’t stand it, and maybe more than a bit envious of their travels? YES! The good news here is that you get to follow them around the globe, if not in person sometimes, at least by Skype! Would I ever have considered visiting the DR Congo if my daughter wasn’t living there? Certainly not! And I would not have spent many days in Seattle and Olympia, WA, (getting to re-connect with a dear friend during that time as a bonus), or have taken the opportunity to see penguins in South Africa. 

It's possible that my mother hates this picture (Mom, do you hate this picture?), but come on, it's adorable.
(And this moment was less "Titanic" and more "Holy crap, the wind on this scenic South African lookout is crazy intense.")

Most importantly, I wouldn’t have the chance to anticipate not only their leaving, but their returning: Elias’ beaming face coming through the customs doors at Dulles and that wonderfully exquisite first hug. 

Ahhhhhhh…. It doesn’t get any better. At least, it doesn’t for this Mama Congo Mama!

Thanks, Mom!

26 November 2013

5 Tips for Moving Abroad: Part II. After You Arrive

Last week we talked about what to do before you take that giant step to move abroad. The good news is the hardest part is over (see last week's tip #2). You've said your goodbyes, you're finally on the plane and you can relax. Unless you're crying, but remember that's totally normal. Take a deep breath and get ready for your new crazy life.

1. Expect to be lonely. Pack accordingly.

If you talk to anyone who's moved somewhere without a built-in community waiting for them on the other side, they'll tell you to expect to be lonely. This is probably the best advice we got before we made our first move. Plan to get really good at doing something while you're sitting alone in your new place. I've heard of people teaching themselves a musical instrument, learning to knit, etc. Even if you're going with your husband, you'll still miss having a good group of friends. It takes a while to find them. It's okay. During our first move we didn't feel like we had good friends for a year. A WHOLE year (maybe more). And when we finally found them, I knocked off their knitted socks with my new harmonica skills. Obviously.

Your new best friend.

Bonus tip: Anyone has potential to be a great friend. For example, expats over 60 have got it going on. Look for them, be nice to them, maybe they'll let you hang out. It's one of the finest demographics around. 

2. Plan to acquire a puppy. Or small child. 

When you move to a place with a huge expat community, it's more difficult than you might think to meet people. When you pass tons of foreigners just like you everyday, no one's stopping you on the street saying, "Hey! You're American! Let's be friends!" There are many expat faces; you're not so special. Nobody cares. (Unless you move to a place like Kinshasa where when you see an expat walking down the street you're like: Who on earth is that? And why are they walking on the street?! I must meet this person.)

When we moved to Cairo, where there is an enormous expat community (or there used to be), I took the metro a lot. Here you can chose to ride on the Women's Car, or the "Mixed Car," which should really be called the Men's Only Car. Some days I took the Women's Car where they shot me judgmental stares at best, mocked my bare ankles and elbows at worst. It was a cruel car. In fact, a lot of times I preferred to risk sexual assault on the Men's Car than face judgment from the women. I think that says a lot about me.

So one day another foreign woman got on the Women's Car. I thought, Oh good, someone else for them to judge. You'll see what it's like, sister. And those mean ole Egyptian women did the strangest thing. They ran up to her and smiled and gushed and gave her their seat. Just who does this white woman think she is?! Then I saw her secret weapon: she had a BABY. Everyone wants to be friends with you if you have something cute and cuddly. Soon after, we got a dog. Our first and best friends in Egypt were the ones we met while our dogs were sniffing each other. Small children and dogs bridge cultural divides and help you meet people. Consider one or the other. Or both, if you really want to be popular.    

3. Settle hard. Settle fast.  

No matter how long you think you'll be in your new country, settle! Make your living space comfortable and make it your own as soon as possible. Think you might want a rug? Or plants? Or a lamp to kill the florescent lighting? Get them all now. It also helps to bring some things with you to put on your walls as soon as you unpack. Bonus points for the folks who bring their own concrete nails. Chances are you won't be dealing with American drywall. When someone shows up with a nice tapestry and concrete nails, you know this isn't their first rodeo.

Creating a comfortable living space is something you can control. Coming home to it will feel therapeutic when dealing with crazy cultural adjustments on the outside. See tip #4 .

4. Find a cultural consultant.   

You've heard a million times about culture shock. It's real. But what you don't hear is how it messes with your mind. At first everything seems weird. Then once you adjust to everything seeming weird, nothing is weird anymore. You've lost the ability to tell between what's normal and what's inappropriate. Because to you, it's all "cultural" and acceptable. Not true. Find yourself a cultural consultant. Ideally this is a local who you can trust to help you sort the culture from the weirdness. Here's an example from a conversation about 2 weeks after arriving in Congo:

Me: So my gardener says that my plants are dying and I should hire him to work more often so he can water them. That makes sense, right? My plants are withering. They need to be watered. 

Cultural Consultant: No, no. The rainy season is coming soon. There's no reason to do any extra watering. He knows this, he's trying to get more money from you.

Me: Oh right, of course. He's such a rascal! That guy also told me there's a "13th month" and I have to pay him double in December. That's ridiculous. He can't fool me!

Cultural Consultant: No, that's true. There is a 13th month. Pay him. He depends on it to feed his family.

Me: Oh right. Good call.  

Scam and cultural faux pas: diverted.

5. When life gives you a Kitchenette, make lots and lots of amazing food (or sit back, relax and make your husband do it).

There may be parts of your life over which you have absolutely no control. For example, assigned housing. Adam and I went from living in the most amazing apartment we knew we'd ever have, to living in a postage stamp with a kitchenette. That's fine. It's cultural. We spent a few months tripping over each other in the kitchen. Sharing the same 2'x2' counterspace to make all our meals. This type of a set-up might work great for some marriages. But for us it became clear that 2 cooks in a tight spot did in fact spoil the pot. And by the time dinner was ready we were just grumpy with each other over micro-managing finely chopped onions, hypothetically speaking.

So I backed out. Adam could have the kitchen to himself. I knew meals wouldn't be as great without my "crappily chopped onions," but whatever, he could make dinner alone and then beg for me to help when he got overwhelmed. What happened next was the greatest phenomenon of our marriage. He became an incredible cook/baker/chef extraordinaire, which also meant he had to take over all the grocery shopping because I just didn't have the proper "culinary vision." My favorite takeaway from our Congo experience will be a chef husband, followed by our two babies. In that order.

Perfecting his art. In a corner, behind a door.

Bottom line: Your house/commute/job/life in general may feel horribly uncomfortable and unworkable now, but wait and see what you can make of it.

Next week: Part III. After you return home. (Hint: Nobody's really that interested.) 

And if you missed it, here's last week's 5 Tips Before You Go.

24 November 2013

Weekend List!

Sarah's List:

My husband is the type of person who invests time in getting 30 eight-year-olds to sort their school supplies by color. I'm the type of wife who sneaks in his classroom and does this:

Heh, heh, take that 8-year-olds. Nobody's growing up organized on my watch!
(There are 6 more baskets just like this one. That's 48 perfectly sorted cups.)

After seeing this, he immediately turns a color that would send him straight to the red cup. So I sent him this link, 30 Infuriating Images That Will Trigger Your OCD. He had a hard time recovering.

I imagine these organization/order folks would enjoy searching the Smithsonian's National Design Museum by color.

Puzzling by Brett Jordan, on Flickr
How does this guy get cataloged?
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Brett Jordan 

Want to have an adventure? Join the Peace Corps. The deadline to sign-up is quickly approaching. Want to get married? Join the Peace Corps. Did you know over 75% of Peace Corps folks return home in love? I believe it. The majority of couples we meet abroad fell in love in the Peace Corps, no exaggeration. Go dopamine!

New Peace Corps volunteers waiting for their flight to Chad. Can you spot our neighbor-friends James and Becca falling in love? They had just met 2 days before this photo. I'm not going to lie, I teared up a little when Becca sent me this pic. Good work Peace Corps, good work.

This Painting of the Danish Royal Family Will Steal Your Soul. Yep.

Condolence telegrams for Jackie Kennedy from MLK, Duke Ellington and more. 

Happy Thanksgiving from Congo! Where we now have Martian pineapples to add to our cornucopia. Seriously, what is this thing? Oh wait, just Googled it. It's a real plant.

Ananas bracteatus.

Be sure to stay tuned next week for more posts about making that Moving Abroad leap. And a very special guest post.

Jill's List:

It's that time of year when I start to fake shop.  (Remember?)  Currently open in my browser is this, this, and this.  Stay tuned for an excellent fluff post about my newest found-in-Kinshasa beauty obsession.

File:Stencil shopping cart.jpg
An image from the spanish subvertising group ConsumeHastaMorir, www.consumehastamorir.org

Ordering ten pounds of these.  We really like them "dark, oily, and swarthy."  Oh, and one of these so my parents can transport the precious cargo when they come for their Christmas visit.  Best "suitcase" ever.

"Suitcase" that doubles as closet storage.

Speaking of caffeine...are my years in Seattle to blame for my tendency towards maybespeak?  Hmm.  Maybe.  That sounds interesting.  I'll have to check.

This girl has inherited none of my wishy washy-ness.
Here she is telling me in no uncertain terms that she does not want her picture taken.

Looking forward to seeing my kid play a very white, very blond version of a Siamese prince.  A full community orchestra, featuring these folks among others, will be providing the soundtrack.  (Kinshasa readers: the show runs December 5-7 at 6:30pm at TASOK.  Tickets are $10 in advance/$15 at the door!)  Such an interesting musical for this post-colonial setting.  Apparently, the Brits hashed this issue out way back in 2001.  Thoughts?

Two exciting food finds yesterday:  gelatin sheets (planning to try some of this), and "Magic Time", dinosaur-themed, boxed macaroni and cheese.  Gelatin sheets = success.  Macaroni and cheese = full of bugs.  Damn, I hate that.

Trying to figure out a way to get a pair of Kenyan Bata desert boots in size 11/46 to Kinshasa for Christmas.  Any ideas?  I can't even seem to find them on eBay...

Two recent examples of fabulous grocery graphic design.

Thinking that the peppermint flavor should go into some sort of festive baked good, like these.  But, the bottle seems to scream heavy metals! or something else similarly un-festive.

As Kony "considers" surrender, the guy who has been analyzing China's role in Africa writes about Congo's ghosts.

Chinese site manager.  Kinshasa 2012.

22 November 2013

Fufu Tortillas

When we first moved to Kinshasa, I braced myself for deprivation.  I imagined bravely using my adventurous spirit as inspiration though periods of deep sadness over missed chocolate chips, fancy tea, and exotic spices.

Truth be told, while rolled oats might still be a little hard to find (due to a great love of quick porridge around here), I rarely spend time pining over food products anymore.  We can find anything we want - or at least a pretty good substitute - these days in Kinshasa.  Plus, the cheese selection is like something out of artisanal Brooklyn...or Paris.

What I do miss is tortillas.  There just isn't a taco truck nearby.  Last year, we rejoiced when City Market began randomly stocking Maseca.

We spent months making clunky, but delicious, tortillas using the bottom of a frying pan as a press.  In theory, I learned to make hand patted tortillas while living in Guatemala and Honduras ("Now! You are ready to be married!" Mamita said when I had my first success), but I cannot revive that talent no matter how hard I try.  See, it's super hard:

So, we allotted two of our precious luggage pounds to  a tortilla press purchased from this old standby in Harrisonburg, Virginia - where there is no shortage of tortillas.  

At our house, Elias makes the scrambled eggs and Loulou handles the tortilla press...or at least the dough.

It goes like this:


We use the recipe on the side of the bag for 16 tortillas:

2 cups Maseca
1 1/4 cup water
1/4 Tbsp salt

Roll in to 16 little balls:

Place plastic wrap or wax paper on the press (top and bottom) for less-sticky results: 

 And, the best part (Pressing the tortillas, I feel guilty:  What would Mamita think if she saw me using a press instead of my hands? The horror!):

We still struggle with thickness.  Sometimes the tortillas are still too thick, even with the press.  How do we fix this?

A temperamental part of the process is the heat.  We use an un-greased, super hot, cast iron skillet (also an important use of baggage space).  However, we struggle with our electric oven and often end up with one side that's perfect and another that's cracked and dry (see below).

For a long time, we were totally ignorant and skipped this essential part of the tortilla making process.  We couldn't figure out why our tortillas were crispy vs. soft.  We finally got smart and realized that the whole wrapping-your-hot-tortillas-in-a-towel-as-if-they-are-tiny-babies is not just a nice way to display your work, but instead, the most crucial step to making sure you have scoopable, foldable tools vs. useless chips.

I am certainly no expert and would welcome any tips or tricks from those of you who actually know how to properly wield a tortilla press.  But, even these tortillas taste so good when eaten with bean soup while watching a Congolese sunset.  

When I make them, Mama Nounou wants to learn too. She wonders if something similar could be done with manioc.  I imagine Mamita showing Mama Nounou how to pat out fufu, round and flat.  It's hysterical. 

It's odd to transplant a standby from one host culture into another, but I guess that's what happens when you become a guest around the world.  You borrow a little tortilla here and a little fufu there, smashing everything together until it becomes something new and weird.  

Sometimes I wonder if this way of living is like the careless tourist who's main goal is to fill passport pages and purchase knick-knacks to later display in a strangely meaningless collection that nobody else cares about.  Or like the sad, lost soul who is constantly and fruitlessly trying to find "the answer" in a far-off place.  I really worry about that sometimes.  While I could list off a million reasons why moving to Africa was one of the best personal and parenting decisions I've ever made, sometimes I question life as an expat a little bit.  It's so easy to be comfortable.  

I'm hopeful that with a little effort, instead of filling passport pages, I will end up filling my brain with languages and skills.  That empathy, not knick-knacks, is what my children will collect during this experience.  That "the answer" is that we should all keep searching.   

All that philosophizing from a how-to post about tortillas...wowzers.  Here's to hoping that this smashing together of cultures turns my children into something more elegant than a fufu tortilla.  

19 November 2013

5 Tips for Moving Abroad: Part I. Before You Leave

Jill and I often hear from readers. Obviously most of the questions are about fashion tips* and a close second is advice on moving abroad. When we were interviewed by Cup of Jo, besides the commenters calling us neo-colonialists, we noticed a lot of people saying they'd "always wanted to live abroad" or raise families in another culture. Which leads to my first tip on how to move abroad...

1. Just go

Seriously. If you're thinking about it and if there's any part of you that wants to give it a try, just go. Don't give yourself time to talk yourself out of it. Go. Some people have absolutely no interest in moving abroad. That's totally fine. Somebody's gotta hold down the homefront. But if you have any desire to move abroad, that's about all it takes. I mean, how hard could it be? This leads me to #2.

2. The hardest part is the leaving part.  

Everyone's scared of moving to a new place. But that foreign country isn't the scariest part. You have to leave your current home. This is the hardest part. "But I have so much stuff and a house and a car," you say. This is why there are buyers and renters and dumpsters. "And so many friends and family I'm leaving behind!" This is true. This is hard. But take it from someone who left before the dawn of Facebook. There is now Facebook. And Skype. These are game-changers. Gone are the days of missionaries leaving on a boat and receiving letters twice a year. Thanks to the magic of social media, your friend's Instagrammed pic of the coffee they're drinking looks the same from 10 blocks or 10,000 miles away.

3. No really, sell your car.

I know it's hard. But if you're going to be gone for any substantial amount of time and you can't take your car with you, just sell it. Your Honda Civic you got in high school will be the last thing on your mind when you step off the plane in your new home (ahem, brother-in-law). Same goes for the rest of your stuff, really. Somewhere in an attic in Virginia we have stuff we never got rid of. Once during a trip home we started to sort through our old boxes and as soon as we found socks without mates we closed that box right up and threw in the towel. What on earth were we thinking keeping all this stuff? A good rule of thumb when deciding to keep it or trash it, ask yourself: Will I think about it after I'm gone? Will I miss it when I come back from fill in the blank amazing country when I have more cool and exotic stuff? No? Rent it. Sell it. Or dumpster it.

1974 Honda CiViC by Hugo90, on Flickr
This is how old your car will feel when you return. Seriously, sell it.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Hugo90 

4. Expect to regret it.

Each and every time I've moved to a new country, there has come a point when I have regretted it. I'm not just talking about nervousness or culture shock. I'm talking about the feeling in your gut when you lay down on your first night in a bug-infested mattress in West Africa, or are up to your elbows in Cairene filth as you clean your new apartment, or the morning before you leave for the Congo and have a breakdown in the shower because you're moving to the freakin' heart of darkness. (I mean, speaking hypothetically of course.)

You will think know at some point that it's the wrong decision. You have made a big mistake. But really, this is your gut confusing regret with leaving your comfort zone. Ah yes. This calls for an inspirational poster...

And at the end of the day. If it's really that bad, the plane goes both ways. You can always go back from whence you came. Except you might have already sold all of your stuff...

5. You won't regret it. 

Worst case scenario: You hated your experience abroad and moved back home to no belongings. But you still did it! This is more than most people can say. Most realistic case scenario: Your experience was/still is great and you haven't yet moved back home. And if you end up having kids while abroad, they will obviously turn out amazing.

Just look at these precious, well-mannered expat kids. Photo credit: Jill Humphrey

* My husband is sweet enough to think I need to clarify to readers that asking me for fashion tips is a joke.

We know many of our readers have also taken the moving abroad plunge. What other suggestions do you have?

16 November 2013

Weekend List!

Sarah's List: 

Sometimes you come across something so well written, you can't stop reading. On drugs, rehab and frozen yogurt.

And then you find something so interesting, you can't stop reading. 16 foreigners try to explain America to their friends back home.

Who doesn't like a good doppleganger photo essay? These folks aren't even related! I saw my doppleganger once. And no, it wasn't that girl from How I Met Your Mother. Shut up.

I know, I know. I'm about 6 months behind, but I live in Congo so bear with me as I obsess about Orange is the New Black. In case you missed this article, way back when the rest of the world was watching this show, here's an interesting interview with the real Piper!

Do you know about African Grey Parrots? You should. They're amazingly smart. The smartest in the world, in fact. And they're all over here. There's one that mimics my ringtone and one that yells, "Falafel!" Because he's heard us over and over call for our dog. And I once got really teary at a dinner party when a guest told me the last words an African Grey had said to his friend before he died were, "You take care now." Seriously, the bird said that. Leave it to Jane Goodall to help them out.

Oh my. Mothers in the first 24 hours. Doesn't get any better than this.

Here's an interesting piece on the Advantages of Children Living Abroad. I know lots of expat kids. They're not all so great. But as long at the ratio of great to not-so-great kids stays in our favor, I'm happy with our chances of not raising jerks.

Our child actually thinks she's Pippi Longstocking.

 But speaking of jerk expat kids, here's what Pippi says about Congo. From Chapter 1:

"Let me tell you that in the Congo there is not a single person who tells the truth. 
They lie all day long. Begin at seven in the morning and keep on until sundown. 
So if I should happen to lie now and then, 
you must try to excuse me and remember 
that it is only because I stayed in the Congo a little too long."

Tell me more, oh wise Pippi.

Jill's List:

Slightly inappropriate and super hysterical - especially if you have ever written a lesson plan or Bloomed a learning objective.  You really don't even need to be a girl to appreciate Hey Girl Teacher. Thanks, Erin!

Hey Teacher, Tell me about it.

Submission: Jill
From Hey Girl Teacher.  Go here to see more!

Not emotionally ready to think about this list yet.  At least I don't have to worry about this one:
8. Suddenly remembering all of the “touristy” things you never took the time to do — monuments you didn’t see, museums you didn’t tour — because you told yourself you would get to it next month, next year, someday.

I used to take photographs for Johan's bands and it was always a struggle to avoid the barn door, dirty alley, casual foot prop, or other various angsty clichés.  This round up is hysterical.

Adorable band boys.  Circa 2004.  Somewhere on an angsty Seattle rooftop.  Real Polaroid, essential.

Got this little bottle of sparkle as a present from a friend who knows my love of the French pharmacy. Sold on gold.

This essay is so important.  Stillbirth is a topic no one knows how to talk about - so most don't.  I read this book after taking care of my first family during the birth and death of their child.  The story remains remains with me.  Thanks, Joanna.

Ah. To gripe about early retirement.  (If you still want to do it, here are some tips.)

Image from Wiki Commons.

Oh no - will this happen to Loulou and Eli?

Doctors should listen to car mechanics more often...?

Received a gift of some crazy good kimchi today.  Said thank you with these.   Reason #1,546 it's awesome for your kid to have friends from all over the world.

And.  A new band so I can impress my Lebanese friends - maybe.  (Turns out, I kind of love Arabic pop.)  Thanks, Anna.

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