A dog, a suit and a handful of goodbyes

The 1950’s Singer, Necchi and other sewing machines whir and compete with the musical chatter and laughter of the seamstresses and baritone words of the tailors hard at work on the clothing of the people of Zimbabwe. The little room in which I wait for final alterations on my suit is much like a dozen or two more in this downtown office building. Colorful finished pieces hang along the periphery, lit only by one long fluorescent bulb. A small “fitting room” is a corner stacked with back packs and other personal effects, closed off by a swath of extra fabric on two nails and a string. A Battery-powered FIFA clock hangs by a wire from a small board screwed to the plaster wall. Small Zimbabwean flags hang here and there. In stark contrast to all official businesses, Robert Mugabe does not stare down at us from an official government portrait. A tittering radio blares out a mix of modern pop from Zimbabwe’s and other southern African artists.

A young woman tries on her fitted dress in the hideaway fitting room. She looks stunning and innocent, probably ready for duty as a bridesmaid, or for another formal occasion. The red fabric is broken up nicely with batique patterns of cream and maroon.
My tailor puts button holes in my three piece, and irons the shoulder pads into submission, as they are a bit bolstered for my liking.

I’m leaving Zimbabwe in less than a week.

We’ve met some amazing people and made many wonderful friends, all of whom we to see again sometime, somewhere around the world. We don’t say “goodbye,” rather “See you ’round the world sometime,” instead.

We’ve seen every corner of this country, several times over in some cases, driven thousands of kilometers and taken a few thousand photos. Jean has learned the names and calls of dozens of southern African birds and my kids can spot the difference between a Bush Buck and Kudu or Klip Springer and Duiker in a second.

Our Rhodesian Ridgeback, Alice, has accompanied us on many of these adventures, staring down Eland, Zebras, and chasing an Ostrich or two in her travels. She is decidedly nervous we will leave her behind and has no idea of the sights, smells and sounds that await her across the US and in VA.

We are all packed out and the house is empty, save what we’ll take in our suitcases and carry-ons for our journey back to the ‘States. Our lives, once all packed up, can be catalogued in a series of numbers, like the ingredients in a recipe, the product of which has been an amazing Zimbabwe adventure:

Four days to pack out
Six man packing crew
291 boxes in HHE
7147 pounds
Countless camping, lodging and safari trips
Five lift vans
One pet shipment
4 suitcases
7 carry-ons
40 hours transit HRE-JBG-ATL-ELP
6 Airplane meals
12 movies watched
1 airport lounge
7 days in Las Cruces
8 day drive across the US (Las Cruces – Carlsbad – Austin – Memphis – Nashville – Asheville – Raleigh/Durham – Tappahannock – Hearthwood!)

Over the next year we’ll live at our house in VA, Jean will learn Albanian at FSI, the kids will go to school in Fairfax County, and I’ll steward Hearthwood, doing home improvement projects, gardening, chopping wood, and everything that goes into running a homestead.

Then off to Kosovo next July!

Our Cheese is in Texas

We’ve just returned from a two-week vacation to the U.S., burning our R&R tickets on a visit to see our families in VA and NM. We began auspiciously by leaving late with a very disorganized house. The kids attempted to dress for summer, despite our advice to the contrary, sitting in the car with shorts and flip flops until Jean and I “politely asked” the kids to please dress in proper clothing. We burned rubber across town, fording massive puddles in the season’s first real rainstorm, and getting stuck in traffic because the ZESA (electricity) was out and the robots (stoplights) were malfunctioning as a result. Hence, the check-in desk folks told us check-in was closed and we couldn’t board. A small bribe helped to grease the wheels, and we checked in, our five bags getting tagged and thrown on the conveyor belt to be seen in VA the following day. Of course, this is Africa, so the plane we were supposed to board hadn’t even landed yet, and would be departing from a different gate. We saw some friends in the airport, also departing for South Africa, and bided our time in the boarding area.
Some time later, we winged our way to Johannesburg, a short flight from Harare. The travel agency had alerted us earlier in the day that our flight to Amsterdam would be delayed by an hour, leaving at 1:15am, so we had quite the layover scheduled. We settled down at the Mug & Bean to pass the time, and I finished writing my Christmas Cards. At around 12:30, we made our way to the departing gate to board, where we were yelled at for being late (what?) and were indeed the last people to board. We should have known, this is Africa (#TIA) after all. The plane climbed into the African skies and made its way north across the continent towards Europe. Bye-bye, Africa!
The kiddos slept a bit, except for Lucas of course, who has clocked more movie-watching hours on international flights in his life than most kids have clocked on the ground. Some 11 hours later, we arrived in Amsterdam mid-morning and immediately made our way to the next flight, a 8 1/2 transatlantic journey to Dulles, VA. Several movies and a couple of “meals” later we arrived in snowy, sleety VA (kids: “It’s so cold, what’s wrong?”), where my Dad picked us up in his new dualie. We had planned on going to a holiday party that very afternoon, but understandably we bailed. My dad, ever aware of the kids’ affinity for his cooking, had even brought along a freshly baked loaf of his bread.
My parents set us up in their house, and over the next week we proceeded to do what any foreign service family does upon entering the U.S. after a hiatus; shop. Unashemedly, we took the kids to a movie ($10 for matinĂ©e tickets?!), Wendy’s (looking around at the clientele, we know we shouldn’t eat this food every day), and replaced various household goods on the cheap from Target, BJ’s, and the like because it’s the U.S. and WE CAN!, and I indulged in craft beer and eggnog. We attended a family Christmas party and saw many of the Phillipson-related clan in VA. The kiddos even got their wish and were able to go sledding, getting extremely muddy in the process; the first snow they had seen in three years!
My Grandmother Betty and Uncle Andrew flew in for an early Christmas celebration, and Laura even drove over in her PJ’s for present un-wrapping. Jean went running and I…didn’t do anything.
We hosted a Solstice party with my parents, and got to see many friends, some from high school and college, some from our past careers, some from Nepal, some from Zimbabwe even, who are now posted to the U.S.
A week into our state-side visit, we packed up yet again, posting some boxes of things to ourselves in Zimbabwe (groceries from Trader Joe’s, etc) and flying off to El Paso, Texas, the closest airport to Las Cruces, NM, to where Jean’s parents have recently relocated, and where Kathy’s mother lives as well. Bob’s mother was living there up until her recent passing, and it’s very fortunate that Bob and Kathy were there. Of course, we forgot the soft cooler pack of cheese (permesan, cheddar) in my parents’ refrigerator. (Cheese is very expensive, if not hard to come by in Zimbabwe)

In Atlanta, en route to Texas, we met up with the NcNairs, also on their way to visit, and enjoyed a short reunion before boarding. Once in Texas, we were met by Kathy and Bob at the airport, and loaded up the bags and kids before the one hour drive to Las Cruces. Kathy and Bob have a nice house in a wonderful location on the west side of town with a beautiful view. We were treated to views of the Organ Mountains, xaroscaped overpasses, and restaurants on every corner boasting 50 cent tacos and happy hours. We spent the next week reuniting with Jean’s siblings and their families, the McNair clan (seriously, they have Scottish heritage), and eating our way through every good New Mexican restaurant in the Las Cruces area, not to mention shopping for more home goods and (embarassingly) additional suitcases to hold them. The original plan was to replace a couple of our dilapidated suitcases, but of course the acquisition of childrens’ Christmas gifts put this silly notion to rest. My parents posted the cheese to us (yes!) and it arrived in short order.
Bob took the kids out on his quad bike for some fun in the desert brush, we hiked to Picacho Peak, and Jean and I got to take out Kathy and Bob’s bikes. Jean went running some more…and I didn’t. The kids (seven cousins in total) and the adults filled up the house. Amazingly, everyone got along swimmingly, though I don’t think anyone won awards for belting out tunes for our holiday sing-alongs. We even got to go sledding on the dunes at White Sands (kids: “The sand is so cold, what’s wrong?!”) one afternoon.
At the end of our stay, Kathy drove us to El Paso where we made a last minute purchase of an iPad for Jean, and we checked into one of the airport hotels, for a short overnight stay before our 6:00am flight the following morning. I’m glad they don’t charge extra for overweight passengers, because I definitely clock in higher than when we started this vacation.
Now we’re back in verdant Zimbabwe and it’s New Year’s Eve. Alice, our ridgeback, is ecstatic we’re back. The garage ceiling plaster has caved in. One of the cars won’t start for a dead battery. We have some interesting science experiments in the refrigerator. The sugar bowl is full of ants. The kids woke up at 3:00am (waking Jean up in the process, and she didn’t go back to sleep!) and have generally wacked out sleep schedules.
And our cheese is in Texas, in the hotel refrigerator.

Happy New Year!

A year in Zimbabwe

20131231-093433.jpgWe’ve been over a year here in Zimbabwe and are now counting down the months (lamentably) until we post out. We’ve really been so busy enjoying the country that I’ve not made the time to blog about it, or really anything! So, just what have we been up to?

We’ve very much enjoyed making new friends in our small expat community of both U.S. and other embassy missions, not to mention Zimbabweans and NGO/International School people. Harare’s expats enjoy hosting braai’s (BBQ’s), so most weekends we are in town we’ll be at someone’s house (or hosting) for a brunch or midday braai.

The children are quite occupied with school and afterschool activities, and hanging out with their friends afternoons and weekends, or attending birthday parties. We keep our closet decently stocked with gifts!

Jean is quite active in her job at the embassy, and even got to be an official observer for the elections this past July.

I am continuing to enjoy my role as stay-at-home dad, or “life coach for young people” as I sometimes say. Harare is a very large and spread-out city, though quite unpopulated for the size. It’s possible to cycle to close-by things like school and some markets, though the “Combi’s” (Commuter Omni Buses) make cycling treacherous at best. Mostly I drive, sometimes up to 200km’s a week!

When we are not in town, we are out enjoying the country-side. Zimbabwe keeps a number of national parks, and has lodges and campsites within. We’ll either be there on our own, with friends, or with house guests. We try to get out once a month, though sometimes it’s more like three times a month and then no traveling for two or three months!

When we told friends we were coming to Zimbabwe, those who were from here and/or had lived here were quite excited for us, telling us we’d love it. Why? None of them could quite put a finger on just why, simply telling us we’d love it. Now that we’ve been here a year, I can put it in some words, especially for world travelers like those in the Foreign Service.

The weather here is perfect. I’ve heard it called “champagne air” because of it’s arid and clean quality. It’s sunny most all the time, and to cool down one only has to step into the shade. The roads, though sometimes a bit bumpy in neighborhoods, are for the most part un-clogged and wide, with decent frontage between houses and shops and the road-side. One can get most anything one needs here, sometimes albeit at a price. The people are pleasant and friendly; always willing to give a thumbs up and children always happy to wave.

As we begin our second year here, we inevitably begin looking at the pantry to see what we should be buying to last the year; more toilet paper? Any more Scotch? We don’t want to have too much on hand to leave behind, or try to shove into our suitcases or household effects. We are also making our mental checklist of places left to visit, things left to do before we go. Should we visit that one national park again, or visit a new one?

We are also quite excited for our next post, Pristina, Kosovo, and the inevitable U.S. tour that comes along with it: Albanian language training! This means we’ll be in the U.S. for nearly an entire year while Jean is learning Albanian, and the children will be in the U.S. school system for an entire school year! This also has major implications for us: we’ll get to shop at Wegmans! (It’s a grocery store, the very best one, and for foodies like us…well, it’s pretty awesome) We’ll see friends and family, and not just compressed into a four week frenzy! We’ll be driving on the right side of the road for the first time in four years! We’ll be directly exposed to the political and marketing engine of the U.S. economy. We’ll get our mail in days rather than weeks. We’ll have to think about car registration, speeding tickets, and we’ll have to pump our own gas! We won’t have a maid!