Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Weekend Alone and Mail Options at Post

This weekend was another exercise in frantic social life. The Diplomat had decided to go see his Grandma in Chennai and I was wise enough to let him go alone. That way he can enjoy Grandma and her cooking, while I bond with Son. I bravely faced a weekend filled with social obligations alone. On Friday morning, I held auditions for the upcoming Hollywood Ball (another one of our famed balls in Dhaka, which includes a talent portion). After that, we rushed home for a rooftop BBQ thrown by one of our neighbors, where I are one too many delicious sausages and at least 2 burgers, plus many Tostitos (who can say "no" to Tostitos?!). In the afternoon, while Son slept, I cooked a delicious mussaka for a potluck event at the American Ambassador’s house that same night. I spent the evening at the House, pretending I will not eat much. After some lamb, chicken biryani, two different pasta salads, an interesting looking mac and cheese and 7 mini éclairs, watered down with wine, it was time to call it a night. I crawled back home, released the nanny and watched the latest episodes of Grey’s Anatomy online wrapped in a massive fluffy blanket. The following morning, I struck a bargain with Son – I will put Cars on the dvd for him, as long as he lets mommy sleep for another hour or so. I am not proud of myself, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to survive mommyhood. I slept until 8.30 am! Then, I made a delicious breakfast for both of us and pottered around the house contentedly, sewing buttons on shirts and fixing other small, neglected projects around the house. Son painted a bunch of paintings, a couple of walls and his hair. Then we took a collective nap and when we got up, the Diplomat was back. It was time to go for Trivia Night at the American Club. The Diplomat and Son came along briefly with me to see the world and to be seen by it, after which they left to sleep and mommy stayed to suck at trivia. Let’s just say it is not my forte and leave it at that.
Needless to say, after the weekend, I was quite exhausted. So, this week we are taking it easy! We have been out only one night so far (there was a trivia night at the British High Commission club, at which I sucked even more, which was remarkable).
I must share with you Son’s artistic proclivities. He is obsessed with painting and, if left to his devices, he would paint all the time and everything. One of the two most successful gifts we have ever given to him was a Melissa and Doug easel, which provides space to draw with dry erase marker, crayons on roll-on paper, chalk and paint. I recently procured a bunch of non-drip cups and 12 different paints and he has been one dreamy, artsy kid ever since. In the meantime, the Diplomat bought himself a workout bench, a pair of massive weight-adjustable dumbbells and a mechanical portable stepper. It appears that he will be working out a lot soon. The real problem was the bench, which came completely disassembled. Let’s just say that the Diplomat is not particularly engineeringly gifted and tasks like hammering a nail and putting together a magazine rack require extensive planning, reading on the internet and watching “How to” videos. Putting together the workout bench was a Herculean task. Filled with determination to prove himself, the Diplomat disappeared with the heavy package in the office. All I could hear was clanging, clanking and moving of heavy objects, coupled with deep grunting and shoving things around. Since I had pulled my back from working out too vigorously on my newly acquired treadmill, I was sitting contentedly in my governmentally-issued lazy boy reading a trashy magazine. 15 minutes later, the Diplomat appeared sullenly from the office and asked for my help. With a deep sigh, I obliged – he complained that the instructions were too confusing. The bench was done in 20 minutes. Combined with my treadmill, we now own a mini gym in the house.

This is the problem with a small post like Dhaka. Since there is not much to do besides party around, we tend to buy various crap on the internet constantly. It is just so easy to sit in your lazy-boy, peruse and buy stuff all the time. Nothing compares to the joy of receiving packages and mail from the U.S., I can assure you of that!

If you are lucky, you’ll have a choice of two different mail options at post – the pouch mail and the DPO mail (DPO is similar to the military mail, or APO). All posts have pouch mail, which is reliable, can accept shipping from any company but is slow. I am still expecting a couple of pans I ordered 3 weeks ago. Pouch typically takes about 2 weeks to deliver to post from the time your precious orders arrive in Virginia. Further, pouch mail does not allow liquids (imagine gallons of shampoo spilling over the mail if there is any damage to the bottle and you’ll understand why). DPO mail is lightning fast, less than a week to deliver. In addition, it allows you to ship liquids. I do think there is a weight restriction but not sure exactly what it is. The problem is, not every post has a DPO address and not every company out there allows DPO shipping because DPO cannot accept anything other than regular USPS mail. At least that is what I have been told., bless their understanding commercial soul, do ship DPO and therefore, we have turned into addicts. As a result, we continue to accumulate crap. Thank God for HHE.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Baksheesh, the Hacking and the Hectic Weekends

There are two things that are driving me insane in Bangladesh. The first is the Baksheesh. We call it “tipping” in the Western world, but it is so much more than that. Baksheesh is a way of life, a matter of pride, a beautiful (or frustrating) end of a task. Baksheesh follows no rules and depends on social status and the moment. May I say that I HATE Baksheesh?! Baksheesh permeates every single sphere, nook and cranny of Bangladeshi life. Examples:

1.       We arrive at the Dhaka airport, giddy with excitement on our way to Thailand. Right before going inside to check in, we are stopped by a couple of uniformed policemen who politely direct us to pick up two departure forms from a standalone kiosk, which reads, “Passenger help.” Which we do. And then the guys at the kiosk ask us to pay baksheesh. Confused, we pay the 100 taka (say, $1.50) , pick up the forms and go inside. 5 minutes later, at the check-in counter, the Bangkok Air crew happily hands us the same forms, perfectly free. @#$%???

2.       I hire a rickshaw wallah to transport a bunch of really large plants from a friend’s house (the friend is moving and our rooftop can use the extra foliage). We bargain and I decide to hire two wallahs given the amount of huge plants. When he arrives at the apartment, however, he decides that he can take on all flowerpots and we agree to pay him the price for two wallahs as originally agreed. Sometime later, he finally makes is back to my building. Along with my driver, he spends some time bringing the plants to the roof. Finally finished, he just stands there, looking at me quizzically. You’d think that when I bargained the original price, it included the lifting and all. Apparently not. I gave him 300. He pointed out that one of the flowerpots was empty when he picked it up and he planted an entire plant there for us for free (why he would do that remains a mystery to me). Even though the extra plant appeared to be free, it also appeared that the wallah was waiting for some more baksheesh. With grim resign, I pull out more money from my wallet.

3.       I bought a treadmill this past weekend (YES, oh YES – and I even ran on it for like 10 minutes already!!). We bargained hard and the owner of the store proudly told me delivery would be free. I was won over and bought the contraption. Delivery would be the same day. Several hours later, the treadmill arrived, carried up the stairs (not sure why, we have an elevator) by two burly guys. They gingerly carried it inside the apartment (again, not sure why, it has wheels which I did point out to them) and then stood there, in the middle of my bedroom, not moving. I motioned them to come outside, into the corridor, which they reluctantly did. We stood there, staring at each other for some time, and then one of them flat out asked me for baksheesh. I sighed deeply (I only had large notes), went to my wallet and pulled out the money. Their eyes lit up (whoever had heard of giving back change for a tip), they snatched the cash and literally ran out of the apartment lest I find a smaller bill.

So, yes, I HATE baksheesh. It is not so much the money itself. It is the constant expectation and bother of it – at the market, when the little boys pester you forever to carry your groceries; at the street intersection, where the street guard won’t let your rickshaw cross the road into the diplomatic zone (“rules, madam!”) unless you give baksheesh; at every single parking lot, where inevitably some loiterer will “help” you to park (which actually translates into him banging on the hood of the car repeatedly, not clear what that means really); leaving a supermarket, surrounded by an endless sea of small children, screaming for baksheesh. Which is why one always has to carry small change here.

My second biggest pet peeve here is what seems to be Bangladeshi men’s favorite pass time – hacking loudly and then spitting with gusto on the ground. Words cannot describe how disgusting it is. The sounds of it happening fill the air of Dhaka any time of the day. Just when you thought the entire huge restless city is finally asleep at 1 am, and you have rested your weary head on the pillow, enjoying the quiet night, one sounds suddenly rips through the peace – the guard downstairs gives it his best and hacks and spits like he is competing in the Olympics.

In other news, our lives remain impossibly hectic. Every single weekend, the Diplomat and I decide solemnly that THIS weekend, we will relax and just hang around. And then we plunge into a wild mix of shopping, errands, friends, dinners, travel, tennis and by the time Saturday night rolls in, we are more exhausted than ever. This one was worse, since it was a three-day weekend. I have been sick for some days now with Dhakaitis (a flu-like malaise with no particular name or reason, which is weakening and painful and refuses to go away), and so I truly needed to relax. Therefore, on Friday morning, without fail and true to form, I dragged the Diplomat and Son out of home and took them to the fresh market, the meat market, the supermarket, the shoe store and who knows what else. After a brief nap in which we all partook, we went to the American Club to play a round of tennis and meet a couple of good friends for a brief chat. The tennis round went for over an hour, and the brief chat turned into several drinks with some appetizers. By the time we made it home, it was already 7.30pm. We tossed the exhausted Son into bed, and once the nanny came to babysit, went out on a date to a great Indian restaurant. At 11 pm, one goat biryani and a bottle of red wine later, utterly exhausted, we dragged ourselves home and swore to take it easy on Saturday.
Which is why we got up early the next morning (not that Son left us any other option) and immediately went downtown to buy me a treadmill. The negotiations made me feel really hungry, and in anticipation of the hundreds of burned calories, I decided to stop by for lunch at Pizza Hut, one of the very few American chain restaurants in town. The pizza was outstanding! The remainder of the afternoon was spent pottering about, and then I left to play tennis and have dinner and drinks with my tennis partners. Not sure what and how it happened, but I got home at almost 11pm. The hectic weekend finally caught up with me, and I spent half of Martin Luther King’s day sleeping – since Son’s daycare does not celebrate the holiday, he had to go to school, while mommy slept till 11 am, went for lunch to a friend’s house and came back for a few hours of manicure/pedicure/massage/hot oil hair mask. The evening was topped by an excellent dinner at the International Club of Dhaka.
Next weekend however – utter relaxation!!!!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Raising The Multilingual Child

It is a VERY difficult job. I have been doing it now for 3.5 years and I can tell you I have had better and more interesting tasks in the meantime. The one thing you need to know is that if you truly want your child to learn a second language at home, you have to pursue it with the persistence of a rabid dog.

Learning multiple languages by children is a fact of life in the Foreign Service. On one hand, a lot of the spouses as well as Foreign Service Officers themselves were originally born in a different country and speak a different native language from English. On the other, by virtue of living overseas, the child inevitably picks up the local language to some extent. Sadly, there is precious little material on the market about how to deal with the bombardment of foreign languages and make the most of it. So, I have had to wing it mostly.

This is how I fight the good fight. Born in Bulgaria, I speak fluent Bulgarian and it has been really important for me that Son learns the language. That way, he will be able to speak to my family during the obligatory summer visits there, as well as be able to charm the pretty Bulgarian girls whenever the need arises. Moreover, speaking Bulgarian will always be a way for him to know and remember some of his roots - a must in his future gypsy, world-roaming life. I began speaking Bulgarian to Son since the day he was born. While he was spending his cute little baby days exclusively at home with me, he slowly began speaking baby Bulgarian to me. He understood everything I said, and formed some rudimentary words. Watching Elmo in English on a daily basis was NOT helping on that front, but who can resist the furry animal with the annoyingly high pitched voice? Plus, watching Elmo on the potty while we were potty-training was a life-saver, so I let it pass.

The problem began once Son started daycare when he was a little over 1 year old. Miraculously, he began blabbing in English quite fast and, while he still understood every word I said to him in Bulgarian, he would moo his response back to me in English. Unfazed, I persisted. Fast forward a year later. The obstinate child flat out would NOT speak Bulgarian. And I would NOT speak English back. I just kept going at it. Whenever we sat down to read books, I'd translate them into Bulgarian (I did some remarkable renditions of Dr.Seuss in rhyme which I ought to copyright!). Whenever we watched Elmo, I'd make him explain to me what was going on in Bulgarian.

I taught him the numbers in Bulgarian and constantly made him count everything around us. The poor child must have counted to 10 a trillion times. I asked my mom to send me CDs with children songs and we played them so often at home that I can honestly tell you I detest all of them with passion. But singing along develops vocabulary like nothing else would (I admit to learning some real bad English from obsessing over the Beatles) and it really expanded his lexicon. Finally, if you can procure videos in the native language, preferably with captivating cartoons, that is also a great language tool.

But the best tool in the fight for the native language is immersion in Grandma's summer camp. When Son was almost 3, right before we moved to Dhaka, if you recall we decided to leave him with my Mom in Sofia while we settle in here. That did miracles. A month later, she delivered a perfectly bilingual child, who expressed himself quite well in short Bulgarian sentences along with slightly longer, better English ones.

As time progressed though, we noticed that his word order remains hopelessly English. For example, in English we say, "I want it!" (a phrase repeated by Son about 1,243,345 times a day). In Bulgarian, the phrase is "I it want". As you can guess by now, Son uses the English word order, which sounds like this , "Аз искам го!" Um, yeah. And no matter how many times I correct him (which is EVERY single time he speaks like this), he doesn't change it.

The second problem we noticed was that he often constructs sentences using both languages. Sometimes it is because he doesn't know the word in the other, and sometimes - just because. It sounds like this, "Mama, аз искам pomegranate, молааа!" I always plead ignorance of English (clearly an obvious and horrible lie since a minute later I'd lapse into a long tirade in English to the Diplomat) and tell him to repeat it back all in Bulgarian. I have to say that most times I am successful and he does repeat it back in Bulgarian (in a terrible word order, of course).

Son attends the French school in Dhaka, which has, of course, added a third language to the mix. Sadly, it is one which neither of us two speak, so at times I have the horrible suspicion that when angry with us, Son swears quietly at us in flowery French. I swear I distinctly overheard him say  "Merde!" the other day when I refused to add chocolate chips to his supertasty chicken. French has further complicated matters. Yesterday, we had the following exchange:
Me (sternly): Who has spilled red paint on this governmentally-issued couch?
Son: Аз съм Dinosaur! (I am a Dinosaur!)
Me (in Bulgarian, highly irritated, in high pitched voice): Who has spilled the red paint!!!!!???
Son: Мама, аз много обичкам те! (Momma, I you very much love!)
Me (further aggravated): I said, who has spil
Son (interrupting impertinently): MOI! (Me in French)
Me (speechless)
Son (leaves haughtily)
Me (scrubbing red paint off for 45 mins, swearing in Bulgarian)

The point of all this is: if you want your child to learn another language, whether it is your native tongue or some other, you have to give it your 1000%. You have to be persistent and absolutely consistent and always, ALWAYS speak that language with your child. Start as early as possible and keep talking. Read books, sing songs, tell stories, yell, scold and soothe in it. Your child has to know this is the language he or she will speak at home (if both you and your spouse speak it) or with you only. Refuse to understand when he or she speak English back to you. Correct and expand vocabulary as often as you can without getting annoying. Son's Bulgarian may not be of the highest literary quality, but he does speak it. Once he grows up old enough to be able to read and write in it, he will read books and self-correct, hopefully. For now, I remain optimistic.

Monday, January 2, 2012

To Kill a Mosquito...

I agree it is not a noble deed. But one simply must. Because now, with the advent of winter, it has become a real pest in Dhaka. You know how birds in the North tend to migrate to the South in the winter in search of warm lands? Well, it seems to me that the world population of mosquitoes has by now evacuated to Bangladesh and despite the large rate of attrition (courtesy of the multiple ways we try to annihilate them here) their hordes are impenetrable.

At this point, my house is equipped with several contraptions to ward them off.
1) Besides my front door, I have a small clay pot with a stinky burning coil (think incense of a sort), which chases them away. It is truly a must since they tend to flock there and greet me cheerfully when I come back from work. I literally have to wave off a swarm of mosquitoes in order to open my door. The coil reduces the swarm by 50%. I think.
2) Inside each room, there are electric oil plugins which supposedly chase the mosquitoes away from that area. It either simply does not work or the local mosquitoes have disturbingly mutated, but just yesterday I observed a rather large specimen perched peacefully on top of the oil plugin, honing his sting or whatever it is that mosquitoes do in their spare time.
3) I bought an electrical zapper racket. I am NOT proud of it, and I had sworn never to do it since the thought of frying mosquitoes was repulsive to me. Not anymore. I go on a death quest every evening, grim determination on my face and even keep score. The tend to come in from the bathroom canals, so I start there. I close the door and viciously chase the lonely one or two mosquitoes there. YOU will never understand the joy that one can feel upon hearing the electricity crackling while zapping the insects until you have stood there, in the middle of the bathroom, your legs bearing no less than 36 (36, people!!!) bite marks and you have just caught the culprits.

So, yeah, it is war of the worlds here!

We rang in the New Year Eve with some excellent partying. We started with a lovely pre-party at the house of a new Brazilian friend, downed a couple of glasses of champagne and left for the next stop--a party at the Dhaka Club. The Dhaka Club is the meeting place of the "Who's Who" in Dhaka--politicians, Ready-Made Garments' moguls, real estate fiends, more politicians, and more rich Bangladeshis doing "business." While the average age of the 1500 guests was possibly 50, I can tell you everyone was there to party. Our fabulous gracious host kept telling us excitedly that he cannot wait to "boogie" and so left us wondering what we were indeed in for. Turns out, the band was excellent and the dance floor was packed to the brim the entire time. We "boogied" all the way from ABBA, to Boney M, to Michael Jackson (OMG, the things I saw a man with only one leg to Moonwalker, I will NEVER forget!) to Rihanna and Tina Turner.  The food, of course, was exquisite.

Exhausted and incredibly excited, we decided to move on to the next venue--the American Club-- where there were in fact two parties. The main one, organized by the Club itself, took place over most of the grounds and looked gorgeous. Over 500 fairly inebriated people were swaying to the same "boogie" tunes that we heard in the Dhaka Club. The second one, a private, smalled event, was organized by a couple of close friends and featured some awesome alternative music and seriously expensive premium alcohol. I made the tactical mistake to buy one, light up my New Year's Eve cigar and sit outside to smoke it while gazing lovingly into the Diplomat's eyes. 15 minutes and 63 mosquito bites later, we decided to call it a night. I suppose the mosquitoes were also celebrating that night. I just would like to think that I was considered "premium bar" myself. It sure looked like it. The Diplomat, who thought he was safely covered from head to toe in clothing, was bitten on his pinkie finger just to prove a point.

And so the new year begins. We already went to work today, and it was busier than ever. Hello 2012.