Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Welcome Back to Our Lives, Part 1 (last week)

For the past nearly four weeks we've happily adjusted to our new home in Chennai, India. All is well with the world, at least our little chunk of it, and I don't feel it's just the 6 month honeymoon phase. The kids have friends (several of which live next door or two houses down, all within "Mom, can I go next door?" "Sure, be back by 5" distance), the school is a happy medium between ISM and AISL and the Consulate community alone is jam-packed with families. Our compound houses the Consul General and two other third tour families (9 kids in all), tennis court, pool and plenty of feral cats to keep the vermin and snake population down.

The most frustrating thing, as it is at every new post for us, is figuring out where the heck everything is, and then of course how the heck do we get there. During the week the Consulate shuttle picks up Ian at the gate, and a Consulate bus picks up the kids. Ian won't want to take the shuttle forever, so once our car arrives we will shuffle our schedule again. If he doesn't buy a 2nd car like we did in Manila, it looks like a family "driver" will be in our future. For now I'll quietly ignore that prospect and try to keep an eye out on the common roads we take. Folks in Manila told us we'd have to get a driver as well, and we did fine without. Granted, the roads there are fairly wide and everyone drives on the American side of the highway. Those specs do not apply to Chennai. Thank you, Britain. (Which raises the question: America was colonized by the Brits too, why don't we drive on the left?)
At every turn we are reminded we're back in Asia, and it feels comfortable. The busyness is non-stop even in this most conservative Indian state. Roads are packed with 3-wheel autorickshaws, ox-driven carts, motos and refurbished Ambassadors. Think London taxi and that is the personal car of choice, only in white. There are even some double-decker buses floating around. Stray dogs abound. Every street corner houses a fruit drink stand with bananas and oranges hanging by the bushel. I doubt the cleanliness of such establishments, but the crowds around each stall prove how popular they are. With the majority Hindu population, most food options are strictly vegetarian; and with the reverence for cows, even where meat is served we don't expect to find beef on the menu. I do believe one of our first stops when we return stateside will be to a steakhouse of some sort.
Where to begin with the third international move in two years? We miss our house in Togo. Don't misread and think we don't like our home here. We'll be in India for three years, we'd better like it or pretend to and cope. The Togo house was just right for us, and nothing beat the yard, the pool, even the cool summertime weather. It was a very comfortable home. Here, we're living in a cave. Until I get a chance to paint some rooms and our personal effects come, just about any other place would be an improvement. The nice thing: in a month or two we’ll have our all-important schtuff and we’ll probably never want to leave India. Our residence is a two-story, 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom, one enclosed a/c patio, one screened patio, computer room, den, with indoor laundry, lovely kitchen, carport, huge yard, big trees sort of place. The other two houses are the same layout with minor differences in room square footage, size of patio and shape of kitchen. Items like cabinetry and tiling also vary.
The yard is slowly coming around now we've hired a gardener. It was looking sad. Loads of potted plants will return to the Consulate as they are strategically placed around the doors harboring bugs and mosquitoes but we don't have anywhere in the yard for them. There is a tamarind tree and some lemon-lime trees, so with some tending we could have some healthy producing plants around. Aside from vegetation, there are the aforementioned cats patrolling, along with about a thousand crows, obnoxiously loud squeaking tree squirrels that look like thirteen-stripe ground squirrels back home with long fluffy tails, and approximately a billion bugs, most notably the millipedes that extend up to six inches long and about two pencils thick. When outside, they are quite enjoyable to watch and play with.
On three sides, the compound is surrounded by high walls and chained gates; on the fourth side a lower wall and the Adyar River. I haven't actually seen the river from our house. It drops a distance from the back wall and explains why part of said wall collapsed into the sludge earlier this year. But while we cannot see the river, its presence is never-forgotten for the stench that flows over the compound after a rain or on even moderately warm days is a constant reminder.
Let's not think about why the river smells so nasty, shall we?
All in all, the compound is pleasant, on a relatively quiet street that sort-of dead-ends at the Madras Club, an upper crust assortment of British buildings that serves only the riche. Sort-of dead-ends because the Club can be crossed to reach the other side where the Madras Boat Club is harbored and into additional riche neighborhoods. To the left out our gate is a guard who monitors all four consulate gates and beyond him is the main road where to the left is the river and a community park complete with children's playground and manicured paths, and to the right a short distance is the Park Sheraton 5-star hotel across from our little groceries, Amma Naana and Fairlands. Our cook goes to Amma Naana every day for supplies. It's a downside to starting over even with a (insufficient) Welcome Kit. From sugar and apples and oregano to napkins, rolling pin, spice jars, and drinking glasses we're starting at square two (square one being no welcome kit at all, of course). Not mailing anything from Togo turned out to be more irritating than I thought as we continue to buy items that are coming in our HHE eventually. How we miss the days of the FPO.
Passing the days is easy enough. The kids go to school, Ian goes to work, I stay home with the cook and gardener, reading books and eating bonbons. I can't figure out the TV and we have no internet as yet; we have few belongings so there's nothing to clean beyond laundry and the bathroom sinks; our car isn't here so I don't go out much unless I catch a Consulate vehicle heading my way; and all the women in the other three houses have part-time jobs or volunteer positions. I’m working my way through the Pirate Booty we ordered off Amazon while still in Lomé and reading through Entertainment Weekly. No complaints here.
I have had lunch at the Madras Club with Lisa F. and another 3rd grade parent. The kids came with me to the Consulate after school that day to get shot #1 of the Japanese B Encephalitis series. The next day I attended an Overseas Women's Club meeting at the Park Sheraton and the following day I spent at school split between a 3rd grade parent coffee, shadowing the kids and checking out the elementary library (internet access! e-mail!). With the current renovations and additions going on at the school, it doesn't look quite what we'd imagined but all the changes should be done by December with a completed 3rd floor for the high school, a new stairwell in the library and a split Kindergarten class. Currently, Kindergarten has 27 kids crammed into a single space with two teachers and an aide. Jonathon has been overwhelmed, forgetful and exhausted. Last week he progressed from losing his hat, water bottle, borrowed swimsuit and welcome kit towel, to finding the towel and water bottle but losing his lunchbox and fully stocked brand new backpack, to finding his lunchbox but losing his lunch. There is still no sign of the hat, swimsuit or backpack. Each day I hope he comes home with shoes on his feet. Preferably his own.
Katherine is doing some catch up, especially in math since last year's math lessons were abysmal. We'll start at the beginning of her workbook to get the background for her current homework. I'm not sure if she likes her teacher here, she never mentions her at home. Rebecca gelled right into her class, making friends and diving right into her small group Africa project. The 3rd grade is covering Charlotte's Web again so she caught a break as far as in-class work load. I may have to speak with Nicholas's teacher. His first week's homework assignments involved tracing numbers and another week asked to find words with the short "a" sound in a book. I should have brought all our workbooks in the suitcases. Thankfully there are good bookstores here and workbooks abound so I've picked up some filler material to get us through. I may just send the additional work pages in on Fridays so his teachers get a better idea of what level 1st grader he is.
I would like to get to the school each week to catch up with the teachers and keep an eye on things. The elementary librarian is good-natured and didn't seem to mind my hanging around too much. I even read some stories to the Kindergarteners after they'd checked out their books and were waiting to return to class.
The following week a neighbor, Gwen, played hooky from work and asked if I wanted to go fabric shopping. We perused Co-optex, an aptly named co-op textile shop piled high with bed covers, sari (or saree as it's spelled) and lunghi material. Of course our own covers will be here in a matter of weeks, but the kids have new bedspreads to brighten their space in the meantime. Along the side street, vendors set up their own stalls of prefabricated clothes and vibrant materials for tailoring. I bought, with Gwen's haggling, two sets for custom made lunghis for the girls. Now to find a tailor. We had lunch at the Chola Sheraton after, a none-too-shabby mid-day meal, before collecting the kids and getting shot #2 at the Consulate followed immediately by a North India Trip meeting in the CLOs office. All the plans are set, aside from packing the bags. I'm glad I spoke with Gwen earlier that day though, as she pointed out the planned trip did not actually include travel to Delhi. After rereading the various e-mails about the excursion it became clear we were sans tickets. Ian purchased them on-line that afternoon. The trip spans 29 October to 5 November, moving from Delhi to Agra to Jaipur to Pushkar to Neemrana, so we'll update about Jet Airways and all days between when we get back in November.
We spend our weekends around town. Spencers Plaza is a cross between the hives of Glorietta Mall and Greehills in Manila. With its three different "phases" and mix of stores, it's a place to spend the afternoon eating ice cream, buying odds and ends for us or the house, and people watching. We are the spectacle as usual: the boys come home with grimy hair from head pats and splotched cheeks from pinches. A brand new mall is opening up near the beach. Citi Centre will be lovely once it's done but for now is a pleasant place to get a smoothie and visit the Landmark bookstore, much nicer than the same store back at Spencers. We've had lunch at Sparky's, the American diner in town run by Thom Petty who has lived in India for nearly a dozen years. Our sponsors brought us to Sparky's on our first Saturday and the restaurant caters to the school. Since we let the kids choose to buy lunch twice a week, they get their fill of pizza, mac&cheese, sloppy joe's and burritos. A slightly more upscale affair, we've had lunch at the Park Sheraton Cappuccino restaurant and look forward to going again. Within walking distance, it's a pleasant Sunday lunch.
I believe that along with transportation, food is the biggest issue at a new post. Getting the consumables order placed, finding and getting to the best (aka most convenient) local grocery options, stocking the fridge and cabinets with in-school and after-school snack... all these and more are daily considerations. We are blessed that Chennai offers a variety of sources for good and convenient foods not the least of which is delivery. In fact, Pizza Hut and Dominoes are here along with dozens of other options. I've already mentioned the nearby groceries Amma Naana and Fairlands, but in addition the Consulate stocks a small commissary. Tales of our misrouted Togo consumables are still floating around as the items provided a healthy influx of goods. Haphazardly, the commissary stocks such hard-to-find items as beef (beef!), boneless chicken, frozen pizzas and salsa. There is also a small shop at the PTA store at AISC, where cheddar cheese, frozen hamburger patties and Snapple can be found. And our latest discovery has been Royal Meats, a delivery service for an assortment of beef, mutton, chicken, fish and shellfish. Though it takes multiple places to provide a variety of foodstuffs, we're lucky that all the options are convenient to where we spend our time already.
Chennai has been good to us. Once we're over the current spate of "new country sickness," we'll feel settled. Once we get some kittens, we'll feel permanent. Speaking of cats, our first weekend here we attended a local performance of "Cats" by the Hot Shoe Dance Company at the Music Academy venue. It was everything a non-singing, unpaid production could be. I didn't care for "Cats" the first time I saw it (either in New York or London, I forget), but the kids stayed awake and seemed to enjoy the music, so for that it was worth the Rs. 300 per ticket. Current exchange Rs. 46 = $1.
Everything is falling into place and we are ready to be pinned back on the map.

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