Sunday, December 31, 2006

This must be some kind of record.

I know what I'm getting Ian for Christmas next year. OK, perhaps for his birthday. Or Father's Day. Or Martin Luther King Day. No wait, that's coming up too soon. Maybe Valentine's Day. Oh oh oh, that would be perfect. Valentine's Day. Yes, Valentine's Day would be just right. Heh.

Friday, December 29, 2006

GRT is the WTG

Jewelry in India is a huge business. Americans are all about engagement diamonds, Indians are all about 22ct gold everything.

For last minute Christmas shopping, Ian and our neighbor Brian went to GRT Jewelers on T. Nagar. It's a four story shop bursting with baubles and customers alike. I don't know how either of the boys actually chose one item over another, the walls are covered with racks holding necklaces of every weight and design. Glass cases filled with gold bangles, rings and earrings fill the center of the rooms. One floor is dedicated to silver, another to precious stones and the fourth to embellished gold.
Under the tree I was the lucky recipient of a rope necklace and anklet. The chain is specifically for the sapphire pendant I've had for so long but never wear on its extrafine chain. When Ian bought the rope he neglected to bring the pendant (the "drop") with him, so come Christmas Day we discovered it's too wide for the pendant loop. Yesterday we returned to the store and after much hemming and hawing by seemingly everyone who worked there, we determined it would be best to have the stone reset. We took a seat between the Pooja cases and the Gold Belts for Little Girls cases, passed on the coffee and absorbed the surroundings on the gemstone floor. The gold belts were popular, intricately designed, inlaid with all sorts of jewels, and approximately $3000. One family seemed to try every belt on their 5 year old child, I don't know if they ever chose a particular model but we did think Rebecca would love to have one. Hah.
Behind us hanging on the wall was a 1.5 Kg monstrosity of a necklace with a purchase price of approximately $20,000, a wedding gift. The typical customer was female and already decked out so I assume the new purchases were for gifts but one can never be certain. I do know that if I was in there to make a choice, it would take longer than the hour we spent discussing a clasp and I couldn't be so apathetic as the typical GRT shopper who flung one beauty aside after another. Fingering $5000 bangles, $15000 necklaces or even $300 earrings; peering through case after case of glittering beauty...
I would escape overwhelmed and without buying a thing.
Though in a couple weeks when we return to pick up the pendant I may have gathered my wits about me. Just enough.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

GSO Giveth and GSO Taketh Away

We don't have to bring such things as microwaves, vacuums, dryers and full-sized freezers with us as we move around, and each post has someone to take care of the housing pool and standard household issue. It's a definite plus, but also has its disadvantages.

The drawback comes with the wear and tear of what are essentially rental homes with rental appliances that have been through a lot of use and a lot of users. The other drawback arises from being at a Consulate that is allotted no money for replacement items. Everything is fixed and fixed again.
Our washing machine flooded the kitchen once. It was repaired. It doesn't wash on any cycle but permanent press, but I can live with that. The dryer only works on one setting and doesn't cycle through, so if I forget after an hour to turn it off it will run all night. I haven't put in a work order yet since I can line dry items that don't need permanent press heat. Our top freezer didn't freeze, and the fridge part didn't cool, so yesterday we were given a replacement. It was bigger and nicer and cooled so well. Ice even froze in the freezer. We were tickled. Meanwhile six GSO guys were outside working on our fridge and another one (they brought it from the warehouse since... oh never mind).
It was, unfortunately, a temporary replacement from a currently empty housing unit and today they took the nice, big, Better-Than-Ours fridge away. We have our fridge back and I've put it to the ice test. Can it make ice? If so, then it will be forgiven and welcomed back to the fold. But having the other one... ah, it was nice while it lasted.

PSA Re: Bharati Cycle Co. 118 Broadway, Chennai -108

I'm sure this is an issue with all the bike sellers (indeed any business and any product) in Chennai... India... and the rest of the developing world. Products are shabby, customer service is minimal and good business practices non-existent. Bharati Cycle proved no different.

A week before Christmas, we purchased three new bikes from Bharati Bicycle (the fourth from a different vendor), and held them in the car port until Christmas Day. The kids knew about the bikes, they were there for the purchase because I didn't know sizes, but no amount of begging let them ride them a day before. Finally Monday, they zipped around. Tuesday, they zipped around. Wednesday, they tried to zip around when Jonathon's chain snapped. Literally snapped in half and fell like a snake to the ground.
Bikes here don't have coaster breaks, hand brakes or nothing. The hand brakes are made of plastic and after two days of use, the plastic cracked. I taped them as best I could, a few more days untended and they would snap clear off.
Nicholas's training wheels won't stay on. His bike is a little big for him and he doesn't know the two-wheel method yet, so the trainers stay on for now. But they kept flipping, the metal had bent out of shape. Ian replaced them with the trainers off Rebecca's bike since she doesn't need them, but they don't quite reach the ground. He's going to be pressed into learning how to ride sooner than he wants to, I fear.
This is all after three days of use. Three! Today I sent our driver back to the shop with the two boys' bikes. He wanted to take them to a nearby fix-it shop but I had him take them to the original shop. I want -them- to know that -I- know that they sell shoddy products. Not much later I received a call from the driver. The chain would be replaced but there was "no guarantee" on the plastic bits, it didn't matter to them that the items had broken after a few days. No guarantee. No guarantee!? I don't care that there's no guarantee, any shop should be embarrassed to sell any product that can't handle normal usage for a few days, a few weeks, even a few months. Bicycles are meant to be used for years afterall.
The driver returned. New chain - check. Repositioned training wheel bracket - check. New hand brakes? Double check. I don't know what the driver threatened them with (as he said on the phone "I told them my madame was very angry") but they changed them. I won't bring the bikes back for further repairs, I don't think. The shop is a ways from here and our driver is a mechanic, so I know he can replace chains, tighten screws, even replace the plastic hand brakes with metal ones. But I feel better that the bike shop had a bit of a rough day because of us.
Bharati Cycle Co.
118 Broadway, Chennai 600 108
Phone 25389705, 25392347
Do us a favor. Don't patronize them.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas...

The skies are blue and clear, the land flows with flowering trees, kids on bikes, swimming pools and all that does not evoke Christmas. But Christmas came to India anyway, just as it swept over much of the world and we greatly enjoyed our first holiday season in our new home.

The past few weeks of Advent saw moderate preparation in our household. We received our sea freight a mere 12 days before, so much of the time has been engulfed in unpacking and finding appropriate homes for all the odds and ends of life. It was a time of rediscovery and our place was the fun house for the nine kids on our street.
When we weren't out building graham cracker gingerbread houses at the local American greasy spoon, Sparky's, baking cookies, creating bead and paper snowflakes, bowling, or continuing with Hindi and tennis, we were at home with our worldly possessions. Only one item seems to have not made the trip at all, a costly and useful item as well: our toolbox. Thankfully there are no sentimental attachments to tools so they will be replaced in time, but it does make simple home repairs or even craft projects more difficult in the meantime. Rebecca asked to have the training wheels taken off her new bike, but we no longer own a wrench. I'd like to put up some nails in the limited available woodwork, but that's unpleasant without a hammer.
Small inconveniences, to be sure. We're happy, we're healthy and we hope that this magical season sees the same with everyone we know and love.
We attended 9:30 p.m. Mass at the Basilica. The service was a mixed bag, from an inspiring candlelit Silent Night, to Santa arriving at the Jingle Bells recessional. Christmas services are flavored with the local traditions in any country, but I can't help feeling that an outdoor service at a Basilica attended by 1500 of the faithful should have had more AND less. Less bass guitar, less animated powerpoint homily, fewer photographers knocking over the nativity and shifting the pastor amidst prayers to get Just the Right Shot, fewer balloons. More familiar hymns, more silence, more joyfullness... more reverence. The trees were dripping with strings of white lights, gulls flew overhead to reach their beachside perch, the sea breeze was refreshing, the opportunities for reflection and prayer should have been plentiful under the twinkling stars.
Alas, we merely survived the pop rendition of "Mary, Did You Know?" and the blinking animatronic Santas, and were grateful to return home to the awaiting gingerbread house, hot cocoa and gifts. Tradition in my family is to attend midnight Mass before organized gift-opening into the wee hours of Christmas Day. No one saw their beds before 2:30 a.m. thanks to early evening naps ("The Best Nap Ever" according to Nicholas) and even then there were small reminders that playing with all the toys really did have to wait until morning. Morning didn't actually arrive until after 10 a.m. as sleepy kids crawled out from their beds in new PJs and fuzzy robes before plunging into books, movies and toys, toys, toys. They rode their new bikes, plugged in iPod speakers, and trained Tekno the robo-dog. Each gift was appreciated, which made everyone feel wonderful. The kids bought for each other and were so excited to see their offerings opened and Nicholas had so many gifts we kept hearing "I love Grandma and Grandpa SO much!" Since he also received several books and his reading is taking off beautifully, it wasn't long before we heard, "I got so many books. I like to read. I'll read my books. I think I'll go read them now."
Yes, we are blessed. We are blessed to have such a giving and loving family. We are blessed to be together though we miss grandma and grandpa quite a bit. We are safe. We remember Hurricane Katrina a year ago that displaced so many. We remember back two years to the tsunami that hit this area of the world and devasted a million lives. Back five years to 9/11 and the pain our own family suffered among so many. And of course we think of all those who are separated from their homes right now, serving all over the world, seeing and doing things that others would never dream of. We remember these times and these people and we are thankful for so much in our blessed lives.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Ian's Discovery

Periodically we check the stats on this website. You know, how many folks are visiting, where from, most popular referrals, etc. Periodically we get an odd site linking to ours and Ian checks it out to see what's going on.

This week's prize goes to Tawnya at http://www.myspace.com/TAMALE2781
We would write to her, but not having myspace accounts we can't contact her directly and we're not going to create accounts just for this. Anyway, the reason we'd like to say Hello and Howzitgoin is that Tawnya is using an old gingerbread house photo from our site as her holiday background. While that's cool and all, please do us the common courtesy of noting on YOUR site where the image came from, or heck, just link to our site. That seems fair, doesn't it?
What's also annoying is she has linked her background directly from our site, thereby using our bandwidth to decorate her corner of the web. That's not cool either.
So folks out there who think it's easier that way, it's also not proper web etiquette. We're a little stretched for bandwidth as it is, and having folks leeching off it is, well, annoying.
That's your public service announcement for the day.
Just because something is easy to do, doesn't make it right.
(Oh, and slightly offf topic but not totally, Ian wants to say that the same goes for pirated software. Not cool people, not cool. Get the real thing. Just because it's easy and plentiful doesn't make it right.)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Couple Kidisms

Jonathon: Since we're unpacking, everything is new and novel again. One particular item of interest to Jonathon has been our mini solar system where the Sun us about an inch across. All the labels fell off so we're learning the planets by rote (Ian removed Pluto), with the favorites Saturn, Mars and Earth. Jonathon sits on my lap with the solar system and asks "Where's Texas?" Come to find out today that one of his classmates left and was moving to Texas, so he wanted to know where she was going. Finding Texas in our section of the universe can be a little tough though!

Katherine: The kids have been enjoying riding in our car as much as we have. Today Ian flipped on the radio to discover a station playing American music. We expressed awe at this, and Katherine's reply? "Well, it is an American car."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dusty, dirty, tired and achey = Happy

Our HHE has arrived. Our car has arrived. Our consumables have arrived.

We can't move in our house.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

How do you join the FS?

I read a cable today about how the Foreign Service is going to change how it vets applicants. You can find a story about it here. I'm fine with it, it's ridiculous how slow the process is. My concern is the same as Amb. Holbrooke's, though. If there's some sort of screening panel, then it'll be important to make sure there's no ideological screening that goes with it.

Mystery Magazines

We keep getting these magazines that we don't order. We now have a subscription the The New Yorker, and "Food and Wine." Did you send them to us? We can't thank you if we don't know!

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Merry Early Christmas

Some gifts are so good, they practically demand to be opened early. Gobs of complaining about the current state of affairs doesn't hurt either. This year, I was the lucky recipient of an early gift. Office:Mac.

Until now I've been using OpenOffice on our Mac. It professes to accomplish the same tasks as Word, but, well, doesn't. Since I write a lot of text documents I need to do such basic things as cutting and pasting from one document/application to another. Text is not always printed in the same font, so making the information uniform was also top of my list. Our version of OpenOffice would do neither. Blog entries posted directly to the website could not then be cut and pasted to a text document for back-up (trust me, I tried). Inserting a symbol into a document (say, an 'e' with an accent over it) would pop up in a different font, but the original document font was nowhere in the drop down box of font options. Such basic requirements were driving me more than a little batty.

So now I'm the proud and very satisfied owner of Microsoft's Office for Mac. It does what I ask it to do without complaining, and maybe I can get some long awaited projects out the door.

I Love the Holidays

Thursday night was the Elementary School Winter Program.

This is our last year having all four kids in the same school, or part of school. Next year, Katherine will be off to Middle School, and by the time Nicholas hits Middle School, we'll have Katherine in High and Jonathon still in Elementary. That should be an interesting year, split between 3 different schools. But I digress.
Thursday night we were treated to a Flat Stanley trip around the round. Flat Stanley is a book character about a boy named Stanley who is smashed flat by a board and is thereforeĆ¢€¦ Flat Stanley. So, with Stanley flat, he's easy to send off around the world in an envelope. In the books, he's off on adventures, and teachers have used Flat Stanley to learn about different countries as they send their own paper cutout Stanleys to friends and sister schools around the globe. On stage, Stanley was looking for a doctor to help him become "round" again. So he traveled to Colombia (4th grade), Germany (Kindergarten), the amazing "country" of Africa (3rd grade), China (1st grade) and back in time to the non-country of Mesopotamia (5th grade). Each group did a song and some dancing. I found it quite enjoyable and it only lasted an hour. Jonathon had a speaking part about Germany, Nicholas headed the dragon in China, Katherine was queen in Mesopotamia, while Rebecca was one of four dancers for the song "It Takes a Whole Village to Raise a Child." Our house has been abuzz with rehearsed lines and song lyrics for weeks, it was nice to see the pay off. Katherine's lines came out clear and loud and aside from Nicholas still trying to count the stitches in his socks, everyone did great, even him as soon as he picked up the dragon.
No one wanted to get up for school the next day, but they did and I managed to wipe most of the eyeliner off Nicholas's face.
This morning, we made big progress in preparing for Christmas. Jonathon and Nicholas brought all their money. Jonathon's intention was to buy a big power ranger for himself, spending most of his cash in the process, like Nicholas did the last time we were in Landmark. To say I was disappointed is putting it mildly, and after talking to him over and over I wasn't making any progress, so I turned Ian on him. A very sad little boy we had for a while, and that wasn't our goal either. We want him to give to others out of the desire to give to others, and he wasn't Ć¢€“getting- it, but I didn't want to force him either. After all, his cash, his choice. But. He did turn the corner, he did decide to purchase for others, and he had a good time finding something fun for his brother with Rebecca giving him suggestions. For his sisters he still didn't pinpoint what he'd like to get them, or make for them if it comes to it, but at least he's taken a step. Nicholas dove in and bought some really nifty items for his siblings. He found items that reflect them and their interests and he's excited about it. This evening at bedtime he told me "Mom, I don't think I'm going to save my money for a GameBoy. I think I want to buy you and daddy Christmas gifts." Nicholas has been set on a GameBoy (and sharing the expense with Ian) for quite a while now, so to hear him say that made me feel good. I think he'll still go for the GameBoy sometime next year when he's saved enough, but it's nice to know he'd give it up to give to others. At least for now.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Happy Saint Nicholas Day!

Or as we've told Nicholas... Happy Saint ME Day!

Were your stockings hung by the chimney with care last night? Did you leave hay and apples for St. Nick's donkey? Did he trade for gold covered chocolate coins, fruit, and nuts?

Nope, we didn't either. We don't have a chimney, laid four of daddy's tube socks out, forgot about the donkey, and received candy, toys and the traditional new tree ornament. Each of the kids brought a bag of goodies to share with their classmates, the girls each had a bag of shiney gold Werther's Originals to represent the gold coins Nicholas of Myra gave to those in need. The boys had bag of smarties to remember St. Nicholas, Patron Saint of Children. St. Nicholas is also the Patron Saint of Bakers and Travelers. We thank him for watching over us as we wander the world. And tonight, perhaps we'll do some family baking to celebrate, even though Mercy is already baking some chocolate bar cookies.
Today is the day we usually kick off the start of the season. Traditionally we'd put the tree and decorations up today though the lighting of the tree waits until Christmas Eve, listen to carols and get serious about wrapping gifts. We don't "do" Santa (which is a trial this year as several little friends -do- believe in Santa and Ian is wondering how that will affect our presents-under-the-tree bit), so the tree slowly fills up over the next couple weeks and the anticipation mounts. Rebecca has already gotten her siblings gifts. Katherine has started. The boys, well, they're still a little clueless for some reason.
And it's funny. While Nicholas understands that Santa isn't real (but we have to not say that around other kids! Shhh!) he's not so sure about St. Nicholas. Last year we had the whole "ghost of St. Nicholas wandering through our house" giving our little Nicholas the shivers, but this year he's just trying to make sense of it all, and I think he -wants- to believe. We've never kept alive the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, but St. Nicholas is special to him and I'm glad for it.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Phew, what a week(end), glad it's over.

The past few days have been good, but plain busy.

There was all the excitement over Rebecca's 9th birthday yesterday which left me quite wiped, and today we had church this morning, Advent projects (we don't have our advent stuff, so we're making them anew), lunch out at Cappucino, a swimming birthday party for a 1yo, finishing Advent crafty stuff, Katherine's homework, etc etc.
Church was at the Santhome Basilica, a beautiful building with a slightly gaudy interior. No neon crosses about (like at St Louis last week), but gaudy nonetheless with way too many statues vying for attention. While every first Sunday has the boys' choir from St. Bede's school, the music throughout was more reminiscent of a pop concert than a Mass. I'm still undecided about this place, especially as I was expecting so much more from the bbuilding built over a crypt believed to house the bones of St. Thomas, the St. Thomas of Jesus disciple fame. I'd expected something a little more... traditional. But it was in English, a definite step closer since last week's Mass in Tamil.
We will probably try Santhome again next week to see the next yellow candle with purple tinsel lit.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Another 9yo in the World

A quick review of the birthday girl's extended day: cupcakes with classmates at school, sleepover with best friend, early wake-up, Skype with grandparents and opened grandparent gifts, bagel and cream cheese breakfast (trust me, a treat), made cake with best friend, other best friend arrived, baseball in the yard, bowling with friends and family, lunch out with friends at Cedars, cake and present time.. downtime.. "Narnia" on the big screen. Sounds great for a 9yo!