I haven't seen that much of it, but I am amazed by what I find, and at times, amused by my amazement.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Letter 2009

This year it was Joann's turn to pen our annual year-end update.  Here is the year-in-review from her perspective:

Sting sings "The Cold Song". It’s a fitting tribute to the season and especially to the day. Looking out the window here in Rose Valley, I see a sky that is strangely similar in color to the one that resides over Manama, Bahrain, where John is currently working. One major difference in the two skies - the one here is filled with the fog of tiny ice crystals, and the one in Manama with sand and humidity from the Persian Gulf. Each has its own unique beauty and the resulting effects on the Christmas psyche.

I must say that seeing traditionally dressed Muslim travelers at the Manama airport, looking somewhat incredulously at the Santa Claus, elves, and polar bears (the latter arranged in a traditional Bahraini dhow/sailboat), also has its own location-specific effect. "

And so begins our tale of 2009, which actually began with three months in Macedonia.

After being fortunate enough to be able to stay home for the best part of 2008, in January of 2009 John accepted a job in Macedonia, what was called in the offer letter, "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," or fYROM. Catchy name, isn’t it? Actually, the people much prefer that their country is called simply Macedonia, Republic of Macedonia, but then the Greeks are having issues with that, among other things. (see comments below)  Either way, we left for Skopje, the capital, without having any expectations except perhaps the thought that we might be seeing a lot of post-Soviet- concrete-style architecture. We were not disappointed there. Before this job even materialized though, our vision was that we would end up in a place that would be unexpectedly delightful. That’s always an excellent thought to have in any instance. WHADDAYAKNOW? Turned out to be exactly what our experience was there. We found the people to be warm and welcoming which was by far the best part of Macedonia.

 Two of these people were our landlords, Vera and Giorgi Dzabirov. We rented the upstairs apartment in their home, formerly occupied by their now-adult daughters. Vera did not speak English, but spoke instead the language of food; the baked goods dialect. On a regular basis, Vera would come knocking with a plateful of a high-calorie something or other. Before we left Macedonia, we were treated to a dinner of traditional Macedonian dishes: Sausages, beans, pickled vegetables, breads, stuffed grape leaves, and little aperitifs of Rakia. Omar the Tentmaker and Fashionista, I believe, was in cahoots with Vera. If Switzerland hadn’t done us in with food, Macedonia had to be a close second.

The other major element that made our, but especially my stay in Macedonia so great was our relationship with Gordana, my Macedonian language tutor and her fiancĂ© (now husband), Naume. In their late 20’s, they both have grown up in a post-Tito Macedonia, where the reality of high inflation, little manufacturing base left, and low wages makes life economically challenging. Hm. Somehow that sounds vaguely familiar. Whether it was the lack of a lot of material things (e.g. their landlord owned not only their apartment building & apartment, but also their furniture), or because of it, Gordana and Naume were more than happy to share their very rich lives with us. Their interests ranged from literature, music, theater, and art to politics and more mundane aspects of life in the non-European Union Balkans. They both speak several languages (Gordana taught English, and Naume French at a local language school), and in fact Gordana is now ending the first semester of a two year scholarship studying English, Portuguese, and Italian ‘abroad.’ Needless to say, we Americans get the Language Buffoon Prize. My attempts at Macedonian were received with kindness and patience…

Leaving Macedonia in late spring, we returned home to find an assortment of squirrel and mouse prizes, but none as spectacular as the ones that Seth and Savannah discovered here just before we returned home from Switzerland. Squirrels are indeed industrious and persistent creatures.

Spring and early summer found us embarking on house projects, the biggest one being the excavation/preparation for the new porch and entryway that John designed, the ensuing concrete pad for that, followed by our friend Snowy’s excellent rockwork. Although feeling somewhat like the Winchester Mystery Mansion, the house continues to transform but not actually get any bigger. One of these decades, it will actually be finished-more or less. Summer, what there was of it here for John, seemed to fly by filled with PROJECTS. Although, always happy to get things ‘done,’ we seemed to have little time, with the exception of a kayak paddle or two with our friends, Les and Gary, for one of our favorite places to be: in and/or on the water.

That lack may have been one of the inspirations for our next visualizations for a job location. Yes, an island located in a warm place. We just hadn’t quite prepared ourselves for how effective our imaginings would be. When John arrived in Bahrain in mid-July, the daily temperatures averaged in the 120’s. When I arrived in September, daily temps had fortunately cooled down significantly to the 100-110’s. Whew, that was a relief! The swimming pool on the roof of the apartment building provided a welcome sanctuary for me each afternoon. John at least could work mostly in the air-conditioned US Embassy.

 While I was in Manama, we managed to tour the Grand Mosque at the end of Ramadan, get SCUBA recertified, go pearl-diving (and actually find a couple of really little pearls), tour the aircraft carrier Nimitz that came into port for a couple of days, and do a quickie trip to the water slides at the Atlantis Palm in Dubai. It may sound like we were in major vacation mode - and we are when we get these very special opportunities, but in the meantime, which is by far most of the time that we are overseas, John is working long hours. He continues to do so.
After a two-month stay in Bahrain, I returned home almost just in time for the really big event of 2009! The November 5th arrival of Sedona Dakota Krohn on planet earth. There are no words to describe what an incredible little being she is. Darcy has been able to stay home with her, continuing some of her duties as office manager for Stanek’s Nursery and Florist, at home and will resume a part-time at the office work schedule next month. Kris had two weeks at home to help get Sedona off to a good start before he had to return to Alderwood Landscape & Design where he continues his job as a landscape architect.

Our other offspring are also each on their own respective paths of life, love, and self-discovery. Arista seems to be thriving in Wenatchee still working part time for Stone Soup (artists’ marketing group), part time at a bistro, and in her ‘spare’ time working to develop her web design business. Seth remains a Republic resident sharing his life with Savannah, but has made a major career change. In August, he began working for Curlew Job Corps as their Assistant Recreation Manager. His recurring cheesy smile is often accompanied by the comment, “I can’t believe I actually get PAID to do this.” He’s enjoying working with the students, to say the least. And the youngest of the kid bunch, Jonathan/aka JP is living in Republic continuing with his self-directed education in important life lessons. Hopefully, we’re all still doing that, I guess! And last but not least, Sebastian, the truly senior citizen of the household at 11, is keeping track of squirrel, deer and coyote proceedings from the comfort of his pillow inside the glass doors.
From different corners of the world this Christmas, we send you our love and best wishes for the holidays and new year!

Joann and John

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chinese New Year, 2003

This was an email from Jan 9, 2003.  All of the photos can be viewed original size by clicking on the photo.

Well, it has been another week in Beijing. Actually, my last day off was Friday. Today is Wednesday, and I'm only now getting around to writing about it.

My original plan had been to go to the Great Wall last Friday. The weather had turned cold and windy and I decided to postpone that trip and do something closer to home.

One of the first items on my agenda was to locate some good hand lotion. Between the cold weather and all the concrete drilling I had been doing making holes for new conduit runs in the embassy buildings, my hands were starting to crack and bleed. I found a well stocked drug store in one of the mega-hotel/shopping mall combos popular in the tourist section of Beijing. I bought three bottles. I am glad to report that after a few days my hands are much improved.

The next trip I took was to Silk Alley. I had been there before, but the intensity of the place had overwhelmed me, with hundreds of little shops, crowds of tourists and locals, and vendors trying their best to separate people from their money.
Scenes from the entrance to the Silk Market

This time I went, resolved to go toe to toe with them and bargain my way into some good deals. I ended up buying a backpack for 60 Yuan (US$7.20) that started out at 180 Yuan, a pair of ski gloves for 50 Yuan (US$6.00) that started out at 120 Yuan, etc.
One of the many Northface jacket sellers

Many tourists pay the asking price. The guys I work with have told me what things have actually gone for, and I see how close I can get to that target. It takes determination, a lot of haggling and flat walking away to get there. In some ways, it is difficult to argue about 50 cents or a dollar with someone who makes in a day what I make in an hour. The seller however isn't the owner in most cases, but works for the owner. I'm actually working my way up to a big buy right before I leave Beijing. I hope I'm ready.

By noon, I was on the subway headed back to Tiananmen Square. The week before, I had gone with "John" (the Chinese law student who wanted to practice his English) from Tiananmen Square south into some of the older parts of Beijing. This time, I wanted to head north around the west side of the Forbidden City.

Entrance to Beihai Park.  The White Dagoba can be seen in the background.

One of the main places I visited is the Beihai Gongyuan. It is a large, beautiful park just northwest of the Forbidden City known for the Jade Islet, a island in the middle of a lake that was made by laborers with the material dug out when they made the lake. In the center of the islet is the White Dagoba, a temple built for a visit by the Dalai Lama in 1651. Unfortunately, it had closed for the day (4:30 pm) by the time I got there. I did cruise around the outside, though. In the summer there are boats to rent. In the winter, it is ice skating. I didn't see anyone actually skating but I have included a picture of what I did see.
Skating, Beihai style

Another picture is a small grocery store across the street from the backside of the Forbidden City. The lanterns and hangings beside the door (everything red) are just for Chinese New Year.
Dressed up for New Years

Chinese New Year is actually the first lunar day of the first lunar month. In 2003 it falls on Saturday, February 1st. It ended the year of the horse and issues in the year of the ram. The entire festival lasts for 15 days. The decorating has gotten intense, now. Every shop has something up. On the walk home the other night I saw several people taping stuff up in windows - banners, cut paper designs and the usual printed cardboard holiday things - just like we tape up printed cardboard ghosts on Halloween, turkeys, and snowmen in their time.

A poster in the elevator of my apartment building.  Click on the photo to read the "unfortunate" translation

The war outside my window is still going on. I'm not sure who is winning, but the cannon fire started up again as soon as the sun went down. I am told the Chinese New Year festivities continue for 15 days. Surely they will run out of fireworks by then. I was awakened at 3:30 the other morning by a blast that I was sure must have penetrated the apartment, it was so loud. I wonder what it would be like if Beijing didn't have a ban on fireworks!

One of the signs of the season are the little children. Their parents dress them up in beautiful, colorful silk jackets and pants. They really are pretty and the parents take obvious pride in dressing them up. Some of the kids have had enough of it though, you can tell. One little boy, getting off the subway in embroidered coat and pants, staged a sit-down strike at the bottom of the stairway. Mom and Dad had to suspend him by his arms and between them hauled him up the stairs. His shoes and the cuffs of his pants were caked with dried mud. He must have had a great time! Whatever festivities he had been to, he was done with the whole thing!

The embassy staff all had Monday through Wednesday off and the Chinese construction crews have all left for at least a couple of weeks for New Year holiday. The place seems deserted. It's when we get to do our noisiest, messiest work inside the embassy. Many of the shops are closed and all government offices and banks are closed. The subway has been practically empty and the crowds are gone from the streets. Many people travel home to visit relatives and bring gifts. If it wasn't for the constant booming of fireworks after the sun goes down, I might wonder if everyone wasn't leaving town.

Friday I am finally going to the Great Wall. John will be my guide again and he will get to practice his English some more. I believe it is about an hour by bus to get there.

Gongxi facai! (Wish you good luck! -a traditional New Year greeting)


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Second Post from China - The Forbidden City

Originally sent as an email almost seven years ago (How is it possible that so much time has passed?) The pictures have been reworked with Corel Paint Shop Pro.

Friday, January 24, 2003

Today was my second day off since I have been here and the first day off that I have had a camera. Rather than buy another one here (electronic items that are not made in China are more expensive here than in other countries due to import taxes) I borrowed a Sony Cybershot from one of the other electricians working here.  Even though my Sony was lost, I still had a new 128k memory stick and it fit in this camera.

Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square

My goal for the day was the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. These two Beijing landmarks are across the street from each other and are only five subway stops away from my apartment. I waited until the sun cleared the smog and the day was as bright as it was going to get. A few minutes after getting on the subway I was getting off at the Tiananmen East station, one of the largest stations on the line. Climbing the broad staircase to street level brought me right out in front of the entrance to the Forbidden City. Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) is famous for the 30 foot tall portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs over it.

Standing in the middle of the middle of the center...

Once inside, I soon picked up a guide who offered to give a personal guided tour for 200 Yuan ($16). He usually guided tour groups, but January was a slow season for tourist and I offered him 150 Yuan. We settled on 180. We spent over two hours going through the different palaces and halls and he provided many insights that I would never have seen if I had been on my own.

I had heard pictures couldn't be taken inside the Forbidden City; however that only applied to certain rooms displaying museum pieces, such as the hall of pottery and the hall of paintings. Once inside, I realized just how large the City is. The first large area is only the outermost courtyard. Through the next gate and across another long square gets one to the Meridian Gate. Through this gate and one enters the actual inner grounds. Three large buildings are passed in succession, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Middle Harmony and Hall of Preserving Harmony. These were all the administration and political offices of the Emperor. Behind these buildings, were three more, the living quarters of the Emperor; the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union (where wedding ceremonies were held) and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (the bedroom where the Emperor, Empresses and concubines slept.) The only men allowed here were the eunuchs. Behind all of this are the Imperial Gardens and finally the soldiers' quarters and the Gate of the Divine Warrior, the back gate. In all, the Forbidden City is said to have 999 ½ rooms, the 1000th room being in heaven.  The guide took a picture of me standing in the exact middle of the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was considered to be the middle of China, and China was called the Middle Kingdom, or the center of the Earth. Therefore, I was standing in the middle of the middle of the center of the Earth. An impressive spot!

In the Imperial Gardens

After leaving my guide at the back gate and wandering on my own back to the front, I headed across the street via a pedestrian tunnel to Tiananmen Square.  I stopped in the middle of the square to take a 360 degree panorama. Here I was approached by a student who wanted to practice English. This is very common here. I have been approached a few times, usually on the way to or home from work. This young man was a law student who was getting ready to take his certification test. His professor was with him and said that John (sure are a lot of Johns in the world!) was an honor student, had won a scholarship to attend law school and had won a trip to America the year before (three days in Chicago). I said I desired to see some of the older parts of Beijing. We left the Square and headed a few blocks away, down narrow streets to Dazhalan Xijie, a shopping district where most of the buildings were four and five hundred years old. We went into a shop that was proud to be the place where Mao always came to get his shoes made.

Street scenes near Dazhalan Xijie

In the back of the same shop we sat for a tea ceremonyand tasted several teas. I ended up buying a very good Oolong that is grown in a small area in southern China, is harvested entirely by hand and is known for its taste and color.

Tea tasting with Deng Yong (John)

Down another street and we went into a pharmacy that displayed among other things, many kinds of ginseng root. There was ginseng from all over the world.  There were several from the US that cost about a dollar a gram. There were also three ginseng roots from a forest in northern China that were extremely rare and took 100 years to grow. They were priced at 18,600 Yuan or $2250.00! I didn't buy one of those.

Temple of Heaven

Leaving the professor, who had other things to do, John and I walked to Tiantan Park, about twenty minutes away, and the location of the Temple of Heaven. The Emperor made a once a year trip to the Temple of Heaven to pray for good rains and a successful harvest. John kept me well supplied with facts about what we were seeing and he got plenty of chance to practice his English. On the way back we detoured through several more alleys and hutong. We finally stopped at a small restaurant in an alley where he had eaten as a child, and had Peking duck and Chinese beer. The restaurant, he said, was famous for its pork (Chairman Mao's favorite dish) and everyone who ate there was served a bowl with their meal. The pork had an almost barbequed taste and was very delicious.

It was dark by the time we were done at the restaurant and after exchanging phone numbers and E-mail addresses he got on a bus and I got back on the subway.  We had made tentative plans to go to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs next Friday. In all I took 76 pictures and though the day was overcast and the smog was laying in, I'm sure there are probably one or two good shots. I'll get some posted soon.