MadGab, Japanese style

Today I finished my third full week of Japanese instruction. I now have 62 hours of direct instruction and many hours of study under my belt. I am able to tell someone where I am from, what types of sports (or foods or drinks) I like, and that my husband works at the U.S. Embassy. I can tell you that next year I will move to Yokohama, then to Sapporo. I can tell you that the umbrella (or key or cell phone) right there is not mine.

The past weeks have passed in a blur of words, syllables, confused looks, blank stares, and laughter. Most of each day consists of my classmates and I playing a version of Japanese Mad Gab that is both painful and hilarious. (If you don’t know what Mad Gab is, check it out here.) We are presented with sentences in hiragana and proceed to sound them out, syllable by syllable, slowly. So slowly. “I… lie… lie… kuh… Oh! Like. I… like… pee… sa. Pee… ta? No. Pee… za. Oh! Pizza! I… like… pee…za. I… like… pizza.” Then ten minutes later the same sentence shows up and we repeat the process because we have already forgotten how to read it.

The second week of class we participated in a little mini-exchange. All the Japanese classes were mixed up, and teachers rotated into the different classrooms to practice introductions and basic conversation. I can only imagine this as sheer torture for the instructors, who go from classroom to classroom asking, “What types of foods do you like?” and “Do you like golf?” over and over. At some point, feeling emboldened, I tried to say that my brother also attended the University of Texas in Austin. Because I didn’t know the words for brother, university, or any past tense verb, I think I stuttered out, “Austin’s Texas student is (how do you say brother)?” The teacher’s slack jaw and furrowed brow told me all I needed to know about my ability to create new sentences.

We attended a lecture about Japanese pronunciation that included the definition of a “uvular n”. I can’t get into specifics (because I don’t totally understand them) but think of it like this:

Can you hear the difference between “road” and “load”? Well, a Japanese person can’t. Feeling superior? Don’t. Turns out there are sounds in Japanese that we can’t really hear, either. Or, at least, it is really hard. Hence the need to learn terminology like “uvular n” and other such craziness. And the need for hours of listening practice.

Yesterday we spent two full hours learning how to tell time in Japanese. Yes, they use the same time-telling system as we do. But I now have a whole new appreciation for little people who have to learn to tell time. It is a harrowing journey to learn how to say the words for the hour, the minutes, and a.m./p.m. Let alone expressions like “ten til”. Oh, and you may remember from my last post that some numbers have different names when referring to hours. But not minutes. So, yeah, the two hour time-telling session was not even a drop in the bucket. If you asked me the time right now it would take me a full 30 seconds to give you an answer.

As an end-of-the-day handout our teacher passed us a helpful list of counter words. When I say “counter words” you might be thinking “numbers”, which are words we use for counting. Let me explain to you that counter words are the different terms used to count different objects. For example, different words are used to count people, small animals, long/thin objects, machines, thin/flat objects, or books. When counting minutes, different words are used depending on which number of minute it is (imagine we called them “three minutes, four pinutes, five pinutes, six minutes, etc.). I don’t even know what to think about this.

I have spent the past weeks trying to imagine what our sensee is thinking as we struggle through basic reading and time-telling. As we stutter and misspeak and celebrate tiny successful sentences (spoken 1/10th normal speaking speed) I try to imagine what is going on in her head. I am guessing she drinks heavily at home. Maybe she has a blog that details our complete inadequacy as Japanese students.

Maybe someday, with enough work, I’ll be able to read it.

DC lovin’

Please forgive me while I get a little weepy here. I love DC. Love.

Before you think I’m crazy, I assure you I know that DC is a strange little pocket of our nation. It seems that the only people allowed to live in DC and the closest suburbs are under the age of 29. At least 75% of those people were their high school class president. They wear suits, for goodness sake (which, if you’re coming from Portland, you know is completely strange)! How they pay for the insanely high rents I have no idea, because rent here is no joke and salaries tend to be in price range of “unpaid intern” or “government employee”. Next door to our apartment building is one of the five trendy barre studios within walking distance, which recently posted that their part-time, minimum-wage receptionist job required a headshot with application. Whenever I listen to my local NPR station, I have trouble telling between their reporting on local and national news, which is why I believe this city sometimes forgets there is an entire country out there (of which it is the capitol). Remember Hunger Games? Yes, DC is sort of like District One.

So, yes, DC is nuts. But those of us who tell you things like, “DC is a fetid miserable swamp! I hate it!” are probably only saying that from heat stroke. Now that my brain has shaken off the humidity of the (seriously horrible) summer weather, I am able to sing DC’s praises again.

Almost every time I go for a run I start to cry. It isn’t just the sad state of my fitness level, or the feeling of desperation one can only feel when running through a wall of solid watery air. A four-mile run from my apartment takes me along the Potomac River, with views of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, before I pass by Arlington National Cemetery and the Marine Corps War Memorial (commonly known as Iwo Jima). I run past people of all shapes and colors, speaking different languages, all doing different kinds of outdoor activities. Yesterday, we took the girls on a short bike ride that passed by the Vietnam War Memorial, the FDR Memorial, the MLK Jr Memorial (where I openly wept while my kids begged for cookies), the WWII Memorial, the African-American History Museum, and a finish at the Washington Monument. Charlotte asked if she could touch it and proceeded to pet the stones for a full minute.We gazed over the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial and I got to explain to her that when MLK gave his I Have a Dream speech, it was right *there*, and that the people filled the grounds to where we were standing. While I choked up over the emotion of history, Charlotte commented on the large number of pigeons on the lawn. Then I pointed out Barack Obama’s actual house and teared up again.

My kids don’t get it, of course. They are interested and curious but they don’t understand the ridiculous awesomeness of this city. DC is a city full of elegant historic monuments, incredible museums that are free and open to all, and most of all a history of important moments. The parks are beautiful (despite the pigeon and goose droppings). There is the chance that at any moment you’ll see the presidential helicopter or motorcade, which is pretty cool even for grown-ups. (I’m not one who gets bent out of shape over a celeb sighting, but every time I hear a helicopter I run to our balcony just in case Obama happens to be flying by.)

Without getting too political here, DC is one of the most spectacular uses of our tax dollars. What other country has a capitol like this? Where else can you visit and see, within a three-mile radius, military, political, and social history, almost entirely for free (except for the cost of novelty t-shirts you may feel compelled to purchase)? The National Zoo (also free!) boasts baby lions (and their parents, which are often heard roaring), baby pandas, and a ropewalk for orangutans which leads them right over the heads of enthralled zoo visitors. Walking around DC, sniffling over the weighty emotion of the graves at Arlington National Cemetery or choking up while reading inspirational quotes by former presidents, I feel like I have been given this amazing gift. And the best part is it is a gift available to anyone. Busloads of tourists from all over the world arrive here to see this place each day. Busloads of American public school students arrive here everyday. And here it is, all at my doorstep each day for a year!

I may not be within the socially approved age-limit of my neighborhood (I may even be more than a decade too old to live here). I am definitely not in the income bracket to afford to live here long-term. But living in DC this year might just turn me into the most patriotic American out there.

We will be here for 11 more months, so please take this chance to come visit us in this great city. We can show you the amazing things this place has to offer. But, if you come, please don’t forget to bring a box of tissues.

Day One: Japanese

Today I actually did Something Official for the first time in six-and-a-half years. I mean, I have done other Things. But for the most part they involved childrearing. Today, I got dressed in clean clothes and brushed my hair and went to my first day of Japanese class at the Foreign Service Institute (or, FSI).

A little background on language study, before I tell you about my day:

FSI is the training facility for the Department of State, where they educate Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) in the finer points of their future jobs. Training for managers, training for brand-new hires, training for consular officers and econ officers and more. But, mostly, training in foreign languages.

The Department of State has realized the importance of having officers who speak and understand the languages of the world. Diplomacy requires good communication, and it is impossible to communicate effectively without a shared language. So, twice each year, FSI welcomes hundreds of language students to begin classes in dozens of world languages including Spanish, French, Mandarin, Russian, Khmer, Hausa, Uzbek, Bulgarian, Tagalog, and Kinyardwanda (to name a few). And, most importantly to me, Japanese.

Now, I’m no Foreign Service Officer. I am what is commonly referred to as an “EFM” (boring acronym for family member who is eligible for Embassy job preference) or “trailing spouse” (semi-derogatory nickname for spouse of an FSO). Both of these designate my second-rate status as a member of this whole FS life. But, I still get some very important perks. And one of the biggest is the chance to receive language training alongside the officers.

Language classes at FSI are intense. While there, it is an officer’s full-time job to study language. Before going to post, each officer needs to pass a high-stakes language test and there is a lot of pressure to pass that test as soon as possible. Classes are small, usually fewer than six students. 100% attendance is required, and there is no slacking if you want to pass your test. In all, language training is a pretty big deal at a pretty great language academy, and it is a pretty amazing chance for me to learn Japanese before heading to Japan.

Japanese, Day One:

So, I’m all excited and nervous. Here I am, headed to what basically amounts to a real job for the first time in 6.5 years. I know Japanese is probably going to be hard, but I keep hearing things like, “It’s easier than Mandarin!” or “If you speak Spanish already you’ll have no problem!” Even my husband told me, “It’s easier than Spanish because you don’t have to conjugate verbs.” At least, that is what I remember him telling me. I have definitely been using selective hearing lately, to calm my nerves about heading around the world to a country where I will stick out like a sore thumb.

Here I am, Day One, thinking that Japanese is going to be good-challenging, like doing an easy hike or staying awake past 9 p.m. Not bad-challenging, like job hunting or paying taxes. I’m thinking about how I will definitely impress my new friends in Japan when I speak their language next year. I can only describe myself with a Japanese word I learned long ago on the Ultimate Frisbee field: genki (which basically translates to cheerful, energetic or happy-spirited).

As you may have guessed, I am an idiot. Day One, the program directors mentioned at least four times that Japanese is the hardest language taught at FSI. That in order to get a basic level of conversational Japanese I will need 48 weeks of full-time study. That there will be tears in my future. (And the guy who predicted tears is not even someone who knows me. Meaning, he is predicting that the average person will cry. Meaning, I am very likely to cry A LOT.)

But, no matter. I’m still ready for this. It is Day One and my spirit has not yet been crushed (too much). I even won some Pocky for reading a half-sentence that was written phonetically in English. I was high on life (and tea-flavored Pocky). That was 8:30 a.m.

By 3:30 p.m., after five hours of direct instruction by a wonderful sensee, the four of us in my class had learned approximately 20 syllables and five short phrases related to introductions. We also know that Japanese has three different alphabets (I use that term loosely, but I can’t even properly identify the actual name for what these “alphabets” are, so I won’t try). Two of the alphabets have dozens of symbols in them, and the third has thousands and thousands of symbols.

 

And after five hours we know 20 of them. Only. 20.

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Writing in websites, books, and newspapers is a combination of all three alphabets mixed together. Spaces are not used between words. But I’m pretty smart, so I am thinking this article is about the G20 summit. I wonder if I could pass my Japanese reading test?

At some point I stupidly opened my mouth to ask a question about the number four. My pointless question prompted our sensee to teach us that the number four is sometimes said shi, but because shi also means “death” (and is therefore considered bad luck) four is sometimes called yon and when a clock is involved it is called yo. (The word shi also means “poem” so I feel like it should cancel out the bad juju of death and we could just stick with one word after all. Or, couldn’t we just stop using shi for four and just stick with one of the others full-time?) The word for the number nine, ku, also means “suffering”, so now lots of people call it kyu. And we also learned one of the kanji symbols today. This is what it looks like: 日 And it means “day” or “Japan” or “sun”. And maybe some other stuff, but since my brain is totally full of the other 20 symbols I learned today, I have no idea.

As you may imagine, this day was profoundly depressing for me. It was fun and interesting and I even learned some things! But they feel like the tiniest tip of the iceberg, and my dreams of easy language acquisition are officially shot. I can no longer imagine learning enough Japanese to someday make Japanese friends, and instead I picture myself in Sapporo alone, crying over delicious, delicious sushi dinners.

And now I seem to have two choices. I can focus on the suffering (ku), or I can channel my energetic spirit.

Genki desuka? Hai! Genki desu!

Moving? Piece of Cake!

Do you have plans to move soon? No sweat! Moving is a piece of cake. By following these easy steps, you too can have the flawless move you’ve been dreaming of!

  1. Don’t be a hoarder.
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This would be an easy move. Especially because it is on wheels.

It helps if you actually have NO things, and you are one of those super-minimalist types who lives in a tiny house. But we all know that is crazy, so I will say that having just a few things is okay, too. I mean, I don’t know for sure, because as it turns out we have way. too. much. stuff.

How I know I have too much stuff? I found the following items as I cleaned out my house:

A puzzle with three missing pieces

6 puzzles pieces that did not match the puzzle with missing pieces

Old notebooks filled with to-do lists. Almost no things checked off as completed.

The Nerf bullets to a gun my husband owned as a child. As for the gun, no idea.

At least 17 broken toys collected at birthday parties in party favor bags.

Two random, unimportant notes from a former (three years former) teacher. (Yeah, I carried those on two moves.)

A bunch o’ Pilates DVDs that haven’t been used in four years. (Oh, I’m keeping those. Remember what I said: a few things are okay. As long as they are super-important.)

  1. Move all your things to just one place.

If you are in the Foreign Service you know this is probably impossible. Today, our things are being divided into five piles: Suitcases, DC, Storage, Yokohama, and Tokyo. If you have not followed my first piece of advice then it will be highly stressful to have to divide your things, knowing you will not see most of them for more than a year, and lots of them someday far in the future when you have to PCS to DC (at which time you will wish you had followed #1). If your things are going to more than one place, please read step three.

  1. Buy stock in 3M and/or Ziploc.

If you want to make actual moving day go very smoothly, you will want to do some prep work. You will need to spend at least $3,000 on 3M sticky notes and Ziploc giant plastic bags thingys. Do not try to be thrifty and buy the Dollar Store kind, trust me on this. A big wind will kick up just as you’ve finished labeling the final box and you will have to re-label all the boxes, or at least just play Label Bingo and randomly stick them on boxes. Put like things together in those big ol’ bags, then label them saying where they should go. (Try not to do what I did, which was to find a random objects at the last minute and shove them in the nearest bag. This will not help you later when you unpack.)

Note: I promised that your move would be easy if you followed my instructions. This part might not have sounded “easy”, but if you follow my advice and buy that stock ahead of time, you will soon make a fat profit when the stock soars during PCS season. You will be able to use your profits to take a vacation. Which sounds pretty good after packout. (Note to the note: if you tell your friends to use 3M and Ziploc, that will also help you out with your stock profits.)

I am not being paid by 3M or Ziploc. But if they want to pay me I’m down with that.

  1. Don’t create garbage during any of the days the movers are in your home.

We have all heard the horror story of the movers who pack the garbage can with the kitchen garbage still in it and the nastiness of unpacking such a situation. Use this week as an experiment in a zero-waste lifestyle. According to the Clean Bin Project, you can still enjoy life by drinking Zero Waste Beer. As a corollary to #4, drink your zero-waste beer during packout. You will feel much less stressed. As a corollary to that corollary, if you drink regular wasteful beer, you can expect to see your empty beer bottles on the other side, so be careful.

And finally,

  1. Stop caring.

If you are attached to your lovely items, please do not move. They might get broken. We have had amazing movers for most of our moves. But still, you will find a broken frame, or cream pitcher, or TV. You will read the movers’ inventory and it will say (in English, mind you) “Things from Room” and you will sigh heavily (and have a gulp of that Zero Waste Beer). You may receive couch cushions (but no couch) or a couch (but no cushions). If you really, really care about all of your stuff, try to figure out how to let it go. Then you can go back to #1 and try for an easier time for the next move.

Which, if you live a life like ours, is just around the corner.

 

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They didn’t have a knife. But ten bucks says they could have hooked me up.

**As an aside, we have had one bad move, which was an un-pack in DC. No joke: the company was called Purple Haze Moving and they showed up an asked me for a knife to open the box. I said, “It’s in that box that you can’t open.” He looked at me, blinking, until I went and found a knife at my neighbor’s house. He used the time I was gone to partake in a little more.

All the Bad Words

I have all the bad words for you.

You know who you are. You of the Porsche Cayenne, who EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. cuts in front of the line of cars waiting to enter and pick up their kids. You of the shiny Volvo sedan, who almost hit three preschoolers today in your rush to get off campus first. You, who, when directed by the traffic police at school to wait, swerves around, narrowly missing the póli in order to save 15-18 seconds.

I am just TIRED of you.

I am tired of the entitlement, the lack of rule-following, the belief that you do not have to be a part of the system.

I have all the bad words for you.

I won’t say them out loud, because my kid is in the backseat of my car. (Well, also because I don’t know all the bad words in Spanish, only some of them.) I almost don’t even want to write this, because it is letting you get to me while you clearly do not give a thought to anyone else.

But after spending two years watching you, I am finally done. I am very sad to leave this beautiful country. But I am not sad to leave you. I will be happy to head to Oregon, a land of law-abiding citizens. A place where people stop for pedestrians and even for ukulele-playing unicyclists (who are almost asking to be hit. Seriously.). Where the smug a**holes are driving Nissan Leafs (Leaves?) or doing their house-to-house move only by bicycle-pulled carts.

So adios to you. Thank you for making this difficult month a little easier to bear. And if you ever come visit Oregon, I promise to let you into my lane (as long as you are in a two-person smart car).

My Daughter Is Rad

My daughter is da bomb. Do kids still say that nowadays? I mean, I almost went with bodacious but that seemed dated. And the next coolest thing I could think of was da bomb. Surely that is still groovy with the hip cats? Last week my older sister said something was on fleek, and since she’s pretty popular in the 14-year-old set I figured that is what the kids are using these days. But I’m not actually sure on fleek is a thing. And if it IS a thing, I’m pretty sure it isn’t what my daughter is.

Now, I normally hate the thing where parents write about how cool our kids are. So, here I am breaking my own rule and being a total hypocrite. (If I say this is ironic, would I be right? I don’t even know anymore.) But last night I realized my daughter is pretty amazing.

Just to make you feel better, I assure you this story starts out with normal kid behavior. Which, in our family, involves tears. Last night we came home and half of our backyard play structure was gone. Because I’m clearly an idiot, I opened my mouth and said, “Hey, where’s the slide and swings?”*

[*If you are the parent of a child you know this is a really bad move. Because if I hadn’t said anything, I probably could have hid the evidence by offering them ice cream (upstairs away from a window) and she never would have noticed.]

But, no, I opened my big mouth and then my husband replied, “Yeah, Herbert came and took it.”

This is where I will admit this WHOLE thing was my fault. I sold our giant playground thingy to our friends. And when the guy came to see it and figure out how to move it, I told him to come get it next week sometime. But… second language, imprecise communication, etc. So, he came back a couple hours later and started moving it to my friend’s house. While I was gone. And before I had time to prepare the girls that it was going to leave.

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This is not a picture of our play structure. Because I’m a bad parent who never took one. Ours was not really like this in real life (picture something 1/4 the size, with more splinters and lots of bird poop). But in my daughter’s brain it most definitely is (was) this awesome.

My daughter broke down. She crumpled into her dad’s lap and just sobbed. “But I loved that slide! I liked to lie on it on my tummy and talk to my stuffed animals! It calmed me down! Now NOTHING will calm me down EVER AGAIN! And that was my CASTLE! And I loved it and now it is GONE. And the birds ONLY sit on the playground structure and now I’ll never be able to watch birds anymore!” [I will interrupt here to say 1. The birds really DID like to sit on that thing, as evidenced by the mounds and mounds of bird droppings I cleaned off it every week, and 2. As she was crying about five birds flew up and perched on the razor wire on our back wall. So, yeah, the birds liked the play structure but the birds are not gone and she can still watch them.] “WHY do we have to move and get rid of our play structure?!”

This is the first time in all our moving, traveling, and nomadic lifestyle that she has ever cried about leaving. It broke my heart to see her so frustrated and sad. And also it broke my brain because it was late and she was hungry and tired there was lots to do before we could just get to bed.

But, here’s where her awesomeness comes into play. We eventually made it up the stairs and got into pajamas. She was still a little hiccup’y and all red-faced from crying. She said, “Mommy, I am sad to leave here. But sometimes I’m excited. But sometimes I’m sad. I will miss my friends.” Then she went over to the bookshelf and picked out a picture book about life in Tokyo and said, “Let’s read this one tonight so I can feel excited about Japan instead of sad.”

She might be the best person I know at living this Foreign Service lifestyle. The emotions are crazy, and we all have moments of sadness and frustration. But then you get to look ahead and feel excited about learning something new.

So, I got a little red-faced and weepy-eyed and hugged her and read about all the groovy things we’ll see in Japan.

FS-iversary

I think we can all agree that wedding anniversaries are the most boring holiday. Now before you get all huffy, let me explain. My wedding anniversary is not The Most Memorable Day of my year. Maybe that is because by the time I said my vows I was already living in sin, and had already taken over most of the bathroom drawers with my girly-stuff. Getting married didn’t really change my day-to-day life, so aside from being a killer party it wasn’t The Most Important Day. Maybe I don’t love our wedding anniversary because we almost never remember to celebrate (I’d like to throw my husband under the bus here, but I will admit I also do not have a good memory for anniversaries). And when we do celebrate it is to go out to dinner. Which is cool, because food, but not necessarily the most spectacularly creative way to spend time together.

I’m also pretty bad at remembering birthdays. Because, you know, they happen EVERY year and just when I finally mailed off last year’s gift (six months late… sorry!) I have to start worrying about forgetting the next year.

But today seems to be the date I remember each year. Our family’s anniversary into the Foreign Service. (Because it is important to be cute about stuff like this, let me call it the FS-iversary). Five years ago today, my husband got the call that he had been accepted into the Foreign Service. (Well, technically he got an email. But it seems way less dramatic to receive an email telling you your life has changed). After three years of waiting and having only 10 days left before we expired off the list, we finally joined up.

Why do I remember this day, when (unlike my wedding day) it did not involve delicious cakes or fancy dresses? Because from that day on, our life has been totally changed. We used to be able to say where we are from in less than 14 sentences. We used to have a home we loved (filled with furniture that we chose and liked). We never thought about our possessions in terms of how much they weigh. If someone talked about PCS or FAM we probably would have assumed it was some kind of trendy new microbrew. We were happy to carry on with our idyllic lives in Portland, composting and bike riding and eating organic chicken that we bought at our neighborhood farmers market.

Then we got the call (email, if you must continue to split hairs) and five years later, here we are. Important knowledge has been pushed from my brain by countless acronyms that don’t matter outside of this FS life. We don’t compost or recycle (not because we’re horrible people, but because that isn’t a thing here). We can sometimes buy a microbrew, near-expired, for about $6 per bottle. We have a beautiful house filled with someone else’s furniture. And explaining where we are from has become so lengthy that we are happy when we can just say, “From the U.S.” and leave it at that.

On our five year FS-iversary, we are happy to carry on with our idyllic lives in the Foreign Service. At least until we receive another life-changing call pointing us in the next direction. And if it happens to come as an email, well, it will be no less life-changing.

Hard Times, Hard Abs

People sometimes ask how we can live in a place like El Salvador, where the newsmakers are horrible gang violence and government corruption. Well, I’ll tell you how: we live like kings. Sure, it is the kind of king who lives behind concertina wire and guarded gates, but whatever.

One particular perk of living in a developing country is that stuff that is crazy expensive in the U.S. is really cheap here. Take Pilates. A reformer class in Portland costs $35 (ex-squeeze me?) but here it costs $5 per hour. Five U.S. dollars! Now, if you’re kind of skeptical, I totally get it. “$5 Pilates reformer classes? Well, it’s not the U.S. so it is probably taught in some crazy jungle hut or something. And it’s probably not actually good.” I do, I get it. I think it’s a wee bit xenophobic, but I get it.

I was recently tricked into encouraged to try a Pilates class here. So I brought my $5 and headed down the street to the studio.

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(Side note: I brought my $5 in U.S. dollar coins, because not only do we use the U.S. dollar in this country, but we’re suckers enough to take all those weighty beasts that Americans have rejected. Here they are called suegras, which translates to “mothers-in-law”.)

First sign you’re in a foreign environment: you basically just double park your car and hope the parking lot guard doesn’t come get you to make you move it during the class. If he doesn’t it’s no big deal because that is the system.

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More like this one.

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Not like this one.

Second sign you’re in a foreign environment: when you enter the room you turn around to see a room full of ladies on some sort of machine that looks like The Rack (not Nordstrom Rack), straps around feet and legs akimbo. I am a strong and fairly adventurous woman, so I did not run screaming from the room. But mostly that is because, as I turned to run, my torturer friend (who invited me to do Pilates—thanks again Melissa!) appeared at the door, blocking my exit. Don’t worry, I played it cool.

Classes begin every hour on the hour, with 10 beds per class, from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. We were in the 9 a.m. class, which basically seems to translate to “ladies who don’t have jobs but have enough money for Pilates”.

For those of you who have done Pilates, especially on The Rack, please remember what your first class was like. (If it was easy for you, please stop reading now because we have nothing in common.) For those of you who have never participated in this, let me describe it for you.

First, we lay down on a rolly bed thingy with all these straps and contraptions on it. Then, he told us what to do and within 20 seconds my muscles immediately started burning and I started laughing so hard I couldn’t stop. I am pretty sure that is either because it was a great time or because I was in shock and my body didn’t know how to react to the pain fun.

Three minutes in, Melissa kindly pointed out that we only had 47 minutes left. Fortunately for her, it was hard to extricate myself from my compromising position, so I wasn’t able to launch myself over to claw her tongue out before she added, “Pilates: It’s Better Than Burpees!” Truer words have never been spoken, so I decided to give her a pass.

The rest of the minutes passed in a blur of drool, pain, laughter and embarrassment. Oh, and ab work. At some point I wondered about the phone number for an ambulance, because if I were to fall out of the position it would be a painful and crippling injury. At the end, the trainer made us lay down to do some sort of leg stretch things that required putting legs around ears and circling them around and down again. I couldn’t see the mirror, so I was feeling pretty good about this stretch until that evil woman Melissa pointed out that in fact my legs weren’t around my ears but in fact at a not-quite-90-degree angle. Sometimes it’s better to just stay quiet about that stuff.

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What I look like when I do Pilates. As long as there are no witnesses and no mirror.

The morning after the class was another rude awakening, when I learned that one uses lots of ab muscles to maneuver the ubiquitous traffic circles, and that apparently I even worked my toe muscles in order to stay upright on that machine. Soreness everywhere.

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I’m pretty sure I’ll look like this in two months when we leave here…

A week later I’m three classes in and totally hooked. Pilates is the ideal exercise for injury-prone inflexible weaklings like myself. Good for balance, strength, flexibility, and with no impact. And, FIVE DOLLARS!

In the U.S. I would never be able to afford such a ridiculously cool class. But here in El Salvador, we get some really amazing benefits along with some of the sadness and downsides. Living here sometimes means hard times and hard emotions. But hopefully I’ll walk out of here with some hard abs.

It’s complicated

It has been awhile since I actually wrote in my blog. Blame laziness if you like (that is probably the real reason). But sometimes it seems like life is so normal here that it doesn’t really necessitate a blog. There are a few people out there who can blog about normal everyday living and make it interesting, but for the most part everyday life (at least mine) is pretty un-bloggable. We live abroad, but we live in a place that feels so similar to suburban U.S. living that it hardly qualifies.

Then recently, some friends of ours canceled their trip to come visit us. The U.S. news has (rightly) been talking about El Salvador, due to the sharp increase in violence here and the subsequent border crisis in the U.S. Over the summer, gangs here set about killing bus drivers in order to get the attention of the government. San Salvador has recently overtaken Honduras as the city with the most murders (an average of 30 people murdered each day, in a country with a population of 6 million). Things are really terrible for the people of El Salvador.

But, this cancellation really bummed me out. Don’t people understand that as expats we live in this safe expat bubble? Yes, El Salvador is dangerous and awful in many ways, but (sadly) this is largely for the poorer citizens, of whom there are many. I don’t feel unsafe. I go to Starbucks, for goodness sake!

So, my plan, to push back against the fear and loathing, was going to be to write a blog post to show some of the other side of living here. And by that, I mean the “little America” side. You know, McDonald’s, SUVs, big houses on cul-de-sacs, Cold Stone Creamery, Olive Garden, Forever 21, and other American jewels.

I took some pictures around town. Just like in the U.S., you can get a pizza from Pizza Hut! Stuffed with something and covered with other stuff and just as crazy as any ol’ U.S. Pizza Hut pizza! You can get wings and boobs at the same time at Hooters!

And then, before I could sit down and write it, I read a post from a friend on Facebook. This post, from a lovely British expat who has spent decades here, was about the death this week of a friend of hers. Killed by the maras (gangs), he left behind his daughter and grandson. Do I know this guy? No. Then why did I cry the whole way home after reading that? Because it is just too much.

Everyday in the past couple of weeks I have heard of someone who has been killed. The housekeeper down the street lost her husband. A guard in the neighborhood lost his dad. My dear friend took a job downtown in order to help needy Salvadorans. Day one she saw the body of a woman gunned down in the street. I read the Facebook post and it just overwhelmed me. It is too much, and everyone lives in fear of who will be next.

I came home and talked to our beloved housekeeper about the situation. We both cried as she told me the stories about her home village, which is about 30 miles from here. People there were being killed off one by one, and no one was willing to speak up about it because everyone is scared. Instead, people are sending their children out of here quietly, in the night, before the gangs can get them, too. “People shouldn’t be killing each other,” I said to her.

“It’s complicated,” she said. “It’s really complicated.”

And while I know that she is right, I just want to scream, “NO IT IS NOT! NO ONE SHOULD BE KILLING PEOPLE!” But screaming that doesn’t always help. Screaming about the gang murders means you have to scream about why the politicians are corrupt and why the police (and teachers and doctors and lawyers and everyone else) are underpaid and why there is no class mobility. You have to scream about recovery from a bloody civil war that pit families against each other. It is a complicated, twisted, emotional, and scary time for Salvadorans. And the wealthiest (including us diplomats) drive into our gated communities, behind our barred windows, and view it from afar.

El Salvador is a beautiful country with hills, mountains, volcanoes, and green as far as the eye can see. It is a place with the highest murder rate in the world where people are still quick with a smile or a laugh. It is a place where people are living in fear but can hit Cold Stone for a treat and get a little taste of normalcy. In short, it’s complicated.

San Romero de América

Today we hit up the ceremony for the beatification of Monseñor Óscar Romero.  As my brother pointed out:  Best.  Beatification.  Ever.

And, yeah, that is crazy.  I am not a Catholic (though I was born Catholic) so the thought of ever attending a beatification is pretty far-fetched.  But, thanks to this crazy Foreign Service life, here we are in the right place at the right time.

To give you a tiny bit of background (very tiny), Romero was a Catholic priest in San Salvador during a turbulent and dangerous time.  His assassination (while giving a mass) was one of the sparks of the civil war that engulfed the nation and destroyed families.  Thirty-five years after his death, Monseñor Romero is being beatified by the Catholic church as one of the steps on the way to making him a saint.  To say that Romero’s story is complicated, and that the history of the war is complicated, is an understatement.  It is to this day highly politically fraught.  Those on left say Romero was speaking for the poor, those on the right say he was a Communist agitator.

Today, Romero gets his due in a huge ceremony in Salvador del Mundo.  Romero is being celebrated as a defender of the poor, and a man who who spoke out against the unfairness of the huge discrepancy in wealth between the Very Wealthy and Very Poor of this country (there was virtually no middle class at the time of his death, and very little has improved for the poor of the country).

In the city, streets closed early Friday morning to prepare of the crowds that would come in for the ceremony (estimated to be upwards of 300,000 people).  Schools were canceled, and even the U.S. Embassy closed.  While we had planned to stay far away from the crowds, we found ourselves on a little exploratory mission today and wound up much closer to the happenings than I thought possible.  So, we took a little stroll.

Here are some pictures of what we saw as the spectators streamed in (we left very early).  And, some of the powerful quotes from a man who deserves to be remembered.

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“Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous,
tranquil contribution of all
to the good of all.

A clown schilling pizza.

A clown schilling pizza.

“If am killed, I shall arise again in the Salvadoran people…”

Chauffeurs awaiting their charges.

Chauffeurs awaiting their charges.

“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried”

Nuns.  Showing up a bit late.  (sorry about the mis-focus...)

Nuns. Showing up a bit late. (sorry about the mis-focus…)

“Like a voice crying in the desert, we must continually say ‘no’ to violence and ‘yes’ to peace.”

Bringing supplies

Bringing supplies

Ready for crowd control

Ready for crowd control

Because we were too far away to see any action ourselves...

Because we were too far away to see any action ourselves…

Watching on the big screen

Watching on the big screen

Fresh-squeeze juice, with a big-screen TV in the background

Fresh-squeeze juice, with a big-screen TV in the background

Italian welcome

Italian welcome

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Snacks for the spectators

Snacks for the spectators

Colorful spicy salsa

Colorful spicy salsa