Friday, December 11, 2009

The Lustre of Mid-day

Zoe has really gotten into Christmas in a big way -or as we say around her nanny "le fievre du Noel." I have to confess this malady has grown from seeds I planted, and I have no shame about the harvest. I love this season just about as much as when I was a kid, even understanding all the cynical arguments that it is a corrupted commercial holiday. I completely buy into the mythology of the season, not unlike the main character in "Elf," or Mr. Gailey in "Miracle on 34th Street."

So Zoe has quickly picked up on anything Christmas or -better- Santa-related. Any music of any genre that is quasi-holiday is cool with her, and any resonant male singer is Santa Claus (Bing Crosby, Harry Connick, Jr., Nat King Cole, etc.). She has even begun to ask that we turn off the music and just sing the songs together, with her gettting many of the words to Jingle Bells, Rudolph, Silent Night, The Little Drummer Boy, and even My Favorite Things.

Of course this has spilled over into her taste in books as well. Most of her holiday-themed books are unfortunately out of reach in a Minneapolis storage unit, but we do have a few, most of which are even too sugary sweet for my taste. But we all three can agree that we love Clement C. Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas (known also as Twas the Night Before Christmas)". We have a large-format version illustrated by rococo-cute specialist Mary Englebreit, with lots of little candy-cane and elf details on each page, and Zoe has just flipped for it.

So a few days ago, we were reading another book at nap time, and she noticed that one of the pictures featured a snowscape in the moonlight. She excitedly exclaimed, "Daddy, the moon on the breast of the newfallen snow gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below!" Pretty cool.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Time Warp

While at the Kimironko market awaiting a seamstress to finish the buttons on a new dress for Zoe (really cute, brilliant aqua and black African fabric), I see a Rwandan guy walking out of the covered market stall wearing an Eagan High School t-shirt. Seriously. The suburb I grew up in -and where my siblings graduated from- in Minnesota.

So I stopped him (with my mouth agape) and told him I'm from the place on his shirt. He was surprised to hear it was in the United States, and had never thought about the meaning of the word. Just a shirt. More strangely, while I'm speaking with him, Kenny Rogers' The Gambler is blaring loudly from a nearby stall.

I have seen many t-shirts that seem very strange given the context, and it seems that people think as little about the graphics on them as someone with Abercrombie et al probably does. My favorites are usually Minnesota connections: Randy Moss Vikings jersey, Twins T-shirts, a Gophers sweatshirt. But my favorite (until today) of all has been the guy in his 20s, wearing a pink "ringer" type shirt with pink trim and a colorful 70s-style glittery "Material Girl".

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tis the Season...

For baking?

I've noticed a pattern recently in my life: I seem to be baking a lot. Normally, I consider myself a pretty good cook, and like to get a little creative in the kitchen. But I don't think much of my skills as a baker. But then I found a recipe on the Cook's Illustrated podcast and website for a nearly no-knead artisanal bread. I've made it two times a week (or more) for almost a month now.

Then, we were asked to bring an apple pie to Thanksgiving. I've never made a pie before; always been a little intimidated by the crust. But I hit it out of the park (luckily), and we really enjoyed it. Thanks to Andrea's mom for inspiration and recipe.

Then we realized we had bought too much bread for the stuffing, and I solved it by making a banana-rum bread pudding (again the first of this category), and it was really good! Next we made Christmas (sugar) cookies as a family. This is a real consistent pattern of good bakery stuff. We're talking real trouble for the waistlines, and the holiday season isn't even all the way here. I'd better step up my running and biking for this last week in Kigali.

On a related note, I should announce that Zoe and I fly out of here on Sunday the 13th, arriving in the Twin Cities the following day. Then Andrea arrives four days later. We hope to go to New Orleans as a family on or around the 1st of the new year, for about 5 days. Then we all fly back to Africa, leaving on the 10th of January, and arriving the 12th.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Photos at last, but don't get used to it yet.

The iPhoto software has been out of commission on our main computer, and still is, but I've borrowed Andrea's work computer to post a few of our zillions of backlogged pics. So without further ado, here you go.

The first two are while in Amboseli Game Preserve in Kenya, on a lookout point, where we were able to see a family of 5 elephants being led by the mother, several zebras, giraffes, a few warthogs, and many birds. There were some crocodiles not far away, though we didn't know it at the time.
The next one is at a rest stop while en route to our final game park, Tsavo West. We got out to look at the lava fields from the most recent eruption, hundreds of years ago, and still barren and formidable. Interestingly, the volcanic soil is sometimes credited with the reason behind the fertility of the land, and sometimes blamed for nothing growing in the desert near there. Zoe enjoyed throwing volcano rocks.
The next is Zoe proudly showing off her pigtails, and then Andrea and Zoe after finishing reading her bedtime stories.
She's been more into cuddling and has a new habit of grabbing us by the neck, and pulling us into her for hugs and kisses. I'm really into that. Unfortunately, she's simultaneously making serious strides in the art of whining. Oh well.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Deja vu

Some times it's scary how you can read something that seems like it must have been written by a total stranger about your life. Probably the first ever blog I read with any regularity is Sweet Juniper, written by Dutch, about his wife Wood, and their adventures in life with their children Juniper and Gram, and their dog Wendell. They were young hipsters living in San Francisco when they became parents, and struggled to balance all of this. Then they moved back to the Midwest, to the middle of Detroit, and Dutch stopped working to become a full-time dad and blogger. He's a fantastic photographer and I really enjoy his writing, though I wish he'd write more about the kids (there is a backstory to why this changed) like he used to do.

Anyway, I found this post today and felt as though it was something I could have written if only I had the forethought and talent.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


It's been awhile since we've published any of these, and I'm sure we've forgotten a lot of good ones, but we're back.

-While riding in the car, coming home from school:
Zoe: "I'm holding my baby [stuffed octopus] like a mommy."
Daddy: "You're doing things just like a big girl!"
Zoe: "[sigh]Yeah, I growing up."

-again in the car, discussing her next birthday party,
Daddy: "What kind of cake do you want?"
Zoe: (long pause), "I am putting my finger on my mouth and saying, 'hmmm'." (another long pause), "hmmmmmm.", "I don't know yet."

-Zoe: "Daddy, will you carry my baby?"
Daddy: "I thought you were going to?"
Z: "I'm not a mommy now; I'm a baby."
D: "You can still carry her, can't you?"
Z: (chuckling) "Babies don't carry babies, Daddy!"

Friday, October 23, 2009


Yes, people, we are off! We are all going to Nairobi in the morning (with Nana and Ata -Andrea's parents) and heading straight from the airport to the bush for staying in fancy tent camps and fancy lodges. Game drives twice a day, with a break for lunch and a little lie-down. We head back into Mombasa Friday for two nights in the Serena beach fancy hotel to enjoy the Indian Ocean and fresh seafood. Then very early Sunday the 1st we'll be back in the airport heading home.

Hope everyone else's weeks are great.

Go Vikes!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thank Goodness

The workers have all been paid!

Our extra security guards will stay through sometime in November, at Senora's expense.

Interestingly, Senora sent us a nice text message saying thanks for the help and glad it all worked out well! Strange, but that's par for the course, I guess.

In other news, Zoe is so incredibly excited her Nana and Ata are here, she's been about crazy. Nearly non-stop giggling and being with them as much as possible for every moment. It's really adorable. No shy rediscovery time at all: just hugs and kisses and giggles from "go".

Thanks to all the people who went shopping for us; all the stuff arrived (thanks again to our pack mules) perfectly. It's been like Christmas around here. Zoe got some new (and old) books, Kix cereal, and a Dorothy costume (with Toto) she already loves. Andrea got her birthday present of a swanky new telephoto lens, as well as brown rice, and "Wings" on DVD (the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture of 1927), and I got some mountain biking books, new iPod earbuds, quinoa, and a GPS. What fun.

Today we'll take a walk around the neighborhood so Andrea's folks can see our landmarks. Maybe a trip to the pool if the weather holds out. Good times.

Friday, October 9, 2009

At Last

Senora and Andrea's boss signed a contract today!  The finance department is working on payment to the workers, probably will take a few days.  The end is near!  

In other news, Andrea's parents arrive tomorrow for a month's visit.  Should be fun.  Zoe's thrilled.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Labor Disputes III: News From the Legal World

For any of you still interested in our long, awful story, thanks for hanging in there.

As we last saw our heroes, they were impatiently waiting for the recommendations of the Rwandan attorney on how to proceed with our living situation.  It took several days more than we expected to hear back, but he eventually advised that it was going to be very difficult for Andrea's work to get a satisfactory outcome on the insurance claim. 

Apparently policies like this one have been very successful for this sort of thing in the past, but they must be written very precisely and carefully, and this one was not.  So the effect was that the company would get back a portion of the payments, but only at a much later date (the end of the year maybe? I don't remember).  And it would likely take a lot of effort from work and from the attorney to produce that limited satisfaction.  So Andrea's boss conceded that it would be best to work with the house as it is, and to do our best to control the terms of the settlement.

So Andrea's boss, Irene, and her immediate boss Elise, the attorney, Andrea, and Senora all met at work to discuss how to move on with the agreement.  The goals: get the workers paid, and the minimum house improvements remaining completed, and get her to pay for the added security guard at the house ($300 / month approximately).  Senora was characteristically unreasonable and rude, insisting that she has been cheated.  She is of the opinion that she should be paid the remaining of the first year's rent immediately because we have taken possession.  She regards the complaints of the work not being done satisfactorily as unimportant, stating that we can just finish those things.  She also regards the security problems with the workers as not really her problem.  She states that we should pay her the entire amount and trust that she will pay the workers what they are owed, rather than work paying them directly to assure she doesn't just skip town with the dough.  And lastly she doesn't really think she should pay for the extra guards.

So this impasse has been going steady for a few weeks now, as negotiations continue to gradually progress.  Senora continues to be extremely unreasonable, and quite delusional about what she has done and what she is owed.  She is rude to the workers and guards, and to all the Rwandan staff at Andrea's office.  Quite a woman.  Quite a different woman from the one we got to know over nearly daily visits as we were checking the place out and eventually checking on the early progress.   We don't know if she was already just as crazy -and we just didn't see it- or if this has progressed since we've known her.  I think she'll be healthy again if she can just get back to Spain where her son is, and where she has a real home and a busy art studio.  She doesn't realize how much she is hindering this end goal from happening by her paranoid persecutory behavior (as well as the drinking).  

In spite of all this conflict, she is still very civil to Andrea and tells the others during these meetings that she likes us and knows we care about the house.  And in spite of all this drama we have continued to unpack and to try to establish this as our home.

One frustrating side effect to all the battling is that we can't progress on any improvements to the place, as it's officially undecided who's paying for them or performing them until all the contracts are signed.  So we have one shower that works well some of the time, and one that is unusable.  We have shelves in the pantry that can't really be filled with anything heavy until we get them reinforced.  Same for the kitchen cabinets.  We have cupboards in the garage / bike shop / man cave that could be hung on walls but are just sitting in stacks.  And so on.  Relatively these are little things, but we've been here for months, and just want our house to be our house.

So this brings us up to date.  We are awaiting signatures from all the senior parties confirming the Big Deal can go through.  Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow.  If today, then we should be able to expect a worker payday attended by Andrea's work and by Senora early next week.  And then the work?  Whenever the contractors are not too busy with other things.  

Next Chapter:  A small post saying it's all done?  And then, only talk of more interesting parts of life.

PS: with a great deal of consternation, we have a slightly higher speed of internet, so I expect photos to start appearing on the blog again soon.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Hey People,

When you read a new post, I'd appreciate it if you would leave a little comment by clicking on the "Comment" section down at the bottom of the post.  It is really helpful to have a little feedback.  By all means let me know if you like it, but even more so, tell me if I can improve it.

By the way, I know the previous two posts are overlong.  Sorry.  I'm trying to work on economy of words.  Just not trying very hard, I guess.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Our Quest

Many of you already know that Andrea and I have a pet project. In 1998, when the American Film Institute published a list of the 100 greatest American films in history, we somehow read about the list (100 Years ... 100 Movies). We looked it over and realized that we had seen many already. Then out of curiosity we pulled up a list of all the Academy Award Best Picture winners to compare them. For some reason we made a decision to educate ourselves in the history of film a little by watching all the movies from both lists.

Turns out this was not a small thing we were undertaking. For one thing, there were more than 160 films on both lists. Then a new Academy Awards is held every spring, and they always have another damn Best Picture. Then, the AFI updated their list in 2008 with some changes. Bastards. So it has ended up being nearly 190-odd films.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? Well, it's no Trail of Tears, but it isn't easy either. First of all, we like to watch movies in general, and so that means that we don't always feel like putting in a dark artistic vision from the '30s. Sometimes we want to watch something new or something a little idiotic and fun. And we don't naturally want to watch a few movies every single week of the year. And not every movie stacks up so well through the years.

This is especially true of many of the Oscar winners. The AFI 100 has the benefit of hindsight, in that they get to decide after the movies are old which ones are great. But the Oscars are often a popularity contest (Titanic? Really?).

So we started with the most recent films that we had not already seen, and started working backwards, with the immediate goal of trying to see all the films off both lists since our births. Since we're kind of movie buffs, this didn't take too long. But we started to notice on both lists that some of the films seemed so dated, even corny at times.

The French Connection
really stood out for us in this respect. I don't mean to say it's not a great film; it really is. Its use of the anti-hero of Popeye Doyle, who roughs up informants and makes acquaintances with pimps and drug dealers in order to stay in touch with the underworld was extremely innovative for 1971. And there was a really long, really intense car chase scene that turned action films on their ears. William Friedkin apparently put cameras in cars and just filmed while driving through the streets of New York like maniacs, without closing roads or getting police permission at all. Gonzo filmmaking, and likely the most intense chase scene to date. Not the first but the first of such complexity.

However, from the eyes of people looking back 30 years on it, The French Connection seems a little dated. Rogue cops have been done a million times since then (L.A. Confidential, The Bad Lieutenant), and to greater extremes. Starsky and Hutch badly copied the cops-criminal informants relationship only a few years later, and so it seems quaint. And chase scenes have become a staple for action movies. Lord knows The Dukes of Hazzard would have been a three-minute show every week without the chase scenes. And they've been done a lot better since then (Ronin, The Bourne Identity).

So we realized that we were probably looking at the history of film through the wrong end of the telescope. And we started from the beginning.

It has really turned us around. I can be certain that many of the movies we loved would have seemed dated to us without having an understanding of where they were coming from. Grand Hotel (1931-32), It Happened One Night(1934), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) really amazed us. But not only these.

It's really been loads of fun, and we've learned a lot. We find we've become absolute devotees of DVD Extra Feature documentaries on the making of the picture. And we've been able to watch actors throughout their careers as well. It's actually turned us on to many other movies that didn't make either list but were from a director or era or genre we enjoyed. For example, we've watched several Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films beyond either list.

Even though, it's sometimes a tough slog. Many great dramas are hard to watch (The Deer Hunter (1978), Birth of a Nation (1915)). Many are very long, and take a long time to get going. And many (especially the Oscars) are just not that enjoyable, even though now we can appreciate why they must have been at the time (Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Life of Emile Zola (1937)). And one really stands out as being nearly unwatchable: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). It's really horrible. Charleton Heston stars as the manager of the Ringling Brothers / Barnum & Bailey (could they make that name a little longer?) Circus. He's got a trapeze girl who loves him, a hotshot new French trapeze guy who's after his gal. And the owners are thinking of shutting it down for lack of profitability. And Jimmy Stewart plays a clown who never takes off his makeup. That's it for the plot. Now imagine making nearly all the acting terrible (except for Stewart, of course), and having long breaks in the story to show circus acts. And long pauses to show the amazing process of putting up or taking down a circus. And dramatic voice-overs describing what you are seeing in agonizing over-dramatized detail. I'm sorry but I just don't want to look that closely at circus folk.

It's a lot more difficult to find very old films on DVD or even VHS than the new ones. I don't think this can be stated strongly enough. Without Netflix we really couldn't have done this at all. We've also had some luck at libraries as well, but the first Best Picture winner (Wings (1927)) has proven very elusive for us. Andrea has recently purchased it from Amazon and we should have it in hand next week. We have put a few of the older ones on hold pending availability but are really closing in on this thing.

Last night, we watched Giant (1956), from the same director as A Place in the Sun (1951). I've seen lots of posters of the first, romanticized by James Dean dying days after he filmed his last scene. It was pretty good, and with great performances by Dean, Rock Hudson, and Liz Taylor. But it really is a retread of Cimmaron (1930/31), another multigenerational look at family dynasties building the west out of nothing. By contrast, A Place in the Sun is beautiful and heartbreaking and tense and nearly perfect. Anyway. we finished Giant, and officially finished watching every one of the original AFI 100 list!

We have 6 to go on the 2008 AFI 100 list. We have 3 Best Picture Oscars to go, plus Wings. I think that, after 11 years, we are going to finally be done.

Until February at least.

Labor Disputes II: Over the Fence!

Well, I know you've all been waiting a long while for the next chapter in our sordid saga. Sorry to have kept you so long, but it's just so hard to write about an uncomfortable situation (crisis is much too strong a word) while in the middle of it. It's hard to direct a story arc when I don't know where it ends, you know?

Also, I've been turned off from using the internet a lot, as we supposedly have high-speed internet being installed, and I'm really tired of the slow speed and the stream being cut off. So I've been trying to hold off on our high(er) speed installation, but keep getting stymied with that as well. I paid for the installation on Wednesday, by going to a bank and depositing cash directly into the account of Rwandatel, the internet service provider. Then I went to the Rwandatel office with the deposit receipt. The sales agent told me the service crew would be out the next morning. They showed up at 4:00 without any equipment, to check out the site, supposedly. They took down my phone number (already on the contract), and said they'd be out first thing next morning, as it took 2 hours and it was already 4:00. So I rearranged my few appointments, and spent the day at home (aside from a quick run), waiting for the truck or a phone call. No show, no call. So tomorrow, Rwandatel and I are going to tango. Did I mention that the installation charge is $350? and the monthly fee is about $200? So the four days (and counting) of no service is worth more than $25! We are so going to have a little talk. But I digress. The point is, I've not been too keen on using blogger. But here I am, so let's go.

As I started explaining this to all of you, I told briefly of our little vacation (working for Andrea) to Gisenyi. [see here] It was really great to be out of the home, and away from the stress of seeing the workers, and dealing with Senora for a few days. Then, on our last afternoon there, Andrea got a call from Irene, saying there had been another incident of worker unrest. As the story unfolded for us, we discovered that the workers had again contacted Senora, demanding some pay as they had worked for two months without any and were even hungrier than a few weeks earlier. Once again, she stupidly told them that Andrea's work had not paid her yet, and that they should talk to us or Irene to get paid. Then they showed up angry at the gate. This time the guard was smart enough to not open it, so they jumped over our property wall. Now we do have a security wall, but this is not meant to be a seige-worthy fortress. So it's not shocking that they could collectively pull it off, but it is unnerving, and I'm glad we weren't there for it. Apparently they stayed for awhile to show their anger, before some other security types from work showed up, called the cops, and gave them the boot. The police informed them that if they did this again, they would be arrested. And the told the cobblestone mason that if he didn't show up for work on Monday, he would have a warrant for his arrest. While this was going on, Irene called Senora and told her what was going on, and that she'd better get her fanny down to talk the fellows off the property (or pay them!). The response from Senora was a simple "Just call the police and have them thrown out." Not her problem.

On the drive home the next day Andrea's cell phone rang: it was Senora. She started out a little conciliatory, saying she was sorry it happened. But it very quickly turned to how Andrea's work should have paid her earlier and how she's so worried about her son in Madrid who was in the hospital after knee surgery, and she needed to be paid right away so she could go be by his side. Andrea was very good: measured and calm, but very assertive. She reminded Senora that she would have been home a month earlier if she had finished the work and paid her workers, and that was completely Senora's responsibility, and not anyone else's. Senora was completely delusional, and seems that she thinks she's really being ripped off, and didn't have enough money to do any real work. Andrea reminded her that she has received 9 months' rent in advance already (we're told this is enough money in Rwanda to build a house from the ground up) and that the work is still incomplete. Several times she had to interrupt Senora's delusional protestations to get a word in edgewise, but did not lose her cool. Very impressive.

So the timing of this couldn't have been planned worse. Work was getting ready to give her a big fat check for the completed work, minus the estimated amount to finish the work, supervised/subcontracted by Irene. But a small angry mob jumping over the fence? That put a different spin on things. And the landlady not caring a whit? Well, that did too.

A second security guard was placed on premises at all times, a sort of rent-a-guard from a real professional outfit, with 2-way radios and serious predawn training sessions and roving trucks full of uniformed guys ready to respond at a moment's notice. And Andrea's boss insisted that the whole f***in' deal was off, if we are at the point where we have to worry about personal security. She even suggested we sleep somewhere else for the weekend. The plan was to call the lawyers the following Monday to let them know that we'd like to cash in on the insurance policy we took out with Senora when she was advanced the huge sums. In essence, these policies insure that the work will be done by a certain deadline or they get all their money back.

Andrea and I were heartsick, and really conflicted at this point. On the one hand, we were sick of all this drama and the level of energy it took to keep dealing with it. And of course a little worried about the guys doing it again. Though I must admit that I was not that worried we'd be targeted; they had no reason to hurt us. If they hurt parts of the house before the security squad showed up, it could be repaired. But on the other hand, we had been fighting for this house, and hoping for it for months now. Not to mention that we had just moved nearly all our possessions in, and unpacked more than half. And we just like the place. It's got a good layout for us, a nice garden/yard (though needs a lot of gardening/landscaping yet), and we love the neighborhood. And Zoe's best friend lives just around the block. So for the next several days or so we just felt so ambivalent that we no longer knew what we wanted. I decided that whatever the lawyer worked out or recommended, I would be happy with it. We resolved that Friday night to contact a realtor and go look at properties over the weekend, but we just didn't have the heart. To hedge our bets, we told Zoe that we might not be able to stay in the house.

[Next Chapter: News From the Legal World]

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bike and Road Rash Review

Hey All,

In case you don't know, I keep a second blog, mostly for me to keep track of running and biking anecdotes for myself. I posted a review of my first real ride on my new Specialized Comp 29, and described how the bike and I really made the inaugural ride special and memorable. Check it out if you like.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Strange Days, continued.

[Editor's Note: This is another attempt to bring the events of the last three or so weeks together. Sorry it's so disjointed, but then, so am I.]

Well, I unintentionally left us all hanging from the cliff of a dozen or so workers who were inappropriately gruntled. When I heard from Andrea that Irene and Senora were on the way, I looked once again at our guard, happily grinning at everyone like a dog wagging its tail and begging the intruder to throw a stick; then I went inside the house and locked the door.

Now I wasn't really convinced it was necessary, but thought it best to not take chances, since some threats against the house had been announced. I wasn't the only one to be a little nervous, as Claudine, our housekeeper/cook, and Consolee, Zoe's nanny, were also not leaving the house even though they were really finished for the day. So I played with Zoe while keeping one eye out the window. Amazing how she can pick up on this stress in the situation. Sensitive kid.

So in about 20 minutes, Irene and Samuel were in the driveway with a PSI car and a driver, favorably increasing the numbers of people here for me. Not long after, Senora showed up. I watched a little with Zoe at my side now and then, and could discern a lot of tense Kinyarwandan dialogue, with various workers politely taking turns to shout at Irene or Senora. Irene was a true champion, calmly listening and not raising her voice, but also not saying much. Senora was another story: frequently shouting, poking her finger at the chests of the shoutees. This went on for a little over two hours, none in French or English. So unfortunately when Andrea arrived with a driver, she was not able to help figure things out either.

When all the parties started winding down and the men all moved out the front gate, Irene and Senora stayed for a few minutes talking. I shouted down from the front door that they should come in and sit, as it was already dark outside (here on the equator it's usually dark by about 6:30). Irene looked up, clearly having forgotten that there was anybody inside the house at all, and said she would be up in a few minutes.

So Zoe and I ate leftovers on the couch near the door and waited. When Irene came in, she sat down, looking exhausted but smiling. She said the workers were all very upset because they had not been paid in over a month, but that we had renewed promises from Senora to do right by them and to get the work finished. Apparently they left with the understanding that taking the house apart will not increase their likelihood of a fat paycheck, and that Andrea's work would try to do everything possible to make sure they were paid, but that the responsibility was really with Senora. When Irene left, she smiled again and reassured us that she thought there was not reason to worry and it would all work out, with the work completed next Thursday.

We heard the next day that Senora had stayed in the street before our gate, arguing with the workers, for about two hours before she called the police and tried to have them (especially the cobblestone mason working on the driveway) arrested. Apparently labor disputes do fall under the purview of the police more than the courts here, and many problems are solved with a little jail time.

We felt a little relief the next Monday when people showed up to work like business as usual and actually had a pretty productive day. As it turns out, this was a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough. We should have expected nothing so complex could be solved so simply.

[Next chapter: Labor Dispute II: Over the Fence!]

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Eleven Angry Men, or Labor Pains

[Editor's Note: This is the second of a string of posts on how things have been for us over the past few weeks. This is actually a draft written August 25th.]

Well, we've developed a bit of a tradition on Friday nights. We start the evening by pouring a cocktail and exhaling slowly before remarking that this has got to be one of the most stressful weeks we've had here, and in a long time in general. Then we thank our lucky stars that it should be relatively smooth sailing from here out. Then we tend to fall asleep exhausted just after finishing the dishes. This past Friday was actually quite a bit worse.

I had a rather long day of running errands all over town (thank God I can complain of this, rather than relying on finding someone to drive me). At about 4:30, I approached our gate and honked the horn for our day guard, Francois, to open it. While waiting I noticed several men sitting on the side of our road, but didn't think much of it in our busy neighborhood. I pulled up the driveway, parked, locked up the car, opened the door and stepped out. Immediately I felt crowded as several angry (but controlled) men were so close that I had to say, "excuse," to shut the car door. One of them approached, smiling, and demanded that I listen to their complaints. He said they were all their to be paid. He told me that Senora had told them the day before that they could come for their back pay at 4:00 this afternoon at the house. After they arrived and didn't find her here, they called her, and she told them that Andrea's work had not paid her, and so they would not receive any pay until then; and that furthermore, they hadn't finished the work and so would be lucky to get any pay. Only two of the eleven spoke any English, and so several side conversations were constantly underway, with a brief translation for my benefit. Apparently, they felt that since Senora hadn't paid them, that I should. I called Andrea at work to tell her that we had an angry group of workers in our driveway, and she told Irene (the head of logistics), who told us in return to just tell them to find Senora and get off our property.

I went inside to put away my bag, and said hello to Zoe, before locking the door and returning outside. On the way out I noticed Francois standing by the gate with a stupid smile on his face, waiting to let the next angry mob in whenever they came along. I later determined that he could no longer be called a guard but a doorman.

When I told the guys that Andrea's work pays Senora and not us, this did not solve anything. They insisted that they had been working with the promise of pay for several weeks, and that they all had debts of their own to pay. Several of them angrily asserted that if they were turned away without satisfaction, that they would have no choice but to take the work they had completed with them when they left. For example the pave (French for cobblestone) man would just take the driveway with him. The one who had installed the master bath shower would leave with the shower. And so on. I didn't like where this was heading.

I called Andrea back and told her of this, and that I really did have an angry crowd. I said that if Irene thought that someone should put them in their place that she should come do it her damn self, as they're already making open threats against our house. And surprisingly, Irene told Andrea she was sending Samuel, the head of the guards to clear them out.

The men started insisting that I demand an immediate audience with Senora and Irene. I told them that I had no control over either woman, and that I really wished almost every day that I could get Senora to show up when she promised she would. I said I could no more conjure her up than I could demand an immediate audience with Bill Clinton. Well, eventually the rhetoric continued heating up and I called Andrea (and Irene) back, and was surprised. Andrea had convinced Senora to come, and that she and Irene would be here soon as well.

Sorry, but this is all the further I got. I've decided to include this as is to illustrate how things looked to us at the time. More to follow on the subject.

Here We Go Again.

[Editor's Note: This post is incomplete and will be continued. It's been so long since the last posting, that I decided it's better to get it out there in pieces than wait for the complete package. Besides, the situation with our house changes so much every day that I never know how to summarize recent events.]

Dear Everyone,

Sorry it's been so long. I know the whole point of this is to stay in touch, but I have my reasons for the delay. No, really.

Starting with the last week. We had an awesome trip to Gisenyi, in the northwest corner of the country. It's right on the shores of Lake Kivu, which is not only enormous ("the sixth largest lake in Africa," according to the hotel website), but quite beautiful, as it's in an area that is largely composed of volcanoes, again at 4800 feet elevation. Looking around reminds me alternately of photos of Alpine lakes in Austria and of photos of Hawaii. I hope someday to tell you if it looks like either of the places but in the meantime those of you who have spent time at either can look at photos of Lake Kivu and tell me if the inverse is true.

Incidentally, the first photo was from our hotel room. The second was lunch at a hotel just across the border in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. A crazy place that was literally under siege in a civil war less than a year ago. The last was at dinner at a place called Paradis Malahide, a beautiful rustic inn.

The lake is cool but swimmable and clear and lovely. The sand on the shore is volcanic and contains little porous black pebbles and shimmery soft chips of mica or some soft glassy mineral that shimmers in the sun. Zoe loved stirring up the sand in the shallow water to make sparkles. She did not love swimming in the lake or the pool, unfortunately. She's determined recently that she doesn't like swimming or getting her head wet. We think it's because the water is so cold at all the pools we've seen here. None are heated and the weather here is very mild. We got her a neoprene short wetsuit as her swimsuit, but it's not really enough I guess.

More later. Following this post will be the beginnings of a post started several weeks ago to try to update on the politics of our house.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What a Long, Strange Trip

Well, some things are finally starting to happen on the logistics front.

Last night our car (a 1998 Chevy Blazer) was delivered to us. We can't drive it until we have insurance, but it should be done today. To be honest with you, it's thrilling just to know we could go sit in it. We'll have to get it tuned up, and charge the A/C, but it's OK to run these kinds of errands, since now I can run errands! I'll put in a photo when it's convenient and I've actually driven it.

Hours before the car delivery, we walked over to the house again. It's been a daily ritual that we go by to check on progress. Every evening since Friday, Senora tells us that the kitchen cabinets are almost done, that they look beautiful, and that they are being delivered later "tonight". Next evening, she apologizes and says that she promises tonight for sure. There are several little things to be completed still, but the only one that truly matters is having a functional kitchen. Apparently, they can't put in the fridge or stove until the cabinets, and so those damn cabinets really represent the house being a success or failure for us.

Anyway, yesterday was supposed to be the walk-through inspection to verify that the house was complete, so that Andrea's work can pay her the remaining 3-months' advance rent and so we can formally take possession. Actually it was supposed to be Saturday but we informally moved it to Monday. So we really thought that this would be the magic time that works, like Charlie Brown really believing that Lucy will hold the football for him to kick it. And, as easy as that outcome is to predict, the same was true for us: no cabinets. As we agreed, it was time for Mean Andrea to come out.

We had discussed the day before that we would not lose this house without a fight, and that Andrea is much more suited to getting nasty when necessary than I am. She switched to the Dark Side in a hurry, and started yelling at Senora (after Zoe and I had walked down to the gate and were busy singing). Then Senora took out her phone and dialed the cabinet maker, and handed the phone to Andrea. Now my French is still pretty elementary, but I got the gist, and was glad to not be on the other end of that line. In fact, I think most people in that part of the neighborhood did as well. Next to Zoe and me was an older gentleman of the construction crew who I like a lot. Unlike many Rwandans who find Zoe cute, he does not feel the need to come up to her aggressively demonstrating this, and just says hello to her with a twinkle in his eye. It works so much better for her. Anyway, I turned to him, and told him in French, "I have a very strong wife." He looked up with a wry smile and said back, "and she's right, too."

Anyway, the cabinet maker apologized profusely and tried to give Andrea excuses, but ended up with a dead line. About 3 hours later, Senora called us to say the cabinets had arrived!

Andrea went by for the nearly final inspection with the operations manager at work. The cabinets still need to be painted, which they are doing today, and then they can be hung. Likely tomorrow. Which means we could have a working kitchen as early as tomorrow (depending upon gas hook-up). Apparently, this green-light from work puts into motion a chain of inevitable events beginning with us moving in by the end of the week, but preferably getting it all done tomorrow.

This is simultaneously wonderful and problematic. We should have our household goods shipment delivered some time early next week. Until then we have mattresses for all, a couple low dressers, a small cabinet, a coffee table, and some plastic outdoor chairs and table. We also have a few dishes and one cooking pot, and flatware. Basically, we'll be camping out in the place. It will be a tough few days with a lot of running around town to buy stuff like a microwave and fans and a vacuum and various other things that I'll know when I see the need. But that's A-OK! These kinds of problems I can use!

By the way, the song Zoe and I were singing while Andrea was opening her can of whoop-ass was "Do-Re-Mi" from the Sound of Music. She has absolutely flipped for this and the Wizard of Oz. She can sing every word of Do-Re-Mi, but ironically doesn't do it with the least intention of a tune. She frequently wants to talk about either of these movies. When we read stories in bed, she wants to have a pillow on her lap, because one of the Von Trapp children did that when Maria was singing "My Favorite Things." And in our little private alley behind the house, I suggested that she could learn to ride bikes here with me or her friends, she was only interested in the idea if we could do it while singing Do-Re-Mi, "just like the children do [in the movie]."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Three Little Friends

Zoe has been lucky enough to find two new close friends since we've been here. I guess it's just the right time in her development to have a playmate, and she's taking to it quite well. Until I get their parents' permission to put their names in the blog, I will use their first initials. Hopefully I'll be able to get some photos up as well.

Within a week of our arrival, we met H and her parents at a playgroup we were invited to from Andrea's co-worker. H is about 2 months younger than Zoe but about the same size, and extremely physical. She's into climbing and jumping, and is very outgoing. Last week when she was at our house for a playdate, H was holding a maraca in her hand, watching herself jumping in a mirror, and talking incessantly -for more than an hour straight. She thinks Zoe is wonderful, and the feeling is mutual. Last Saturday when we went out to dinner with them, H became very covetous of Zoe's things (again, the feeling is mutual)and she said several times, "This is mine," which really got Zoe angry. The next day Zoe and I were playing, and out of nowhere, she told me "This mine. That what H says!" And she had a great laugh about it. We have a tradition of meeting H's family every Saturday morning at the Novotel swimming pool for the girls to swim and eat the wonderful croissants.

I think it was a little less than a month ago that Niamh (pronounced "Neeve," it,s Gaelic) and her family moved to Kigali. We were asked by H's mom if they could come by during a daytime playdate a few days after they arrived, and they all hit it off immediately. Niamh is even more outgoing and physical than H, and so we were worried that the dynamic would produce a lopsided triangle with shy introspective Zoe sitting in the corner reading to herself while the other girls were practicing Tae Kwon Do or jumping from balconies or something. But so far it has not turned out to be difficult. Zoe does often need to withdraw a little, but it seems to solve itself until she feels like engaging again. We know that she looks forward to time with them. Last Friday Zoe and I were waiting for Andrea to come home from work when Zoe had the idea that we walk up to H's house to see her (they live less than a half-mile away). Once the idea was fixed, she suddenly missed H so much that she got a sad face and started crying that she missed her and wanted to see her right now -the next morning wouldn't do. We ended up walking there and eating pizza with them, then saw them at the pool, then went to Ethiopian food with them the next night.

The next day we took a road trip in the country to Lake Muhazi with Niamh's family for a picnic, which was a blast. It's really beautiful out there, very mountainous. Zoe and Niamh played like maniacs for hours until they were just spent, then back in the car for an auto nap on the way home.

We have developed a routine for the summer of morning playdates: Monday -our house, Tuesday -H's, Wednesday -Niamh's, Thursday -H's, Friday off, then any and all meet for swimming on Saturday. It's seriously a lot of time together and they don't seem to get enough. Zoe and Niamh will start the same morning daycare/school in September. H's parents are hoping to get her in too. And a new expat family has just moved in with a daughter E who is 2 months older than Zoe and very shy and introspective, so it could be getting even more interesting! I really think we're going to have to put a little playground in our yard. By the way, H's father and both of Niamh's parents are British, and so we're wondering if Zoe will develop an English accent in any new words. Oh, and both of these girls speak French very well, so hopefully this will be a positive influence on Zoe's as well.

NOTE: Things on the house are still going. The driveway is getting close to finished. Supposedly the kitchen gets finished tomorrow. It's actually starting to come together. I don't know if it will truly be ready this weekend or not. But it will be very very close. Now the biggest question will be the arrival of our household goods (esp. furniture).

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Latest On Chez Muzungu

Thanks for your patience, everyone. It has been a week of many ups and downs, setbacks and delays. Sometimes I've felt like Sysiphus, rolling the stone up the hill every morning, to have it roll over me and down the hill at the end of every day. But, I am happy to report, it seems as though things are trending in the right direction. Andrea's work came through with another advance of 3 months' rent in the form of a check for Senora Eugenie yesterday at about midday.

And work has again resumed. There are curtains in the house (though still need alterations before they can be hung). Cinder blocks are being brought into the garage to build a dividing wall to form my bicycle shop / man-cave. Shelves were installed in our office (though need a door and to be painted). All the bedrooms have closet doors (more similar to built-in armoires), though again unfinished. Zoe's playroom has been painted (mint green). We're told that the kitchen cabinets are "casi-casi completas" (almost-almost done), and that only after they are installed will the stove and fridge go in.

So progress is being made at a very slow -but measurable- pace. And Senora does continue to promise that all should be done a week from yesterday. Scheduled day to take possession is Saturday, August 15th. We are officially expecting the household goods shipment with all our furniture the next day, but we are quite skeptical of this as well, because we anticipate issues with Customs clearance.

This has been an issue for getting possession of our car, which has been in a Customs lot in Kigali for just under three weeks now. Every week we've been told on Friday that it will almost certainly be in our hands by the end of the next week. Like a mirage of an oasis, it's always just out of reach. Also for our July 25-lb. DHL care package from my parents (mostly stuff we bought on Amazon) that has been in Kigali since Monday and with no explanation available on how long it may take to receive. So we are learning that we may have a few weeks in our new house with the bare-bones furniture and pots-and-pans that we have either hand-carried or sent in the smaller air shipment. Oh well, c'est la vie. I'll be completely happy to be in an empty house if it's the house we've wanted for so long.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

News Flash: House Update

Well, we actually saw a stove, refirgerator, and new 100-Liter water heater in the house! It's such a relief. There's still a lot (and I mean a lot) to be done, but for the first time in a while I have hope that Andrea's work will not nix the deal for lack of progress. It really will be down to the wire getting everything in the house ready, and may require us to live in it while the property is still being finished for a short while. At this time, that seems perfectly acceptable to me.

I called Irene to let her know, and she will drop by for an inspection some time today to approve or deny the request for more money. Keep your fingers crossed until then!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What's in the Pantry

I imagine most of the readers of this log know of my love of food. I consider myself a pretty good cook, and am probably even better at eating. Life in Kigali has changed the way I do both. Tonight I'll go over availability and touch on other issues later.

As you might imagine, The selections aren't the same here as in the US. Many of the foods we are accustomed to finding in supermarkets are much less available or simply unheard of here. Most types of breakfast cereals, crackers, tortillas, canned soups, almonds, and tahini spring to mind. Many foods are available, but only at a terrible price and with lower quality, such as my beloved bacon, most types of cheese (notable exception below), oatmeal, any kind of meat or poultry or fish, ice cream, pasta, and bread.

On the other hand, fresh fruits and vegetables are usually quite cheap. In fact, many are not only inexpensive, but of the absolutely highest quality. I've never had such good avocados as here. The tomatoes are really excellent as well. We love regularly eating fresh pineapple, mango, papaya, mandarine oranges, and a great local fruit called "tree tomatoes". Local potatoes are very good and cheap, though they come with a lot of dirt on them, which is different from the sterile-appearing ones back home. Local cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, and onions are cheap and good as well. Roasted salted peanuts are plentiful and sold everywhere, even by guys carrying buckets full through just about every neighborhood. All of the above are grown by very small farms, usually with hand implements only, and totally organic. Notable exceptions are those not grown locally such as apples, grapes, and lemons, which are usually imported from South Africa.

Cheese is great if you like the local Gouda, which we do. It's available absolutely everywhere, and it's cheap. It's quite a staple of our diet. It melts well and makes for a good macaroni and cheese, which is Zoe's favorite. Yogurt is pretty good as well, and very available, though different from home and not quite as cheap. Milk either comes in the Parmalat-type stay-fresh boxes that don't need refrigeration until they are opened or fresh. We've only found fresh milk from one brand so far, and almost only in whole milk. We do have one store that carries it in nonfat, but not always. It's very good, but we have had it spoil within a day of purchase a few times. It doesn't cost much more than in the US, but only comes in 500 mL bags (about an eighth of a gallon), which can be inconvenient. Incidentally eggs are fairly cheap and all free-range organic, since there are no industrial poultry farms.

Wine is universally expensive and mostly not exceptional, though I'm told this is in the process of improving. Beer is cheap if you buy local. The two big local brands are Mutzig and Primus, which are both fairly good. I believe they are both owned by Heineken but brewed here. Also brewed locally is "Guinness Foreign Extra," brewed in Ugunda but of course licensed by Guinness. I think true beer snobs would likely be appalled at these 33 Cl (11 oz.) bottles, but I'm not. I think it is very palatable and the price is right. As far as spirits, there is pretty good selection of gin and whiskey, less of rum and vodka and others, but the price is always awful. Bottled water is everywhere and not very expensive but we prefer to boil and filter our own.

NOTE: I still don't have any idea about the house. I've been told again that everything will come tomorrow. I honestly don't know how much longer this can go on before the deals fall through. I'll let you know when I do.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Construction update

I know that yesterday I said we would have some news one way or another. Well, I was wrong again. Maybe tomorrow. The house looks a little better than yesterday, which is nice. Still no kitchen. Patience.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Construction Issues

Well, watching and waiting on the renovation of our house has been good for teaching us a few lessons about patience and about how many things work here in Rwanda.

As you may have read in an earlier post, we have a contract on a house about a block from our current temporary furnished apartment. We like the landlady immensely. She is Rwandan, married to a Belgian (though he died a few years ago), who has settled in Spain since the war. Senora Eugenie is very outgoing, and switches from Spanish (directed towards me) to French (Andrea) to Kinyarwandan (without noticing it). We think she likes us too, as she has had several offers on the place but only considered ours seriously because she wanted a real family to live in her house.

During the war, she and her husband and their adolescent sons actually had to take shelter in a cold storage room in the very center of the house to stay safe from gunfire. So, as you can imagine, the house was worn pretty heavily in 1994. Fast forward to just over a year ago: Senora moved back to Kigali, with the notion of fixing the house up in a few months for rental, then returning to Spain. It was still in pretty crude shape the first time we saw it nearly two months ago. All the while, she's camped out in there, making it work for her.

Then we made a verbal agreement with her, and asked her to negotiate directly with Andrea's work since they pay the rent directly. In these sessions she admitted that she has run out of capital to buy materials and pay her workers. She requested a full-year's rent in advance in order to make it liveable for us. Andrea's work agreed to 6 months immediately, 6 months when we move in August 15th. The up-front payment was insured so that they will get the money back if it's not ready on time.

Well, last week, she waved me down as I passed by the property to tell me she's out of money again and needed 2 months more rent paid in order to finish.

This really floored us, since this place is far from what we would consider ready for living. In fact, Andrea's Operations Manager (Irene) came up to respond to the request and pointed out that 3 items had been completely done from a list of 15 we all agreed were necessary for occupying. Several of the remaining 12 were started, but not completed. For example, the shower surrounds, stove, fridge, kitchen cupboards, drapes, closet doors and shelves, etc. had all been chosen and (she says) paid for, but were not on sight or installed. The exterior was about 1/3 painted, and the interior not even close to that. the driveway was just over half done. And so on.

So Irene and Senora agreed on Thursday that the best way to demonstrate that she is capable of finishing on time is to come back on Monday (tomorrow) for a return inspection to show how much of this can be done in a short time. An audition of sorts.

Senora then had the unenviable task of lighting a fire under all the workers to go harder even though she would still not be paying them. And she had to get everything that has been bought into the house at least, if not installed. In record time.

The lesson in patience -in fact- is being taught by her. She has lived away from Rwanda long enough that the pace of the local workers drives her even crazier than it does us. Another particular of the local trade is that it seems as though half the work done seems to be undone in a later step. Ceramic tiles laid on the main entry staircase have been cracked or smashed by carelessly bringing ladders or heavy equipment up them with a few drops along the way. A wall that has just been painted completely beige gets sprayed yellow while putting the finishing touches on the nearby handrail. We're told this isn't a problem, they'll just paint the column again. Drop cloths or taping to avoid this? Just not the way it's done here. Same goes for paint all over the tile floors: "Don't worry, we'll get someone to scrape that up later."

Well, Zoe and I stopped by to check in this morning, and it is looking better. The painting is all done with the exception of the room Senora is sleeping in. The curtain hardware is in the house, and a sewing machine for the drapes themselves. The yard and retaining walls are being cleaned up a little. It looks a lot more ready. But still no real kitchen, no closets, no showers, unfinished driveway and guardrail in the high play area. We are so close, and yet so far. For all my questions about the progress on these issues, the answer is, "Manana." Tomorrow. I sincerely hope she understands that it is either tomorrow, or never for us. We really don't want to lose this place. It seems perfect for us. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Son of Zoe-isms

-Zoe's pronunciation of "spoon" = "tchoum"

-Tomato or potato in Zoese: "Table"

-Lately, she likes to call us over to the window shortly after sunset, and say, "Look, Mommy/Daddy, the Lights of Kigali!"

-Now she refers to herself not only as Little Cat, but also Baby Dolphin. She frequently will ask us to (pretend to) feed her fish, "dolphin food," and speaks in a squeaky chuckle.

-One sign that she's an expat in Africa: when she hears a truck engine from our back window, she will comment that "the generator turnin' on." Related: last weekend, after a few days of several-hour power outages, when we turned on the light in our bedroom, she looked up at it and said "We have power now for lights. No generator."

-Frequently she will demand that we, "Talk about it, Zoe's placemat," meaning she wants us to tell her more about the plastic world map placemat she uses. This phrase has come up quite a bit after the few movies she has seen, "Talk about funny people in movie again." Also in a few favorite books, on pages that have detailed and busy illustrations, simply pointing at the page, "Talk about it."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Literary Stuff


While in Thailand, Zoe and I went to the resort's library: a small, beautiful lending library of books in 5 or 6 languages. I did not find any sign indicating lending policies, and never saw a librarian. There was a sign outside indicating to remove shoes before entering, and we did.

I should explain a little background here. When we were packed out of New Orleans by the movers, we discovered that we had far too many possessions, or -more accurately- possessions that were far too heavy for the regulations allowing for overseas shipment of a family our size. We still don't understand how this occurred, since we were moving out of a 2-bedroom apartment that I have never heard described as large. We don't have bowling-ball collections or a lot of tools. I suppose one of the factors would have to be the large collection of reference books we have both collected in our professions. And our other books didn't help either, as we don't like to get rid of books we like, and I've built quite a collection of books in my "to read" files, but have never had time. So we had to cull more than 1500 pounds of household goods from our shipment to go to a storage unit in Minnesota, and that included 18 boxes (I believe) of books. I'm told that one box will come to Africa, and we have no idea which type of books they will be: cookbooks, novels, Zoe books. The irony of the situation drove me crazy: I would finally have time to really read like I want, and no books.

Back to Pimalai. Thanks to our siesta times, I had finished my historical whodunit. I knew I'd have a lot more time on my hands, so I picked up another one at the library, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House, and immediately was hooked. It's a nonfiction account of a murder in a locked English country house in 1860. It was a sensation that captured the attention of the whole nation and served as the model for countless fictional mysteries by writers of the time, such as Dickens and Wilkie Collins, as well as later writers including A.C. Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the like. Suffice it to say that when we left, I took the half-finished book with me. For mystery fans, I don't think I could recommend it highly enough.

Since returning to Kigali, I have read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a serialized novel directly and openly inspired by the details of the murder. It was a really wonderful read. I had never heard of Collins, and have since read of him that he was a friend and contemporary of Dickens, and that they were often compared. I have read a few Dickens novels and novellas, and do like him, but have always had to work a little to get involved. This was not a problem for The Moonstone. It was a fun and captivating work from the start, and plotted with impressive complexity. Kind of cool how I happened upon a book in a resort library that opens me up to an era and style of writing that I likely would not have read on my own.

Since leaving the United States about 7 weeks ago, I have read:

  • The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Crediton Killings by Michael Jecks
  • The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
  • O Jerusalem by Laurie R. King
  • The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  • The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (loved, loved it)
  • Tom Clancy's Op-Center: State of Siege (actually written by ____, I do recommend it as purely mindless action, though admit it is horribly written and with a strangely anti-United Nations agenda, quite sympathetic to the terrorists. Kind of like watching a Stallone movie).
  • and I am now firmly into For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.
  • I have also read about half each of The Expat Expert by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman and of Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift's food book How To Eat Supper: Recipes, Stories, and Opinions from Public Radio's Award-Winning Food Show.

When I look at a list like this it really amazes me, since last year I probably read three books total. It's hard to gather momentum in the five minutes before you fall asleep a few nights per week.

As far as the Children's Fiction Department, Andrea, Zoe, and I have read about 30 books cover-to-cover at least 10 times each. I wish to God I was exaggerating. We usually read two books at nap time, one or two at bedtime, one or two in bed in the morning, and one or two or more throughout the day. And now Zoe's nanny Consolee is doing her share as well. Somehow Zoe is the only one not totally sick of any of these, though she does take little breaks from each occasionally.

By the way, I have been able to buy a small cache of paperbacks from someone's moving sale (hence the Tom Clancy), and Nakumatt, our local "department store," does carry a rack of Penguin Popular Classics (hence The Moonstone), so we do have a handful of unread books to go. I have a feeling that any of you who come to visit will be bringing in a few books, whether you know it yet or not.

NEWS FLASH: At lunch today, Andrea brought home our first package of mail since arriving here. We get a DHL bag (mail only, no books or CDs usually) delivered from the Washington headquarters of Andrea's work about two or three times per month, and my Father's Day gift of a subscription to Time magazine began with the first issue. It was from a week ago, but it's still news to me, and I gobbled it up during Zoe's nap. And much more importantly, Zoe got three new books, including her first one here in French! We have read it to her no less than 15 times so far, and it hasn't been out of the package for more than 3 hours (again, no exaggeration necessary). Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Next Week in Our Story (Part 2 of 2)

So I guess I have been procrastinating the second half of this post. I was pretty pleased with the first one, and have been telling myself that the second should be better, and it has been a little daunting. Nonetheless, if I don’t get something on this subject out soon, it will likely not happen at all, so here goes.

The rest of the daily ritual

After Zoe’s (and sometimes my) long nap, the next step usually involved finding something to eat. Years ago, when Andrea and I visited Bangkok, we found street food incredibly good, safe (at least we were never ill), fresh, and cheaper than anything in a vending machine in the US. However, we were on the (rather large) compound of a 5-star resort. That’s not a complaint, but an observation that everything around us was pretty expensive, other than breakfast, which was included. So Zoe ate a lot of banana milkshakes (more like smoothies, no ice cream), and I ate appetizers and salads to keep the prices down. We went to the library a few times, which I will describe later. We went to the front desk to look through the bootleg DVD catalog. We watched a couple movies over the week.

This was the beginning of the low season, and so the place was relatively empty. So everywhere we went, the young Thai men and women adored Zoe and wanted so much to cuddle her or hug her or pinch her cheeks or to get her to say “Sawatdee Kha” back to them. It was a bit reminiscent of Eloise: Zoe and I were like beloved orphans living at the Plaza. By this time in the day, of course, we were rejoined by Andrea, and we were even happier. It was so fun for us to reunite that it intimidated Zoe a few times, and she would just stay silent and shy for awhile. This daily schedule was broken a few times (to my relief) of note.

Then one day Zoe and I were generously invited to participate in the team-building activity of the retreat: a half-day's Thai cooking class at a school nearby. We rode there in the back of a pickup truck with a canvas cover and benches, which Zoe found very adventurous. Then we had a little instruction before diving in with making 5 dishes: Tom Yam (a delicious, chicken soup with really bright fresh flavors and ingredients), glass noodle salad, Pad Thai (the national noodle dish), chicken with cashews, and Penang beef curry. Zoe helped us with prep work (she was in charge of tearing herbs), and took turns cooking. It was really hot, and the ice-cold beer and water flowed like wine. Surprisingly to us, we were on the last trip back to the resort. Every time another bus or pickup was going back, we asked Zoe if she'd rather go back or stay and cook more. She chose well, in my opinion, because we ate very well indeed, and will likely be able to reproduce some of these another time. We also left with a souvenir of a very cheap and very sharp Thai knife. I have accidentally bent the blade several times, but it goes right back and is still really sharp somehow.

The other "excursion" for us was actually within the resort. Zoe and I were again invited to have lunch with the retreat in order to see where they spent their days and to see Andrea some more. We took a shuttle up to the top of the hill where Pimalai's premier restaurants -and views- are. It was good to see some of Andrea's cohorts. It was good to have lunch with Andrea. It was good to eat some incredible food. And it was great to enjoy the views. Then we went back, napped, etc.

The Big Breakthrough

Somehow while we were there we discovered that Zoe is a really confident swimmer. For those of you who have seen her in the water, it is not astonishing news. But during this trip, she went from being pretty good at following drills in swimming lessons to really putting it all together in practice. And she deserves all the credit. I suppose it helps that we swam at least once every day we were there.

One of the last afternoons, Zoe and I were splashing around on some of the steps leading into the pool when she had the idea to jump from the steps, pushing off, and to swim underwater to me. The first time she did this I was about 4 feet away, and astonished. I lifted her up and told her how great that was. She responded by jumping out of my arms and pushing back to the step. She immediately turned around and did it again. I think we could have continued in this manner for a few days without eating or sleeping if it had been up to her. I gradually stepped back a little further from the steps to about 6 feet away. And I gradually started more practice with kicking and moving her hands, but she just likes to be underwater and moving. When Andrea met us and got in the water, we kept going, but also swimming underwater from Mommy to Daddy. It was really a rush for all 3 of us.

All in all, a great week. To learn how the trip back to Kigali went, read the first few paragraphs of the first Thailand post in reverse order. One notable difference was that we had several hours in the Addis Ababa airport, and actually had fun. We went for breakfast then did a lot of duty-free shopping (a lot of looking, a little buying). The Ethiopian duty-free ladies love Zoe and gave her a stuffed animal/backpack that she loves. Then we came home, and now we are all back to the present!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day!

Because my birthday is July 3rd, I have always been a little oversensitive to the name of our national holiday in July. Calling it "The Fourth of July" has always seemed a little silly. Whenever people would ask me about my birthday, I nearly always hear the reply of "Oh, that's the day before the Fourth!" I doubt very much that people born on December 24th hear "Oh, that's the day before the 25th!" It just seems like we have a national holiday to commemorate an important and specific event, and not just because it's an arbitrary date on the calendar.

Anyway, enough of my silly rant. It is my blog, after all, so here's where I get to say whatever harebrained idea I find interesting.

So we had a really fun time celebrating my birthday last night by going to a pizza / pasta restaurant in Kigali that was really wonderful. It is run by an Italian guy who has been here for many years, and is really a fun place. The pizza was really unusually good, and reminded me very much of Punch, near my folks' house in St. Paul. This is meant as a high compliment. And Andrea and Zoe gave me a couple of good Penguin Popular Classic paperback books (which are worth a mint to me as we have no books here), and a real food processor! It was made in Kenya and seems pretty good, though I haven't used it yet.

This morning we slept in a little and then went to the US Embassy where a cookout is held for U.S. expatriates annually. We ate hot dogs and hamburgers, drank beer and talked with other Americans. Zoe got her face painted and got to run on the lovely lawn. That has to be the best grass in Kigali. And the compound walls are the thickest, as well. Zoe even picked up a few trophies of the day: a white balloon with blue ribbon (Rest In Peace), a small US flag, and a pinwheel of the Stars and Stripes. She thinks the world of them, and who can argue with that. Then the ambassador read a statement from our president, that ended with "Have a great Fourth of July," or some such thing.

The photos were taken after Zoe's nap later in the day, on our porch. We couldn't bring our camera in to the event due to security concerns.

Friday, July 3, 2009


With my apologies to our friend Jane on my plagiarizing the title of this post, I hope to make a recurrent feature of things Zoe says that I find interesting. Today's issue will be simply pronunciation in Zoese:

  • "Bottom" = "Bobbin"
  • "Doing" = "Doodin"
  • "Stuff" = "Tuff"
  • "I" or "Me" or "Mine" = Zoe. Example: "Zoe not get Zoe's balloon. Zoe get Zoe's flag."
Also, she has given us code names: "Not Zoe. Little Cat. Dat not Daddy. Dat Goat. Dat not Mommy. Dat Big Cat."

And, lastly, she was pointing out something in the kitchen, and announced that it was not there. Then she quickly added, "Zoe just makin' joke."

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Kids These Days

A friend recently asked me if there are any wildlife like zebras running around in our backyards here, like deer often do in the States. Well, so far in Kigali, no. But I do encounter goats and chickens and dogs just about every time I go for a run. Sometimes they are being herded (the goats), but usually they just congregate in the road (all three). The dogs remind me very much of Guamanian Boonie Dogs. And people everywhere, especially little children, meet me in the road or say "hey, Muzungu!" The little kids often run along with me for a block or two in their flip-flops, or barefoot. They usually don't get at all winded or break a sweat. The school-aged kids usually shout out for me to give them money or chocolates or my water bottle. I just smile and say "Bon jour!" and hope they get bored running so slowly.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Next Week In Our Story (Part 1 of 2)

Well, to continue our little series of flashbacks, I should tell the tale of Thailand.
After one week exactly of life in Kigali, we boarded a plane to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We then spent some quality time in this airport before heading off to Bangkok. We then had a great time (no sarcasm, it's a wonderful airport) there before heading off on a small jet for Krabi, Thailand. Then came the van, followed by a boat, then another van, then a ferry. Then another van, and then we arrived at the Pimalai resort.
Then, we really knew we had arrived when the staff nudged us into comfortable couches and gave us cool wet towels for our hands and faces, and tall glasses of lemongrass juice for our throats while we endured the wait of checking-in. We were surprised to discover that -since we were accompanied by a toddler- we had been upgraded to "VIP" status, and placed in a private beach house.

When we were shown through the door of this place, our jaws dropped. It was between 50 - 100 feet from the ocean, depending on the tide. It had remarkable views of nearby cliffs and the sunset. It had several decorative pools and gardens. It a few gorgeous rooms, and a luxurious bathroom. It even had fresh tropical fruit and cookies waiting for our enraged stomachs. We gobbled these down, ordered room service, bathed, and started enjoying our jet-lagged selves by promptly falling asleep.

Waking the next morning meant breakfast first of all. Part of our stay there included a breakfast buffet that I have rarely seen the likes of. It was (by my taste) and excellent offering of things we find traditional for breakfast such as an omelet bar, fresh-baked breads and pastries, bacon, sausages (strange for a part of the world that's 80% Muslim, but business is business), yogurt, cereals, fresh tropical fruits and juices, with really good coffee. We especially loved the fruit selection. But then there were the other foods that reminded you of where you were. Boiled rice porridge with fish and a compliment of 6-8 spicy condiments to add. Roast duck with sesame-pepper sauce over rice. Crispy chicken. Tomatoes steamed with spinach and garlic. Wonderful curry dumplings and steamed buns and shumai. My mouth is watering thinking of it. Don't worry, readers: I won't go into this detail over every meal we ate, but this is the first thing we say our first day here, and the first thing we say every day. I don't miss many meals, but I definitely wouldn't be caught dead missing one of these.

Anyway, then Andrea had to go to work: meetings all day with other like-minded researchers. And Zoe and I went to get serious about playing. Our first action of the day was to take some bread pilfered from the buffet down to the koi pond to get some fish fed. Then we had to decide between morning at the beach or morning at the pool. Zoe did enjoy a few mornings at the beach, but generally found it to be too "messy," and preferred the pool. She defintely did well with both, and we had our fun. Then it was back to the house for a quick bath for Zoe. Most days she would dry off by lying in her underwear on a towel on our bed, watching Cartoon Network, while I took my shower. She was invariably asleep before I stepped out. So I would read or try to read your emails or watch more cartoon network or write notes or just join her in a nap. Not a bad first half of a day at all.

I think I will have to abridge this post as it has already grown longer than our entire stay. I will post the second half of the story soon.

Amazing Things Can Happen

For anyone who knows Andrea, I have some shocking news. Since we moved to Kigali, I have seen her go for seconds on lentil soup. I have seen her finish several dishes with green beans.

I have no explanation for these events, and will testify that I am an eyewitness. She states that the green beans are just different here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Flashback in Time

Now it's time to take you back to the good old days of the end of May 2009. I had meant to start this blog then, but didn't have any internet access yet. In fact, at the beginning of the week, Zoe and I had no internet, no phone, no car, no radio, no newspaper, no mailbox, no sense of where we were in the neighborhood, and no TV (in English). It was pretty frustrating at first.

Our temporary furnished house is a nice enough place, and bigger than our apartment in New Orleans, though that doesn't say much. It has a master bedroom (though we didn't know it had a bathroom until a week or two later -we thought the locked door without a key must have been a landlord's storage / utility area - then we found the key). It has two other smaller bedrooms and two small shower baths. Both showers have the curtain rod much too high, and so water gets all over the floor in spite of having a curtain.

There are beds with very stiff foam mattresses, and a small crib for Zoe with the same. We got a mosquito net our first day here. I suppose I should flash back a little further to say that Andrea's work had a driver awaiting us at the airport. He had already dropped off a load of a few things to get us started as a household, such as sugar, coffee, tea, powdered milk(?), and clean sheets. No salt, no food, no toilet paper, no towels or dishrags, no dishsoap, no handsoap, no mosquito nets, etc. So, Andrea asked the driver if he could help us with a few things, and he soon returned with the net and a few more staples. Interestingly, he did not get an insecticide-treated bednet (ITN), which is what Andrea's work promotes as the most effective way of reducing malaria risk. Because of the jet lag of 8 time zones (though we are only 7 hours ahead because of the US celebrating daylight savings), we slept pretty soundly that night. The next day, one of Andrea's co-workers, an expat named Elise, drove us around to three of the places she shops at, and we got some cleaning supplies and groceries. Then she showed us her house, and we had a rest there. It was really wonderful as she and her husband have a lovely home, and a cute little girl, a little over a year old. We got to see that you can really make a home here, from first-hand. It was very encouraging.

Then the next day Andrea went to her first day on the job, and Zoe and I were like canaries in a gilded cage, as I have described above. It wasn't bad, exactly, but it wasn't what we had come for. By the end of the week, we had been exploring both the garden area below the house (and within the walls of the estate) and even taking walks around the neighborhood. Zoe was extremely uncomfortable with walking on a road made from dirt, covered with rocks, and not completely even. Again by the end of the week, this had improved some.

As you can see from the photos, we have a little front driveway area where Andrea parks the car that her work lets her (and not me) use during non-work hours. There is a high wall and a little guard house. There are two units on the top and two on the bottom with the garden below.