Dieciocho – celebrating Chile (and saving my sanity)

Returning staff at our school have patiently endured new teachers’ whining and crying for the last couple months. They nodded their heads and made empathetic sounds when we griped about banking woes, moaned about school systems, expressed profound confusion about daily-life decisions, and otherwise shook our fists at the heavens with utter frustration. “It will all be OK by Dieciocho,” they said.

I had no idea what dieciocho was, but I heard that message so often, it began to bring me comfort.

Then suddenly Dieciocho arrived. Turns out, dieciocho is Spanish for 18, and on Sept. 18, Chile celebrates Independence Day. According to About.Education:

On September 18, 1810, Chile broke from Spanish rule, declaring their independence (although they still were theoretically loyal to King Ferdinand VII of Spain, then a captive of the French). This declaration eventually led to over a decade of violence and warring which did not end until the last royalist stronghold fell in 1826.

Dieciocho is just one day in a festive season called Fiestras Patrias, when Chileans celebrate Chile with rodeos, barbecues, and parties. All over town, people dance the cueca, Chile’s national dance: Ladies in flouncy dresses wave handkerchiefs coyly while bobbing to the music, tempting the huasas (Chile’s version of cowboys) to stomp their boots and spin their spurs. In a public square, you might see an organ grinder performing with a chinchinero, who uses long drumsticks to beat the huge drum on his back while straps attached to his feet clang the cymbals.

I experienced Dieciocho in a few different ways.

First, our school’s Fiesta Huasa offered up a taste of all things Chilean: food, drinks, games, dances, music, and demonstrations of horsemanship. I even accepted a sip of some potent drink from a cow horn, handed down to me from a high school janitor, who was proudly decked out in his finest huasa gear and parading around on his beautiful horse.
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My friend, Craig, and I volunteered at the guinea pig game without really knowing what it was. We soon learned it was very popular! Kids lined the perimeter of the large booth to buy numbered tickets. Inside, boxes formed a big ring with their openings facing inward. A worker dressed as a mime with a small whistle in his mouth placed a guinea pig under a cover in the middle of the circle. After lots of whistling and dramatic gestures, he lifted the cover, and the crowd went wild. At first, the guinea pig just sat there, soaking up all the attention. Then he scurried for cover in one of the numbered boxes. The child with that number on her ticket won a prize. It lasted less than a minute. And then we started over, selling tickets again (color-coded, so no cheating). I had heard that more traditional parties actually give the guinea pig away as the prize, so I was pretty relieved to see kids instead choosing from boxed toys like baby dolls and cars.
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For more Dieciocho fun, I checked out Chile Lindo, a big party in a park near our neighborhood. I ate my first choripán, a chorizo sandwich. Yum!
I didn’t take any food porn photos, but it looked a bit like this, courtesy of Joan Nova’s flickr page.
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Photos from Chile Lindo.
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Nido students also sang and danced in a Dieciocho assembly, which was pretty adorable.
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Here’s a chinchinero at the assembly.

On the Friday before the weeklong Dieciocho break, Nido’s foreign teachers threw a huge party for the Chilean staff, complete with piles of barbecue, gallons of pisco sours (a delicious and toxic Chilean cocktail), and a show featuring skits and songs performed by teachers. In a tradition bordering on hazing, new teachers were told we would be dancing the cueca. We practiced a couple times, but when I saw the video it looked like I had never seen the dance before. Still, it was surprisingly fun.

My dress collar kept blowing up in my face, and it was really cold, so I kept my jeans on. Go ahead and judge.
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Fun newbie friends.
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So, finally, Dieciocho had arrived. We thought it would never get here. And you know what? Those wise returning teachers were right. By the time we left school after that party, I could honestly say I had turned a corner. Without realizing it, I was coping without crying. I was solving problems without complaining to seven people first. The hot tears of frustration and that tight knot of anxiety in my throat? Not completely gone, but not constantly present either. So that’s something.

I’m sitting in the Buffalo airport on my way back to Chile, and I’m actually looking forward to getting home. Yeah, home. It’s about time.

Viva Chile!

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Snacks for Snakey: Instinct or kitty kindness?

Our cat, Ella, has a ridiculous number of toys, but she has a soft spot for “Snakey.” Every morning, we emerge from the bedroom to find Snakey facedown in Ella’s food or water.
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Lately, Snakey has been getting some company and enjoying a little more variety. Ella used to shove his torn little face into her bowl of kibble or dunk him in the water dish, but now she occasionally lets him play with her egg carton “enrichment toy,” a DIY food dispenser that is supposed to stimulate bored cats. She even drags her other toys to the party.
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Perplexed over Ella’s weird behavior, I did a little research. Apparently, this is not uncommon. Here’s the scoop from Dr. Arnold Plotnick, a New York vet with an informative blog called Cat Man Do.

Transporting non-food items, such as toys, to the food or water bowl is a common behavior seen in indoor cats. The reason why they do this isn’t clear, although several explanations have been suggested. Cats often put their toys away in a “safe” place after playing with them, and cats look upon their food area as a secure part of their territory. This behavior is similar to cats in the wild who often take their prey back to their nest area to hide it from potential predators. Your cat simply might be storing his toy in a secure area to be played with later. (When my cat, Mittens, is finished playing with her fuzzy mice, she likes to store them behind a large flowerpot in the corner of my living room.)

He also speculates that it could be a nurturing behavior.

Another possible explanation is that this is a manifestation of gathering/collecting behavior. For example, cats will transport the toy to the water bowl in the same way that a queen will return wandering kittens back to the nest, or move kittens from one place to another by the nape of the neck.

That’s my favorite explanation. I love imagining Ella, gently holding Snakey’s google-eyed head in her mouth and thinking, “It’s OK baby. I’ll take you back to the nest and get you a little snack.”

Doesn’t this look like a cat with a deep sense of empathy? (Check out the Prisma app for your own photo fun.)
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Taking the “h” out of whine: a visit to Emiliana Organic Winery

There has been a lot of venting and fussing as we slowly settle in to a new life here in Santiago.

Yesterday, I thought of that old annoying phrase said by unsympathetic listeners: “Would you like a little cheese with that whine?” And then I thought, “Yes, yes I would!” I have been drowning my frustrations in delicious Chilean wine since we landed in this country, and I couldn’t wait to check out the many wineries.

For my first visit to Chilean wine country, I joined in the celebration of fellow newbie Anna’s birthday. We organized a school van and driver for the hour-plus ride to the Emiliana organic winery in the Casablanca Valley on Saturday. (Tony had to attend IB training at school, so he couldn’t go.)

Damp, cold weather has marked the tail end of Santiago’s winter, and this day was no exception. I encountered a little drizzle on my walk to Starbucks, where we were meeting the van, but I had piled on the layers and actually felt too warm during the van ride. (When did you ever know me to feel too warm?)

Stepping out of the van at Emiliana, we stopped to check out the alpacas in a large pen. “Look!” said another guest. “A baby was just born minutes ago!” Sure enough, mama alpaca’s legs were streaked with blood, and next to her sat a wee damp cria (that’s the name for a baby alpaca, google just told me). Kind of nasty, kind of adorable.

At the end of our tour, Brie got this great shot of the gangly little thing nuzzling with his mom.
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The birthday girl and a friendly alpaca.
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At the winery, we were herded inside to prepare for the tour. We had the option of choosing cheese or chocolate to accompany our wine tasting. Hard call since those are two of my favorite food groups. I went with cheese.
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We met Ramon, an articulate tour guide who kept the English- and Spanish-speaking guests engaged and interested. He explained that Jose Guilisasti’s family founded the winery in 1986, but Jose had a vision to take the vineyard in a new direction. Of course he wanted the organization to be profitable, said Ramon, but he aimed to do so with sustainable eco-friendly practices and social responsibility. It took five years to convert to growing grapes organically and another five years for the wines to turn a profit, he said.
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Jose died in 2014, but his legacy lives on. Ramon described some of the practices that enable Emiliana farmers to produce grapes without herbicides or pesticides: Chickens roam free to control insects. Cow manure and other organic material is used to make compost. Rows of grass and flowering plants between the vines attract ladybugs and other useful critters while serving as snacks for grazing alpacas and sheep, who, in turn, provide the “black gold” that returns nutrients to the soil. The farm takes advantage of modern technology, such as drip irrigation and nutrient management plans that identify acreage in need of compost or other interventions.

Ramon also shared some of Emiliana’s impressive initiatives to provide a better quality of life to its workers. Training in micro-enterprise allows the winery’s 300 workers to grow olives, harvest wool, maintain bees, and otherwise produce the raw materials for products they can sell for their own profit. Workers learn organic farming practices and receive a small garden plot where they can grow their own vegetables. The company also offers assistance with health care, housing, and technical education.
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This yellow flower is called “ruda” in Spanish, but we couldn’t find an English translation. Can you name it? Ramon says ladybugs love the stuff.
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Garden plots for the workers.
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After the tour, we all filed into a nearby building and tromped upstairs to a long table set for the wine tasting. Each placemat held a glass of water, a tray of either cheese or chocolate for the pairings, and four glasses of wine:
* 2015 Adobe Reserva Rosé
* 2015 Novas Gran Reserva Chardonnay
* 2014 Novas Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon
* 2012 Coyam (a blend of six grapes)

I’ve been reading up on Emiliana and its wines a bit, and I keep giggling at some of the reviews. I know it’s a cliché to mock wine-tasting commentaries, but “pencil lead” and “wet dog fur” were two descriptions used in positive reviews of the Coyam. Ick! I most definitely didn’t notice those scents or flavors, and in fact, the Coyam was my favorite of the day.

Our wine guide took this picture and cut out Margo. Sorry!
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A few of us purchased wine, olive oil, and honey before boarding our van for the short ride to House – Casa del Vino, a restaurant operated by the neighboring Tiraziš winery.

I ordered fig-and-ricotta red ravioli, which was paired with Mancura Brut Rosé. When the dish arrived, I worried momentarily that it seemed a bit gimmicky: fuchsia ravioli in a cotton-candy-colored cream sauce, dusted with crushed pistachios, and paired with pink bubbly … really? It was straight out of Barbie’s dream house. I meant to snap a photo, but then I took a bite and forgot everything else. My mouth has not been that happy in a long, long time. I sopped up the extra sauce with warm crusty bread and raised a glass to Anna.

Salud!

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Settling in Santiago part 2: looking for a silver lining in the cloud of exhaustion

How is it possible to feel overwhelmed at the pace of life while also feeling like nothing is getting done? Since I last posted, I’ve enjoyed a few fun outings with new friends, received our shipment from India, and started school. However, daily life is a series of baby steps and barely recognizable accomplishments as we navigate so much newness.

Tuesday, Tony and I left school with plans to meet a handyman at our house and hang curtain rods. (Three weeks after moving in to our apartment, we still don’t have curtains in our master bedroom, so we’re still sleeping on a trundle bed in a guest bedroom.) The handyman cancelled at the last minute, which seems to happen more often than not here.

OK. Change of plans: We checked out a supermarket near school called Lider, which is owned by Wal-Mart. The underground parking was nearly empty, so we wondered whether the store was even open. Not only was it open, it was amazing. It pretty much WAS Wal-Mart. Not that I love Wal-Mart … but … after living in India for five years with no convenient supermarket option, this was Nirvana. We took our time, strolling down every aisle, realizing – with the help of google translate on my phone – that we could find just about any ingredient we needed for just about any recipe. We bought cheese and wine and avocados and fresh bread and a rotisserie chicken and a pork roast and some school supplies … oh man, I could go on and on. We knew to weigh our produce and get it priced in the produce section, and we knew to do the same for bread in the bakery section. At checkout, we had actually remembered to bring in the cloth shopping bags (which we usually forget in the trunk of our car) and I knew how much to tip the woman who bagged our groceries (one of a gajillion little learnings on this steep curve). We pulled out of the parking lot, consulted with google maps, and got right on the highway. We went grocery shopping and got home without screwing up dramatically or getting lost! We were buoyed by a sense of success.

So, try to understand our state of mind if that made us happy. You can only assume that we are generally not that successful. Daily life is riddled with mind-numbing frustrations and inconveniences that we haven’t figured out how to handle. My eyes continuously brim with tears that I somehow keep from spilling over.

That said, here are some things that have marginally improved our quality of life in recent weeks:

* We have searched and searched for adaptors for the oversized Indian plugs on our microwave, coffee maker, electric kettle, portable heaters, and back-up UPS batteries for our computers. Obviously, we haven’t been able to use any of those things since we gleefully unpacked them. Finally, Tony snipped off all the plugs and rewired them with Chilean plugs! I actually stood in front of the coffee maker and watched it brew the first pot of coffee, just in case it caught on fire. So far, so good!

* I paid some bills! Oh sure, you may think that’s mundane and not worth mentioning. Try moving to a country where you don’t speak the language, don’t receive any actual bills and suddenly get inundated with people saying, “What? You haven’t paid your bills yet?!” I had a major freakout yesterday when I got a text message from my mobile phone company saying: “Your plan will expire tonight if you don’t pay your bill.” Except it was in Spanish. And then someone reminded me that we have to pay the rent before the 5th or we’ll get slammed with late fees. And then there’s the gas, water and electricity bills, not to mention the “gastos communes,” which are fees for apartment dwellers that cover the concierge, groundskeeping, janitorial services in the common areas, and so on. Fortunately, it seems almost everything can be paid online. My good friend google translate helped me figure out the phone company’s website, and then I paid the rent from my Chilean bank website (which involves a LOT of steps, including using a little clicker that looks like a garage door opener and gives you a code to enter online). Our concierge says the other bills haven’t arrived, and I nodded and pretended to understand when he rattled on about something, which I decided to believe was, “When the bills arrive, I will deliver them to your apartment.” We’ll see. So, whew!

* Tony and I joined a couple newbies for a hike up Cerro San Cristobal July 17. Just a 5-minute taxi ride from our house brought us to the trail head, where we met Jen and Sarah. We trekked up for about 45 minutes, a 300-meter increase in elevation, to the 14-meter statue of the Virgin Mary on the summit. The statue towers over an amphitheatre, where Pope John Paul II said mass and blessed the city in 1987. A nook at the statue’s base features racks of candles and a wall of offerings and prayer requests. A small chapel sits a few steps further down the hill, flanked by a few gift shops and snack stands. I couldn’t find much information on the chapel, but these guys have a nice summary (and a pretty fun travel blog): Cleared and Ready for Takeoff.

Even on this overcast day, the views were exhilarating.
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* Our shipment from India arrived! The moving company delivered everything on Saturday, July 23, and we had unpacked all 138 boxes by the end of the weekend. “Unpacked” is different from “put away,” of course. I will use the metaphor that Tony uses when I put on pantyhose: 20 pounds of potatoes in a 10-pound sack. That’s what our apartment feels like right now. Too much stuff and not enough space, so it sits in piles around the perimeter of each room. However, it’s such a treat to enjoy a home-cooked meal at the dining room table instead of eating a peanut-butter sandwich while sitting on the toilet seat (or standing in the kitchen). We cuddle with Ella on the sofa each evening, and we’re slowly digging through the mountains of clothes to complement the limited wardrobe we brought in our suitcases. Even in this state of chaos, our stuff brings a sense of comfort.

The kitchen boxes towered on the balcony and overflowed out into the hallway. And this kitchen is puny. Whenever we try to do anything in the kitchen at the same time, Tony mutters, “It’s like we live on a boat.”
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Ella mostly hid in the closet, but she came out to explore when the movers took a lunch break.
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This is where we’re sleeping till we get curtains in the master bedroom. Yes, it’s a trundle bed.
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The only casualty of the move: a big terracotta elephant I bought at a street market in Delhi. I really loved him.
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Furniture unpacked and reassembled. So grateful for places to sit!
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Cross your fingers that we experience ongoing successes that outweigh the oppressive sense of failure permeating most of our days… Wow, that was intense. Oppressive sense of failure? Really? Well … frankly… yeah. That pretty much sums it up. But – and it’s a big but – we learn something new every day. That’s the silver lining, for now. Stay tuned.

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All’s good in the ‘hood: Exploring Providencia

After camping in our empty apartment for four days, I knew I had to get out. I jumped at the chance to explore our neighborhood with fellow newbies living in Providencia and returning teacher, Colleen (you might know her as the “pot lender”).

We walked and walked and walked all afternoon, pausing for a rooftop beer and later meeting up with Tony and Colleen’s husband, Brad, for dinner in the totally walkable neighborhood of Barrio Bellavista. I was shaking with excitement over how easy it was to walk everywhere (to be fair, it got pretty cold by late afternoon, so I might have been shivering). Colleen pointed out her favorite restaurants, outdoor markets, specialty shops and bars along the way. We did catch a taxi to nearby Vitacura, where we checked out Parque Bicentenario, a huge beautiful urban park, and then popped into Hotel Noi for a peek at its rooftop pool bar. Later, we lucked out and got a table at Uncle Fletch, a bustling burger joint. After dinner, we stumbled upon a contemporary art gallery, where they served us free wine to sip while perusing the paintings and sculptures. Too pooped to walk another step, Tony and I taxi-ed home, eager to explore some more another day.

I wish I had taken more photos, but it was a rather dreary overcast day.

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Unintentional camping in Santiago

July 12 had been looming ominously. That was the day we would get kicked out of the hotel. Tony was ready for it. He was sick of living out of a suitcase and wanted to get started with the settling-in process. I, on the other hand, faced reality: We would still be living out of suitcases in our apartment. (OK, maybe we would actually unpack our suitcases and hang clothes in the closets, but that wasn’t a significant improvement in my mind.) Plus, we would be giving up the free buffet breakfast, wifi and central heat.

Our shipment – due to arrive on July 16 – included sheets and blankets for a queen-sized guest bed. However, we quickly realized our tiny extra bedrooms would hardly accommodate such a large piece of furniture. Instead, we bought a twin-sized trundle bed and all the necessary bedding. That became the camp bed as we awaited our new Tempurpedic, purchased shortly before our departure from Delhi. We also visited a department store here to buy a fridge and dryer, which were scheduled to arrive between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. (!) on the day of our move-in. By 8:45 p.m., Tony was asleep and I had given up. After an extensive multi-day whatsapp conversation with the store’s floor manager, we finally received our appliances at the end of the week. Good thing it’s winter here! We just put all our food on the balcony to keep cold. But, then again, clothes don’t dry quickly in chilly, damp weather, so we tried not to do laundry that week.

We used plastic cutlery, plates and cups and ate mostly sandwiches until I thought my belly would burst from backed-up cheese. Finally, I borrowed a pot from a colleague and looked forward to making spaghetti for dinner. I filled the pot with water, dumped in the pasta, and then realized … I didn’t have a spoon. The apartment’s previous tenant had left a large knife, so I wrapped the sharp end with a towel and stirred the pasta with the knife handle. I kind of felt like McGyver, especially after a couple glasses of wine. After dinner, I texted my pot lender and begged for a wooden spoon.
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This kind of makeshift life can be fun, or at least tolerable, when the end is in sight. We found two folding chairs in our basement storage room, so we no longer had to sit on the toilet seat to eat breakfast. We painted a few walls and brainstormed about where to hang all our art. We shopped for curtains. However, the moving company repeatedly pushed back the date of our delivery, and soon we found ourselves irritable and over it. When I got the email that our shipment would arrive on Saturday, July 23, I refused to get excited. I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Settling in Santiago: hurry up and wait

Here we are in Santiago, Chile! We have accomplished a lot in our first six days, but we still feel eager to get out of the hotel and into our own place. Our new employer – International School Nido de Aguilas – put us up at the Atton Hotel el Bosque with a posse of helpers who facilitate apartment hunting, buying a car, setting up our mobile phones, getting registered with the International Police, learning about banking, and more.

This is our fifth international school and the first one that didn’t provide furnished housing to new staff upon arrival. The only drawback is that we will have to leave the hotel and move into our new apartment about a week before our shipment arrives (assuming it arrives on time). That means we have to buy a bed, sheets, towels, kitchenware and other necessities that are presently en route from India but just won’t get here soon enough. The good news is we found a nice apartment in a quiet leafy neighborhood, just a short distance from parks, a gas station, a grocery store, a pet supply store, and lots of restaurants, bars and coffee shops. A 10-minute walk gets us to a huge mall, massive supermarket, Home Depot-ish store, and many entertainment options.

It’s winter here now, but so far that has meant mostly beautiful sunny skies with clear views of the Andes Mountains and temperatures in the high 50s. We have walked from the hotel to our apartment and all around the district, feeling giddy that this is our new home. People make eye contact and smile. They greet one another with a kiss on the cheek. And the wine – hola madre! – is cheap and delicious. So far, no complaints!

Here’s a little rundown of our transition up to now. I haven’t taken many pictures, but I will soon!

Getting There
Which would you rather hear for your entire flight? A screaming baby or a howling cat?

If you said “baby,” then you would have won the jackpot on our Detroit-to-Houston flight. The poor lady in front of us held a 10-month-old baby on her lap that shrieked for the entire three hours. Bad for her seatmate. Good for us because our cat, Ella, was also shrieking in her carrier under the seat, but nobody could hear her over the baby din. Whew!

If you said “howling cat,” then you should have joined us for the 9-hour joyride from Houston to Santiago, when Ella screamed her face off and attempted all sorts of prison break maneuvers for the whole flight. She dug at her pee-pee pad like a madwoman scratching an escape route through the padded walls of her cell. She clawed and bit at the mesh of her carrier (my pinky suffered some collateral damage when I tried to soothe her). She rammed her head and body into the fabric, effectively opening a zipper at one point. After a few hours, I discovered she would wail slightly less maniacally if I extended my leg and rubbed my toe against her head that was wedged against the end of the carrier. If I fell asleep or shifted my weight, she went into full psycho mode again, so I basically held that position for about five hours. Ella’s anxiety spread to Tony, who spent most of the flight in the bathroom.

When we landed in Santiago, we were greeted by a young man from Wou Vets. Although we had stressed for months about leaving Ella at a “pet hotel” while we stayed at a “people hotel,” all our apprehension vanished at the opportunity to unload her for awhile. So that’s where she is now. Probably angry and confused, but safe at the Wou Vets Pet Camp. You can check out photos of Ella and the other furry guests on their FaceBook page: Wou Vets Community.

Whirlwind Week
The school transported us from the airport to the hotel on a bus with a bunch of other newbies who had arrived on early morning flights. Tony and I had arranged to move into the apartment of a departing teacher, and we were eager to see it, so we quickly unpacked and headed out for a walk. Without the keys, we simply stood on the sidewalk and looked up at the building. Then we strolled around the neighborhood, popping in to the Lider Express supermarket where a huge display of palta (avocado) greeted us at the entrance. How can I not love a country where avocado is a dietary staple? (about $2 for a pound)
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We had a quick meeting with bank representatives, who set us up with accounts but didn’t really explain how much money was in there or how to use our new cards. Oh well! Many of the newbies met up for dinner at an amazing pizzeria called Tiramisu. We were told to get there when it opened, so we arrived a little before 7 p.m., and the line had already formed. Quaint and cozy with delicious food and wine, this place was a special treat. I have a feeling that wasn’t our last Tiramisu pizza.

My first glass of Chilean wine IN Chile!
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Monday, we met Anna, a representative from the relocation agency finding homes for all of us. We joined a small group that had already targeted specific apartments. Our place was the first stop, where the realtor, Roberto, met us in the lobby and took us up to the third floor. Workers were painting and working on minor repairs, so it was tricky for the six of us to check out the apartment with any real scrutiny. We basically said, “Looks good to us!” and jumped back in the bus to visit the other newbies’ digs.

Tuesday, a group of us bused to the International Police Station to register as residents of Santiago. That took for.ev.er. Fortunately, our school helpers had gone ahead to pull numbered tickets that secured our places in line. When we arrived, there were still about 200 people ahead of us. After getting fingerprinted and photographed, we got our precious RUT number. This is like gold in Chile. You can’t get a phone, buy a car, sign a lease or even purchase pillowcases without it. So getting that number was the necessary first step before we could do … well, literally, anything. That process wrapped up in the early afternoon, so we grabbed some snacks on the street and then went en masse to buy mobile phone plans. Again, thank goodness Nido gave us handlers. We never could have done this by ourselves.

Wednesday, we were wrangled for vehicle shopping by Tito, a car-savvy Nido employee, and Valentina, a Nido graduate and university student serving as translator. Tony and I ultimately bought a 2016 Toyota Yaris Sedan, a boring but reliable car that gets pretty decent gas mileage … something we have to take seriously in a city where gas is about $5 a gallon.
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Thursday, we signed our lease in the morning and then met Roberto at the apartment in the afternoon to pay the deposit and pick up the keys. We spent more time really perusing the place, trying to get a feel for what it will be like to live there. We both think we’re going to love it!

Friday, we had an early morning meeting at the school about banking. We each have a peso account and a U.S. dollar account, and we can’t have a joint account, and we don’t get our money sent to the States automatically, but we have to pay to wire money, and some things can be done online but most things have to be done at the bank’s branch office, which is only open till 2 p.m., and there’s some little clicker that gives a code that we’ll need each time we make a local transfer, and sure, of course you can pay bills online. But how? We’re still thoroughly confused, but I suppose we’ll figure it out.

It was our first visit to the school, and we only got to see the meeting room inside the elementary school library, but this was the view from the parking lot. Not bad, eh?
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In the afternoon, we went to the mall to shop for a few additional items we’ll need to camp in our empty apartment next week.

Transitions suck. That’s all there is to it. This seems like a fantastic city, and we’re meeting great people, and so far, we’re so completely 100% thrilled with our decision to move here. And yet… I want to start living my life here. I want to speak fluent Spanish right now. And have my shipment delivered and unpacked right now. And have my apartment arranged and decorated right now. And I want to start my job and meet my colleagues and know how everything works at my new school. Right. Now.

Patience is a virtue that neither Tony nor I have ever fully embraced. So, for the next few days or weeks or … let’s face it … most likely MONTHS, we’re going to try our best not to bite each other’s faces off for petty reasons as we navigate so much newness. One step at a time and all that. I’ll keep you posted!

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Summer 2016: Short but sweet

As we transition from India to Chile … from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere … from summer to winter … from a 9.5-hour time difference to NO time difference … from Hindi to Spanish … it’s all kind of blowing my mind.

I could have spent our short summer break stressing about it all, but there was no time! We had a shorter-than-usual holiday because (a) “newbie teachers” at the Nido de Aguilas International School have to show up to school a couple weeks early for orientation, and (b) it’s winter in Chile, so our new school’s long “summer break” actually starts in December.

Besides, I was distracted by a whole bunch of cuteness in the form of nieces and nephews. I also wanted to catch up with all three of my siblings and a couple sib-in-laws (reunited from Michigan, Texas and England); my parents, who drove up from Florida; and one of my dearest friends, who visited from St. Louis.

Tony and I didn’t have time to enjoy our summer activities as much as usual: biking on the trails, kayaking, grilling out, walking around the lake, etc. But we also didn’t have time to stress about the huge transitions about to turn our world upside down.

Cocktails with Tarren, who is more like a sister after 30+ years of friendship.
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After she returned to St. Louis, Tarren sent Cardinals teddies to all the kids (and tasty treats for the adults).
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My sister, Megan, and her two munchkins stayed with Tony and me at the lake. We read a lot of books.
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We pretended the fan was blowing us over so we could bellyflop on to the cushions.
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We tried to stage a couple photo shoots. Impossible to get this group to cooperate.
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We took a boat ride with our neighbor, Kim.
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We took out the kayaks and the stand-up paddleboard a couple times. I remember when Nico and Paul were too little to paddle alone, and now they’re taking passengers out for a ride!
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We played at the nearby mall, always a fun destination with the kids. The Bass Pro Shop’s fish tank and taxidermy extravaganza, the carousel, and the Lego store were big attractions.
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We found a new trampoline park with a ninja warrior course. So fun!
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Meg battled a little boy and knocked him into the foam pit for a chance to face off with Kate. Ha!

We had a pool party at Kate’s house.

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Ella mostly lounged in a sunny spot and tried to stay clear of all the children.
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But she had a hard time escaping from this one.

Our last night in Michigan was Flare Night, when lake dwellers line the perimeter of the lake with road flares and light them at 10 p.m. According to the Oakland Press News, the tradition started in 1945 to celebrate the end of World War II. Our neighbors always have a blow-out party that night, so it was a fun way to wrap up our short summer break. In a rite of passage, Nico lit our flares (with help from Tony).
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AES Graduation 2016 – Tony wows ’em

For 20 years, I’ve watched Tony grade essays around the world – in his cramped study at our old house in Kansas, at the ruins of Troy and cafés in Istanbul, by the Great Wall of China and Starbucks in Shanghai, on the deck of a rainforest lodge in Borneo, along the banks of the Mekong River in Laos, among the terraced rice paddies of Bali, and at the beach in Phuket, Thailand. “Everywhere, every city we’ve ever been in,” Tony says. “I’ve graded papers everywhere.” It’s true. Even on vacation, we’re never alone. For as long as I can remember, I’ve shared my husband with William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Toni Morrison. In part, that’s the life of a high school English teacher. (“Why don’t you just give multiple choice tests?” I whine, staring out the window and wishing I had brought a friend on this trip, every trip. “Because I’m supposed to be teaching them how to write,” he responds, exasperated.)

For 20 years, I’ve watched Tony get to school at the crack of dawn and stay well after the final bell. His classroom door is always open for students who want extra help with an assignment (even assignments from other teachers) or who need a letter of recommendation for their university applications. In his free time, he reads the novels, plays, and poems he plans to teach, even when he’s read them a million times before. He highlights, color codes, writes notes in the margins, fills the pages with sticky notes, and always finds something new.

Tony jokes with his students, “Most people will tell you they became teachers because they love kids. They get energized by you. Well, I don’t. You suck my energy away. I became a teacher because I love books. I love literature. I love the academic life.” But everyone knows that he really does love kids and worry about them and care about them. The students know it best of all.

That’s why I felt especially proud of Tony when the high school seniors chose him to be the faculty speaker at their graduation this year. “The odds were in my favor,” he said when the announcement was made. “I have taught almost all the seniors.” True. Still, it feels good to be appreciated, he admitted.

Tony’s speech perfectly captured his quirky sense of humor, reflective teaching style, and connections with the graduates. He spoke to them, weaving together themes from his classes with life lessons. He referenced inside jokes that only the students would get, and – best of all – in my opinion, he reminded them to carry on the values that AES instilled in them: compassion, service to others, and a growth mindset.

Here’s the American Embassy School of New Delhi graduation video. Skip ahead to 44:50 to see Tony’s speech.

A few people have asked for the script. Here you go. Feel free to share. Tony later realized he misattributed the phrase, “Pavements gray,” so he fixed it in this version.

I am truly honored to be speaking to you today. But, before I begin my speech, I would like to say something that is actually important.

Simply put, I care about you – many of you. I’m fond of you. I’m proud of you. You’ve earned my utmost respect. And when you are gone, I’ll think about you; I’ll remember you; and I’ll miss you, starting Monday, when you definitely should be gone.

OK, the speech.

Earlier this year a traveling salesman came to our school. OK, he wasn’t actually a traveling salesman. He was what Paul Johnson would call a teacher trainer.

But, I like stories about traveling salesmen, so here we go . . .

Anyway, this salesman made us all think about what AES teachers do, and he tried to make us worry and wonder if we were, in fact, preparing you for “the real world.” And by “the real world,” he meant – I guess – life beyond AES, where you will all go and exist, starting in about 40 minutes.

Now, I was a little traumatized by his premise that AES is “not the real world.” We aren’t real. Ironically, in the place where we teach you “to be or not to be,” we are … NOT.

Let’s think about what this means.

You can’t BE a student at AES. Apparently, you can only NOT BE a student at AES. When you move those tassels, of course, you won’t be students at AES anymore, but for a few more minutes you are students at AES … NOT.

This happens in every class, I’ve lost a few of you. Don’t worry about it.

The idea that AES isn’t the real world is sort of a great contradiction to Descartes and the fundamental keystone of all western philosophy: Here, at AES, “we think, therefore we are” . . . NOT. In Latin it would be: Cogitamus, ergo NON sumus.

Now, I did wonder if, in fact, I had prepared you for “the real world.”

But, I’ve been an academic all my life. So, I guess I never have actually really been in or seen the real world.

Oh, I’ve heard of it. It comes up occasionally in class. It’s what the poet William Butler Yeats called “pavements gray.”

And Wordsworth said,
“Where getting and spending we lay waste our powers
For the little we see in nature that is ours.”

That’s from Mr. Glennon’s favorite poem by the way.

Indeed, the real world, as I understand it, is what the Romantic poets, and Walt Whitman and Thoreau and even Huckleberry Finn on his raft were forever trying to escape.

So, maybe I didn’t teach you how to live in “the real world,” but I know I taught you how to escape it – you can pick up a book. You can pick up a book, too.

Here, in “NOT the real world,” we spend way too much time trying to teach you something totally irrelevant out there: how to be self aware.

What we teach at this school is how to look at the world critically, logically, creatively, theoretically, artistically, mathematically, communally, politically and compassionately

And I have always tried to do that without taking away the sense of wonder that 5-year-old you initially brought with you to kindergarten.

Now, some of your parents don’t know what I mean by wonder. But it is the most important thing I teach!

Socrates taught us that “wonder is the beginning of knowledge.” So I’ll teach you the way I taught your children: Do you remember when you were a kid, probably 3 or 4 years old, and you were riding in the back seat of the car. It was night and your parents were driving. For some reason it was quiet and you looked up and you noticed that the moon was following you?

Amazing that you still remember the emotion! You remember because you wondered.

That emotional joy of discovery is why I teach literature, a topic which has always been an exploration of what it means to be a human being. When you examine everyone from Macbeth to Gatsby, Frankenstein to Elizabeth Bennet, Job to Hermione Granger, you learn something.

I mean that here, in the “NOT the real world,” we think about the infinite possibilities that is man all the time. “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!” as Hamlet says.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Socrates (who, by the way, they poisoned right out of the real world) said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” I do verily believe it.

And so let me give you my one bit of advice for people about to go into the real world. Don’t go! Don’t go! Some of you girls couldn’t walk very far in those shoes you’re wearing anyway. So, don’t go!

Don’t go into the world that Willy Loman describes by screaming: “The competition is maddening!”

I don’t know if we prepared you for the real world. And I’m not sure I’m ready for tomorrow either. I do know that AES is special though.

Here, in “NOT the real world,” we constantly strive to better ourselves.

Here, in “NOT the real world,” we value community, and the noblest trait is caring about others more than ourselves.

Here, in “NOT the real world,” we think about learning as a lifelong goal, something we continue to do until our very last breath.

Here in “NOT the real world,” we know that what you spend a lifetime building can be torn down in an instant, and yet you should spend your life building anyway.

Here, in “NOT the real world,” we actually mostly try to teach you how to continue living in a world like this one, by being awake to the infinite possibilities that is humanity and your own unlimited potential.

So, did we prepare you for “the real world”?

I don’t know. I worry about it. Most of you can’t drive or make an omelet or write a check or iron a shirt. I had to tie four ties before we could get these kids out here.

No, don’t worry. None of that matters.

Truthfully, I kind of assumed you were ready for “the real world” the first day I met you. You were probably ready for “the real world” when you graduated kindergarten.

Bob Fulghum sums up the kindergarten curriculum this way. This is what you were supposed to learn:
Share everything. 
Play fair. 
Don’t hit people. 
Put things back where you found them. 
Clean up your own mess. 
Don’t take things that aren’t yours. 
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. 
Wash your hands before you eat. 
Flush. 
Live a balanced life. 
Learn, think, draw, paint, sing, dance, play and work some every day.
And take a nap every afternoon. 
That’s why your teachers have couches in their rooms.

Kindergarten … I swear to God, that’s really all you needed to know to live and be happy in the real world.

Not ready for the real world? You knew everything the day I first met you! I’m not worried about you! I’m jealous of you, and I’m hopeful about the world because I think you’re going to change it. I think you’re going to make it better. I think every one of you is going to make it more like AES. And that’s what I was preparing you for!

Change the world and make it better. That’s your homework! That’s your homework, too. When is it due? Well, life takes a lifetime. How many days do you have left?

Eventually, when you’re done, they can dig a hole and bury you right in the actual real world. Nothing in the real world really lasts, anyway.

But in the meantime, don’t get sucked, pulled, drawn or contracted into the real world. Don’t ever surrender any part of your soul. That moral truth, by the way, is what you were supposed to learn from every tragedy I’ve ever taught you.

Now, if you’ve ever looked at “Cliffs Notes,” and I think some of you have, and I think some of you have, and I know some of you have … you will learn that the theme of almost every book not written by Jane Austen is “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Man’s inhumanity to man!

Well, from what I’ve heard, that happens out there in the real world. So, don’t go! Don’t contribute to it. Stay here – at least in your hearts.

Thank you.

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AES Board Farewell Dinner – too teary to talk

Tonight is the AES Board Farewell Dinner, where our school honors departing board members and staff. The “leavers” are invited to get up on the stage to say a few words about their time in Delhi. Some give heartfelt speeches; others perform a little skit, sing a song, or show a clever video. Historically, it’s been an evening fraught with emotion.

I recall a particularly poignant speech in 2012, in which a teacher asked people in the room to stand if they had ever taught his children. Many pushed back their chairs and stood. Then he asked people to stand if they had ever coached his children in sports or after-school activities. More rose. Then he asked people to stand if they had ever put a Band-aid on one of his kids, had a hallway conversation with them, talked to them at a birthday party, or otherwise interacted with them. By then, nearly everybody in the room was out of their seats, many of us in tears.

It was a powerful illustration of the interconnectedness of an international school community. We work together, play together, travel together, struggle together, celebrate together, teach and care for each other’s children, and grow reliant on one another. Then we wave good-bye as those important people move on to other places, year after year, until we are the ones leaving.

At previous AES Board Farewell Dinners, I’ve wondered, “What will we do when it’s our turn to go?” Well, now I know. Nothing. With less than two weeks before we leave India for good and kick off a new adventure in Santiago, Chile, we will attend this dinner, but we won’t get up to speak.

Trust me, I’m as surprised as you are. Everyone knows I love the spotlight, especially if it’s an opportunity to make people laugh. Over the last five years, I’ve toyed with many hilarious ideas that could have blossomed into shtick for tonight’s dinner.

I do want to honor Incredible India, where spectacular experiences are a daily occurrence. I want to express my deepest appreciation for a professional community that thrives on thinking and growing and learning from each other. I want to send a big shout-out to friends who supported us through the bumpy patches and laughed with us the rest of the time. This country, this city, this school, this community – all of it – has been unlike anything we’ve experienced in our 15 years overseas.

And that’s precisely why I can’t get up to speak tonight. I know I won’t be able to harden my heart against the tears when I look out at the crowd. And nobody wants to see this girl cry. It ain’t pretty.

So know that this is my way of telling you how much you mean to me, from the bottom of my tear-stained heart:

Please stand if you ever prepared food, booked travel, arranged a visa, handled money, set up a mobile phone, drove a car, mailed a postcard, or signed official paperwork for me. Please stand if you ever answered an urgent email from me. Please stand if you ever delivered, painted, fixed, cleaned, or moved something at my home or classroom.

Please stand if you ever exercised, ate out, shopped, danced, visited a historic site, took a walking tour, discussed books, played cards, got massages, lounged by a pool, ventured out to community events, walked in the park, or otherwise played with me. Please stand if you traveled with me.

Please stand if you taught me something or if I taught you something or if we learned something together. Please stand if you and I were part of the same department, task force, committee, focus group, or grade-level team.

Please stand if you ever gave me a hug or I gave you one. Please stand if you’ve heard my cat stories, student stories, mom stories, niece and nephew stories, and/or poop stories. Please stand if I ever cried in your presence.

If you’re standing, it’s because you made a difference in my world. Thank you.

I’m not quite ready to say good-bye. So, if I see you tonight, please don’t dwell on our departure. Let’s just share a few more laughs for the road.

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Adventures in Teaching and Travel