Archive for January, 2013

School, Escuela, Shkolla

January 30, 2013

This morning was the kids’ first day at preschool. I had not intended to send Oz yet, but when I went to the informational meeting in December (here the school year runs from late January to November, with a long break in July), I kept thinking how much he would enjoy the focus on arts and music at this particular school. So I signed them both up.

Illyria is four years and eight months old, Oz is two years and seven months (almost). For her, I feel like the time is ripe – perhaps even a little over-ripe – the socialization will be really good for her. She is already reading at a first-grade level and exploring a lot of basic math concepts on her own, and has phenomenal gross motor skills (we call her our acrobat), but I have long been concerned about her language and social development. So I think this experience will push her in good ways.

Oz is an imp and a clown and a sweetheart. He’s deliberately and self-consciously funny. He’s affectionate, talkative, still baby-soft and cuddly. I think he is ready for this new leap – I’m pretty confident that he’s going to make friends and learn Spanish quickly.

When we were in the US, I took Illyria to a speech therapist – I was actually hoping to arrange for a full ASD screening but we didn’t have enough time to get all the proper referrals etc. in place, especially with everything else we had going on. The speech therapist said she did see some “social differences” in my daughter, but asked me what I really wanted from a diagnosis? If we were staying the US, a diagnosis would make Illyria eligible for certain kinds of educational services, but that would not necessarily be the case in another country, so did we really want to put that label on her? What would be gained by it?

I read an article online months ago, “My Quirky Kid,” that kind of summed up a lot of how I feel about Illyria’s, well, quirkiness, and made me feel better about foregoing pursuit of a diagnosis. As an anthropologist, I also see these systems of categorization as social constructs that are certainly empirically-based, but constructs nonetheless – ways of understanding the world, but not absolutes. They are culturally and historically contingent. They are inventions. So… what do I really want from a diagnosis? What would be gained?

I realized that what I really wanted was a) validation, that I’m not seeing things that aren’t there, or making mountains out of proverbial molehills (which I got from the speech therapist); b) ideas, techniques, things I can do to help her build positive social relationships that will help her experience the richness of human life to the fullest (I got some of this from the speech therapist, some from online reading); c) a “cure.” At some point I realized that what I wanted was a way to change her – to flip some kind of mental switch that would somehow make her this tremendously empathetic person, intuitively tuned in to other people’s silent signals and nonverbal cues, able to read social situations at a glance, etc. etc. Once I really understood that that’s just not possible – that the socially-oriented therapies that are done with people with ASD don’t actually do this – as far as I can understand it, it seems they teach behaviors, more or less), I had to let that go. And you know, that’s just not her, that’s just not who she is. She’s a fiercely intense little girl, extremely bright, athletic, strong. She loves animals. I can totally see her growing up to be a scientist, maybe a veterinarian.

It’s been really great over the past few months to see her relationship with her brother blossoming. To catch them sharing and taking turns unprompted. Having conversations. The other day she said “There’s the little white guy [one of her many nicknames for him]! I just love him so, so much!” and ran over and hugged and kissed him. It made my week.


The Missing Piece

January 20, 2013

The other day I walked home from work with an almost buoyant feeling, somehow feeling both uplifted and grounded at the same time. Something has fallen into place in the last month. I no longer stand in front of the stove staring stupidly at the burners, trying to remember what I need to do next in order to make dinner. Instead I move smoothly through the motions, knowing in my limbs where everything is, reaching and turning, chopping and stirring, without having to stop and think (too much). I feel calm and collected enough to feel like weekends are actually relaxing, and I have spare mental RAM for thinking about some home-improvement projects that just a month ago felt beyond my reach, overwhelming.

And I am loving my job. Gimli is too – for years we’ve wanted to work together, and now we are sharing a leadership position and finding our way into it in a way that feels energizing and fun. I love walking to and from work with him, talking about our team and projects and partner organizations, constructing our shared vision for how we want to move the program forward in the next five years. It’s been profoundly satisfying to meet some personnel challenges head-on and to feel like I did a really good job with it. It’s been richly rewarding to be able to fall fluidly into Spanish again, to be able to perform the more ceremonial aspects of the position with ease. And I haven’t seen him this happy with work for ages.

And I really like our team. It’s an intercultural group, 25 people from 6 different countries, with all the richness and challenges that brings. In early November we had a team retreat outside the capital and I found myself near tears a few times, feeling like I’ve finally found it – I’ve found my tribe again. There’s a shared ethos that combines spirituality with commitment to social justice work that just nails it for me – hits a sweet spot where my heart of hearts just feels a deep sense of rightness, of this is where I want to be, this is where I belong.

I have yet to find a good, consistent time and place for personal writing (you may have noticed) or dissertation work. I have a plan, though, for when the kids start pre-school in a few weeks. (Eek!) In the meantime, I’ve committed to spending 15-20 minutes after the kids go to bed listening to music and writing. This – writing time – is my missing piece right now, and I realized that the desire to create something archive-worthy was holding me back from actually doing it. So I’ve refocused my intention with regards to writing, to treat it as a way of giving myself a warm, calming hug at the end of the day.

The one thing that makes this possible is that Gimli has taken on nigh-parenting duties and as a result we are all sleeping much better. It’s been a tremendous gift.

So that’s where I am right now. Glad and thankful.

Bogota: What It’s Like (For Me)

January 5, 2013


In October, I was caught in a downpour during which my camera got wet – and the automatic lens cover won’t open all the way, ever since. Hence the dark shadow in the corner of many of my photos.



Our kitchen, and the two inexplicably side-by-side bathroomsDSC07820

Whimsical cat planterDSC07824

Small town outside BogotaDSC07842


One of my favorite things about our life here: the playground 1/2 block away:

View from our bedroom window – the trees there are on the National University grounds.DSC07891

Christmas candles in our fireplace:DSC07935

Christmas lights seen from a friend’s apartment window:DSC07954

View of the city from Monterrate, an historic church on a mountainside.DSC07979

Detail of the building our office is in:DSC07997

Graffiti on the street our office is on (in the far distance, beyond the banana stalk, it says “Mas Paz” – More Peace.)DSC07998

Where I catch the bus to go home:DSC08000


Oz’s Christmas present (the rugs and cars):

Check out Bloodsigns for more What It’s Like Here posts…

… or here and here for the ones I did in Tirana.


Culture Shock (*now with more linky love!)

January 4, 2013

I’m a veteran of transcultural living; perhaps at some level I thought culture shock didn’t apply to me anymore. I certainly thought that Colombia, being Latin America and sharing a border with Peru, would feel like home. But I’ve been overwhelmed with longing for Albania… the last thing I expected to feel upon coming here.

I had felt so ready to leave. I felt “done.” I knew I would miss Dhurata, but that didn’t feel like enough of a reason to stay on another year, so very far from my family of origin. I so looked forward to the familiarity of Latin American culture and the sounds of Spanish.

Today as I walked to lunch with  Gimli I looked up and saw laundry hanging from a balcony high over the city streets and I smiled, because it reminded me of Tirana. When we got back to the office I googled “culture shock.” My body has been registering strong symptoms of anxiety – difficulty sleeping, a tingling feeling in my face, headaches – and I’ve been persistently haunted by thoughts of how much better life was in Albania… more and more easily accessible fresh produce; a better apartment; a close relationship with a dear friend who also watched my children and helped me clean the house.

In the past, when I’ve shepherded university students through cross-cultural adjustment, I’ve given them lists of things to do to ease through culture shock: get enough sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Pay attention to the things you like and appreciate about your new context. Find ways to do the things you enjoyed doing at home. Care for your mental and emotional health, whatever that means for you.

So I’ve been trying to list the things I like about Bogota. The fact is, I feel much happier about living in Colombia whenever I have a chance to get out of the city… But there are things I do like. I like being fluent in the language. I like the bakery next to our office. I love the foods I can get here that I couldn’t in Albania, or very expensively in the US – papaya, mango, pineapples, avocados. I love the “typical” regional foods – a wonderful soup called “ajiaco” with chicken, potatoes, corn, flavored with capers and cream; fried plantains; fresh-squeezed guava juice. I like the public transport system – amazingly sophisticated and efficient compared to what I’m used to in other parts of Latin America.

I’m thankful it’s been so sunny since we’ve been here! Our previous impression of Bogota was constant clouds, cold, and drizzle, but the weather has been wonderful (climate change? Or just seasonal variation we weren’t exposed to before?).

I also love that the work we are doing is something I feel like I can really get behind, whole-heartedly. More on that in a future post, perhaps.

In terms of self-care, I know I need to take this down-time to pay attention to my emotional journey. I’m going to pick up again with the coaching I’ve been doing with my SIL, and I want (need) to resume blogging (and commenting on personal blogs) and personal writing. I need to figure out how to get more and better sleep. Yesterday when Gimli and I came to the office, there was nobody else here… so I lay down in the guest room we have for out-of-town volunteers to use when they’re in the city… and slept for six hours. Worker renewal.

I’ve enrolled both kids in a preschool just around the corner from our house. They start February 1. I’m terrified. More on that in a future post, to be sure.

And I’ll be doing a “What It’s Like Here” post a la Bloodsigns soon… I need to take more photos around the city… although I still feel a little wary of hauling out my camera on random city streets… but something will go up soon.

Last but not least, a grateful thanks to my top four commenters of 2012 (the fifth was myself!):

Jjiraffe – Faces of ALI, fashionista, mother of twins, and my first URL -> IRL friend (along with Esperanza) 🙂

Rachel – Raspberry Chip, baker, seamstress, faithful friend

St. Elsewhere – Intrepid woman, word artist

Tara – I miss you.