Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Passages; or, December has come (and almost gone)

I say it over and over again: the more you are here, the more things come back around.

And this: it's not always a bad thing. 

Soccer started again. Starting next week on Tuesday nights, come out and see the ladies recreation league (and Wednesdays, witness my hobbling and limping). 

GTMO Christmas, take 2 
The same: lobster dinner, all-day with family, long distance phone conversations to loved ones we miss terribly. 
New: worst mail delay ever---at least 7 packages of presents didn't make it, and several were ordered before Thanksgiving. Also, people in the States didn't get packages we sent in early December. Maybe Christmas went to Europe or the Middle East? Maybe we need to order in October next year?
More new: Christmas day at the beach. Windmill Beach was packed with picnickers, sun worshippers, scuba divers, and swimmers and it was a fun afternoon, soaking in the sun, breaking for a brief rain storm, and swimming in the warm water. 

Goodbyes at Ferry Landing

Too many goodbyes to count already, and our youngest said goodbye to one of his first friends here, a classmate and neighbor. He managed to take a flying leap off the pier and swim out as the ferry pulled out. It's a fun tradition, and I get very emotional every time it happens. You think after years in the military and then criss-crossing the country we would get used to saying goodbye, but I still cry a little bit every time.

And this Christmas, for the first time in GTMO, we put up a tree.

Today I put away the Christmas ornaments and managed to whittle our EIGHT large plastic containers of Christmas ornaments and decorations down to four. How does a family of only four people manage to collect so much stuff that is generally only displayed for one month?  Probably because I suffer from sentimentality and sometimes have a hard time getting rid of stuff. Some of my strongest memories come from tchotchkes and ornaments and all other things Christmas.

When I was 22, I ran out of money and options and instead of finishing my Master's degree---I only had a thesis to write, and I was completely clueless on a topic---I basically took the first teaching job I was offered, in the town of Meridian, MS. (As an aside---NEVER take the first job you are offered, unless you are desperate). I made $17,000 with no health benefits. I have a nasty scar on my leg from burning myself on the tailpipe of my car (which was hit and ---you guessed it---I only had liability insurance so I never did get it fixed) and I didn't have the money to go to a doctor. My principal was awful---he called me "baby girl," referred to a student as the N word in front of him (I was mortified, and later gave the kid a big hug), and when I told him I didn't think we should be saying a prayer ("in Jesus' name we pray") over the loud speaker of a public school every single morning, especially when he told me that no, the Jewish kid in my homeroom HAD to sit and listen to the prayer and couldn't stand in the hallway, he told me he would pray for me.

I won't tell you what I said back, but let's just say it wasn't nice and I got the shortest reference letter known to man when I finally quit so I could finish my thesis and get married. Oh, and he asked if I were pregnant when I told him I was getting married. Classy!!!

In all this madness, I met an amazing group of beginning teachers, and we dealt with our shared poverty (and shock at the craziness of the school system) by eating communal meals and hanging out every weekend.  I have managed to stay in touch with one (our first children, both boys, even had the same due date!) and we still laugh over that year we survived together.

I also managed to strike up a beautiful friendship with the 70-something year-old grandmother of my boyfriend, who was living far away in Dallas but made sure I connected with his grandma as soon as I moved there. We immediately got along---she had been a life-long teacher and totally empathized with many of my first year travails, and she was a wonderful support person for that year of insanity. She was a pistol, full of mischief and good humor, creative and resourceful, and whip-smart. Like most Southern ladies, she was an outstanding cook and could make you forget all manners and ask for third or fourth helpings at the dinner table.

About now you are thinking, "Um, what's the point?" Hold on. I promise it's coming.

In addition to black bottom pie and coffee at Weidmann's and looking at fancy dolls at a store across the street (yes, we both collect dolls), she found out that I liked glass Christmas ornaments, and that was that.

This lady LOVED Christmas more than anyone I've ever known.

She bought me BOXES of glass ornaments. Enough for a tree, actually. Then once I married her grandson, she made us a tree skirt, helped me make stockings, and made some beautiful crocheted ornaments. She also gave us several nutcracker ornaments, which we've added to over the years.

My own grandmother also loves Christmas. Over the years, she's made us ornaments, and she and my beloved grandfather sent me the most beautiful wooden box of fancy glass ornaments I've ever seen. I'm so afraid of breaking them, this was only the third Christmas I've put them on the tree.

I also picked up one of her habits of buying a Christmas ornament any time I visit somewhere special to me. I have a nice crèche scene from Sante Fe; beautiful painted ornaments from Playa del Carmen, Mexico; several ornaments from our one visit and my parents' multiple visits to the Hawaiian islands; and nice quality German ornaments---those Germans really know how to do Christmas!

We also have a large number of ornaments from the 70s that belonged to my husband's family. Add to those 15 years of ornaments collected from raising two boys---lots of homemade elementary school projects---and you get the general idea of our ornament collection.

All in all, we could decorate a small forest of trees. And I don't think I can get rid of any of them.

Christmas brings back wonderful memories of family, some gone from this earth, and I love to think of the places we've seen and how much our boys have grown when I look at the tree.

And every time I pack the ornaments away, I am brought back to that first year of teaching, single and broke, and hanging out with my new 70-something year old friend who would become my grandmother-in-law. I'm sure I would have grown to love her regardless, but the fact that she provided much-needed diversion and support during a crazy year made it happen that much faster. I miss her terribly---she passed away when our oldest son was only a toddler---but every Christmas, I love the rush of happy memories when I put something she made or gave us on the tree. It is her eternal Christmas present to us---the wonderful memories that come with unwrapping every ornament we carefully store in tissue the year before, and knowing the joy she got at Christmas and how tickled she would be to know her ornaments are still the primary decorations on our tree.

Before I get too mushy about the holidays, there's this: our GTMO house is almost half the size of our last house. The dining room, kitchen, bathroom, laundry room/panty, bathroom, and den could fit in the dining room/living room of my last house, which is where we had all our Christmas decorations spread out. I love Christmas, but sentimentality aside, it's a relief to have that little bit of space back.

Onward to 2014. Here's to collecting more memories (and hopefully, less stuff!) for the new year.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

International friends; or, That time a Russian lady poured Vodka in my ear

Today's weather in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba: high of 85º and partly cloudy. 

For such a small place with a small population, the vast diversity of people here blows my mind.

Case in point: we went to a party a while back to celebrate the visit of an unaccompanied serviceman's wife. The couple is from Puerto Rico. To celebrate his wife's arrival, he prepared grilled bacon wrapped asparagus (my favorite), steak, and fresh ceviche on a bed of fried plantains.

Yes, here in Gitmo. And it was amazing. To top things off, there were people from South Africa and England celebrating, too. It's like music, hearing so many accents at one time in one place.

And that's how it is at school events or aisles of the grocery store, with people originally from places such as India, Korea, Jamaica, Jordan, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia. What we lack in real life Cubans in Gitmo, we make up for in the assortment of residents on base.

I have gotten to know a few ladies from Russia, as well. One of them is a whirling dervish of energy. She is very animated when she talks, and as a former teacher in her country, very smart (and quite sarcastic at times). What's not to love about that?

Our kids attend school and played soccer together. One day I was watching a game, and suddenly, I hear someone with a very thick Russian accent saying loudly, "YOU! YOU PLAY SOCCER!"

Me: "Um, yeah, well I used to play outdoors, and before I got here, I played in an indoor league, and. . . "


And this, folks, is how in 30 seconds I went from having every Tuesday and Thursday night free to playing in a rec league that I absolutely loved. That whirling dervish of a lady is very, very convincing.

I have felt out of sorts, to say the least, while dealing with an ear infection in one ear (and completely off balance, to boot). I was bundled up in bed watching Dr. Zhivago yesterday morning, and despite having seen it in its overdrawn, too-long, but lusciously shot glory at least 5 other times, my heart breaks EVERY TIME that (*spoiler alert*) I realize that Yuri and Lara are never going to connect again, and he is never going to find out about his daughter.

I was ruminating on White Russians and Bolsheviks and the fate of the star-crossed lovers when the phone rang. It was my husband.

After a few questions ("How are you feeling? Have you taken your medicine") and asking if our son would like a playdate, I found myself speaking to someone with a Russian accent.

Talk about surreal---I went from watching Dr. Zhivago about Russia to talking to a real-life Russian in just a few minutes time.

My soccer friend had stopped by my husband's work, and upon hearing about my maladies, she took it upon herself to take my youngest off my hands to give me some time to rest. Once and again, I am blown away by people's generosity here, and her offer was flattering and one I ultimately could not resist. Her last words on the phone were, "I am coming by to get him. Get some vodka ready."

Huh? I do have an ear infection, so maybe I'm not hearing correctly.

But no. This is how I came to finding myself an hour later reclining on the couch with someone carefully pouring vodka in my ear. Russians take vodka seriously and look at it much like some Americans view rubbing alcohol (or Windex and duct tape). It's a cure-all. And what could it hurt?

Many, many years ago, I spent a weekend with my great-grandmother's sister Myrtle, my great-great aunt who was a bundle of energy in her own right. I couldn't have been older than 10. I had the beginnings of bronchitis, and she mixed up a concoction in a mason jar, insisted that I drink it, and I was CURED in the morning.

The medicine? Honey, peppermint, lemon, and whisky. To this day I don't like whisky, but if you throw some honey, peppermint, and lemon in it, I could drink it all day (or until I pass out).

I'm not adverse to trying some home remedies and you know what? My ear quit crackling and popping for the rest of the day, and I was able to hear a little better. I woke up stone deaf in that ear again this morning, so I'm going to try it again.

And I may take a shot or two, as well, just to see how that comes out.  It's past 5 o'clock in Russia, so why not?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Harder Better Faster Stronger; or, Once again, with feeling

Today's weather in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba: high of 88º and partly cloudy. 

Year two here means experiencing the same things over and over again. However, this year's going to be harder, better, faster, stronger (with all apologies to Daft Punk).

First (better, stronger): diving

I have managed to finally log over 50 lifetime dives now, and I only have two more dives to get my advanced open water certification. I've been taking classes to finish that cert so I can go to a wider range of dive sites on island.

Twenty one years after my first dive, I finally faced my fears and experienced a night dive last weekend. It wasn't nearly as terrifying as I thought. (I blame reading too many Peter Benchley novels in my early teens for my irrational fear of night diving).

We saw: a huge urchin stretching out from its exoskeleton to feed; a parrotfish sleeping in its nighttime cocoon; a freaky arrow crab; a baby lobster; my first Gitmo starfish sighting; half-burrowed, sleeping rays; and a graceful, fluid octopus that was clinging to the bottom of a colorful coral ledge.  Puffer fish don't puff out in their sleep, and their spines don't show---so when we came down on a sleeping puffer, it was amazing to come nose-to-nose with the little guy, hovering like a hummingbird, suspended completely still while we got much closer than we can during the day.

I also went on a wreck dive (okay, it's a "wreck" dive, as it was a barge intentionally sunk for an artificial reef). Lots of damsels and wrasses and two of the biggest angelfish I've even seen were gliding in and out of colorful sponges and corals and through crevices in the old barge. It was so nice to see something different from the same places we've been before. We definitely will be back there (and hopefully with a camera next time).

All dives were at Girl Scout Beach, which I love because it's great for finding sea glass, has more sand for laying out and reading a book in the sun than most other beaches, and it's relatively easy to get to.

I don't love the steps that go from the bottom of Girl Scout to the area where you park. It's especially rough when you are hauling tanks and gear (and going up is always much more difficult than going down). It also doesn't have tables, restrooms, or water, so you are really roughing it.

I'm happy to get more dives in (and more "difficult" speciality ones, at that), and I'm looking forward to a second year of diving, with many more locations available once I finally finish my certification.  I've become a stronger diver because of the classes and I'm making great memories every time I go out with my son or husband.

Second (better, faster): This year's parade was also bigger and better for us, because our youngest got to be on a float. He was so excited when he found out he was going to be in the parade, he exclaimed, "It's my wildest dreams come true!" Um, okay. Then again, I managed to be in the Christmas parade every year I lived in our little town and loved the experience. Granted, I was never a beauty queen doing my beauty queen wave from the back of a convertible (that would be my sister), but I was a band geek and therefore got to march the little route for years. As a little kid, I was always on a float with Brownies or a church group. I do remember one year helping decorate a float made of chicken wire with tissue paper down at the National Guard Armory. No chicken wire and tissue here, but several nautical themed floats that were quite cute:

The experience this year was different for me, too, because instead of getting pelted with candy, I waited for my son at the end of the route (where most floats had run out of candy). Maybe it was a larger parade, or many I just had a better view from a different vantage point, or just maybe I've been here so long that everything is starting to look bigger than normal, but I thought this year's parade was larger, with better floats and more of them.

And third (harder): sickness.

This one isn't good.

This time last year, I ended up with a bad respiratory infection and my first case of asthma in years and years. I guess the December funk has hit again. I finally gave in and went to the doctor today---it's really not a bad experience here, since you are in and out in less than 30 minutes, tops---but I hate being sick because, really, who likes being sick? Plus I am allergic to almost every antibiotic, so getting sick is frustrating, to say the least. I can't just pop a pill like a normal person and be okay in a few days. I have an inner ear infection, so goodbye, diving, until that is over. I'm on a nice cocktail of cold medication and antibiotics and a little something for the pain, so I missed a party at the youngest's school tonight and used a sick day today (or half a day) for the first time since I've been here. To make matters more complicated, there are no albuterol inhalers on the island---the one and only pharmacy is out and may get some next week. Not a good time to be asthmatic! I am even loopier and crabbier than usual (who knew that was possible?), and to me, things like ear infections seem to get harder to deal with the older you are. You know how life is as an adult---you are too busy with kids and work to be sick. Hoping a weekend in bed will cure everything---although I would much rather be hanging out with little kids at a Christmas party, or diving, or last minute shopping, or wrapping the presents that (hopefully) are sitting at school because I wasn't there for mail call today.