Tuesday, September 9, 2014

When Homesickness Sneaks Up on You

I have tried 4 different kinds of milk and none of them taste right.  And it’s not just me.  The toddler won’t drink it either, so I know something’s different about it.  It’s not in my head.

I didn’t expect to be homesick.  I’ve lived here before and I know people…but there’s still a nagging voice that says “Ugh! If I were at home (fill in the blank)”. Last week was a struggle.  What’s interesting is that my schedule is really falling into place. I am in the groove with work. My partner and I have a good pick-up/drop-off system going with the kids. Things look a little more settled at our apartment…well…we bought a rug and some curtains.

Now that the frantic “get settled” frenzy is over, I guess I’ve had time to miss the U.S. I miss how easy it was to phone-a-friend just to check in about their day or my day.  I miss not wondering whether I’m culturally incompetent (“Did I miss something?” is a recurring question). I miss my church. I miss family gatherings.  I’m sure it doesn’t help that the big kid is turning 4 this week and we won’t be with everyone to celebrate.

Anyway, the good thing is that I could name it for what it is and know that it will pass.  So, to get out of this funk, I have decided I need something else to ruminate over.  Before I left, I posted about trying a 30-day meditation challenge (Aligning Mind and Body).  I have to report that I did not stick with it.  BUT, the good thing is, you can always start again!  So, I’ve decided to re-commit to meditation, incorporate exercise into my weekly routine, and I will also start reading “Oprah-like” articles and quotes about gratitude, perseverance, and life challenges.  

What strategies have worked for you?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

House Hunters International: DR Edition

We have been in the Dominican Republic for two and a half weeks now.  In that time, we have lived in 3 different places (4 if you count the fact that we had to change rooms in our hotel).  We rented a temporary, furnished place to stay in for a week while we looked for a permanent apartment.  Truth time: it is impossible to find a place here and move in with a one-week timeline. I was unrealistic.  Here is what it really looked like over the span of 18 days:

Days 1-7: Find abogados (lawyers/real estate people) who can show you a few places.  You find them by telling friends, co-workers, daycare providers, (whoever!) that you’re looking for a place.  Or you can ride around neighborhoods and look for signs that say “se alquila” (for rent).  There is often an abogado’s phone number posted.  They charge one month’s rent for their services. You can ask multiple abogados to show you places, and there’s no negative consequence for working with multiple people. Here are some tips:
  • Have a neighborhood in mind – recommendations from Dominicans and American ex-pats are helpful.
  • Pick a place where you will have neighbors.  A house for rent that is isolated might be a target for petty theft.
  • Electricity and running water are sporadic throughout the country, so ask about these.
  • Location – not too close to a colmado if you prefer quiet (colmados are small corner stores that can be party spots after hours). Not too close to a church if you prefer quiet (evening services may have loud worship services).
  • Furnished or unfurnished - decide what you want or look at both. (We looked at both.)
  • Don’t make a decision under pressure.  We were on a time crunch, but there were a few “nos” and a couple of “maybes”. For all the maybes, we said we’d get back to our abogado the next day.  This gave us time to think – we ended up saying “no” to both the “maybes” for various reasons.
  • Safety is stressed often. We were advised to look for places with metal bars on doors and windows (I think all houses/apartments have bars), and a closed-in place to park the car.
Day 8: Saturday. Congratulations! You’ve found your dream home. Meet with the abogado. Take your passport. Sign the paperwork. Pay 3 months rent (1 month fee for the abogado, 2 months rent as a deposit that you get back when you move out). The abogado then gets the paperwork legalizado (notarized, I think…I’m still not sure). Your next task is to get the electricity turned on. Go to the electricity place and request a solicitud. No idea what this is but it somehow verifies that your apartment is able to be hooked up with electricity. They say come back on Wednesday.

Day 9: Sunday. You negotiate a lower rate to stay until Thursday morning at the temporary place (was $100/night, negotiate to $55/night). You and the owner both know that $100/night was ridiculous.

Day 10-12: Monday-Wednesday. You wait. Shop for furniture to have it delivered Thursday. Apartments do not come with refrigerators or stoves, so you have to buy these things in addition to furniture if your place is unfurnished.

Day 13: Wednesday. Go back to the electricity place. They tell you it’s not ready to be hooked up. Come back Friday.

Day 13-15: Wednesday-Friday. Furniture is delivered. Move out of your temporary place and into a cheap hotel ($43/night). Plead with every person you see in your future neighborhood wearing an “electricity” uniform to hook you up…to no avail.

Day 15: Friday. Go back to the electricity office. Your solicitud was approved. Now you have un contracto (a contract). Your electricity will be hooked up on Monday. Hopes dashed. Notify the cheap hotel that you will be staying until Monday morning.

Day 15-17: Friday-Sunday. Wait. Switch hotel rooms Saturday because of an electricity shortage. Go to the beach because your family needs a fun day.

Day 18: Monday. Move out of your hotel and into your apartment. Hope against all hopes that someone will turn on your electricity. Eureeka! They do! Jump for joy…and buy fans.

Furniture costs (not including dishes, fans, mosquito nets, odds and ends)
Refrigerator – 15,000 pesos, $350
Bed (queen sized) – 14,000 pesos, $325
Kid bed – 5500 pesos, $130
Stove/oven – 9000 pesos, $210
Washing machine – 8000 pesos, $190
Couch – 12,000 pesos, $280
Dining room table and chairs – 7000 pesos, $165
TV – 14,000 pesos, $325
Desk – 3000 pesos, $70

Total = 87,500 pesos, about $2035

Friday, August 1, 2014

Facing Tragedy In Search of Healing

For me, the Dominican Republic is a place of great joy and even greater pain.  Most people think of palm trees, beautiful beaches, and wonderful people when they think of the D.R.  While I do think of all those things, I also have painful flashbacks to the most tragic day of my life.  My brother-in-law drowned while he was visiting my husband and me during our Peace Corps service in the D.R. four years ago. 

I remember the feeling of sheer terror when I heard my husband shouting for help from the ocean.  I could hear the fear in his voice over the sounds of the waves crashing the shore.  I remember seeing him and his brother frantically waving their arms. 

I remember running barefoot through a stretch of palm trees in search of help…and praying. 
I remember praying. 

I remember the burning heartbreak and nauseating grief I felt when I returned to the beach and could not find either of them.  I thought we had lost them both. 

I remember the dizzy combination of relief and guilt I felt when I realized my husband was still alive…but his brother was gone. 

I remember anger.  I remember feeling the most intense anger I’ve ever felt. 
Anger at myself. At the island.  At God. 

These memories swirl around my very being and they can engulf me if I let them. So I bury them.  The more gruesome memories are buried deeper still. 

But I’m going back tomorrow.  We are going back tomorrow…and I wonder what it will feel like.  The anger and guilt have subsided, but the sadness of loss remains.  We are going back for my dissertation research, but we are also going back in search of healing.  Going back means returning to a beautiful island that feels like a second home.  It also means staring a nightmare in the face.  There is so much hurt that it often overshadows the beautiful times we shared in the Dominican Republic.  I don’t want that.  I want there to be more beautiful memories.  Deeper friendships.  More good.  So we’re going back in search of healing and happiness.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Meditation (Day 6/30): Aligning Mind and Body

My mind is completely at odds with my body.  A few days ago, someone asked how the transition period was going and I said it was going well.  She told me I seemed relaxed and I agreed that I was pretty chill about the whole thing.  Later that day, I reassessed to discover that I had headaches, a stiff neck, a sore back and my face was breaking out.  So I decided to commit to 30 days of meditation to even things out.

Disclaimer: I have a hard time with the concept of meditation. I’m an obsessive planner.  I live in the future.  The concept of thinking only of the present is not intuitive for me.  BUT, people who find healthy ways to cope with stress are much happier.  AND, sociological research suggests that men take time for themselves when they are caregivers while women don’t.  I usually like a good Zumba class or a pedicure, but since things are so all over the place, I’ll try meditating for 10 minutes a day.

Here’s why I’m skeptical of meditation:
  •          I don’t have time to sit and do nothing.
  •          It’s impossible for me to think about nothing.
  •          I don’t have a place that is calm and quiet.
  •          It seems like a bunch of hooey.

 Here’s what makes me want to try it anyway:
  •  I need to practice being focused.
  •   My partner gave me a good visual for meditation: imagine you’re on the dock of a river watching your thoughts float by.  You can have thoughts, but don’t engage them. Put your thought in the river, watch it float by, then re-focus on your breathing.
  • I pick the most quiet of the “not quiet” times/places and set an alarm on my phone for 10 minutes. I listen to the sounds (cars driving by, birds, etc), then try to re-focus on my breathing.
  • It could be hooey, but I feel a little better after 5 days.

I’ve tried mornings, afternoons, and evenings. I’ve fallen asleep. I’ve been unable to float my thoughts down the river without engaging them. I’ve been motivated only by the decision to write this post.  Some days go well and some don’t…but I’ve got 24 days left in my 30 day challenge.  Who’s with me?

*photo credit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/15/meditation-made-simple-overcoming-obstacles_n_3072226.html

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Strategies for Smoothing Big Transitions: "Life with Kids" Edition

Life in the D.R. will be a big adjustment for all of us, and I would like to be intentional about making that transition smooth – especially for my little ones. My partner and I have lived there before, but I can remember how jarring it was to be in a place where everything was so different: sights, sounds, traffic, weather, language…you name it.  In order to buffer some of the culture shock, there are some things I’m trying with my 3 year old before we leave. I’ve spoken with others who have moved to a different country with young children and here is what they suggest: establish a routine early, front load with information, commiserate on bad days, and do fun things together.  I guess I’ll have to report back later to determine how well they worked, but perhaps they can help with big transitions for your kids…or yourselves!

Establish a Routine Early: When things are changing, kids may not feel like they know what’s coming next.  I created a calendar for the month before we leave so my 3 year old could see what to expect each day.  (See the picture in this post.) Some things are weekly (ie. church on Sundays, story time at the library on Tuesdays, the visit to the train museum on Fridays).  Other activities are special days (blueberry picking or birthday celebrations).  Daily routines are also the same: breakfast, morning activity, lunch, nap, afternoon activity, dinner, bedtime.

“Front load” with information:  The first thing adults do when we have to deal with something new is research it: we consult the internet, friends, and colleagues to create a mental picture of what’s ahead.  To give my preschooler a mental picture, we have “DR School” in the afternoons on Monday through Friday.  DR School is a 30-minute lesson on the Dominican Republic mostly in Spanish.  Week 1 is “Geography, Climate, Community, and Creatures”. This includes YouTube videos of Dominican kids and a heads up about rain and bugs.  Week 2 is “Food, Culture, and Sports” so we’ll eat Dominican food, learn about music, dance merengue and play baseball.  Week 3 is on transportation, money, and housing so we’ll look at guaguas and learn about different types of houses.  Here’s a sample lesson:

Tuesday: Climate, Weather, Beach
·         Read: “Cuando Voy a La Playa” (poem); color a picture of the beach
·         Watch video about rain https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2awVAYt_6Vg
o   what do you see? do the trees look the same as the trees here? what does the rain sound like? what do buildings look like?
o   Song: “Una gotita sobre mi casa”
o   Activity (math): addition - Cuantos gotitas hay?
Vocab: playa, arena, merienda, lluvia, gota

Commiserate on bad days: Parents probably already do this but my tendency with this move is to make the D.R. a great place for everyone all the time.  Realistically, though, there will be bad days there - just like we have bad days in the U.S.  So, I will have to resist the urge to say, “Baby, those bugs are not that scary” and instead say, “yikes! let’s fight them off together!”

Do fun things together: Other parents are clear on this one – remember to make the memories that will go in the scrapbook! Do something fun as early as possible.  This will give kids a positive experience in the country early on.

What has worked for you during big transitions?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Itchy Discomfort of Transition

"Those who put on itchy 
sweaters start every day 
from scratch." -unknown

This week marks the beginning of seemingly perpetual transition for our family…and I don’t love it.  We move out of our apartment in 2 days.  We live in limbo with family for 3 weeks.  We live in limbo in the DR for 1 week while we try to find a more permanent apartment.  We settle in for 10 months, then try to transition back to the U.S. (look for preschools, neighborhoods, employment for my partner).  We live somewhere for 1-2 years while I write up my dissertation…then we may move again when I graduate and look for faculty positions.

It makes me exhausted to think about.  Really, I’m tired.

Granted, I’m probably tired because the only time we have to pack boxes is when the kids are sleeping.  So that means late nights trying to decide how much I really need two staplers.  But transition is uncomfortable…like an itchy sweater.  Nothing too serious, but just enough to bug the crap out of you. 

I’ve also had to come to terms with my personal frustrations during this phase. I’m sad to leave Durham.  We’ve lived here for 4 years – the longest time I have lived anywhere in my adult life.  I’m anxious about what lies ahead.  Even though I have faith that amazing things are ahead, uncertainty makes me uncomfortable (see This Kaleidoscope Life entry).  And I don’t like living out of boxes and suitcases.  

But you know what? I am so lucky to have this opportunity for our family.

So, we are visiting our favorite places in Durham for the last time, making lists on dry erase boards to quell my anxieties, and labeling each box with details so I can find things if I need to.

Let the (itchy) fun begin!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Yeah, but how do you pay bills?": A look at finances

You know that moment when you’re on a roller coaster and you get to the top of a hill?  The click, click, click of the gears slows to a stop.  You can see the drop in front of you and you think, “Today, I’m definitely going to die. My harness is not tight enough and I bet I'll fly out of this seat.  I have no idea why I got on this stupid ride in the first place.”  Your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, and you likely have to pee.

I’ve had this “top-of-the-hill” moment many times in the last several years: joining the Peace Corps, starting graduate school 9 months pregnant, agreeing that my husband should also go to graduate school, and choosing to do international research with my family are among the highlights.  One thing I have always worried about is money: will I have money at all? will it be enough money? what do I do if there’s no money?  So with this post, I would like to share how my family has made things work financially.  When I thought there was no way it could work, we've gotten off of the roller coasters in one piece.

Years 1 & 2:
Income: graduate student stipend and husband’s full time salary

Major Expenses: Monthly Rent = $850-900, Monthly Childcare (1 infant, full time) = $950, Health Insurance for the infant

  •  Employee discount – My husband worked for a company that offers a discounted childcare rate for employees whose income falls below a set threshold. So we were eligible for the discounted rate of $950 (the rate without the discount was about $1200 for infants). 
  • Childcare Subsidy – Based on an application we submitted, we were eligible for a childcare subsidy from the graduate school, $5000 over the academic year 
  • Health Insurance – We added the baby to my husband’s health insurance.  It was a better, and more affordable coverage plan.

 Year 3:
Income: graduate student stipend and husband’s student loans

Major expenses: Monthly Rent = $850-900, Monthly Childcare (1 toddler, full time) = $845, Health Insurance for the toddler ($200 per month) 
  • New daycare – We noticed that employees were able to send their children to this particular daycare.  We asked if there was financial assistance available for families and the owner worked with us on the price (regular tuition: $1030). 
  • Childcare Subsidy – We were still eligible for a $5000 childcare subsidy. 
  • Health Insurance – We added the toddler to my graduate student insurance plan.

 Year 4:
Income: graduate student stipend and husband’s student loans

Major expenses: Monthly Rent = $850-900, Monthly Childcare (1 toddler, full time/1 infant part time) = $845 + $695 = $1540

  • Childcare Subsidy – Because of changes in our family's situation, we were eligible for an $8000 childcare subsidy. 
  • Health Insurance – The cost of adding both children to my policy was about $500 per month. We could not afford this, so we applied for Medicaid which provided health coverage for both children. 
  • Food – We were also eligible for the federal SNAP program (food stamps) which provided funds monthly to be used at grocery stores and at our local Farmer’s Market.

Summer Before the Move
Income: small summer fellowship

Major expenses: Monthly Rent = $850-900, Plane Tickets = $1500, No Childcare (kids are home with us)

  • Student/Personal Loans – A family friend loaned us money for the plane tickets, and a small student loan was helpful for household expenses since my grant funding doesn’t start until August. 
*Image credit: http://susaneball.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/budget-plan.jpg