Making a Life

When we started to feel content here in the UAE, it was because we’d committed to making a life here.  Not necessarily to anything long-term, but rather to getting involved in the community.  It’s hard for a westerner to feel like he or she belongs in the area, since the local culture is (at least in Al Ain, I can’t say for sure about Abu Dhabi or Dubai) quite closed to those who don’t speak Arabic.  I’m quite alright with this, since my culture in the USA is much the same way to those who don’t speak English.  It’s all a natural part of moving to a different country.  I know if I learn Arabic beyond the handful of phrases and words I’ve picked up over the last two years (two years!) that more social doors will open.  Although it’s hard to feel like I truly belong here, it’s not been hard to develop relationships with other expats.  Jenia and I have, as we’ve said before, more friends than we did back home in the States.

Kabs (spelling?), freshly made at the Yemeni place.  Ever so tasty.

Kabs (spelling?), bread freshly made at the Yemeni place. Ever so tasty.

For us, this process of feeling comfortable began with people, and slowly expanded to being a part of other things in the area.  We started going to Al Ain Evangelical Church church and attending a small group.  I was invited to play with the church band.  We’ve ended up taking on the responsibility of being small group facilitators, which added a wrinkle to life, and we’ve also started ballroom dancing lessons, something I (Shon writing here, by the way) never thought I’d enjoy at all.

So what’s life like for us now that we’re in the groove?  It looks a little like this, on a relatively relaxing weekend, like the one we just had (which had temperatures dip below 100F and felt marvelous):

On Friday we zipped to the mall, then stopped by our favorite bakery for some savory pastries, and in the evening we attended a choral concert held at Al Qattara Arts Center.  There we met friends and encountered acquaintances, and enjoyed time hanging out with in the relatively cool, oven-dried evening afterward.  Saturday we took Frank and Mel and their expanding family to a fabulously atmospheric (read: hole-in-the-wall) Yemeni restaurant which might be called Al Kabisi (but I’m not sure, as I’ve never successfully translated the sign yet, and I didn’t think to see if it said on the newly-minted English/Arabic menus we were given).  Then we hung around Jahili Park for a while, made a de rigeur visit to Starbucks, where we paid more for drinks than we paid for our entire meal shortly before, and returned home so we could enjoy the evening at home.

We're now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

We’re now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

Being involved in the community and building a life here has allowed Jenia to build her photography hobby into something more than that.  She’s taken portraits of numerous families on the orange sands and in green parks, done a promo shoot for a local performing duo called Sarah and Adam, and is starting a three-day shoot for a school tomorrow.  It’s great.

Jenia's photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam.

Jenia’s photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam, and I like it.

I’ve left deeper things out as I recount simple events.  It’s hard to say how much we’ve learned about ourselves as we’ve made a home abroad.  Living here gives us a window on the world that we wouldn’t have had before.  We’ve gained an amazing perspective on life in the Middle East and the Arab world, and grown more culturally empathetic than before.  We’ve found ourselves, as we adapt, stretched and pulled, angered and moved to laughter, exasperated and impressed.

Now, when somebody asks me where I’m from, I no longer immediately respond, “Georgia, in the USA.”  I smile.  I’m from Georgia, yes, but I’m also from the UAE now.  I’ve got a life here, and it’s a nice one that I’m immensely grateful for.  I’m not sure how long we’ll stick around, but for the time being, we’ve got a good thing going.

The Traveling Turtle or 1 Baby, 2 Months, and 7 Countries

Disclaimer: everything you read below is only our experience and our opinion.

I feel I should begin by saying that even before our Little Turtle was born, we kind of promised each other that as long as he turned out healthy, we would not stop traveling (and living) only because we have a baby.

This dialogue from the “Paris, Je T’Aime” movie is very close to my heart:

Vincent: Claire, make Gaspard a balloon, not a ball and chain.
Claire: Was I a ball and chain?
Vincent: Mon Petit Claire, You were not the ball and chain. You were the zeppelin.

Well, we got us a sweet little zeppelin (in my best Southern accent.) I tend to think that some of it is luck, and some of it is our decision.

After 8 weeks and 9 flights I came to the conclusion that traveling with a baby is not different from doing everything else with a baby. We only needed 4 things: my milk, diapers, patience, and flexibility.

There were only 2 times, I believe, when Turtle thew a fit: once in Maine, when his 5 cousins aged 7 to 14 were overly excited to meet him and he didn’t know what to make of it, and in the car somewhere in Europe when he was just tired of being in the carseat. The rest of the time, he ate (at every sight worth seeing, in every museum), slept in his carrier (we have a Boba Air and love it!), observed his surroundings, and made friends.

A side-note on the carrier: there was only one time we wished we had a stroller.  In Sri Lanka, it would have been nigh impossible to roll it, in Europe, there are cobblestones everywhere. There was never the question of folding/storing/hauling something, which we loved.

Some practical stuff:

In Bonn, we ended up in a bigger hotel room, because they saw we had a baby. I suspect it would have happened at other places, too, if we went to check-in together.

In the Dubai airport, we didn’t have to stand in a single line. In Amsterdam and somewhere in the US we were allowed to board first. KLM was fantastic: the staff was very friendly and thoughtful. They actually provided us with an infant life vest, an infant seatbelt, and a little bag of goodies (even though Turtle was a bit too young for it.) Delta was much less impressive, I’m sad to report.

We were given a bassinet on 2 flights, and an extra seat on 2 flights. We found the extra seat to be more convenient.

At one of the restaurants, the waiter picked up Ari and carried him around during our whole meal, so that we could relax and enjoy our food, which we did!

Not once did I catch anyone giving me the evil eye for nursing in public (I don’t go all-bare, but I don’t use one of those nursing tents either.)

Everywhere we went, people on public transportation were quick to give up their seats so that one of us could sit down. So very sweet.

So there are definite benefits 🙂 The drawbacks are few and far between, the main one being the slower pace: we had to stop to feed him, or he’d get tired of being in the carrier, or our arms/back would get tired. But it’s such a minor thing! We just travel differently now, that’s all.

Being Pregnant in the UAE

Before I begin the actual post, I would love to express our gratitude for all the views, likes, comments, and follows.  We feel lucky to be able to get exposure to different perspectives – and to be able to share our findings with others.  Also, we are thrilled to be featured on Freshly Pressed again. Thank you, Michelle!

Now, to the subject infinitely small from the World’s perspective, and paramount from ours.

I am 38 weeks pregnant today. For those blissfully unaware of what it means: our baby boy  (lovingly called the Blob and/or Шонович (son of Shon) until the name is revealed) can make his appearance any day now.  In reality, it’s more like any day within the next 4 weeks, but we’re hoping he won’t make us wait that long.

The Blob is our first child, so I cannot really compare being pregnant in the UAE to being pregnant anywhere else in the world.  Not from personal experience, anyway.  Still, I would like to share some things that struck me as unusual – all in a good way.

We might have mentioned before that children are viewed completely differently in this part of the world.  On one hand, it means that we’ve never seen such a high concentration of spoiled brats anywhere else.  On the other hand, it means being moved to the front of the line at the hospital or airport security checks if you have a child in tow.  It means that a stone-faced Emirati man who would not acknowledge you were you on your own, is going to melt down and coo at your baby or toddler.  It means that once you are at a bank,  restaurant, government office – you name it – there’s a good chance your baby will be patted on the cheek/kissed/passed around by the employees.  It’s not for the germaphobes and the faint of heart, but there is nothing perverted about it: little kids are adored here (and it’s a bonus if they are blonde and blue-eyed.)

You don’t get quite as much attention being pregnant, but you still get plenty.  I was surprised to see Shon’s students (high-school boys) express great interest in my pregnancy. All of his boys I met so far wanted to know how far along I was, the due date, the gender, the name – everything!  I saw plenty of teenage boys back home having great fun playing with older babies and toddlers, but pregnancy just doesn’t seem to be something they are comfortable with.  These teens, however, are used to someone in the family constantly being pregnant and having babies.  They get quite confused on finding out we’ve been married for over 5 years and this is our first child.  “Why?” – they ask, “you should have at least 3 by now!”

One of the perks of being pregnant here is getting free stuff, and I don’t mean some kind of Publix coupons-for-babies program, I mean small businesses, mom and pop stores.  It’s always something small, but it’s a great pleasure, anyway, when you are handing over the money, and the man or woman points and your stomach and says, “No, no! Gift for baby!”  It’s mind-blowing, really.  You are a stranger in a strange land, thousands of miles away from family, and total strangers want to share your joy and bless you in some small way.

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I was buying a burqa from this Omani lady, but when she saw my bulging belly, the gave the money right back to me.

Another fantastic perk is the expat community.  I could not dream of such a support network back in the US.  There is nearly a dozen families within 15 minute drive who went through the same thing no more than a year and a half ago, and who have been so generous to us in so many different ways.  Our families may be far away, but we are surely not alone here.

And I cannot write this post without mentioning the healthcare part.  Our insurance covers labor completely (they do no cover the epidural, which is 1500AED=$410.)  My doctor’s appointments cost us $8 each (I get an ultrasound nearly every time, too), and I have not paid for any lab work.  The hospital is very new and not very big.  By now, most of the receptionists and nurses at the OBGYN clinic know me.  They ask about my cross-stitching progress, comment on the size of the belly, and click their tongues at the sight of my swollen feet.  I liked all the 3 doctors I saw.  Both the midwife who teaches pre-natal classes and the director of nursing gave me their cell phone numbers and urged to call or text if I had any questions.  All of this makes it personal and much more relaxing than your general hospital experience.

So here we are, waiting for our world to change forever.  The time is right, and, as strange as it may seem to some, the place is right as well.

P.S. Won’t it make a good photo one day – the three of us holding our respective birth certificates from 3 different countries?

 

Mini vacation

Fujairah is 2 1/2 hours from here. We went there. There isn’t a lot there, but there are pretty forts around. The beach in Fujairah itself isnt so great, but a short drive south into Kalba yields a nice park along the water and long expanses of sand. Drive a bit further south and you will find lovely mangrove growth, although its closed to visitors right now. Kalba is a fishing village, and we witnessed the fisherman hard at work, trolling, we think, for fish with an interesting if peculiar truck-truck-truck-boat setup. Anyway, here are some photos. I’ll try to add some more soon.

The first two pictures are of Fujairah Fort, which was, according to http://www.guide2dubai.com, established in 1670.  As it stands now, it has been reconstructed and is surrounded by ruins of old brick buildings from years ago.

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A pigeon makes his final descent to Fujairah Fort.

The tower which stands by itself is one of Al Hayl Castle’s buildings.  Getting to this fort is a bit more difficult than it seems like it should be.  At one point, we were driving through a residential neighborhood and it seemed like there was no way we’d gone the right direction. If it weren’t for a reviewer on TripAdvisor saying to keep on going straight when it seems like you’ve lost the road to the castle, we’d have probably given up and turned back, missing out on a picturesque, if small, place nestled in the rugged hills.  In fact, the journey to Al Hayl led one of our intrepid and faithful traveling companions, Melissa, to declare, “I love this!” from the backseat as we pounded along a rough stretch of gravel road in our Kia.

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Fujairah Fort stands in downtown Fujairah, near the water. There are plenty of signs pointing toward it, making it easy to find.

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The lookout tower at Al Hayl Castle.

Photobombing

Photobombing

The mosque by our hotel

The mosque by our hotel

Us looking all cute

Us looking all cute

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These trucks were operating together in a puzzling dance, towing ropes through the water. Evidently, a crew in a small boat dropped a trap or net and these trucks were towing them toward shore.

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One way to create a winch is to use little Toyota trucks, set an old wheel up so it spins freely on the front of one, and tow the rope using another truck. The people in charge told me they were catching fish. “Little ones, some big,” they said.

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These guys were working the ropes which, as near as I can tell, were towing traps or nets slowly toward shore.

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Fujairah’s beaches are strewn with shells.

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20130206-185556.jpg A fairly common sight in these parts–workers, most likely Pakistani, riding in the back of a 2-ton truck.

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The mangroves preservation was closed. Looking at this one can forget he is in the UAE.

The Blob is growing. So is Jenia.

The Blob is growing. So is Jenia.

The rugged hills themselves are interesting, and watching the sun set behind them was nice.  That aside, we received a free tour of the castle and its little compound, which our guide told us was 150 years old.  We even were allowed to climb up on the roof of the main building and the tower atop it, which was pretty cool.

On the way to and from Al Hayl fort we saw a bunch of donkeys wandering freely.  We suppose they’re all the property of a local farmer.  Naturally, we took some pictures, since free-roaming animals of this type are pretty rare around the southeastern USA.

Melissa and Jenia had to get out of the car and take pictures of them

Melissa and Jenia had to get out of the car and take pictures of them

Stereotypes: Broken.

Shon promised that I would write this post weeks upon weeks ago. I could blame my slowness on the proverbial pregnancy brain, but you might as well know the truth: I’ve been dragging my feet, because it’s hard for me to put this experience into adequate words.

A short reminder: this happened on our trip to Muscat.

Saturday morning we went to breakfast at our hotel, the Safeer Suites.  We parked our stuff at the only table available, and went to the buffet. When I returned with my full plate, I found our table occupied by 3 random people, my purse still sitting on the floor next to them, and Shon sharing another table with an Arabic couple.

The first several minutes passed in silence: we were by then accustomed to the fact that UAE locals had very (if any) little interest in us, expats, and knew better than to jump into a jovial American small talk. Well, as it turned out, our table mates were Saudis and we were going to have the most interesting breakfast ever.

Now, I like to think that we had somewhat fewer stereotypes about Muslims in general and Arabs in particular than many Americans do. After all, we have traveled to Muslim countries before, as have our friends, and we’ve been reading books and blogs about people living in the area. Saudi Arabia, though… Well, who doesn’t have stereotypes of the worst kind about that country? We sure did.

Our new acquaintances, Bedad and Medina, were very open and talkative. Like many Arab women from the GCC, Medina wore an abaya and shayla, but had her face uncovered. She had a small delicate face with laughing eyes and wore glasses.  Unlike a good number of the men in the UAE, Bedad wore pants and a t-shirt.  We told each other how we met (they were both medical students sent to Makkah on Haj duty, and on returning home Bedad told his mother he wanted to marry this particular girl). Surprised, we found out that both of them had real jobs: Bedad is a pharmacist, and Medina is a nurse at the pediatric ICU. We were also surprised to learn that, unlike most Emirati, they didn’t seem to have live-in help.

They told us stories about their kids, “four boys–they are hard to control;” and offered an anecdote about how the littlest one likes to imitate his mother.  “Even the Always,” Bedad said.

I thought I must have misunderstood him. “Excuse me?”

“You know Always?”  The maxi pads.  Yes.

“He put on his leg,” Medina said.

We all exploded in laughter. Bedad leaned over to Shon and told him to pray really hard that we have a girl rather than a boy.

At some point, when Shon went to get more food, Bedad told me we should come visit.

“I thought Americans were not exactly popular in Saudi Arabia,” I said cautiously.

“It is getting better now, but we have many crazy people there.”

“Well, there are crazy people wherever you go, aren’t there?” I offered with a smile, trying to be politically correct.

Bedad, however, was serious. “No,” he shook his head, “we have more.”

We didn’t raise serious issues during this breakfast that ended up lasting longer that we originally planned. We talked about things people all over the world talk about: children, families, traveling, work. It may not have been deep, but it was real, and fun, and normal.  As we finally left the table to head to the beach, we looked at each other, and Shon said, “Stereotypes broken.”

“Shattered,” I added.

P.S. No, we did not reverse our stereotypes. We don’t now think that all Saudis are like this. We do, however, have a different perspective.

P.P.S. If you would like to learn about life in Saudi Arabia in the 1960-1990’s, I would recommend reading “Princess” by Jean Sasson. While not a literary masterpiece, it does provide a very interesting account of a woman’s life in that country.

Burj, Beach, and Birthday

Shon celebrated his birthday on Sunday with the traditional carrot cake, a new book by J.K. Rowling, and a bunch of friends.  On Saturday, however, we went to Dubai, so that he could receive the first part of his present: a tour to the tallest building in the world – Burj Khalifa.

If you have seen “Mission Impossible 4,” you know this building.  If you haven’t you should.

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The Burj (it means “tower”) is 852 meters tall. The observation deck is almost half-way up, and is, you guessed it, the highest observation deck in the world!

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Us on the deck

The view is great if you ignore the ever-present haze:

ImageDubai Mall, yes, exactly, the largest shopping center in the world (by total territory) is the huge building from the road to the water.

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See the haze I keep talking about?

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us looking all cute

ImageAnd then we went to the beach! I have to say, the beach itself is not as beautiful as the Gulf of Mexico beaches, but the water… the water is simply phenomenal here! It is turquoise even when you are in it, it is very, very clear, and delightfully warm. We should invest in some goggles, though, because it is very salty (which makes it quite a bit easier to swim.)

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Shon loves it!

It was only at the end of the day that I truly realized I was in Dubai: the sun just set into the Arabian Gulf, we could see Burj Khalifa in the distance, and Burj Al Arab (the sail-looking building) right next to us. And then, the evening call to prayer came from several of the nearby mosques. It was simply beautiful.

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The Great Move: Complete. Thursday List of First Impressions

I lost track of how long I’ve been here. Almost a week, it seems. My trip was strangely smooth and easy: no delays, no lost bags, I even arrived an hour early. It was great, no, great to see Shon again and hard to stay decent in a public place after a month-long separation.

Now I am here, with and even the worst jet lag ever cannot stand in my way of enjoying it!  My first impressions, like all first impressions, I believe, are mixed and a bit confused. Here we go:

1. It does not look like a desert.

I knew Al Ain was an oasis, but I still expected something like Arizona and was relieved to find it so different. Palm trees, some other trees that look like weeping willows, even grass sometimes. It’s not lush by any means, but it’s not all dry and brown. It really is beautiful in its own way.

2. The sky is not blue.

It’s hard to say where I got this notion, but I expected what Shon calls the American West sky here: big, blue, with scorching sun. The sun is scorching all right, but you don’t see it – or much else – because of the haze. Several people said it is caused by the wind above the desert. To give you an idea, Shon has been driving to school for a week now, and it was not until yesterday that he saw dunes nearby.

3. It’s a Noah’s Ark, a Tower of Babel.

The mix of languages, accents, and nationalities is phenomenal. I love it.

4. There is a mix of American, European, and local products/brands everywhere.

You go to a mall and see Bath and Body Works next to Marks and Spencer next to an abaya store.  In the grocery stores, I see brands I’ve completely forgotten about since I left Russia. It makes sense, but I didn’t think about it before coming.

5. I like everyone we met so far.

In Cuthbert, it took us about a year to meet people of our age and make friends. Here, we already know several couples.

6. The mosques are so very beautiful.

I keep waiting for the weather to get just a little more tolerable and life a little more normal to start venturing out to take pictures.  The call to prayer is beautiful, too, I think.

7. I haven’t seen any high-rises in Al Ain.

Most houses seem to have 2-3 floors, which means the city is spread out and feels open. I don’t really feel I live in a city until we go out and it doesn’t take an hour to get somewhere.

8. The British influence is very noticeable.

The first thing that comes to mind is “ground floor” instead of “first floor,” but there’s more than that.

9. Life is rather difficult without a stove and a blender.

But that will soon change.

This is all I have to say right now.  My rather slow washing machine seems to be done. Housework awaits!

 

Food Friday

While my darling husband is living the life of leisure and counting fils, I’m working like a beaver (said with a lovely Maine accent, in imitation of Shon’s late Grandma) and spending money left and right. Well, not really. I am, indeed, working my online job 6 hours a day, which feels like a rather long time to spend staring at a laptop. Most of the $$, however, is going towards bills.

But this week I decided I needed a nice break, too, so here I am, writing from the beaches of the Gulf – of Mexico. The city (haha) of Cuthbert, fondly referred to by some as the armpit of Georgia, is conveniently located 3 hours away from Panama City Beach. This is close enough for a day trip, but this year has been really hectic, and we haven’t gone a single time.

Knowing that a) we are hoping to not have to live in South GA again and b) Shon doesn’t care if he never sees a beach again, I figured this might be
my last chance to see the white sands in the next two decades, and drove 3 hours this morning for a day of self-loving. Beach is extremely important to my kinesthetic self: I get giddy from feeling the sand under my feet and between my fingers, being surrounded by the water, smelling the air, and tasting the salty waves. It’s a religious experience, too, but I cannot explain why.

 

By now you are wondering what this has to do with food 🙂 well, a trip to PCB is not complete without a lunch at Raggae J’s. Both Mom and Dear Cousin Erika can testify to the deliciousness of their Mahi-Mahi sandwich with sweet potato fries, as well as the irresistibility of the Key Lime pie.

If you ever make it here, make sure to try some!

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Thursday List: Neat Things in New England

1. Family, of course.  This is my (Shon’s) family, but Jenia is equally excited to see them.

2. Cool weather–it’s a mere mid-80s during the day, and a delightfully cool mid-60s at night.

3. Such lovely scenery and sublime hikes within easy distance of, well, most anywhere.

Here are some pictures from today’s activity–a long hike in the White Mountains.

Today we spent most of our day on a mountain. 9 miles round trip, and it’s a strenuous hike.

Jenia just loves those crazy Vibram shoes of hers. The water was cold and refreshing.

Dear Mr. Chipmunk enthusiastically received an almond that Jenia decided to share with him.

View from the summit of Mt. Chocorua, in Albany, NH.

Thursday Post: The Progress List (and a photo!)

When I look around, with all three dogs still in the yard, both cars and the bike’s insurance bills on the table, pictures still on the walls, and clothes still in the closets, it is hard to believe we’ve made any progress. But we have. Here’s proof.

Necessary things purchased:
1. New router to take with us to set up VPN. Anyone wants our 1-year-old wireless Belkin, by the way?

2. A Kindle Wi-Fi and 3G (for a total of $69 with the case! Looks new, feels new. Yay for Unclaimed Baggage Store Shon will write about one day). I was tempted to buy two, but in all truth, one is enough. Now you can give us Amazon giftcards for holidays!

3. An iPhone for Shon – the first smartphone in the house. And yes, a phone with GPS really is a necessity in the UAE, due to their peculiar address system. Mine will have to wait until September, I think.

4. A suitcase for Shon. Once again, thanks, Unclaimed Baggage!

5. A new lens. Ok, a nicer one than truly necessary, but between my amazing win, accumulated rewards points from Regions, and the unused vacation time $$, it only cost me $40.

Things accomplished:

6. All of my clothes have gone through preliminary sorting.

7. No-foreign-transaction-fee cards are in our wallets.

8. All holiday-related decorations packed and moved to Bowman.

9. Most of the books packed and moved to Bowman.

10. 4 (!) small tables moved to Bowman. Mind you, all of these “packed and moved” things were moved in the Jaguar in one sitting. Yes, I am that good at packing!

11. I have successfully left the College and am now working from home only. Shon’s last actual working day is tomorrow, but he will have to miss it, because

My Hogwarts Letter

12. I passed my naturalization interview on Tuesday, and will leave for Atlanta before 5am tomorrow to be sworn in as an American citizen.

I say, we’ve done pretty well, all things considered.

And here’s a bonus shortened list of things we still need to purchase/do:
1. Subscribe to VPN
2. Buy a second laptop (I have to have one here to work on, and Shon will need one there)
3. Buy a phone for me
4. Sell both cars
5. Finish moving
6. Drive to Maine for the family reunion
7. Buy a suitcase for me
8. Get a US passport.