Friday, August 26, 2005

Scarred for life

In the car this morning Robin asked whether there are any donut stores in Costa Rica. I explained (there is a terribly disappointing food item that a lot of people call and consider donuts, but no actual donut stores and, to my mind, no actual donuts), then my mind wandered on to other things while the girls continued to explore the topic.

A couple of minutes later I tuned back in to hear Julia's sing-song enumeration of what the ideal donut store would contain:

"...and cakes...and cookies...and candies...that taste good..."

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Thanks Brett

Last February my friend Brett spent a couple of evenings with us when he came to Costa Rica for a visit. He brought these excellent gourmet white chocolate covered berry-flavored craisin things. And be brought a little box of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans.

Now, I'm looking forward to Harry Potter. Everybody loves it so much, I figure we will too, when the kids get a little older. Harry is a young magician/warlock who is studying his craft at, I believe, a boarding school for witches. I'm sure we'll be able to give you the whole story in a few years.

Apparently, in the story, Harry et al enjoy these Every Flavor Beans.
Apparently, Jelly Belly knows a merchandising opportunity when it sees one.
Apparently, Bertie Bott (or JK Rowling) has an active imagination.

Along with your standard Jelly Belly flavors like Cinnamon, Banana, Buttered Popcorn and Toasted have your specially crafted Harry Potter flavors: Black Pepper, Sardine, Spinach, Grass, Dirt, Ear Wax, Booger and, yes, Vomit. (Just imagine the R&D...)

As anyone who knows Jelly Belly knows, the company's reputation revolves largely around bold, realistic flavors. I saved them for a long time.

But today I've had my credit card rejected for a big-ticket item purchased on eBay. I've been on international phone calls with the bank (which solved my problem) and the IRS (which put me in my place). I received a translation I wasn't expecting till the weekend and, if you haven't yet, see below for a glimpse of this morning's before-school fun & games.

I guess I was just ready for something completely different. Or maybe I figured at least it wouldn't ruin a perfectly good day. Or maybe it's just that translating always gives me the munchies.

I'm not sure I would have done it if Jelly Bellys didn't come with a legend printed on the box. If you sort carefully, you usually know what you're in for - or can at least narrow it down to two possible flavors.

For the geeks among us: The novelty flavors accounted for 40% of the total (8 out of 20 possible flavors), but 54% of the actual beans (25 out of 46) were...novel. I didn't get any Ear Wax, but there was at least one of every other specialty flavor. I only got two beans wrong when I sorted them, and everything I identified as normal was, in fact, normal. (Two of the supposed Dirts turned out to be Grape Jelly).

I started with Grass, figuring it would be the least objectionable. It was, in fact, so mild (or deteriorated...they've been in my drawer since February after all) that I couldn't really identify any flavor at all. So I moved up to Dirt. That was no baby step, let me tell you. It tasted like dirt. No, really. Totally like dirt. Like I could actually feel the grit between my teeth. Like I'm no wimp but I figured, Maybe I don't have to eat ALL of these.

So I moved on to Spinach. Yup, tasted like spinach but, you know what? Not really in a good way. Looking for a milder flavor, I went for Booger. Hmm, mostly sweet, not much Nelly - yep, that's pretty much what a booger tastes like (or did when I was four). And by the time it kicks in you've chewed it a bit and the consistency is right there along with it.

Okay, so now I'm committed - on to the Black Pepper. Very realistic. Sardine. Now that's disgusting. If I had been near a suitable receptacle, I might have spit that one out.

So, my friends, here's what I did. I decided not to try the Vomit. I decided to pitch it. I made an informed decision to wimp out. I'm a grownup; I'm not going to impress anybody by eating vomit flavored candy.

But then. Ah, then. I realized. I have access to people who will eat -or anyway want- anything with enough sugar and Red #4. Small people. Who might even deserve it.

"You didn't," you say. Oh, but I did. And you know you would have done the same thing.

I carefully divided up the remaining beans into equal portions, with a separate pile for any flavors not divisible by two. (It may taste like vomit, but heaven help us if anyone gets more of it than anyone else.)

Hey kids, come here a minute. You want to try these?

Me: Here, try this one. How is it?
R: Good.
J: Good!
Me: What does it taste like?
R: Umm, like tree branches?
Me: Like Boogers!
R: Really? I never tried boogers.
[So you have tried tree branches?]
Me: Here, have another.
R: Okay.

Me: What about this one?
R: What does it taste like?
Me: Try it and see. [...] How is it?
R: Fine. It tastes like sea water.
J: I like it. Can I have another one?
Me: There's one left. You guys can split it.
R/J: Okay!

Me: Here's one. Do you like it?
J: Mmm, I do like it.
Me: It's spinach.
R: It does taste like spinach. It's good

Me: Okay, are you ready for the last one?
R/J: Yeah!!
Me: Here you go.
[Uncertain faces]
Me: Is it good?
R: I don't know what it's supposed to be.
Me: It's supposed to taste like throw-up.
R: [Grimace] It does taste like throw-up.
J: [Grin] Eeeew!
R: [Miserable face]
Me: You don't have to eat it. You can throw it away if you want to.
R: Okay [Turns]
J: No wait a minute, Robin. I'll eat it.

[15 minutes later]

J: Mommy, does the man who bringed those things have a girl or a boy? Does he have children?
Me: No, he doesn't.
R: But he likes children, right?

Party "Buts"

So the party went well overall. But...I think Julia would have enjoyed it more if it had been smaller and more organized. There really wasn't much attention actually paid to her - it was all about going through the motions of getting people fed, again and again. First the meal, then the cones, then the cake...

Before the party she kept saying she didn't want so-and-so, or so-and-so's kids, to come. And it's not like she ever plays with them or knows them all that well, but I couldn't think of any other way to have a party for her...and by then it was too late even if we had had a better idea.

She wasn't unhappy during the party, but she did remain within 12" of my hip most of the time, and insisted that there was to be no singing or clapping when we did the cake, so I think the adults found that to be a bit anticlimactic. The cake had already been seen and admired, so all I did was light the candles, bring it over to the table, and have her blow them out. Then we took it back and served it up. Very quiet.

She did have fun with the bubbles and the goody bags, etc. But really it could have been nicer for her. Again, maybe next year.

School "Buts"

And then there's Robin. She spent the day, and then the night, at the abuelos' on Sunday because I had gotten a weekend's worth of work on Friday but of course had not even glanced at it on Saturday. Julia was supposed to stay there on Sunday too, but she really really wanted to come home with me, so I brought her. It's not too hard to work with one of them around (especially Julia) - it's the combination that's deadly (and loud).

The work went pretty well and was basically finished by Sunday evening. Robin was going to spend the night down there (which she's always begging to do) and Yolanda was going to take her to school in the morning so I could give the documents a quick read in the morning (when my brain works best) and still have them sent by 8:00.

But Robin's teacher had given her a couple of homework sheets on Friday and not only had I forgotten to have her take them to Yolanda's house; she hadn't even done them. So I took the sheets down Sunday evening and sat with her while she did them. But then she didn't want to spend the night. Or rather, she did want to sleep at the abuelos' but she wanted ME to take her to school. We're not going to go there (precedent, you know), so I told her she had to choose. She freaked out for a while but eventually agreed to go to school with Yolanda in the morning (which she had begged to do the week before).

So they went in the morning and it was fine. But apparently the honeymoon is over. She still allows as how she likes the work, the music, the swimming, etc., and every time I pick her up she's happily engaged in whatever's going on...but she has been freaking out about not wanting to go - Monday night, Tuesday morning and this morning. (Tuesday night she was upset but not identifying it with school.)

On Monday night and Tuesday morning she said it was because nobody wanted to play with her. I had noticed her playing with a particular little girl (Sophie) for the first week or so, and then seen Sophie playing with other kids when I picked Robin up more recently. So I explained it to the teacher and asked her to help Robin find a child to play with. She seemed very understanding.

This morning Robin said the problem was that she wanted me, or someone from her family, to stay with her. She calmed down a little at a couple of points, but quickly got worked up again, and when we got to school she actually refused to get out of the car. I had gotten there early enough to stay for five minutes or so before the day started, but it didn't seem to help at all - she just kept crying and clinging. As I was finally disengaging at the gate, one of the teachers came out to tell all the children it was time to get started. Robin finally, voluntarily, let go and...maybe? possibly?snapped out of it as she was turning to go in (was she actually skipping? just for one pace?)

I know kids usually do fine after the parents finally leave, and I've always been inclined to keep the goodbyes short and not worry about it, but I guess I got sucked into it this time. It's not that she was putting on an act - she was really really distressed - but I forget how fast they can shift gears sometimes. She really does like being there, I'm positive, and she's definitely getting more stimulation and learning more. They teach the kids cursive right from the outset, so even with writing, which she mastered a long time ago, she's got something new to learn.

I just hope she gets through the separation/new situation trauma before she starts getting frustrated with the school work. Before her first day we talked about how everything she had been doing up to now had been very easy for her, and was boring. She understood - or said she did - that in order to learn new things you have to try to do things you don't know yet, and that means that there will be parts you'll get wrong or not understand them.

But so far that hasn't been a problem for her. The first week she kept complaining that the work was too easy, and I kept telling her that the teacher has to learn about her, and find out what she already knows, before she can help her start learning new things. The same thing happened with the swimming: after the first day she said she had liked it, but that they made her wear "floaty things" on her arms AND her back, and they didn't believe her when she said she knew how to swim. She really wasn't buying it when I said that that's their job - to make sure the child is safe while finding out what she already knows so they can teach her new things.

So anyway, I'm not having second thoughts about the school, but Robin sure is...this week anyway. I had been thinking about starting Julia in September, and assuming that she would be asking to go by then. But this week's "I hate school and I'm NOT going" litany probably isn't helping. Of course, the one thing that Robin says would help her feel better is having a member of the family there with her, and she knows Julia would be in the same class if she went. But, too, I don't want to start Julia on a brand new experience (much newer to her than all this is to Robin, really) with the expectation that she'll be Robin's "medicine" either. That would hardly be fair to her, and it could give Robin an unrealistic view of the way things work.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

She's Four (now it's official)

You know the birthday party rule: the child's age plus two = the appropriate number of guests. Maybe next year we'll get to try that out, but since Julia doesn't go to school yet, she doesn't have a pool of children to invite from, which means we invite the cousins. All the cousins. Plus the next door neighbor.

(For you sticklers: Yes, Alex is an only child. They're his cousins' kids, but I never did learn whether that makes them second or once removed.)

So we had 14 kids and, I think, 11 adults. But it went well. There is a Costa Rican Birthday Party Formula which makes things pretty easy. I've never seen it done any other way: You serve rice with chicken (all mixed together as a single dish), refried beans, potato chips and soda. You have a piñata and goody bags. You serve ice cream cones and cake.

Sometimes there are games with prizes, but with so many kids (aged, by the way, 2-11) I didn't bother with that (my official reason was that I favor cooperative/creative activites rather than competitive ones. But nobody asked.) Instead, I printed out a bunch of Dora, Blue's Clues and LazyTown coloring sheets from the Nick, Jr. website (including the picture I used for the cake design) and set them out with a stack of plain paper, pencils, markers, etc. at the table. I set the box of matchbox cars out in the playroom, along with a bunch of smallish cardboard boxes I got at PriceSmart last week to (eventually) reorganize the toys. I put the wooden train track set in a corner of the living room, and I made a bucket of bubble stuff for outside. I couldn't find the big bubble toy thing Dad brought down for our wedding (how many times have we moved since then?) but I do have the book that came with it, which included some suggestions for homemade devices and a soap recipe. A lot of the kids were able to make large bubbles using the two-straws-on-a-loop-of-yarn contraption. (I had thought that might be something an adult would have to do more as a show for them but several of the older ones got the hang of it.)

And I didn't see any bored kids at any point. With things spread out like that the only time we had a problem with crowding was at the beginning when everybody wanted to do the bubbles at once. I made a second batch of soap, which helped.

I even remembered to save out a bag of piñata stuff for the (inevitable) crying child who didn't get enough. Ironically, the crying child was the one who had gotten plenty, but resented his mother topping off his brother's bag from the extras, so maybe it backfired after all...

Yolanda, of course, made the food, and with a party full of Costa Rican mothers there's never a shortage of people to help with the serving & cleanup. We saved the presents for after everyone had gone, which ended up being a little later than anticipated because the bus never came (turns out it has a shorter schedule on Saturdays), so I made two trips down the hill to take people home.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Sneak Peek

I figure I'd better take a picture tonight, in case the colors run or something...

Sure, it's a popular kids' television show. But I'd still like to remember this as the year Julia asked for a world-class Icelandic athlete on her birthday cake.

(I didn't realize until I went looking for links just now that a Lazy Town video came out this week. I looked all over the place for one when we were in the states last month, and I couldn't even find it on cable. The girls watch it all the time here, but I want to see it in English to hear the Icelandic accents!)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

My idea of fun

Yesterday was Mother's Day in Costa Rica and this is what I did:

(Click for closeups)

...So how come I can do that, but I can't figure out how to get rid of that extra space up there??

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Clouded vision

Today I looked out the window and saw dense fog hanging over the trees at the end of the meadow (there's a meadow!) But the view was crystal clear in all other directions and I began to think it looked more like smoke -- people do burn brush and construction scraps here, but there was so, so much of it; it didn't seem like it could be just that.

As I watched it started to billow (not waft) out into the meadow, hanging together densely and not dissipating or spreading out like fog. I opened the window to listen but couldn't hear any crackling, so I just waited for it to reach me. It took about a minute and when it came I took a breath...of cool, clean mountain air. And then it was just a foggy day.

The drawback of the bob

Think Julia's new haircut is cute? You try holding earlobe-length hair out of a vomiting child's face at 1:30 a.m.

An hour and a half later, back in the bathroom. Her hoarse, sleepwalking little voice says, "I need something warmer to sit on [while I hang my head in the toilet]." I pull a pair of child's pants from the laundry and put them where her knees go, but her bare feet are still on the tile. "It's a little bit small." Second pair of pants. "Thanks Mommy." Could you just melt?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


When we got home from school today there was a nurse from the local public health clinic outside the gate. She was here to check whether the kids had been taking anti-parasite medication. They hadn't, so she gave me some (chewable tablets, saints be praised) and left the second dose, to be taken in six months. (Note to self: February 9...)

She verified that their vaccinations were up to date, but also said both girls are due for their next series on their next birthdays - next week for Julia. Fortunately this time I'll be able to do it when Robin's at school, so I'll have complete control over the propaganda that precedes it. Also, she asked when I had last had a tetanus shot, and since it was over 10 years ago she went ahead and gave me one, right there in my living room. This too was lucky, since it was in the arm, like Julia's will be. She even gave me an appointment for a pap smear next week.

I'd hesitate to go through the public healthcare system for a lot of things, but this local clinic sure puts a lot of effort into basic prevention.

Robin's Take

After first day:

J: What was the thing you liked the most?
R: There were lots of children who wanted to be my friend.
J: Was there anything you didn't like so much?
R: Let's see. Things I didn't like so much.
(J: Uh-oh. Plural.)
R: Things I didn't like so much. Things I didn't like. Hey, what's that thing?

After second day:

R: So...what?
J: What?
R: You're supposed to ask me.
J: Oh, okay. did it go?
R: Nope, that's not it.
J: Umm, did you make more new friends?
R: Yes I did, but that's not the question.
J: Uhh, did you like the swimming?
R: Not so much.
J: You didn't like it so much, or that's not the question?
R: I didn't like it so much...
(J: Oh well. Not like it's obligatory.)
R: ...I looooved it!
J: Ahh.

Unfortunately, I she may not get to have the third least not tomorrow. She played with her cousin-who-I-later-discovered-had-a-hacking-cough for most of the day on Saturday, and by bedtime that same day she was clearing her throat a lot. On Sunday she was hoarse, and Monday morning she woke up with the cough and slight sore throat. I warned the school people, but they shrugged it off: their policy extends to fevers and diarrhea, but she wasn't even coughing by the time we got there. Today she was about the same (and didn't miss swimming). Now she's got a low fever and a light rash over her trunk and, for the first time, doesn't feel well.

Julia says her neck hurts (sore throat) and tries valiantly to cough, but she's not very convincing.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Kinder Karma

I must have done a good deed somewhere along the line...or maybe it was Robin.

We got back home on Tuesday afternoon, had a couple of drinks with Jose & Yolanda, and went to bed way, way early. I did, however, take ten minutes to fill the treat bags with dollar-store stuff we'd brought for the kids in Robin's class.

When I picked her up after school on Wednesday, there was a sign saying that there would be no classes Thursday or Friday (this is about as much notice as we usually get...clearly not a lot of working moms in this neighborhood.) But before I get too self-congratulatory about not letting Robin beg off school that day, I read the rest of the sign: classes are out for two days because it's time to pre-register for next year.

Now, in the U.S. "next year" would be just a month off, so pre-registration makes sense. But here, the second semester just started a couple of weeks ago and "next year" is six full months away.

I had already decided that Robin would need a new school for next year. I've complained before about the public school not providing her with the opportunity to learn, and of course learning, per se, was not the main issue back when we put her in the pre-K program. We wanted her to be around other kids, and to speak Spanish, and she did, and all was well.

But the academic content has become an issue, and now they want a commitment (or at least a general indication) about next February. I had had my eye on a small private school in San Rafael that Dad discovered one day when he was here last year. I had already stopped in to ask for the name & number to contact for an appointment to learn more about the program, but I had never followed through...what with everything being (I thought) six months or more off. I was quite sure I didn't want to sign Robin up for first grade where she is now, but figured that the registration deadlines are probably the same for public & private alike.

So Wednesday I stopped by to ask if I could meet with someone and fortunately the principal was able to see me the next day.

Let me tell you, if I could have designed a school for Robin, about the only thing I would have added was maybe having it be right here on my street. They follow the Montessori method for the pre-K and kindergarten levels, and what she described as a "hybrid method" for first grade and up (they offer up through sixth). I suspect that this approach is necessary (or at any rate helpful) in terms of complying with the requirements of the Ministry of Education while retaining some of the advantages of the Montessori method.

They have children of different ages together: ages 3 through 6 in the pre-K/kindergarten section, then a separate classroom area for grades 1 through 3, and a third area for grades 4 through 6. Each child has access to all the materials in his/her particular area, and the children work at their own pace. Older children are encouraged to help younger ones.

The place is neither large nor fancy, but it is clean, open and friendly, and just filled with materials on low shelves around every available wall space. Most of these "materials" (in the kindergarten space at least), were well-used but sturdy wooden toys for things like shape sorting, patterns, counting, etc. The desks and chairs are arranged in small groups in the middle of the room.

I explained our situation to the principal, including the fact that there's a chance we'll be moving to the U.S. before February anyway. (Hi, people who haven't been in touch with us since the didn't really think the stability would last, did you??)She suggested that it might be a good idea to bring Robin in right now - they're only about three weeks into their second semester, and that way she could get up to speed and not be behind this school's average first grade level: the students are generally reading by the end of kindergarten, and are familiar with the numbers through 9000.

Are you sensing that I was not hard to convince? I spoke with Alex that night, and Robin the next day. The conversation with Alex included some detail. The one with Robin went like this:

- You know where I went yesterday?
- Where?
- I went to visit a school where the kindergarteners can learn to read.
- (jumping up and down) I want to go! I want to go!

So she's going. In fact, she's there now. I wrote a letter of explanation and took it to the old school this morning. They were disappointed to see her go, but couldn't really argue that it was the right thing to do.

It's $100/month, by the way, and the kindergarten is from 8:00-12:00 Mon-Thu and till 11:30 on Fridays. (Did everybody catch that? Eight o'clock in the morning. Not seven. Eight. How very civilized. I'm going to stop giving Julia afternoon naps and I'll still get to put them to bed at 7:00 or 7:30, but she won't get me up at 5:30 a.m. anymore!!) For first grade and up, the schedule is 8:00 to 3:00, and for $10 extra per month, the younger kids can stay till 3:00 also (as a daycare, without the actual instruction.) We're not going to do that, at least not right at first, but if she ends up wanting to...well who am I to stand in the way of three extra hours of socializing in a healthy environment?

Don't know if you caught it up there, but they do take kids beginning at age three. At the moment Julia is still anti-school because of that one day she was over tired or in an off mood and didn't like Sunday School when my parents took her. But normally she says she wants to go to Robin's school, so it probably won't be long before she's asking to. We'll see how Robin likes it for a couple of weeks, and then if Julia wants to go we may try that as well.

So this place is three miles (8 minutes) away, and is within walking distance of Yolanda's house, so she can pick Robin up sometimes if I've got a translation to work on. It's actually quite a steep walk, but only for Yolanda: on the way back to her house, it's all downhill.

So--if it isn't all used up on us--I am now sending good school vibes to Anita so that, preferably within the week, they will find a place that's as well-suited to Conor as this one is to Robin.

(Oh, and they offer music modules where the kids can get an introduction to flute, guitar, percussion and, umm, something else I think. And (for an additional fee) there's swimming on Tuesdays. What did I do to deserve this???)

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Something old and something new

OLD: Just before we left for the U.S., my parrot quilt was on display at the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center (along with the other 57 entries in the Shapes and Colors of Costa Rica exhibit: photos of all the quilts are now online). Mine is in the center of the top row. I thought it was nice that they grouped all the bird quilts together (Not that you can tell from this photo, but all the top ones are birds, and all the bottom ones are related to coffee growing/harvesting.)

Outside the cultural center, the girls wanted to play around a large sculpture that I thought was a pair of candles. When I stepped back to get a picture that showed the whole thing, I realized it was a 9/11 memorial.

NEW: While we were away, construction did begin on the lot directly behind (north of) ours, as planned.

When we left, the couple building off our north-east corner said they hoped to move in sometime in July, but it's apparently not quite done yet. The adjoining house (for members of the same family) won't be finished for some time.

Also new, but not pictured: the lot on our east side is owned by a family with three children. The daughter is planning to begin her house in December. While we were gone, they fenced in the lot and put in some kind of plant all the way around.

Kitty business

Never having had a litter-trained cat before, I really didn't know how much litter to leave. I filled the box generously and left two smallish, unopened bags.

Elberth had never had a litter-trained cat either. When I got back to the country (but not yet the house), I asked if there had been enough for the five-week trip. "Sure," he said. "Never even had to change it." Umm.

He did apparently scoop it at least. And, you know, could have been a lot worse. The cat seemed glad to see us.


Julia had 'em. Rhymes with ham hocks, not hammocks.

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