Tuesday, February 17, 2009

'100 Days' in the Life of a Child.

I feel I have had to learn more about American culture than Albanian since living here. My son is at an international school, which is more than 50%, American (including the board) and my daughter is at the other international school (because it has a pre-school), which is an ‘All American’ school. (In every sense of the phrase.)

There do not seem to be many Albanian festivities or celebrations throughout the year, but this is more than made up for in my children’s schools, where Halloween, Thanksgiving etc are all huge deals, and then this last week we had Valentine’s Day & the 100th Day of school. All of which involve dressing up & scoffing vast quantities of sugar.

I remember in Sri Lanka my son informing at 6.45 a.m that he had to dress up as it was Halloween that day and the class were having (another) party, & so I grabbed a sheet, slashed 3 holes in it and, shoving it over his head, propelled him out of the door.

The only slight flaw in this, otherwise ingenious, plan, was that it was a fitted sheet, so the ghost’s floating was somewhat curtailed by elasticated corners. Still I had only been conscious about 20 minutes at that stage of the morning, so I was still quite pleased with myself.

However, it doesn’t always fall into place quite so easily….

The day before Valentine’s Day my son said he had to take cookies or cakes into school to share with his class to ‘celebrate Valentine’s Day’. We duly made pink heart shaped fairy cakes. My daughter had come home with no such message & there was no note in her bag. And after all she’s only 4. Ha, the naivety…

When I took my daughter into school, there was a scene something akin to a closing down sale at Charlie’s Chocolate factory. All the mums & dads were there with bags of sweets, cookies, one mum had two, what I can only describe as meat platters, one on each of her upturned palms, laden with cinnamon buns, others pulled decorated cookies & cellophane wrapped lollies from their bags. The prospect of sugar-shock candied the air. My daughter burst into tears and said she wanted to bring something in. Explaining that I felt sure there was plenty to go round was evidently unacceptable placatory behaviour.

Negligent mother strikes again. Actually it’s ‘Culturally Bombed Out Mother, who gets something wrong, in one of the cultures she is juggling, nearly every day.

So HOW did all these parents know to do this?? No message came home, or maybe they entrust messages to their 4 yr old to relay back to mum. W get email news from the teacher, & nothing was said in that. I’m told if you know about Valentine’s Day, you just know. This is what you do.

I have now gleaned that Valentine’s Day amongst primary school children in America is a friendship day, and you make & give cards to ALL you r classmates. It ha s to be inclusive, never mind if they’re not your friends ‘you just do it’ according to my 8 yr old. I get the impression they should be home made, and ‘candy’ is an integral apart of the day.

My son decided to make the most of this directive and sent a card to everyone, including the girl in his class who bullied him all last year & has started up again. In this card he wrote:
“Happy Valentine’s Day. Please stop bullying me.”

Of course I also felt duty bound to inform my husband about just how seriously Valentine’s Day was taken in Albania/America. He is of the opinion that Valentine’s Day is strictly for pimply youths & love-sick teenagers. But he duly handed me a (home made & admittedly hilarious) card on 16th February. Better late than never I think is the appropriate response here. I’m still working on the “how about a Valentine’s Day present of a massage treatment?”

And of course the children were troopers using their little observational skills to ask:

“Daddy how come you got so much chocolate & mummy didn’t get any?”

So, next up, the ‘100 Days of School’ celebration.

I was definitely Negligent Mother last year (read: more than usually culturally bombed out as we had been ‘in country’ 6 wks, we were in a temporary apartment, with 6 suitcases to our name, & no shipment, we had another 3 ½ mths to wait before that turned up) so my son didn’t enter the 100th Day competition because I had no idea what it involved, no resources, a distinctly small number of used yoghurt pots & cereal packets, nor any idea where to buy anything or how to communicate.

But this year I was forewarned, I knew about the 100th Day. I was prepared, I had girded my loins, wracked my brains with my son to choose a category:

New From Old

We chose ‘Something New From Something Old’. I decided to teach him to sew. He has always been fascinated by my sewing machine, & was thrilled at the chance to see how it worked, so we decided to make a quilt with 100 squares. I like sewing, My 8 year old likes the machine, and a quilt seemed quite an American cultural icon to make. Win, win, win.

Except he didn’t. There were only 11 entries in his category. One was a necklace made of 100 jelly babies, another was 100 one lek coins written as 100 with one penny hidden amongst them. Another was a student who had taken 100 pictures showing 100 different emotions. Lots of creativity. And then there was the robot.

It was a rubbish robot, well it was made of rubbish, 100 bits of boxes, yoghurt pots, loo rolls etc, it was 5 ft tall, but frankly it WAS rubbish. At this point I know I sound like one of those fiercely competitive parents, whom I can’t stand, who derides the opposition and yells instructions from the sidelines, like a true American Soccer Mom. Maybe I’m becoming more adapted to American culture than I care to admit??

It wasn’t so much that he had spent over 15-hours making it, or that the kids voted (& let’s face it, what kid would vote for a quilt. Boooooooooooooooring!) Or that the
winner was the same girl who won last yr and gets to be class rep every term because they won’t introduce a fixed term (in a class of 10 girls & 4 boys). Actually they are good friends, but I do think it's quite hard on him. He feels she always wins everything!

No. It was more the simple fact that it wasn’t a worthy winner. It was big yes, it was fun, it WAS made of 100 pieces, but at the end of the day it was just rubbish.

I was actually helping that morning receiving the entries & numbering them etc. I did this with my son’s teacher as it happened. Having submitted his quilt, his teacher a few minutes later turned to me and said, “you know as a mum AND a teacher, I always helped my son too much with his projects. I so wanted him to do well, that I often helped him too much or undid it & with hindsight, I now realise I was wrong to do that”
I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I did wonder afterwards whether she was giving me a message & didn’t believe he had made it all himself.

It reminded me of my younger brother who is very artistic and is a brilliant cartoonist. He was from a very early age. Often teachers didn’t believe it was his work, so much so that on occasion he wd add a little note to his H.W, even when very young, saying "Please Note This is All My Own Work”

Perhaps my son should have done that.

He was his normal philosophical self about it all, said it had been fun to make, he was glad he had learned to sew, & fun to dress up as a 100 yr old man. When he got home he immediately disappeared to work on his speech for the class rep election. I admire his perseverance I must say. He doesn’t give up easily.

But today, the day after the 100th Day of School, I had to pick up the pieces of a very dejected boy who lost the class election for the 3rd time running. He said,
“Miranda won. I don’t think I can ever win anything against Miranda & Ellen”.

She was the co-winner of the 100 Day competition & the girl who bullies him. As fate would have it, it was an equal number of votes. His two best friends, however, were away today, or they would have voted for him, so the teacher cast the deciding vote. She picked Miranda, despite the fact that the winner had spelt out her plans through an acrostic, (mis)spelt TRAC (As in ‘get on TRACK with me’) & had handed out sweets to the class. Her teacher commented, “I hope those aren’t meant as bribes Miranda”

The girl has obviously been living in Albania too long and decided to 'go native', in accordance with the corruption in Albanian culture. It seemed to work too.

This happened to my husband recently too; a young female interviewee at the end of the interview, offered him money to be given the job. It didn't work for her.

It’s a tough life being a kid and having to learn so many lessons of life in such quick succession. Winning & losing, dodgy voting systems, feeling not even teachers are on your side sometimes, how to negotiate with bullies, being in a class with someone who wins everything. But I’m proud of his generosity in defeat & his determination to keep going and try again. And as his grandfather perceptively pointed out about his competition entry,

“you’ll have that quilt forever, and all the winners will have is a load of rubbish”.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Post Office Counters

I always think there is something about post offices which epitomises and reflects the character & nature of the country to which they belong.

This is true of Britan where you will find polite orderly queues snaking back & forth in front of the counters, some even with flashing signs or an automated voice calling you forward. Very little noise, occasionally lonely pensioners pass a few pleasanteries, probably about the weather. Though, sadly they also reflect the technologially developed nature of Britain now which is gradually doing away with P/Os and the opportunity to collect your pension or child benefit in cash, renew a licence, apply for a passport from a human.

In Albania, the main post office in the capital, Tirana, is in a proper building. A few others are too, but most of the others in the city, are little prefab type buildings plonked on the pavement. If they weren't the yellow so characteristic of most european post systems you might be forgiven for thinking it was a workman's hut.

I expect they will be replaced one day. For now, they fit in with Albania's "Under Construction" image. Tiranas is one vast building site. Eating dust & concrete powder is part of the daily diet. Albania seems to be in a race to erect as many tall, glassy impressive looking buildings & swathes of new apartments, as possible, desperate to join NATO & the EU, and looking the part seems to be the primary consideration.

I hope they are not accepted too soon or there will be NO incentive left to stamp out the rampant, rife, all encompassing corruption at all. Hmm, I think I've made myself clear.

Anyway, post offices. The signs inside are as complicated as the language (which I am trying to learn). There is a different booth for every possible transaction imaginable, & no they won't just let you buy a stamp at the wrong one. Absolutely not, no way, what was I thinking?

Fortunately another national characteristic which is also rife in the P/O is being offered unsolicited advice by any & everyone. The other day a guy stopped me in the market to 'tut' at me and inform me my bike was dirty. Yes, and?? .... Another time someone suggested my son should be wearing a coat, or passers by stop & guide you into parking spaces. Or stop other cars so that you can pull out. Kind, but a little unusual.

Still in the post office , when I am usually only doing something simple like posting a parcel, or buying stamps, people can see what I'm trying to do & they grab my arm, propel me in the right direction, or point to the right booth.

Then of course there is the queueing. I always mentally chalk my cue-tip elbows before entering the P/O in order to participate with the best of them. It is quite refreshing as a Brit, I must confess, to barge, push & jostle legitimately and without causing offence. However as a Brit I can never resist the urge to tell people it's not their turn, even though clearly queueing in any form is not a national characteristic. Is it a Western thing I wonder?

You go up to the counter in a sea surge of paper wielding humanity, & immediately someone reaches across you with their money waving in the face of the postal worker, someone else moves in from the other side and shouts a question mid transaction. A man who has not so much invaded your personal space, as redrawn the boundaries, pushes in front. And if you're NOT up at the front you really do need to push & elbow or you would be politely waiting in a 1 person queue all day.

Then there is the laborious bureaucracy, which accompanies every transaction. where forms are filled in in triplicate, receipts hand written, signatures taken before you can receive a parcel. What happens to all these log books of transactions I wonder?

And then finally, there is the small injustice of paying 30 lek for the privilege of having braved Tirana traffic to get to the MAIN post office, to collect a parcel, which they won't actually deliver, which is torn, has been opened & is incomplete. This adds to the shouting you hear in the post office, whilst the postal worker shrugs & shouts back. There are so many frustrations & injustices in society here, where 'the little person' is powerless & has no recourse to any action. A subject I will be returning to in another post.

Having had parcels turn up 4 months late & so far nothing go missing (permanently), I have now come to the conclusion that it is fairly reliable, just slow & chaotic. And of course many of the pacrels have been opened & some contents removed.

There are many stories. One of my husband's colleagues many years ago (probably when Mars bars weren't available here) got sent a pack of Mars Bars in the post from the U.K. This particular pack had a "free extra Mars" in the packet. Strangely when he received the parcel, the 'free extra ' one was not in the parcel. It had been taken out & then the pack of Mars re-sealed & put back in the parcel.

Another friend had ordered her daughter some winter boots which she got sent out to her, much to the excitement of her fashion conscious daughter. Imagine the surprise when the parcel from her mother in England arrived, with an old landrover part in it. And not a boot to be seen.

A pile of brochures sent to another friend from his UK organisation arrived with a pack of playing cards enclosed. When he asked his London office why, they knew nothing about it.

Parcels here are weighed to check the weight & stamp price tally, so clearly the workers who sort the mail, you can just imagine it, are emptying a pile of parcels onto a counter, opening the promising looking ones & sharing out the booty then shoving stuff back in and sealing them up with any random objects added in order to 'make up the weight'. Seems a very long winded way of thieving. Many parcels don't get the 'sealed up again' treatmant of course.

The most remarkable thing about the main post office though, is looking beyond the booth to the mail room out the back, where all Tirana's parcels, disapora mailings, remittance gifts are piled up in a room with ceiling to floor metal shelves. These parcels balance Jenga-style all the way to the ceiling, they sprawl over the floor, they spill out of the door and have taken up positions all around the postal workers, so they have to pick their way through & rummage amonsgs the brown cardboard termite mounds in search of my little parcel. Here there are NO signs, no labels, no organisation. Seemingly. I am in awe really, that within 5 minutes they emerge with my parcel. I have no idea how they do this.

This is Tirana all over, it constantly surprises. It seem so chaotic, & yet it functions remarkably given the poor infrastructure, power cuts etc. It is such a mish mash of chaos and cosmopolitanism, tradition & trendiness, mess, mayhem and modernity. It, thus far, has refused to allow me to categorise the place in any way. But I haven't given up yet.

And as for my parcels, I'm told lots & lots of annoying sellotape is the best tamper proofing for parcels, and very dull or off putting customs 'contents' labels for those who can read English.

I'm also keeping my elbows perpetually sharpened, for my post office visits, just to be prepared you understand. After all I am trying to blend in.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Every Picture Tells a Story

I've been photo-tagged by Nappy Valley Girl

This is a first for me. what you do, evidently, is choose the 'My Pictures' on your computer & go to the 4th folder and choose the 4th picture in that folder. And then photo tag 4 others . I will choose Reluctant Memsahib, Wife in Hong Kong, Parisgirl and Aerialarmadillo Sounded fun, and I have been getting a bit more adventurous, if irregular, about posting photos. The folder was 2002, and contains pretty much exclusively pictures of our son who was then 2. I have been a bit reticent about posting pictures of my children, but then he's 8 now so it is 6 yrs out of date. And maybe I'm being a bit neurotic. So here it is.

This is actually one of my favourite photos of our son. It captures his happy, 'glass half full' character and general zest for life. He's always cheerful, always positive. I wish I was more like him, it's a great way to be I think.

The idea is to tell the story of the photo. So I'm going to tell you the 'story of my children'.

When I was teaching, one of my favourite books was (is) “To Kill a Mocking Bird”. Atticus, the father in the story, tells his children that you never really know or understand someone till you have ‘walked around in their shoes’ So I thought I'd give you the chance to do that,

This story started in 1996 when we started trying for children. Nothing happened for 2 yrs, so after preliminary investigations I was put on clomid to stimulate my ovaries. This probably accelerated my problem. In May 1998, at the doctors, I was told I was 3 months pregnant. My husband was in China researching his MBA thesis. The dr told me to do a test and call him the next day. It was negative, as I expected, though of course I dared to hope. When I spoke to him on the phone his exact words were "Well I don’t know what that is in your stomach then"
Not a great bedside manner...I was quite freaked out & felt very alone.

That night I went to see our friends, who lived up the road. She was a sonographer at the John Radcliffe, our local hospital, and he an obstetrician. She proposed to take me in then and there so we crept into the JR and she unlocked an ultrasound scan room and scanned me, said I had two grapefruit sized cysts, one on each ovary. They didn’t correspond to either of the two usual types of cyst you get on your ovaries. Jonathan, the husband, had a word with his colleague , a very good surgeon, arranged an appointment and a week later I was in hospital for a laparotomy. I even got a private room, obviously pays to have friends in the NHS. I had to give them permission to completely remove my ovaries if that shd prove necessary.

I woke up to see Jonathan sitting by my bed saying the good news was I had a benign condition called endometriosis although I had it in its severest form, with a lot of adhesions. He & the surgeon had both thought I had ovarian cancer, which was why they took me in so quickly.

We were referred to an endometriosis consultant who told us if we didn't conceive in 6 mths (No pressure then) the adhesions would have come back which would render me mechanically infertile (fallopian tubes stuck) & our best & only hope of having a child would be IVF. We were very shocked by all these events and also with suddenly going from zero intervention to IVF. Not what I needed to hear aged 32.

We did a lot of research and heart searching to decide how to get through what, for us, was an ethical minefield. We knew nothing about IVF or anyone who had been through it. We began our 1st treatment in May 1999. We didn’t want to stock pile embryos or allow any to perish, so we decided to have only 3 eggs fertilised. Normally the drugs make women produce 15-20 eggs they them fertilise them all and choose the best ones, and freeze or even discard the others. They of course thought we were mad and were reducing our chances significantly, it’s only 25-30% success rate anyway.

The clinic subsequently (over the years) got used to our stance on things and knew how we felt about when life begins, the preciousness of every life, even if only a group of fertilised cells etc. I'm not saying we got it right, or were experts, but that was our personal view. I had 7 eggs but when they did the egg retrieval they could only get 3 eggs out, and all three fertilised. When the embryologist came to see us to tell us the results and knew we only wanted three she said; ‘it was obviously meant to be’. An unusual comment for a scientist we thought.

Well the day of the pregnancy test dawned. I had been struggling for 2 weeks to ignore all the messages my body was sending me, & trying to second guess what was going on. How I wished I could step out of my body and leave it on the shelf whilst I got on with my day. It was utterly distracting & emotionally exhausting.

My husband baked a cake (1st & only time he has done this) to give to the nurse who'd taken us through our cycle. He said it was just his way of saying thank you for all their support encouragment & dedication whatever the outcome. After the longest 4 mins of my life, (don't why it takes them so much longer in hospital to do pregnancy tests) she came back to tell us it was positive. It had worked 1st time.

At this point words fail me. How to express the kaleidoscope of emotions that surged through me is utterly beyond me. And so the gorgeous little boy in the picture is the result, born 4 ½ yrs after beginning that journey, & now a very lively boy of 8 1/2. We still, even now, look at him in incredulity that we had this child at all.

I found IVF a very isolating experience. At the time, I knew no one who had been through it. My friends all produced babies effortlessly, and prolifically. Something I found equally isolating was secondary infertility. People would make well meaning, entirely unhelpful comments like "Well at least you have one" People just did not seem to understand that yearning to have another. The strength of the desire to have another child, mulitplied this time because you want it also for your husband as a father (who always dreamed of having a large family), for your son to have a sibling & for the woman in you desperate for the privilege of being a mother again.

In 2001 we had 1 frozen cycle when they just put back previously frozen embryos, then 2 more full IVF treatments in 2002, none of which worked. The process takes about 8 weeks, longer if like me you don’t down regulate properly. The second one in the summer of 2002, was an awful experience, things went wrong at every turn. I was by now on the maximum dosage of drugs to stimulate my ovaries to produce lots of eggs..

I did a pregnancy test at the end of this cycle 2 days before going into the IVF unit. I had always been very diligent about not doing this but this time I just couldn't wait. I got a positive. Hooray!

A false positive as it turned out.

I became very depressed after that 3rd treatment. It was taking its toll on both of us and our marriage, as we were both in desperate need of support and yet felt unable to give any to the other. I wasn’t sure how much I could keep putting myself through this & yet couldn't bring myself to give up either. We both independently came to the decision that we should take a break for at least 6 mths

By end of 2002 I said to my husband I couldn’t go on like this knowing how my age, endometriosis, etc were diminishing my chances of even IVF working.

We were referred to the director of the infertility unit who was, an internationally renowned expert on infertility an IVF, and therefore difficult not to take seriously. He told us that being 37, with scarred ovaries, which being endometriotic were ageing more quickly than the rest of me, on the max dosage of drugs, my IVF history of failure and the quality and quantity of my eggs, he said realistically you have a 5-8% chance of IVF working, or as I mentally turned it round – a 92-95% failure rate. He advised us to discontinue or to at least acknowledge what we were going into, with such slim chances. 'Of course' he said 'I would be utterly delighted for you to prove me wrong, but you have to see that it’s very unlikely'. We were once more reeling with shock, we had no idea our chances weren’t as good as the next person’s; the usual and now optimistic sounding 25%. I felt incredibly low, empty and wrung out by this stage.

I knew the time had come to let go, we both independently reached the point where we felt we needed to use up our 2 frozen embryos, and then prob draw a line under things. I felt in no position to do that, but I thought ‘one step at a time’. We also started investigating adoption and, for me, wrestling with all the issues that raised for me. I also needed to accept that our son could well be an only child.

I also longed to have an identity beyond the ‘infertile woman desperate to have another child’. I was just so weary of it all, and longed to move on & yet felt unable to give up.

We had the meeting at the unit in June 2003 to use our frozen eggs. The nurse read out the letter to my doctor from the consultant about our chances of it working and said how sorry she was. It sounded so stark and final but by now I felt completely at peace about it all.

We had no expectation of this frozen cycle at all. I knew that a full normal cycle had a 5% chance of working. Frozen cycles are less successful, so what percentage chance we had of this working I don’t know. So when the day finally arrived we sat in that room waiting for our results, as we had on 5 previous occasions. For the 1st time I felt relaxed. I felt pretty sure my body was telling me again it hadn’t worked, I'd got so used to the symptoms & couldn't remember what being newly pregnant felt like anyway.

The nurse finally came back in.

'You're wrong.' she said “You’re pregnant."

My 1st response was, ‘Are you sure???’

She obviously felt the same way. She said ‘Yes I did it twice to make sure.’

In these situations you go through the roller coaster of emotions & disappointment so often, you dare not almost, feel joy, you dare not feel hope, or elation. And you are so very, very weary, your body is tired, your emotions are exhausted; what we felt initially was relief. Funny emotion, but the only one we dared feel at that point. We thought finally we can move on and out of this narrow place. 8 long years of waiitng. The 1st 12 weeks were agonising too. And then we dared hope a little more. I didn't even allow myself to buy anything for the baby until I was about 5 months pregnant. Also of course I'd been so busy vomiting and losing weight that I wouldn't have had the strength or resolve to get to a shop anyway. Gradually though relief gave way to more normal emotions, we got excited, we made plans, we chose names.

And that is why when our daughter was born, all 9 1/2 pounds of her in 2004, we chose Joy as her middle name.

And that is the story of our two miracle children.