Raising Bilingual Kids

While growing up in France, I developed a surprising love for the English language. I don’t know when it began. I officially started to learn it in 6th grade at age 10. To compensate for the only three hours per week of English I received at school, and for the abominable accent most French people – yes even graduated English teachers – have in English, I started to go to the movies a lot, two to three times per week, to see American movies in their original English version. I learned at least as much from the cinema subtitles and accents than formally. Before my twenties, I had determined to raise my future kids in English. The father would probably understand. And then by a twist of fate, I ended up marrying an American.

When I met hubby, he did not speak French. Therefore English was the home language, which was perfect. Once pregnant, we researched best practices to raise bilingual kids. Linguists and psychologists had a clear theory. I was supposed to speak French, and hubby was supposed to speak English. Yet, I wanted more than theory. I wrote to the two most prominent French baby magazines and asked real parents for their advice. They advised to take into consideration the ‘weight’ of the country in which you live. If you live in a third country, you may follow the rule of one parent-one language, and the kid will also speak the country language, becoming trilingual. There is some balance in this solution. On the other hand, if you live in a country where one of the languages is spoken, you create a large unbalance. To remedy, we were advised to both speak English since we lived in France.

Along came guinea pig number one.  English was the home language; French was the outside language (nanny, grandma). I had to warn French family and friends not to give our daughter any Disney movies or books, since home was English-only territory. At age one, our daughter started to speak well in both languages. When she was three, two events occurred at the same time. Guinea pig number two arrived, and our daughter began school.

Instead of having two parents who spoke English and one nanny and one grandma who spoke French, which seems fairly balanced, she found that the entire school population spoke French – we were greatly outnumbered. And she spoke more. Learned more. In French. Meanwhile hubby’s French was getting very good, to the point where it was natural for him to respond in French when first addressed in French. Back from school, our daughter started to tell about her day, in French. Little brother heard a lot more French than she did during his first three years. This muted him for almost three years. At age two, he was not speaking and we were worried. We tried rationalizing, putting this lack of language on account of being bilingual and a boy. When he finally spoke, instead of a few words, he pronounced entire grammatically correct sentences! In French only of course.

When we visited the American grandparents, our kids clearly understood them but did not speak English to them. We redoubled our efforts. We could not go back to the U.S. as often as needed for language immersion, so we went to England where we would fill our children’s brain with television. Imagine! Parents insisting that their kids ‘gobble’ television programs all day. [This obviously dates us because today one can get English-language programs without actually going to an English-speaking country.] We continued our life speaking English (parents) and French (kids), occasionally mixing some sentences (the four of us).

After few years, we joined the Foreign Service, and all of a sudden they arrived in their new house in Virginia in May. They were enrolled at school immediately in 5th and 7th grade. We were a bit worried that they would understand but not be able to express themselves. Once they realized that the new normal was to speak English, they simply spoke English. It just flowed naturally. Their accent was light and gradually disappeared. Our efforts were rewarded! Yet, since we were now in English-speaking country, we had to reverse our approach and make home a French speaking territory.

We later moved to a Spanish speaking country. By this time, our children mastered equally well both English and French languages. They joked, mixing them all the time, mid-sentence, or just inserting one French word in an English sentence or vice-versa. They even started a game to conjugate English verbs in French!!! We had just developed our own family dialect.

In summary, raising bilingual kids is possible – and of great benefit to them, but it is a hard job that requires dedication, consistency, and perseverance even when you don’t see immediate results. The rewards in time are well worth the sacrifice.

A Sunday Afternoon in Hong Kong

A good friend of mine works for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, better known as HSBC. I thought it could be interesting to go see the original HSBC building in Honk Kong and I discovered more than I was expected. This visit allowed me to discover an original facet of Hong Kong, a facet tourists going to the Peak, Madame Tussaud, or even one of the temples, will never experience. When you say bank you think serious, or work, or money? Well, my association of ideas will be from now on quite different.

I decided to go take a picture of Sir Thomas Sutherland, the founder of HSBC in 1865. I started to walk towards the HSBC tower, which is known for its distinct architecture. In 1986 a new building designed by British architect Norman Foster was erected to replace the 1935 building. The address is Queen’s Road Central #1. Little did I know that the statue of the man was not in front of ‘his’ building but in a nearby park. What I did find at the building was much more interesting than a statue actually. I had read that many Filipino maids gathered on Sundays in Statue Park, a park between Chater and Connaught roads, south of the bank. The HSBC building being on pylons, anyone can walk under it and discover an exhibition which explains the growth of the bank together with the economic growth of the island. It also shows the original shoreline of the island being at Queen’s road which explains its curvy shape when all other streets are cut straight west to east and north to south. Then it depicts how, in 1863, the shoreline had moved to DesVoeux road, then to Connaught road in 1904, and much further in 1964 after the construction of more land to create the piers. Brass lions, symbols of the bank, stand proudly in front of the building. They have been named Stephen and Stitt. Stephen was the Bank Chief Manager from 1920 to 1924 in Hong Kong while Stitt was the manager of the Shanghai branch.

hsbc

Building and lions are interesting any day of the week, but on Sunday the show is right there on the floor, occupied by hundreds of Filipino women clattering under the shade of the building. They are very organized. They have placed cardboard under themselves to avoid sitting on the floor and many groups have ‘sewn’ cardboard together and have erected them vertically to protect themselves from any draft. It sounded like an aviary. Being under the building amplified the echo. The buzz almost felt like a mantra.

Emerging from this peculiar atmosphere, I realized that I had admired the lions Stephen and Stitt, discovered the history, the expanding shoreline, the women, but Sir Thomas was missing. I had to cross DesVoeux road to find his statue in a park in front of the Legislative Council Building which is a very nice colonnaded and domed neoclassical building. Going north I crossed Chater road without having to look neither left nor right since the street had been closed to traffic. Is it like this every Sunday or because there was a gathering to promote gender equality that day?  In Statue Park, Filipino women could be counted by the thousands. Chirping among them or on the phone, sleeping, eating, just being together. The community gathering has now expanded all the way to Connaught road and the IFC Mall Plaza. The IFC mall is where the high speed train departs for the airport.  It was time to go back to Shanghai!

To conclude, here is a nicer view of Hong Kong!

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Interesting Gift: a Soldier’s Ration

At Christmas time, a thought about gifts, and an anecdote about a certain gift.

There are gifts that are like perfume samples, we do not use them either because we love them too much to consume them and see them disappear or we do not like them at all. Sometimes we want to keep the gift intact. With our Foreign Service nomadic life it is impossible to keep consumables without consuming them. Otherwise the result would be too many boxes on our next move. That day hubby reminded me that it was necessary to consume a Christmas gift that our son had received from his cousin now in the French army: a single day’s ration!  I found this an excellent idea, wishing to know what they feed soldiers.

The ration is packaged in a cardboard box half the size of a shoe box. The inscriptions are in French and English, but clearly it must be provided by a French supplier since there is a spelling mistake in the English, ‘NATO APPROUVED’. Packaged on 1 July 2014, the box promises that the included food can be consumed until 11 January 2018. Imagine the number of chemicals necessary to ensure such a long shelf life! Despite the menu description outside the box, it is not easy to picture what I will truly find inside.

There are many small boxes and cans inside but the entire amount seems to be more appropriate for a woman on a diet than for a young soldier who needs more than 5,000 calories a day – probably doubled during combat. Alas, none of the meal boxes mention any calories nor carbohydrates, fiber, fat, etc. We will have to speculate and guess. The heating device fits in a tiny box, the size of two decks of cards. It includes a disposable container, grasping pliers, matches, six fuel pellets, six water purification tablets and a garbage bag.

The menu is fittingly French! For the two main courses, we may feast on Marengo veal with potatoes and pork with mushroom risotto. As the veal is cooked in white wine, a Muslim soldier would go hungry. And, were our son a soldier, he would only have one main meal since he hates mushrooms.

The veal can comes from a ‘Daniel and Denise’ brand (absolutely unknown) and mentions that it is Joseph Viola, best cook in France, who created the recipe. Whoa! Will soldiers really care? Since we never buy canned meals I do not know if it is normal to find carrageenan in it. Never heard of it? Me neither. What I read on Wikipedia is instructive: “Carrageenan is a polysaccharide (galactane) extracted from red seaweeds and used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in the food industry.” It is notorious for causing diarrhea – not really the most comfortable condition on a combat zone – and it is also used in shampoos, fire extinguishers, toothpaste, etc. This meal also includes xanthan gum (a more familiar name) which comes from polysaccharides excreted by various soil microorganisms (including bacteria). Our appetite is now completely whetted!

The mushroom risotto includes pork cheeks and smoked bacon and its can mentions an even later potential expiration date – until March 2018. Its maker, House Larzul (unknown brand again), does not mention any dye, thickener, gelling agent nor preservative (is that legal?), yet the ingredients include butter and sour cream.

For appetizers, there is a small can of roasted chicken rillettes, branded Hénaff (a known brand), and a small can of melted goat cheese, also branded Hénaff. When I say small, I mean small. They are only 78 grams each (2.75 oz). Where am I to spread the cheese? On so-called ‘campaign cookies ’in French, translated in English by a plain ‘army biscuits’ – this does not sound as appetizing. They are packaged in a box, four sachets of two salted crackers and four sachets of two sweet biscuits. All of these contain 11 grams of fat per 100 grams which is bad from a nutritional point of view. There is also a sachet of instant dehydrated potato-leek soup.

A French soldier has many choices for breakfast. He can choose between ‘cocoa aroma’ powder or two instant coffee doses packaged in 70s style which looks very cheap or two tea bags almost luxuriously packaged, Royal Ceylon and China tea with mint from Max Havelaar, all of them accompanied by two white sugar packets. For solid food the soldier can count on strawberry muesli manufactured in Germany, and Andros strawberry jam.

For snacks between meals the soldier gets a 70% dark chocolate bar, a coffee flavored rice bar, a fruit pulp bar, a bar of nougat with fruits, and four vanilla caramel candies. Finally, to complete this varied meal box, there is a powder to make an isotonic drink, a packet of tissues and two packets of salt and pepper from Alicante in Spain and written exclusively in Spanish.

Then our son returned and, as I was just finishing examining the contents of the box, declared that he refused to share his daily ration with us as an experiment. He stated that he had planned to eat it all when he goes camping with his friends. I already regret the sweet taste the carrageenan must have…

Samaria Gorge in Crete

During our three-year tour in Budapest we visited Greece three times, our last trip was in Crete, its biggest island. The major natural beauty of Crete is the Samaria gorge, one of the longest gorges of Europe (the longest is the gorge du Verdon in France). It is a mostly easy hike, especially going down, and can be achieved by anyone who can walk from 5 to 95 years old! Let me walk you through it.

On a week day early in June we enjoyed Samaria almost alone. It was definitely not one of these days of the summer which will see up to 2,000 visitors trampling through. We arrived just after 8 a.m. in a bus of about 20 passengers from Paleochora.

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Taking her goat to be milked, on the road to Xyloskalo

There were four options. Rush to the entrance of the park and get started immediately or before that take a photo on the rim, have a coffee or even breakfast, and/or go to the bathroom. The Swiss group rushed. We took our time. Officially it takes less than five hours to walk the gorge going down and we could not leave before 5:30 p.m., the departure time of the ferry back to Paleochora from the village at the end of the gorge, Agia Roumeli. We didn’t want to be stranded on the beach for four hours with 32-36 degrees Celsius (90F+).

The beginning of the hike features stairs of stone and wood for about five minutes, then it descends sharply with switchbacks among pine trees. We passed a few slow people and were alone on the trail. Then, an hour later, we rejoined the Swiss group and had to be careful avoiding their ski poles when passing them.

Ski poles, in my books, are meant for skiing or any winter sport involving snow. They have been designed to be planted in the snow. They cannot be planted in stones or hard rocks. Somebody must have missed playing the game stone-scissor-paper when they were young! Ski poles really don’t help when they slip on the hard surface of the rock. Quite the contrary, especially when suddenly they slip over a foot or two from the person they are supposed to help and are becoming a dangerous obstacle for other walkers. Some clever folks have equipped the end of their metallic ski poles with rubber. Some. Not the majority.

After a crowded 20 minutes of descent, as by enchantment, there was again not a soul in sight. The enchantment being partly explained by the fact that this park is very well maintained with many rest areas proposing natural fountains.

The entrance at Xyloskalo is marked number one and the exit is marked number 10. In between, the rest areas are almost every kilometer (900 to 1200 meters to be exact) except from one to two (1700m), eight to nine (3100m) and nine to 10 (1800m). This means that you may take two bottles of 500ml to start and refill every half hour or so. No need to load your backpack too much. Rest area number four is Agios Nikolai’s, Saint Nicolas, and this tiny church is actually open and not completely empty. It possesses a few religious images.

Rest area number seven is the most interesting since it is the old village of Samaria. The stone fountain has two spouts and there are many picnic tables in the shade of large trees. It is also slightly over the halfway point of the gorge, 7km out of 13. Most rest areas have toilets or WC. I don’t know if it is the same in summertime but they all had plenty of quality toilet paper inside. They are “Turk” toilets so be prepared to squat. In areas of intense passage I find this kind much more hygienic – the only problem here is that you need to throw your soiled paper in a bin (there is no flushing mechanism) and the rim of this bin is just about at nose level when you squat! Men will never realize this.

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Stone bridge leading to Samaria

Rest area number eight, Perdika, was soon passed and then started my favorite part. The 3,100 meters between Perdika and Christos are magical. You start walking in the gorge, there is water finally in the river bed, dirt changes to sand, high cliffs are getting narrower, and pink oleanders, already ubiquitous during this hike, become even more numerous. Feet never get wet thanks to many cleverly arranged flat rocks, a few rickety wooden planks and real wooden bridges at the end. 500 meters past Christos you reach the “iron gates” which is where the cliffs are only three meters apart.

After exiting from the national park there are three more kilometers to reach the village on the beach and the ferry. There are many restaurants in the village serving real food like rabbit stew, as opposed to “non-real” food like nuggets – they are also on the menu. On the beach between Gigilos, Kyma, and the Agia Roumeli restaurant, there are plenty of long chairs to help wait for the ferry.

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Choose it, weight it, eat it.

Back in Paleochora there are three good restaurants: Caravella, all about fish – you get to visit the kitchen to choose your own, Cape Crocodile, next to Caravella, looks fancier but not more expensive and very good, and finally for vegetarians, a restaurant which does not feel vegetarian, The Third Eye. It serves Greek, Indian, Asian, Mexican, and Arabic cuisine.

Enjoy!

Back in the U.S. – Crazy Fast Food!

We are still on home leave, I have not settled yet in our permanent quarters (note the use of the word quarters because I don’t know if it is going to be a house or an apartment and the term residence seems a bit posh for what we will actually be able to afford back in DC), but I am already re-americanizing myself at full speed.

Ah – a little context for newbies. Home leave is a period of vacation mandated by Congress for diplomats after a certain time spend abroad. Every three years maximum. You gain three weeks every year and however well it may be described in the official text [Codified in Sections 901 and 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980] its purpose is to make sure that even if you have “gone local” (not loco although it could apply sometimes), you have not forgotten to be an American and you keep up with American values. In summary, it is to re-americanize oneself or to have a ‘re-learning Americana holiday’.

When we are posted to a new country, since our residence is usually within U.S. standards and offices at the Embassy could also be in the U.S. look-wise, what usually strikes us most, besides weather or smells, are different foods. We are foodies. Back in the U.S., for the first time after three years overseas, everything looks the same as in my memories except the food offering at fast food restaurants. Let’s cover a few novelties.

  • On the Dunkin Donuts cup, among the many choices to tick, the weirdest ones are for sweeteners. They don’t name them by their brands or by their poisonous ingredients (saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, maltodextrin…) but by their colors: the pink sweetener, the blue sweetener, the yellow sweetener – how sweet – no pun intended.
  • Jalapeño poppers. CheddaPeño. Different names depending on the restaurants. From a healthy jalapeno the Mexicans have made it less healthy (but sooo good) by stuffing it full of cheese. Then, the Americans have covered it in batter. Calories times ten at least!
  • MacNCheetos. Take about three or four Mac&Cheese macaronis and hold them together with a giant Cheetos all around. Your kids dreamt it, they made it!
  • Crunchy wrap. Double or triple at Taco Bell. Wrap a hard tostada in a flour tortilla – hello carbs! Some tacos even have a shell that tastes like Dorito chips.
  • If you are from the East Coast, you may have not heard of the In-N-Out fast food place which is mostly implanted in the West. For a non-connoisseur it could be weird when you first walk in such a fast food restaurant to discover that they only sell a simple burger, a simple cheese burger, and fries. No fancy names, no colorful Photoshop’ed photos. In fact they have a ‘not-so-secret menu’ which tells you (online) that you can have many variations of the above. You may double the meat & cheese, triple it or even quadruple it (they call it the 4×4). For a really good sauce – they say mustard but it does not taste like mustard, more like the secret sauce of the Big Mac – ask ‘Animal Style’ with a choice of tomatoes, pickles, grilled onions, special sauce, or all of the above. Like many of their competitors now, they are also proposing a healthy* choice by replacing the bun by lettuce leaves; it is called the ‘Protein Style’. Animal & Protein Styles are compatible!
  • Recently, Burger King has invented the whopperito – whooper + burrito. Replace the bun by a tortilla, the ketchup by some melted cheese, and wrap the ingredients of a whopper in a tortilla.
  • The burrito is the new fad here. In August Taco Bell released the cheesy core burrito, either crunchy or spicy. Take a perfectly healthy burrito and add, in its center, artery-clogging orange-plastic-like-cheese. They call it three-cheese blend but it is the sort that movies theaters smother your nachos with – sorry as a French native I cannot call it cheese.

I’d better post this before they invent any more of these weird combination foods. I am sorry that I will not be your guinea pig anymore; I have shipped my teenage boy off to college (yeah- there was a reason I was haunting the fast food joints this summer, his giant bucket list) and now I have a waist line to watch!

*healthy = messy. I love burgers in lettuce wrap but there is no bun to absorb the sauce so it is extremely slippery. Extra napkins required.

Welcome Kit

When a regular person moves, it usually takes place in one day. You may pack for several days but eventually in one day you are across town or state. Upon arrival you unpack the basics and voilà!

With the Foreign Service when you pack, you move across countries, continents, oceans. You never – never – get your stuff the same day. Heck, you usually don’t even land in your new country the same day. How do you manage in your previous house, after packing for two to four days, and supervising packers and movers for two to four days? Your house is bare except for the timeless Drexel furniture we all cherish.

Our General Services Office (GSO) puts together a Welcome Kit which may slightly vary from post to post. In some places the welcome kit is given for good. Stuff in it is so cheap, it cost less to give it to the families for a one-time use than to have people collect it back, inspect it, inventory it, store it, and lend again. Actually a two-time use: once you arrive and your own belongings are not there yet, and later when you depart. Then you have a happy housekeeper inheriting all!

In general the Welcome Kit is well thought with the basics: sheets and blankets (don’t ask me about quality or allergy to acrylic!), pillows, towels, plates, glasses, silverware, pots and pans, coffee machine. The devil is in the details. In Budapest we have only ‘whisky’ type glasses, no wine glass – then again better than to only have long cocktail glasses I suppose. This is minor. But no kettle! An appliance I use (need) ten times a day. Yet we have a mixer, so it was not a question of space in the Welcome Kit. I have never used a mixer in my life – I am not a baker. No place mat or table cloth! No bath mat! Two slotted serving spoons but no ladle? Worse: no broom, no mop, no bucket – yet the place needs to be spotless clean when we depart – at 3 a.m. Pans are tiny, good for a single person, not a family of four. And we definitely need to travel with our own knives.

As I go through the Welcome Kit I re-create my own because for the first time in this second career we are not going to a welcoming overseas Post with free rent, free maintenance, and nice GSO to welcome us. Did you guess yet? We are going back to the mother ship. Washington, DC. The first few days we will be in a hotel room but when we move to our permanent residence, there will be no Welcome Kit. Only that box that I am putting together, aptly marked “Welcome Kit – UAB DC – Open first”!

Another major thing that will be missing in our future residence is furniture. In our first overseas house we had our UAB (airfreight of about 600 lbs) upon landing and then I had ample time to play around the given furniture, change it to my liking before being invaded by 300+ boxes of HHE (slow freight three months later). I am dreading the day when we ask to receive our HHE the day we move in – otherwise we’ll sleep on the floor!

Lunch at the Hold Street Market Hall

The market behind the U.S. Embassy on Szabadság Tér has changed tremendously in 2015. This little brother of the large Central Market opened in 1897 and feels inspired by Gustave Eiffel as well. Now fully renovated it offers a dozen restaurants for literally all palates: Hungarian, Chinese, Italian, Vegetarian, Scandinavian, etc. One person can choose Chinese, the other one Italian and you can eat together in the common area.

Last week we had the great surprise of finding also an offer of Vietnamese and Thai soups, Pho and Tom Kha Gai. Both were delicious and very authentic. 1,000 HUF for the small bowl and 1,400 HUF for the big one.

You pay at the restaurant A Séf Riksája and get served at the soup cart. This restaurant serves a Hungarian specialty changed daily. It is located with all the restaurants, upstairs, at the end of the market, near the very good Vörös Homár (the Red Lobster).

Vörös Homár also proposes, on the ground floor, the best quality fish and seafood you can think of, and if you don’t see what you need, they take orders.

Belvárosi Piac / Downtown Market
Hold utca 13 – Budapest 1054
www.holdutcapiac.hu/en

BKK Tip in Budapest – The 5/30

The BKK ticket 5/30 (“öt harminc”) cost 4,550 forints for 5 periods of 24 hours and is valid for 30 days. We find it more flexible than the weekly pass (4,900 forints) which gives you transportation rights for seven consecutive days. The 5/30 does not bear any ID number and is therefore transferrable, unlike the pass.

Here are some examples on how we use it:

  • Husband travels a lot, finishes his monthly pass and needs 3 days in Budapest before his next travel. Use 3 days and keep 2 for when he returns – then repurchases a monthly pass
  • Visitor comes for 10 days but some days you take them visiting by car, and some days they wish to rest at home. The 5/30 would be probably a better option than the bi-weekly pass (6,900 forints)
  • Visitor comes 2 days and then another visitor comes 2 days within 30 days. They can use the same pass, a much better option than individual tickets.
  • Since it works for 24 hours, if you start your ticket in the afternoon to visit a museum and then go the next morning to the Gellért spa, and then return home, you have used public transport both days with only one ticket!

When you purchase this ticket, it comes as a long strip of six tickets (the front one shows the validity date, followed by five tickets), fold it as an accordion to display only the front one which you show to the inspectors in the metro or the driver in the bus. When you start your first journey, just circle the day and the time on the first ticket (the second of the accordion) and this initiates your first 24 hours. This is the part that you present in case of a control. Always keep the strip intact.

BKK Tip in Budapest – The Plus Seven

I buy often a “+7” BKK transport ticket which is not very well known even by the clerks themselves. And yet it is so practical.

The scenario is the following: your monthly pass is about to expire and you will be on holidays in a week. What do you do? Buy a monthly pass that will not be used for a large part of its validity? Buy a weekly pass which costs HUF 4,900?

The better answer is: buy a “Kiegészitö heti Budapest-bérlet természetes személyeknek“, which is just a 1-week supplement to a monthly pass and cost only HUF 2,450.

The trick is to do it the very same day of the expiration of your monthly pass, at any hour, and with a clerk (impossible to buy with automatic machines) who will replace your monthly pass by this one-week supplement pass. I advise also to write down the name and price of this great ticket because some clerks are not familiar with this request, especially coming from a foreigner.

Habitat for Humanity in Budapest

Habitat for Humanity is an international NGO dedicated to improving housing conditions for poor people, fighting for a fair housing policy and decent homes for everyone. It was founded in 1976 in the U.S. and in 1996 in Hungary. It has affiliates in more than 70 countries and can count on thousands of volunteers. The organization has built or renovated over 800, 000 houses, and provided simple and affordable homes for over a million families. In Hungary, Habitat has helped 2,000 families.

Among the many programs that Habitat develops in Hungary, this Saturday we participated in the Housing First program where Habitat renovates vacant social rental housing units for homeless people, and support them with social work in order to help them keep their homes after moving in.

At 8:30 a.m. sharp we all gather in front of a house in Ujpest, in the 4th district of Budapest. We are nine including Sandor, the foreman, and Betty the representative from Saint Gobain, the sponsoring company. Proudly representing the Embassy there is Chris, Edward and Catherine.

Sandor gives us some background. In Hungary there are 383,000 empty houses or apartments and 300,000 families in need of decent affordable housing. 170 000 children live in a home with no indoor toilet, almost 200,000 in a home with no electricity, and 620 000 children (30% of all children) live in damp, moldy, unhealthy homes.

Above the porch it says ‘Tiszta Udvar, Rendes Haz’, which is a plaque you receive when all houses are in order and the garden is neatly arranged. A plaque they would never receive today!  After the entrance door and a short corridor there is an open air corridor leading to small houses with tiny weedy gardens on both sides and at the very end there is a piece of abandoned grassy and weedy land. The house we are going to renovate is the third one on the right. Sandor started yesterday and already removed all belongings and the old shower. Despite the open windows the stench of mold and mildew is strong. I wonder what had been stacked there and for how long. This house belongs to the municipality which is too poor to renovate it, therefore it has been abandoned. Once renovated, this house will be rented at lower-than-market price.

Sandor tells us: ‘you came here to build, well today is demolition day!’ He explains that when people are poor, they don’t try to renovate well because it costs too much and/or they lack the skills. So they just hide what is wrong instead of fixing the problem at its root. For example there was a leak here; it made the lower walls humid. Previous tenants just covered it with a carpet which prevented the water from evaporating so it traveled upwards until the entire wall, all the way up to the high ceiling, was damp. They did the same with the flooring. Yesterday Sandor and his volunteers removed the carpet and the flooring. Now we even need to remove the tiles, the stucco and the base floor completely and let the bricks breathe and dry. This is why Sandor works on two projects at the same time: to let enough time to dry when needed.

Besides destruction, there are also three truck-loads of aggregate for concrete that has been dumped on the sidewalk and needs to be brought to the end garden where it will be mixed with cement. About 30 fine cement bags are also stacked on the sidewalk, 55 pounds each, and about twenty 88-pound bags of mortar also wait in the truck.

Sandor gives us legal papers to sign. Everyone does so without reading much but a mention catches my eye. We have to ‘destroy’ our tee-shirt, the Habitat volunteer tee-shirt! Sandor explains that if we don’t, it has to be taxed!!! We all sign the paper … for the government. Then he hands us protection gloves, masks and goggles. I know goggles will fog with the mask and I might faint standing still all day hammering a wall not to mention my legendary clumsiness with a chisel and a hammer. When Sandor asks for wheelbarrow volunteers for the cement, aggregate for concrete and mortar I immediately raise my hand. Nobody else does. Then Edward joins me and then András. Chris will be on destruction duty with the others.

All day Edward, András and I fill wheelbarrows and carry them to the end garden where we build a neat, new pile. Since we only have two wheelbarrows for three, we rest in turn and when I rest, I garden or more exactly I weed! I discover a lot of purslane which most people don’t know about, or if they do they think it is a weed and don’t know how to name it. My grandfather taught me it was comestible, quite a delicacy even. Since it is a succulent, you find it in arid places, often between old stones or pavement.  Only in Mexico did I find it in supermarkets between lettuce and parsley! Quick recipe: blanch it, and then add your favorite sauce, for me a mixture of crushed garlic, mustard, Maggi (a specific wheat protein sauce, a bit similar to soy sauce), balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Let it cool and eat as a salad.

Our arms are aching but our legs are doing a big job too. I finish the day at over 17,000 steps!  At the end of the day Chris comes to help us with the cement bags that he loads on each shoulder. We leave just in time before Edward breaks his back. We ache all over but we feel good and will sleep like babies.  Till the next time!