Blowing out Candles in Another Culture: International Birthdays

Another post, this time outside of Japan and not from me!

I’ve recently discovered another writer-blogger, Lou Messugo

Phoebe, the star of the blog, is a British and Australian passport holder living in the fantastically gorgeous Côte d’Azur. (Can you imagine? I’m destination-struck.) She writes about realizations, some easy, some awkward in how a French fête, or party, differs from the children’s parties of her background.

It’s funny how even our choice of snack sends a certain message! That’s not even getting into birthday songs, present-opening, the two-kiss greeting, and so on.

It could send even the most together woman into a tizzy (though I doubt the fabulous Phoebe is as big of an overthinking worry wort as I am). Thing is, even if we baffle and bumble through what are “no-brainers” for locals and those who truly know the culture, our love shines.

Still, I love how transparent Phoebe is about those parties and how she found her knack in the South of France. Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error, a bit of wriggling in to a new home.

I can’t wait to ask my French friends about her experiences!


phoebe-portrait     More about Phoebe here!

Find Phoebe all over town, thanks to her blog!

Here she is, on Facebook, too!

À tout à l’heure!


Those American People and Their Parties…in Japan

Nothing stays the same. This is the rule of life. This is also the rule for parents throwing kid-parties. You morph, adjust, “x-nay” the petting zoo or four different home made birthday cakes. If you’re a person living abroad, your birthday partying, as a whole, changes. Not everyone celebrates the same.

No one knows the mores, the typical birthday party ideas I came to Japan with except for other expats, and they each, with their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, have, perhaps, a whole other set of expectations.


While a birthday is just a birthday–that is, pretty simple, right? It’s not. Not really. You navigate every ritual, every rite of passage from your culture and belief with wide-eyes, perhaps, in another culture. Nothing can be assumed. Not a house warming gift, not a birthday, not even a “welcome to the neighborhood” greeting and gift. You can do you own thing, sure, but…it’s better to know the deal–how things are and how you’ll likely be perceived.

I learn this here, every year. Not to sound overly stressed! We learn and then still choose how much “ourselves” we’ll act. What kind of party, how I’ll dress, it’s all the stuff of life.

May I present the first post in a series about raising kids internationally, specifically, The Birthday Party? (Rhetorical question. It’s a blog).

Of course, this could also be a series about ways we anticipate a wedding or baby, because those occasions also widely differ. I’ve got stories about that, too.

I do know one thing: everyone seems to like a good ol’ pinata. More on that later.

A Way Outside, Setting New Routines and Inspired Times

*This is an expanded piece, a revision on an earlier post. Cuz, you know, we’re still eating outside, and it’s no longer May. 

We are fall people now. Summer is well over, and with it, our frequency to be outside, laid back in short and bare toes. I keep thinking my kids will tire of eating outside, no longer inspired. I keep being surprised by my kids’ boundless attitudes. They champion our outside dinners and spontaneous morning nibbles on the balcony. Every day, they want the practice revived.

I thought we’d stay in after our May, June notably bringing mosquitoes even up to our second-floor veranda, but even into July and August, they asked, they helped, they cheered. We’ve found the moments to dine in fresh air. Maybe we can stretch it longer. We sailed into September, still contending with mosquitoes.



Minus a few impossible days, we’ve been able to eat and giggle and just ready our hands to clap, clamp down on any errant biting bug. These last few months in particular, eating al fresco has provided a welcome change, and it’s just a modest balcony, nothing out of a catalogue. Even with our minus lot line, outside feels bigger. A body, a mind, a smile stretches out, and with those adjustments, more gratifying flavors. It is like putting the family in Tuscany and doing yoga, while eating, while cloud-gazing, while being our normal, silly selves. The food is just bonus, it feels. 


I think, in fresh air, kids eat even more veggies. Have you noticed that? It’s like packing for a time away at the seashore or up on a blanket in a forest. You bring out the things of substance and eating cukes and spinach is not such a problem because the smiles are so big, dinner framed by the whistling of a bird or rustling of hedges. Everything is good. It’s like kids on a soccer field, eating oranges, a match as fine as peanut butter and jelly. That’s just some of the power of kids outside with the crunch of veggies. There is a perceptible shift, you know? The kids alternate bites with friendly neck hugs and, “Can I get you something, Mom?” and, “Good job eating, little brother!”

Times my kids have become a bit more wild has also been fine because, well, we’re outside. How uptight do I want to be? Few mothers battle young mouths chewing open instead of closed when outside. No one minds a friendly jab or more jokes. Food on the floor? Eh, there are birds.

We’re eating more veggies like this, with our moods lifted; the kids are more enjoying dinner. I’m finding it just as pleasant to dine with a glass of Pinot as with iced tea, or a carton of milk and some crackly tumblers. We all set the table and carry our dishes and acrylic silverware back inside. I like how we are in fresh air, outside of a room with four walls. We are responsible; we are silly and whimsical. We’re making loads of inspired memories and I’m a happier mom.

I remember how we gobbled up summer, alright, a fine balance for the mosquitoes who tackled us. And now? The grape tomatoes then dwindled to the pack of 9 we picked weeks ago before I dug up the roots to prepare for fall. We’ll make the season of fall come to life under hurricane glass and melty quesadillas. We’ll find the cozy meals and the energy to soak up that last daylight, al fresco, before winter makes us press our noses to the glass and chug what remains of our hot chocolate, little toddler noses sticky with melted marshmallow.


I’ll keep this up, this carting over plates and cups through the sliding glass until it is no longer bearable, in terms of the temperature that turns me wimpy and crabby with cold. Maybe, though, on a particularly lovely night, I’ll make a batch of chicken soup or even some actual baked dessert, and together, on the balcony, out of the house, we’ll eat it up. We’ll keep our hands pressed to glass, pressed to the screen, looking out, looking around at each other and wonder, “Is this the night for an outside meal? Is it warm enough?”

Maybe they’ll need a grand lure called sweet potatoes, salty chips, or the promise of dessert. Past burnt umber and mini pumpkins, our kiddos will need to dress in wooly sweaters and down jackets. Lights will twinkle in windows and the first frost will come . We’ll need a winter hiatus, of course. For now, it is sheer sweetness, a way to catch our breath and simply be outside.  It is another way to track and relish every season and year with kids, these fresh breaths of inspiration.

They Call it a Fast, a Post Yom Kippur Post

I submitted this to one of my fave Jewish sites & realized that everyone is just done & over with this Day. We’ve switched gears for Sukkot, & then on to the winter holidays! I’m posting here for my own posterity. 🙂

It is just me, arriving, sitting, breathing. I am vulnerable. There is no mask, no primer, no coverup, no sugary drink in my bag. I’m raw. I’m here. Today we go without what we think we need.


So began my fast and reflection. Hours after Yom Kippur has concluded, I am reflecting, sitting over laptop in the dark.

I didn’t select meals, cook, heat, or wash dishes. I didn’t hunt for the perfect snack in the cabinet, or along the lazy Susan. Fasting on Yom Kippur was a reprieve, a whole day to let my body process something else—the regrettable nature that lays the groundwork for mistake-making, refusal to forgive, the desire to get even, or feel jealous.

There is something worth fasting for. Pushing through caffeine-withdrawal headaches, fatigue, and the habit of needing food by a certain hour has its benefits. Not only did I make it to the other side with bagels, coffee, and a regal spread, but I was able to appreciate, even delight in certain aspects along the way.


Ya keep away from the usual things & realize your dependence. Shocking.

Sure, I’d love to have eaten a scone or kick back a latte, but I was so aware of a really fantastic shift. My body didn’t need to expend an extraordinary amount of energy to break down food and convert it to energy. Instead of too many tummy growls, I felt a “wheeee!” for the new-found energy to search my soul for the old things, the soot, the soap-buildup, the overall “gunk”.

Yom Kippur challenges us bring up the hard stuff, the hidden moments, the calling our neighbor, other moms, our spouses and partners, to apologize. It is disarming, somewhat humiliating, and good.


What we bought for after the fast. This is what I try not to think about. All those toasted orbs of goodness.

I see an exchange between sisters, sitting there in synagogue, while turning pages. Two gorgeous girls dresses in white frocks shuffle to their row . One sneakily kicks the other. ”Aha”, I thought, “this is sin”. It can be dressed-up, but at the end of the day, it sneaks in and wants to kick our shins. Oh, man. Isn’t that the sneaky nature of sin? We kick our sisters and hide it with a smile and a good hair day.

There is a tradition I embrace. When reciting the Al Chet, the major litany of offenses and sins, I knock on my heart, waking it up to feel hurt. With my raised eyebrows, inherited and inherent sarcasm, I hurt people left and right, deftly, and without knowledge. I am snide. I am insecure. I am human. I want to be praised even if it means I’m part of gossip.

I become accustomed to violence and lies, if even on that Netflix show. I speak with thorns instead of honey. I hit my heart as custom for every sin, every offense named. “For the sin of”…and on Yom Kippur, it is apparent, we as families, we as impatient bodies, we as busy, hurt, complex people, we sin.

There are patterns which would love to drag us down and make us believe we cannot forgive or be forgiven. The belief that we are quite separate than another, and more important. It is how I might judge another woman based on her appearance or vocabulary. How I’ll walk a bit stooped after comparing, maybe. Sin belittles and captures. It is the nemesis of Freedom.

The world and its marketing departments would love us to rely on our flesh and our heels and our calendars and our gorgeous handbags and dream haircuts and just-right kids and enviable homes and our inner disgusts and that carafe of wine and another espresso more than our need for true examination and a Holy G-d, but what happens when I really sit down to examine my heart instead of comparing? What happens when I fast? What is my response when I turn-off the signals and all of that rackety background?

I tap my heart to awaken. I’m not alone. Each terrible, common offense swirls around on our tongues. I rise with others to say a prayer in mourning, as we miss wives, sons, or grandparents. I hear tired but gorgeous voices reviving.

Most days I apply some kind of makeup, at least chapstick or slick gloss, but definitely mascara. Not adorning myself with earrings, not clipping on some eye-catching strand of beads, or just right gold chain, freed me up. I could have sat in potato bag sackcloth. I could arrive in a splotch of mud, matted and caked bedhead. That would conjure or more rightly reflect the need for healing.

Forget the need to impress. No one is any better in this state of assessing the heart. We are, instead, frail, weak in our no-coffee, ocular headaches, pounding behind our eyes. Each of us is terrific at miming happiness and being put-together, but keep someone from caffeine, breakfast, lunch, and a bevy of snacks? Look out. This is humanity trying to function differently. We are grateful for the basics of family and heritage, back in step, back where we started from, as a people in need.

We kiss the torah. We say the Amidah. We ground ourselves not in fashion, not in picture-worthy meals, but in each moment flickering in our eyes. This is beauty. This is getting right again. This is what it is to arise.

It Starts As a Seed

Our daughter just turned five. Amazing how impossible it seemed to start our life with her in a new place. It can still be daunting, but there is boundless encouragement and tangles of fun. ~

A seed in the dark, a wonder, “Could I do this? Is it impossible or not?”

Good questions always prompt. Doubt. Anxiety. Raised eyebrow, soul lifting, ears ready for even the faintest whiff of wisdom. Everything is at first, in its essence, a seed. Even the herculean, colossal idea with its high likelihood of pain. The creepy, bad things, the shadowy scares of fear come in, too; everything at first is just a seed.


Is it crazy to have a baby abroad, away from the family, the trundles of usual, normal, same I’m accustomed to seeing in movies and with friends? I did it, twice. I say Love made room; the hearts and tiny toes and even smaller toenails of just-born babes made space. The worries and doubts, I kicked out looooong before contractions.

But how do you decide to send out roots when there is still much longing for the original space, the place you had lived? I missed my mom! Was it treachery to make my life go on? To become a mother gathering a holding a new kind of love song? That’s how I felt and it rattled me deep! “How can I be responsible for a baby when I can barely communicate?” This was the thought that plagued me like some terrible snapping turtle.

Yet. Lullabies make the heart stronger, not just quiet. Not just sleepy. A new kind of awake. I sang to my girl while she was still forming, cocooned in my womb. I hugged her, wrote that girl lovenotes in my journal, whistled show tunes and spirituals. A new kind of depending formed as I grew as a mother. I folded strong words into the soft folds of song. Psalms, poetry, Ella, Graceland, and my own, original poetry sprouted again. Life is a song of transition. I grew us ready for change.

My husband and I now have two children. I birthed my girl and discovered that sending down roots here, starting a family, connected us greater to the roots of my family, to faith, to precious passing-down of generous characteristics and features, everything special from an eternity that is a family tree. I love to gaze into my children’s faces, lean into their voices, and just marvel at the work of our branches joining. They are more than I could have dreamed. It is more than glorious to have made a life and decided against temperance. I think summoning up the faith to have children was the start of a new kind of peace. For as long as I am here. For as long as I have life, I’ll sing. I’ll invest myself in aprons and bedtimes reading and duo opera singing on our bike on the way to the fish shop and stop for some plums.

Every good and perfect gift has a place and a home. This is nothing but Miracle, Absolution, the purest of romance–us continuing to build, with our all, with the wind of the Spirit, a life that blesses.


So, “arigato” to my girl. To G-d who has blessed us.

There is honey, there is fun with you, dear. There is combing silken hair and us holding hands from your top bunk to the bottom. Thank you for stretching. Thank you for being. Thanks to the L-rd for all this gratefulness. I am smitten.



This is a shot through the lens of adoration and daily amazement at who she is, a life with G-d’s sweet Spirit, a thoughtful and daring Sassy Pants who is always in fashion, ballet, and verve. Happy Five!

My experience of birth in Japan!! My contribution to an INCREDIBLE series!

More writing on birth, a post from this blog

How To Stay Cool in Djibouti

Another sultry international post on staying cool!

“But, what?”, you may retort. “Cinnamon lattes are just ’round the corner! I’m looking up recipes with key words “hot” and “pumpkin spice” and wondering where to buy knee-length fall and winter boots!”

Yes, I know much of the world is taking out their sweaters and their most fragrant, cozy food recipes for fall, but not everywhere. I bring you another Staying Cool post from Djibouti! This was the country I just loved to say in seventh grade geography class. Anything with the component that might sound like “booty” will make any child or middle schooler snicker. Even better, we giggling kids got to say it twice, since the capital of Djibouti is…Djibouti. I’ve since matured. I’ve seen more of the world and met people from all over the globe.

I’ve also learned more about this country, situated in the Horn of Africa, bordering Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. It is a land prone to droughts, a land of people speaking Somali, Afar, French, and Arabic. Best of all, I’ve gleamed some of Djibouti’s layers of culture and everyday nuances from this strong, strong writer: Rachel Pieh Jones. She has, after all, lived in Somalia and then Djibouti for over a decade.


She informs readers about life in this scorching country, from a number of facets. Rachel writes about life as expat, as a mother, as a runner and coach, as a believer in Jesus in a Muslim country. She has written about mothering teens, of leaving fright and moving forward. I love her honesty, love the strength and authenticity of her writing. (I know–too many links!! Can’t help it! I just want to share her words!)

Here, Rachel brings us into her everyday world, cluing us in on just how high Djiboutian temperates can climb. I guess much of life is what we do about the facts or events. Here’s what they do with the heat. Here is how Rachel and her family cool off.


It isn’t possible to stay cool in Djibouti. You could leave, but then you aren’t in Djibouti. Summer temperatures reach as high as 120 with heat indexes over 150 degrees Fahrenheit. And it doesn’t really cool off much after sunset. So it is just plain, freaking hot. So hot my kids ask for sweaters when the winter temps drop to the mid 80’s. So hot candles melt without being lit and lollipops melt and car tires explode.

IMG_6089So the question is not: how does one stay cool in Djibouti? The question is: how does one stay sane while sweating in Djibouti?

Don’t talk about it. Just don’t. No complaining, no whining, no discussion. It is hot and everyone knows it and everyone feels it. Talking about it won’t help.

Don’t get angry. Getting angry makes you hotter, makes you sweaty, makes you less patient with everything else. So try to control your temper.

Drink water, lots and lots of water with ice, if possible. Or chew on ice. Or put ice down your shirt. Just don’t get angry if someone else puts ice down your shirt because, see #2.

Avoid going outside during peak sun hours. Try to get all your work, play, exercise, and visiting done either before 6:00 a.m. or after 6:00 p.m. Yeah. Good luck with that.

Go grocery shopping at Casino, the large, new air-conditioned store. Shop slowly. Meander. Browse. Roam. Chat with friends in the pasta aisle. Pretend like you forgot something and go back in after you’ve paid and left.

Hit the beach. It is a bit of a drive but do it. The water will feel like a soothing bath. Stay until sunset and if the wind picks up and you are soaking wet, you just might feel a shiver or two. Don’t worry, you won’t get sick from the cold, it is still 105.

She was also featured on Best of Baby, discussing her experiences as an American giving birth abroad in Djibouti. (I also contributed my Giving Birth in Japan post). 

Rachel Pieh Jones has been published in the New York Times, Family Fun, and Christianity Today, The Big Roundtable, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble. Visit her website: Djibouti Jones or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

To you, Rachel, many thanks!

This is the second post in this hot series.

Read writer, Leza Lowitz’s take on Staying Cool in Tokyo post, too!

My Birthday, Her Birthday and All That Collective Age

My daughter knows I’m in my thirties and now says she’s in her “fivees”. We’ve been celebrating our birthdays for a month strong now, both of us wanting to keep celebrating and acknowledging and revving up for the next big part of being older (Okay, maybe just her).


I’m an end of August birthday; hers is mid-September. We’ve been going on, colliding like this for a while, both of us clamoring for a piece of the proverbial cake. She says, August 23, day before my birthday, that she ought to get the bigger slice of pizza, or taller glass of water, or first pick at a candy, to honor her approaching birthday. Even though mine was the very next day. That little shmoo even beat me to blowing out my own candle.


Looking a bit haggard at Disney

We’re a little bit competitive.

I never just let it go, but point out these things and say, “And by the way, where is my card?” and “Sing me my birthday song!” We chase each and I am realizing that I’m a bit of a child! (Snort, ya think?) Maybe my inner child is six.

Now that my birthday is sadly, officially over, I’m fashioning giant cardboard FIVES  into piñatas. I’ve got the whole couch littered with great big piles of birthday. There are pink and purple polka dot napkins, cups, tablecloths, mini canvases for her friends to squash their chubby little hands down in a FIVE with paint. It is a house of loot.


Turns out our Sunday party in the park will most likely be rained-out which bring us to our Plan B: the house. Hello, cleaning. Hello, 24 hours of Kon Mari and stashing every odd thing in the dog’s room. (Maybe not Kon Mari at all. Nope). It will be a house crawling with five year olds and soon to be five year olds, plus baby and big kid siblings, and parents, too. If it’s really raining hard, we will bust open that FIVE piñata in our living room. Because we love birthdays and hitting stuff. And stuff flying out.

It will be a house ringing with the sounds and squeals of Japanese, the parents from our children’s hoikuen, or preschool, asking me to answer questions I still cannot articulate, all to celebrate our girl. I am bracing myself, trying to clear shelves and feign organization. I’m bracing myself for upper thirties and a five year old girl, all of the changes that come and make me want to just sing over her in the night, make me want to take out all those baby pictures and pregnant belly photos and even her dried-up umbilical cord they preserve here as a gift when a family goes home with their newborn infant.

My International Birth in Japan Post on Best of Baby

Here we go. I’m already seeing her taller, leaner from riding her new training-wheeled bike. She is already parting her own hair, making her own pigtails and braids. Her new thing is voluntarily bringing us glasses of ice water with each together meal. She already launched into a talk about how she should be able to marry her preschool friend, because “It is my life, why should you care or get to decide”, she has already said, at still four years of age. She is a sweetie and a pistol. A Pippi Longstocking, Punky Brewster, me, and my husband, all braided up in one strong, hilarious, sometimes, mouthy thing.



Here we are, at what already feels like a precipice. She is almost 5 years old, going on twelve or fifteen.

Does that make me 30-something going on fifty? I don’t know, but it’s not a bad thing to like birthdays. Not in this house, anyway. I’ll let you know how it goes.