It’s hard to believe Christmas came and went so quickly! We were so busy that we didn’t get a bunch of things done that we had hoped to accomplish, but we had an amazing holiday.
One of the things that happened is that right before Christmas, AFS asked host family bloggers to please submit a video explaining what our hosting experience meant to us. We made a video and submitted it, but never dreamed AFS would use it as their Season’s Greetings message to potential host families. You can check out the message that went out by clicking here.
We also took time while Penny had several days off from school due to snow to work on a gingerbread house kit together. Leah was not very happy with the whole project, but Penny and I enjoyed putting it together.
Christmas Eve was spent at my sister, Judy’s, house. It was the first time Penny had met her family, and she was very excited to meet her little cousins. We had a traditionally Catholic seafood dinner, and spent several hours up there having a nice time.
Christmas Day dawned bright and clear. Penny mistook my telling my mother that we would open presents between 7 and 8 as meaning in the evening, so she slept in till 9:00. Leah, of course, was up bright and early. We let her play with the Cozy Coupe car I spent all night constructing while she waited for NyNy to wake up and Nana and Grandpa Jim to arrive. Finally Ny Ny woke up and we let the girls have their presents. Penny did well. Santa brought her a new camera (she desperately needed one!), a Nintendo DSi, and an iPod Shuffle among other things. She got tons of clothes, games, DVD’s, CD’s, gift cards, and more. I think all of us went a little bit overboard this year. I read that most people this year were looking at Christmas shopping as a kind of “Oh screw it!” moment where we were all sick of being careful of our money and worrying about the economy, and that was certainly the case with our families. In fact, Leah got bored of opening presents and it took her 2 days to finally finish. One of the most sentimental gifts we gave Penny was a wall hanging (a dish towel, actually, but it is way too beautiful to be a towel!) of the Commonwealth of Virginia so she can always remember where her home in the USA is. It included Fredericksburg on the map, and here she is finding where she lives in our beautiful Commonwealth.
For dinner, we had a traditional English dinner of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and the works, but Penny does not eat beef, so despite the fact I made her ham, it was a bit of slim pickings. But part of her AFS experience is to learn and be respectful of our customs as well, and she did a good job.
The day after Christmas, my mother and Jim went home to Florida and although my father stayed an extra couple of days, he was soon on his way home too. Because there was a bit of snow, he and I didn’t get to make our annual trip to the Ginter Gardens Winter Light Show in Richmond, but I took Penny and we enjoyed it a ton. It was a cold night, although not as cold as some we have known! It was a great chance for her to practice using her new camera and we were happy to see the results, including this picture which she snapped of the two of us while we were inside an igloo constructed of lights!
A couple of days and a grudge match of bowling later, we took Penny up to DC to see the ICE show at the Gaylord National. I don’t even know how many tons of ice they use to construct a beautiful indoor wonderland made entire of ice sculptures, but it is quite beautiful to see. This year’s theme was How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the colors were amazing. Penny was blown away by the artistry, as were we all. She also enjoyed shooting down the 2 story ice slide!
Then it was time for New Year’s. Our family is not big on New Year’s, although Penny says it is a big deal in Thailand. Because we have the young one, we don’t have the luxury of really going out, so we showed her Dick Clark on TV, gave her sparkling cider, taught her the joys of my father’s homemade pizza, and waited for midnight to come. Once it did, we heard fireworks outside, so we went out on the back porch, where we could see the fireworks going off from Old Town. A bunch of neighbors were outside banging pots and pans and screaming and yelling, so we both yelled, “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” and a chorus of Happy New Years! were heard in return.
Because my father’s family is of Eastern Orthodox descent, we also celebrate Epiphany as a holiday in our house. It is traditionally celebrated by many cultures as the day the Three Wisemen or Three Kings arrived to bestow gifts on the baby Jesus and is celebrated on January 6th, also making it the 12th and final day of Christmas. To celebrate, we started our morning with 3 gifts for each of the girls, one from each king. Leah received a Magnadoodle, a cat that scoots around by itself, and a coloring book. Penny received a guide to the TOEFL, tickets to see Hairspray, and charms for the necklace we gave her for her birthday. Then it was really time to get ready, as the big celebration for 3 Kings is to put on a huge dinner for our close friends. This year was no exception, we welcomed nearly 30 guests into our home and still managed to have a sit down dinner at a huge long table for everyone. Penny helped a lot with doing the cooking, setting tables, and keeping Leah busy and out of trouble.
We serve a mixture of traditional Russian and Polish foods, including kielbasa and pierogies, beef stroganoff, Russian black bread, Polish mushrooms, haluski, and more. We were extremely happy that Penny invited several of her friends from school to the party and two of them, Charlie and Chrissy, actually came to celebrate with her! They were really lovely girls.
We gave all our guests bowls of Chex Muddy Buddies, Penny’s favorite snack (you can see all the bowls wrapped and ready up on the fireplace and cabinet behind the tables in the above picture). Penny spent several hours the night before the party making the Chex mix for everyone, and then threatening to eat it herself! :-D Many people devoured the Chex before they ever left the table. It is definitely a crowd pleaser!
We spent the next couple of days cleaning up all the mess from the party and from Christmas itself. Penny definitely experienced some sadness and upset over Christmas ending. I think it was an amazing experience for her, and one she is not likely to get again, as in Thailand, Christmas is not celebrated. Certainly she can come celebrate with us, but nothing compares to your first Christmas, and I have to say, it was cool sharing a teenager’s first Christmas, in contrast to my toddler who will probably only start to remember Christmas next year or the year after!
We also went and met my friend, Sarah, to go see the movie The King’s Speech. Penny said she really didn’t understand what was going on, but later admitted she slept through the first part of it, so that probably had something to do with it!
It is now Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and we have been busy still. Penny has decided she would like to go to college in the US if possible, which means studying for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), so we have had tutoring sessions in the evening for that, and studying for the SAT’s, which I don’t think I can really help her with. She has a study guide for both tests and plans to take them this spring.
This weekend, she helped me organize a surprise party for Mike’s 37th birthday. She suggested we have the party yesterday even though his birthday is next Friday, so he would be caught off guard. Lo and behold, she was correct! We organized a party at Joe’s Pizza, his favorite pizza place in Northern Virginia, and he was totally surprised! It was a great moment for him and for me that I finally managed to pull it off. :) She made plans with a couple of our friends to teach her some cooking and to teach them some cooking, so I’m happy that hopefully she will branch out a bit and do some things with some new people.
We have caught up on a lot of TV. Penny has fallen totally, helplessly, and hopelessly in love with David Tutera of My Fair Wedding on We TV. She has decided her goal in the US is to meet him. If anyone has David Tutera connections, please, please let me know. Otherwise, we’re going to have to write him cheesy fan mail and see if it works. We caught up on Sister Wives on TLC, a show about a polygamist family in Utah, which caused Penny to assert “there are many strange people in America.” Like this is news!!! She has been exposed to Hoarders, Storage Wars, Billy the Exterminator, and Extreme Couponing. She is convincing me to watch more and more movies. We both loved Valentine’s Day, which we watched last night.
After Mike’s party, we sent Leah home with my friend Melissa and have enjoyed a quiet day today. Penny helped me vacuum and clean up the house a good bit, which saved me a lot of time doing things that I hate doing, notably vacuuming!
Tonight we watched the Golden Globes together and ate lobsters. She had never been presented with a whole lobster and told it was a meal in itself before, so I taught her how to use the lobster crackers to break open the shell and use a tiny fork to get the meat out. She found it a fun and exciting experience, and of course, she LOVED the lobster. I love this picture of her and her lobster, it looks to me like a heart!
We definitely have some hard times in our family, it is not all sunshine and roses. We get cross with each other and there are times I am sure Penny is ready to go home and there are times we are ready for her to go home. Shortly she will attend her mid-stay orientation with AFS and I think it will be good for all of us to stop and reflect on why we decided to embark on this journey together, what we can do to successfully conclude it, what goals we have in the meantime, and what our future as a family looks like, for the next 5 months and beyond. She has several other exchange students and her liaison that she can turn to when times get tough, and I am so fortunate to have a support system of host moms around the country that I can talk to when I need an understanding ear! (Thanks, ladies!) Being a host family is just like being any other kind of family. There are personalities, some days some people don’t get enough sleep, sometimes other people have a hard day at school or at work, and culturally speaking, we are coming from 2 drastically different ways of looking at life and dealing with problems. We are doing the best we can, day in and day out. That’s the best we can ask for!!!
Before orientation, Penny, Leah, and I will be traveling to my dad’s next week for a 6 day weekend. Dad is taking Penny to Canada for a day while I catch up with friends, and we will show her what a real snowfall looks like (he has several feet up in Northern New York). We plan to go sledding, Penny will spend a half day at my old school doing a presentation about Thailand and seeing what a rural school district in America looks like, she will see the house I grew up in, she will see my hometown, and she will get to meet some of the best people I have ever known. I’m excited to get up there and have some time away! :-D