Why a “Suitcase Specialty” Opened My Heart to Joy While Living Abroad

by | Jan 5, 2022 | Uncategorized

Any time water bubbles over the side of the pot and touches the surface of the induction stove, the entire unit clicks off.

This is one of many things I am learning as we adjust to our new duty station in Quito, Ecuador. I turn around from chopping vegetables on our one “welcome kit” rented cutting board just in time to blow the bubbles back down to a non-threatening level. My daughter peeks her head up above the counter and grabs the boxes of macaroni and cheese. 

“Yummy Mommy!” She squeaks while she shakes them like maracas in her small three-year old hands.

“Yummy Mommy,” my husband repeats as he swings through the door to our temporary housing. I grin at him. 

“Welcome back. Yeah, these came all the way from the States,” I say.

“Ahh,” Ryan says, scooping Madelyn up and kissing her cheeks, “a suitcase specialty.

I nod. “We need a win today.”

“How come?” Ryan asks.

I fill him in on our first long day without him in Ecuador. My list rotates back and forth from the positives to the negatives. Madelyn had gotten sick again, most likely from the altitude but I wasn’t sure. Quito sits at almost 10,000 feet in elevation. My lungs and legs reminded me of this adjustment while we found a mini market today. It was an okay little store, I secured bread, eggs, milk, cheese, fruit and cereal, but greens and meat must be hiding in a different part of the city. 

The yogurt was all liquid and in drink containers, like a watery smoothie. I had been able to fit my findings in the bottom of the stroller, and re-placed Madelyn with a giant water jug in the seat to push it all back. My biggest challenge of the day had been working to teach her not to open her mouth in the shower. We weren’t supposed to drink any of the tap water.

“The other good news is that my WIFI is great, I’ve already called Mom and Dad,” I say, finishing my account of the day.

“That is a bonus,” Ryan says as he swings Madelyn toward me.

She giggles.

“Not just a bonus, it’s a luxury,” I say with laughter in my voice, tickling Madelyn under the chin.

I remember our first six weeks in Morocco. A short seventeen months ago we had been dropped off in our home there and Madelyn turned two in the first twenty days. I have a photo of her from her birthday that night. She has a giant grin and a green bib on. She’s sitting at our dining room table and the walls behind her are bare. We were still waiting on our unaccompanied air shipment, and who knew how long it would be before our household goods arrived?

“Are you ready baby?” I had asked, bringing out our bowls.

“Yeah!” She clapped her hands and swung her legs in her highchair. I was thankful for our foresight to dismantle the chair and tote it across the world in our suitcase. It made meal time far more enjoyable with our tiny tot. I placed macaroni and cheese in front of her, and her spoon hovered over top of it.

“Daddy?” She asked.

“Daddy will be home when he can,” I said and squeezed her other hand. I pressed a smile onto my face. I wished daddy was home, but “home” on embassy duty was proving to be unpredictable at best.

 I don’t remember if he came home on time to eat cupcakes with us or not. If he did, I don’t have a picture of it. What I do remember is how isolated and sad I felt in those first few months in a new country. I remember my determination to make the large, cold, marbled house feel like home. I remember how torn I felt as I wanted to support my spouse and yet felt I was also facing the toughest transition I’d gone through as a military spouse. I remember that the cupcake mix, and two boxes of white cheddar macaroni that I brought in my suitcase were a precious reprieve from all that I did not understand and had yet to embrace about our current situation.

The timer beeps in the kitchen and my mind returns to the present. All three of us gather around the sink as I drop the hot noodles into a colander. Madelyn waves her hand through the steam. Ryan carriers her over to the stove top and she helps us drop butter into the pan, milk, and cheddar powder. I stir it all together as he transitions her to the booster seat at the dining room table. Yes, we dismantled it and packed it yet again.

As I portion it into bowls I notice that the noodles look small. I pick one up and squeeze it between my fingers and then pop it into my mouth.

“Ryan?” I say with concern. He looks up. “Try this,” I say, spooning some into his mouth.

“It’s…” he moves the noodles around his mouth, “…crunchy.” I finish his statement for him.

“I set the timer,” I say and check the box.

“It’s the altitude.” he says.

“What?” I look at him like he’s crazy. He explains that at higher elevations the water boils faster and at a lower temperature. I stare at him. This must be some part of science class I missed.

“Oh,” is all I can say. My shoulders sag.

We set the bowls down at the table and crunch our way through the gummy noodles. I am so disappointed. My “win” for the day, the boxes of macaroni I have hauled down to South America are a complete fail. Just then, Madelyn smiles from her chair and says, “Yummy Mommy!” Ryan touches my foot under the table with his and I catch his eye. We both start laughing. Not loudly, but a slow, quiet, shoulder heaving, tear-inducing, snorting session of chuckles that grows into big guffaws. Our laughter is glorious relief.

After tucking Madelyn in, we face each other on our pillows and talk through what else we can do in this holding period. We are still waiting for our goods and our housing. We’ll make a trip together to the grocery tomorrow in hopes of finding more of our needs. There is an embassy party coming up soon, so hopefully Madelyn and I can make some friends.

The room grows quiet and Ryan closes his eyes. I murmur, “just so crunchy,” and he opens one eye. We fall into fits of laughter again. It was a terrible dinner, but I’m grateful. Our past experience has helped me to grin my way through this round of transition. I won’t laugh at everything, but I can find more humor in all I do not know yet instead of the pain and impatience I felt in Morocco.

I close my eyes and reach for his hand. I marvel at the ridiculous wonder of attempting to settle in as foreigners in a foreign land.

But we are doing it together.

 In the morning, I order a twelve pack of macaroni and cheese from Amazon. I eventually figure out how to make the perfect high-altitude mac-and-cheese. In our next eighteen months in Ecuador, I never put a cook timer on again for noodles. I learn to test the noodles by sight and taste. Sometimes you just have to feel things out for a while before you settle in.

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Lindsay Swoboda is a writer, editor, and military spouse. She is the mother of two and lives wherever the Marine Corps sends their family next. Her work has been featured in Legacy Magazine, Coffee + Crumbs, The Line Literary Review, and Books Make a Difference Magazine. She is the former editor-in-chief for the U.S. Embassy Quito Newsletter. Lindsay hosts The Choosing Brave Podcast and welcomes connection on Instagram and on her personal blog. When she is not writing Lindsay is either seeking time in nature or pursuing her other favorite hobbies: reading and sewing. She tries not to miss having tea in the afternoon with a cookie. 

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