Monday, September 4, 2017

Four Countries in Four Days and One Unsuccessful Golf Outing

Saturday: MACEDONIA. At the end of my month-long Macedonian trip, Mom drove in from Bulgaria to spend a couple of days with me in Skopje and drive me back to Sofia. After a liquid and tearful goodbye with my Macedonian crew on a Friday night, on a blazingly hot Saturday, Mom and I drove slowly away through Macedonia and later that night arrived in Sofia. Now, let me see if I can explain my travel plans so that they make some sense to you. Originally, I was supposed to stay in Sofia until Monday afternoon in order to see my family and friends, and then fly to India to meet the Diplomat and Son, who had just flown in from Washington, DC to visit the In-Laws for a week. I was supposed to fly Qatar Air and arrive in Chennai around 2 am on Tuesday, then spend 3 quality days with the In Laws, and fly back to Sofia with Son at 3 am on Friday. The Diplomat would stay in India two more days and fly back home on Sunday, and I would do the same, but from Sofia, while leaving the excited child with Mom/Grandma for the rest of the summer.

Sunday: BULGARIA. To my utter dismay, however, on Tuesday before I left Skopje, I received a cryptic email that my flight from Sofia to Doha the following Monday had been canceled and that I now had to fly a day earlier, on Sunday, instead (or, as the Indians would put it succinctly - my flight was "pre-poned"), stay overnight in Doha and continue to India as originally scheduled. What should have taken 13 hours was now going to take 28. No amount of threats and pleading and requests for some money back or business class upgrade to compensate me for the inconvenience helped. I was livid - I had such a short time to see my family that the last thing I wanted to do was spend it gallivanting in Qatar.

I spent Saturday night and Sunday morning in Sofia, seeing as many relatives as I could, and climbed the plane to Doha on Sunday afternoon in as surly mood as you can imagine. After a pleasant 4 hour flight (and two movies), I stepped off the plane and was hit with the 104F degree humidity of Qatar  at 1 am - folks, I have lived in two hot, tropical countries, where it is scorching during the day but at least at night, it lets up a bit. Not in Doha. I had never experienced desert heat like that before, and it was surreal.

Monday: QATAR. And so was the rest of that night. After I got off the plane, I lined up at the endless line at the transfer accommodations desk where eventually I was told that I was being given a hotel downtown because the airport one was full (meaning, I wasn't going to bed any time soon and it was approaching 2 am). Then, to top that, I was given a meal voucher - at the time, I didn't know that, but it was a voucher for ONE meal only and it was up to me to choose whether it was for breakfast or for lunch the next day. I guess Qatar didn't think I should eat on their buck more than once, despite extending my journey time by 15 hours). Or perhaps I did appear somewhat fatty to the airport clerk, who knows. Exhausted, I found my way outside and began looking for the shuttle to the hotel. It was so intensely hot and humid that my glasses turned practically opaque with fog and firmly refused to clear up. As a result, I couldn't see where I was going and ended up being told to go back inside the airport where some undefined person would find me and take me to the hotel shuttle. Back inside (it was now 2.30 am), I could see no one who even remotely suggested to be from the Movenpick hotel until I overheard a skinny man mention the word shuttle to some woman. It turned out to be the guy I was looking for. I yelled at him for good measure (and because I was so exhausted and irritated at the whole situation), asking him how was I supposed to find him - infuriatingly, he told me that he usually waits for passengers with the hotel sign in his hands, except for now. Throwing one last self-righteous and indignant, "You are terrible at your job!", I got in the bus and eventually made it to the hotel. I slept until 11 am the next day.

The next day, I had over 8 hours to kill before my next plane, so I decided to go explore the city. My phone suggested that it was 114F degrees (45 Celsius) outside, with some solid humidity to make it even worse, but I decided to go for it anyway. A quick taxi ride later, I was strolling in the midday haze at the Souq Waqif (the market), admiring the architecture while trying to cram some of the scorching, stuffy air into my lungs. The market was truly beautiful. In the span of 40 minutes, my light cotton dress was completely soaked with sweat (which made it pretty much transparent to the delight of all shopkeepers) and I was getting more and more dazed surrounded by the endless sandy color of the walls and the blinding whiteness of the outfits of the stern Qataris passing by. After a prolonged examination of the bird part of the market (there was an astonishing amount of pigeons for sale), admiring a couple of falcons and a tall Qatari in a snow-white thoub carrying a fierce-looking sabre, I went back to the hotel, where I wrung out the sweat from my dress and proceeded to dry my underwear with the hairdryer.

Tuesday: INDIA. A couple of hours later, I was back at the airport, climbing another plane bound for Chennai. Two and half movies and a delicious chicken tikka masala later, I landed in India. It was 2 am, a Tuesday. I was rather exhausted and all I wanted was to see the Diplomat and Son whom I had not seen for over a month. But before the sweet family reunion, I had to pass Indian immigration. For those of you who are not Indian nationals, and have not been to India lately, I am happy to report a a positive development in the face of visa on arrival. You apply for it in advance, get approved and then go to a special (very short!) line at the airport. And so, quite excited, I showed up at the special desk and looked at the immigration officer. Unlike me, the man was in no hurry. For some reason, he was sweating so profusely that it was like rain pouring from inside out of of him. He produced an enormous checkered cotton handkerchief and slowly wiped his entire face and prodigious mustache with it. After that, he meticulously wrung it out and we both watched (me, in quiet horror mixed with disgust; he - with immense satisfaction) the sweat that dripped out of it on the floor. He sighed with content, folded the wet garment and tucked it in his pocket, wiped his wet hands (sort of) off his pants and motioned for my passport, shrugging his shoulders. He then looked it carefully as if seeing some rare artifact, went through all of its 52 pages one by one (not sure why as my pre-paid internet visa was printed on a sheet of paper, which  also gave him). After what seemed like 3 hours, he finally took an enormous stamp from his desk and gently (and somewhat lovingly, it seemed) pressed it onto an empty page. He finished by writing a small novel on top of the stamp and then finally handed me back my (now rather moist) passport. I was in! It only took 45 minutes.

I spent the next couple of days visiting various members of my Indian family and enjoying home-made food. On my third and last day there, the Diplomat decided to take us to play golf at the Chennai golf club. He had packed me a golf outfit, which consisted of a lovely skirt and a collared shirt. Thus clad, upon arriving at the club in our car, we were surrounded by a small mob of random men whose job and general purpose was unclear but who took a lively interest in me and my intention to play golf (a most unorthodox thought, apparently). We were brought to the pro shop (where we were asked to remove our shoes), and a few quick minutes later, the pro showed up himself, all smiles. We spent some quality time exchanging Indian pleasantries and getting set up to tee off, when he looked at me apologetically and told me that I absolutely and positively cannot go on the golf course with that shirt. The problem - it was sleeveless. It had a collar, it was designer golf ware for women, it matched my skirt perfectly, but....it was sleeveless. Dumbfounded, I wondered what to do and without noticing, agreed to buy a large, misshapen Burberry knock-off shirt with giant sleeves in order to play. Then he remarked on the length of my skort - it was about 5 fingers above my knees. He decided to let it go but advised me to pull it down a bit when we go to the starter - like THAT was going to fool him. We then proceeded to look at rental clubs and buying water, and almost 30 mins later, we were finally ready to pay and go play golf. And then none of the Diplomat's credit cards would work on the flimsy card machine. So, we did not play golf after all.

That same night, Son and I flew back to Bulgaria (finished the half movie from the previous flight, watched 3 more), where I spent exactly 24 hours before boarding more planes to go back to DC (4.75 movies). The Diplomat also flew back from India that same day, and we met at Dulles airport to begin our annual one month of a child-less honeymoon. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Month in Macedonia, Lice-Gate and the Puzzle

I recently spent a glorious month in lovely Skopje, where I supported the Public Affairs section in the U.S. Embassy. Having never done purely public diplomacy work before (I am mostly a consular gal), this TDY was a bit of a challenge and I was rather apprehensive whether my skills were up to par. My very first task upon arrival was to draft a 5-10 min speech for the Ambassador for the annual July 4th reception. I was given 5 bullet points on which to base it and off I went. It took some time, a few permutations, and a whole bunch of research, but in the end, on a sweltering summer night at the lawn in front of the Embassy, I proudly stood in the midst of the 1200-plus crowd of guests, listening to our Ambassador deliver (his version of) the speech I had drafted. You know that feeling when your kid performs super awesomely at the school recital, and, with tears in your eyes, you elbow the person next to you and whisper, “That’s my kid!”? Well, I felt like elbowing the person next to me and whisper, “That’s my speech!” I did not because the person next to me happened to be the speaker of the Parliament and I figured it would have been weird.

In the following days, I drafted a whole lot more speeches, talking points and briefing memos; made friends with various Macedonian Army officials and spent too much time in the Ministry of Defense in preparation of their hosting of 300 U.S. Army soldiers as part of a European military exercise led by U.S. Army-Europe later this summer. I worked with some amazing professionals from the Embassy’s PD section and I already miss them. I also consumed an unreasonable quantity of grilled meats, fresh salads, rakia (local grappa) and wine. Who knew that Macedonia makes a lot and fabulous wine? I didn’t and so, to explore it, I decided to visit a couple of wineries in the midst of a massive heat wave in Skopje. Such is indeed my dedication to wine research. You are welcome!

I organized a tasting at a small, make-shift winery in the middle of the city called Brzanov. You won’t find their wines in the store and you learn about the tasting and the wine by word of mouth mostly. I should have had some inkling about the experience when I called and the owner Dimitar (who spoke impeccable English) asked me how long we planned to taste – 3 or 4 hours. Errr, I typically taste wine for about 15 mins so I was at a loss of words. Deciding to stay on the conservative side, I said 3 since we had dinner plans afterwards. And thus, on a blazing and sleepy Saturday afternoon devoid of any life on the streets of the city, a bunch of us arrived in front of a nondescript house at the end of a dusty street, where several street dogs lay prostrate in front and stared at us quizzically. Inside, in a smallish room with very high ceilings, Dimitar began bringing platters of cured meats and cheese, home bread and decanter after decanter of fabulous wine. It seems that the winemaker of the winery does not use much science when making the wine; he simply trusts his nose. And what a nose it must be! After an hour, he invited us to continue to drink, errrr, taste wine in the cellar, where he proceeded to pour wine straight from various barrels as he continued to explain the unique Macedonian varietals like Vranec and Tamjanika. Oh, the glorious times we had! Three hours later, we all stumbled outside disoriented but very, very happy and jumped in a cab to go to dinner at the Macedonian Village. An “authentic” model village sitting at the top of a hill above Skopje, it has a few restaurants, shops and workshops showing off traditional Balkan crafts. After a feast of meat, rakia and more wine, we finally made it back home around 1 am.

20170702_151610.jpg
20170702_124321.jpgThe next morning, I had arranged a trip south, where we would visit old Roman ruins and lunch in another fabulous winery out of town. We were supposed to be 5 people, all heroes from the previous day tasting. Only one person besides me made it. Undaunted, we forged south and in about an hour or so, made it to the lovely Tikves winery. It was one of the best winery experiences I have ever had. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you’d know I have visited a fair share of wineries and by now, I am so over taking “the tour.” All I am interested is in tasting the wine and eating the food, if there is one offered. At Tikves, there is a phenomenal restaurant, hidden underground in the recesses of the winery - we literally had to climb down several sets of stairs until we reached the cellar and the restaurant. They have pre-set tasting menus that would cost around $20-30 per person, and include some of the best food I have ever eaten, along with an endless supply of “tasting” wine. A couple of hours later, satiated and very, VERY happy, we took off to see the ancient ruins of Stobi.


20170702_154648.jpgIt was 42 Celsius (107F) outside. There was not a tree in sight, just white, ancient, hot, hot stones. It was very, very interesting and deserving of a long and comprehensive study, thoughtful pondering of Old Civilizations, ways of life and the short duration of the human life. All of that would have been nice. I believe that we managed to prance through the whole thing in record 14 minutes before I more or less passed out from the heat. But it is impressive indeed!


While I was thus gallivanting through the ancient Balkan cultures, drama was brewing back home in Washington, DC. One evening, in a casual conversation with the boys home, the Diplomat mentioned briefly that he intended to take son to a barber to get a haircut. Now, you should know that son sports fairly long hair, of which he and I are rather fond, so naturally, I find discussions of barbers and what their services imply rather distressing. I asked why, and was told that Son is bothered by the heat and scratches his head a lot because of the sweat. Seized by sudden terrifying childhood memories, I carefully asked the Diplomat to check the child for lice. I was right. There were colonies of them in his pretty, soft, long curls. And since the Diplomat had allowed Son to sleep in our bed in my absence, guess who else had lice? Yup, the Diplomat himself. Granted, just a few but enough to freak him out.


In the next couple of days, Son lost most of his hair and the Diplomat purchased every single delousing product on the official and black markets available, applied them obsessively on both of them and then combed and combed the dead critters out. I am pretty sure he was about to burn all of our sheets in the fireplace outside but re-thought and laundered them instead. I was being sent hourly updates from the process, which did make me feel both a little guilty that they are dealing with the little pests alone, but also a little happy that I and my long hair were thousands of miles away.

20170704_022612.jpgBut if you think I was having a grand time every single moment I was away, you are sorely mistaken. I had so much free time after work that I did not know what to do with myself. While I traveled on a couple of weekends to Bulgaria to see family and friends, and went around the Macedonian countryside on others, that still left most of my week nights free. I am one of those people who cannot just sit down and do nothing. Even when I watch TV, I have to be doing something else (like, ironing). To deal with that, I picked up what looked like a nice puzzle that someone had left at the Embassy. It had 1500 pieces and looked reasonably easy to put together. I rushed home, barely ate dinner and began working on it at 6.30 pm. Around midnight, I finally lifted my blurry eyes from the table, to realize that I had barely managed to put together the frame of the monstrous thing, and that left me with another 1450 tiny, tiny pieces to figure out. But it was game on! In the next 2 weeks, I lived and breathed the puzzle. I worked on it in the morning while getting dressed, in the evening while cooking dinner, stooped over it till 1 am every day, and at times felt tempted to go home for lunch and work on it some more. Even when I went out with colleagues, and came home late, I would still go back to the puzzle. It was magnetic and diabolically difficult. One Saturday during the day, I had been concentrating so hard to read the words on the pieces that I physically felt nauseous. I literally had to step away from it for a couple of anxious hours in order to feel better. It took me two exhausting weeks but in the end, I did it. I put the last piece, took a picture and then tore it apart with viciousness I did not know I possessed.


I loved my time in Skopje. I got to do awesome work, meet some very cool people, drink outstanding wine, avoid getting lice and put together a beastly 1500-piece puzzle. After a month, my Mom came to pick me up and drive me back home for my onward adventures in India. For more of that, tune in next week when you will learn about my “Four Countries in Four Days!”

Monday, June 19, 2017

How I Went to Marine Camp, A Trip to the South, and I Battle Nature

Last month, in an answer to a call from the State Department, I volunteered my good services to the mighty Marines to represent my august institution in a simulated military-assisted evacuation of a fictitious U.S. embassy overseas. The week-long exercise took place in Camp Lejeune, in the picturesque North Carolina, and on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I excitedly drove the roughly 400 miles down south. Faced with the endless flatness and mind-boggling boredom of the I-95, which I was going to follow for most of the way, I pumped up the classic rock station on the radio, locked the speedometer on cruise control at exactly 80 mph, and sang all the way down to the massive Marine compound. I spent the next week planning and strategizing with a bunch of extremely put-together Marine officers, who called me “M’am,” listened to everything I said with rapt and respectful attention, and generally treated me like a rare flower. My fellow Americans – if there is one thing I want you to know, that is that you may sleep well tonight (and after that too, unless, of course, you have allergies or something) – the Marines know what they are doing and what they are doing is protecting us no matter what.

While I was there, I learned a few very useful things:

1) The U.S. military speaks in acronyms. All the time. Even when they are in a casual conversation. It sounds something like this:
“So, at 0900, I went to HYW and met with the GMAK to talk about 52Hs. The Command came and we hrumped (verb is made out of an acronym for something) until GOW released a SHIRWP. Boy, it was FUN!” Everyone laughs with tears in their eyes, while I sit there, blinking like a confused goat.

2) A good, useful, everyday acronym I actually learned was TFOA, or Things Falling Off Aircraft. Yup. It’s an official acronym. I keep looking for opportunities to use it in good context, to show off my military chops. Have not found one yet, but I am ready!

3) I also learned that we can all walk and chew gum. Now, you may know that expression, being a native English speaker and all. I did not. So, when in the middle of an intense troop relocation planning session, someone suggested that we could walk AND chew gum, I thought it was some military nerve-calming thing and proudly announced that I, in fact, do have gum on me! Yup, you can just picture the delight that produced in my uniformed friends.

I came back enriched and reassured that should harm befall one of our Missions abroad, the Marines would be there for us.

Not to be left behind, the Diplomat decided that for his birthday the following month, he wanted to drive all the way back down with me and Son, and spend a few relaxing days in the golfing heaven of Hilton Head, South Carolina. Frankly, the initial idea was to go somewhere in the Caribbean where we would enjoy countless drinks with umbrellas, swim in the hot ocean and play golf. Sadly, I am not sure what has happened with the world or the airline industry, but the price of a single plane ticket to the Bahamas was pretty much equal to the price of going to Beijing, and given that we were going for just 4 days, a Hilton Head roadtrip it was!

We agreed that the Diplomat and I would each take turns driving for a couple of hours, so that no one gets too tired. Now, you should know, the Diplomat is a leisurely driver. Some would call it excessively slow. Not me. I don’t call it anything. I just sit there in the passenger seat, fidgeting and making relevant remarks about the state of the highway, the car speedometer and all the other cars taking us over on both sides. We even got honked at by a semi-truck behind us, while driving in the rightmost lane. Now, that’s an achievement in slow driving in and of itself.

Hilton Head was dreamy and had more golf courses than people. Even I joined the Diplomat for a couple of rounds, which meant that I got to see one extremely lazy alligator, sunning himself in the hot Carolina sun. We dined in two outstanding waterfront establishments, the Scull Creek Boathouse and Hudson’s on the Docks. Both are fantastic, both do not accept reservations, both have great food, both are right next to each other, but somehow, the Scull Creek has a better, more romantic ambiance.

Other than that, life has been rather exciting back in good ole Washington, DC. For one, I have really embraced gardening. Now that I have a small back yard, I have indulged in what has always been my passion – growing vegetables and flowers. Except that nature is all against me. Did you ever think that squirrels are cute? I did. So damn cute. We have hundreds of them in Arlington. I used to gush at them – sipping my tea in the morning in my back yard admiring them running around, I felt so blessed to be so immersed in Mother Nature, to be one with it creatures, to breathe the fresh spring air. Wrapped up in my earthy reveries, I immediately planted lettuce and strawberries, of which some even had tiny green strawberry fruit on them already. The next morning, I woke up and ran back into my garden in my PJs, to gaze upon my produce. To my horror, half of the strawberries were ripped out from the soil, all tiny, green fruit gone from the stems, and a smattering of guilty-looking paw prints were left in the soil. At the same time, a really fat squirrel was slowly waddling towards the yard gate, mouth stuffed with strawberries, barely managing to squeeze under the wooden gate. Oh, this meant war!! Damn cute animals.

In the following two days, I did extensive research on the internet, to find out that pretty much there was no defense against the cute rats unless I put a net over my plants. Then another remedy caught my eye – a small device that emits supersonic sound that doesn't bother to the human ear, but would freak a squirrel out. I instantly bought it and waited with trepidation its arrival. It came in all its glory, called the Yard Sentinel. You know with a name like that you are safe from all things pestering your yard. I set it up, and I have to say the piercing sound it emitted bothered me so much that I had to go inside. But, I was happy - surely, no squirrel can endure the high-pitch sound of the Sentinel (The Sentinel!) and I was already dreaming of heaping baskets of home-grown strawberries.

In the meantime, Son was spending his days after school chasing cute rabbits around the neighborhood. They were small and extremely agile, and Son and the other pestering kids form the hood never managed to catch them. Once or twice, I even saw one in our backyard, and (since it was SO CUTE), took a picture of it. But there was even more endearing wildlife around me. For some time, I had noticed big holes dug around one of the trees in the yard. Initially, I thought we might have snakes, which duly freaked me out. Then I reasoned with myself that there are no snakes in Arlington, and decided to plug the holes with stones. The very next day, there was a fresh hole right next to the stone. I plugged that one as well, and then a new one appeared. In the end, the earth around the tree looked like a giant colander. But I still could not figure out what was living there.

So, one day, as I was resting contentedly on the couch, I happened to glance outside in the yard and noticed two playful squirrels engaging in some sort of a mating ritual right next to The Sentinel! Enraged, I ran outside to shoo them away, only to see a fat yet tiny bunny sitting on its haunches, energetically chewing on a piece of my leafy lettuce (the especially pricey, fancy mixed-type one), while a chipmunk darted from the mysterious holes and jumped into the well next to one of our windows. Upon seeing me, the bunny gave me a look (I swear I saw it roll its eyes) and sped away under the gate. Cursing it, I went to look at the chipmunk, which was now trapped in the 4ft deep window well. I got a ridiculously small towel, and went inside to trap it and release it. It is astonishing how fast this critters are. Finally, after a 10 min fight in the tiny well, I managed to catch the blasted animal. It was SO CUTE! To thank me, all of a sudden it viciously bit me, but I still managed to release it far, far from my house - it turned out that chipmunks also eat produce, and so I could not have him live next to the grocery store that was my garden. He was back the next day (his new hole is particularly huge, as if to make a point). So did the hordes of squirrels and bunnies.

I have not given up, however. I am determined to have a healthy crop of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans and whatever else I can keep safe from the cute menaces. I just don't know how. Any ideas are welcome...

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Cruise, the Diplomat Gets Cultural and I Shuck Oysters

We recently came back from a one-week fabulous cruise to some islands in the Caribbean (truly immaterial which ones, given that all I cared for was to have a beach and a place on it to sell drinks with colorful things in them). This was our second cruise ever and I was so excited, that I was squealing all the way from the airport to the Miami port. Reading the sign “Miami Cruise Port” on the highway brought me to uncontrollable giggling and hand-waving and generally annoying the Diplomat and Son with my unbridled exhilaration. Even the hour-long line to check in did nothing to dampen my exaltation; worse, it made me even more excited and frenetic so that when we finally reached the check-in desk, I beamed so brightly at the poor clerk that he let out an audible sigh and went to fetch our board cards.

Cruising is an amazing experience and I don’t care who scoffs at it! What’s not to like: you can eat at any time of the day (which I did), you travel to all kinds of warm places (unless, of course, you don’t), there is a pool on the ship for those days at sea, there is different entertainment every night, and, if you have been smart to buy a drinks package, you can get drinks at any point, any time, anywhere on the ship (which I also did). Because of the timing of this particular trip (end of January, when normal working people are back to work after the holidays), we had the refreshing opportunity to travel alongside 3,601 octogenarians and 3 couples our age, one of whom were our friends P+C. This spritely demographic on the ship presented us with a rather unique experience during the trip. Electric scooters, driven by determined mature gentlemen raced gamely down the narrow galley ways; hundreds of walkers were parked outside the dining room; since no one ever took the stairs, it took whole afternoons in order to get in one of the elevators; late-evening game shows with adult themes revealed unnecessarily graphic details of 50-plus marital bliss; the casino didn’t have an empty chair; and high-waste khaki shorts were all the rage. I also developed a certain appreciation for those members of the gentler sex, who did not think that age should dictate the size or the era of their bathing suits. It was seven days of traveler bliss and the Diplomat even played a round of expensive golf on the stunning ST. Kitts while I roasted my winter-white skin under the gentle rays of the January sun. On sea days, we barely saw Son and his bosom buddy V (P+C’s son) who ruled the ship running up and down its 13 floors and generally giving all the old folk arrhythmia just by looking at their endless energy.

Returning renewed to freezing Washington, DC, the Diplomat suddenly turned rampantly cultural and decided that 1) we will be taking ballroom dancing lessons, 2) we will go to the Kennedy Center philharmonic as my Valentine’s gift, 3) he will learn to play the piano. So, we started taking ballroom dancing classes with a charming Brazilian gentlemen and his Chilean wife with enormous and highly distracting eyelashes. At this point, we boast a highly awkward tango move and a choppy waltz. The Philharmonic was lovely and Son only fell asleep after half an hour, but woke up in the break, demanded a Sprite, drank it and stayed awake for the second part, which featured a scary dramatic piece by Dvorak about a witch and a little naughty girl who dies, which left an indelible impression on him. Finally, the Diplomat has begun teaching himself the piano with ferocious determination, reading thick books on music theory and playing Mary Had a Little Lamb after a YouTube tutorial. The man certainly has resolve, which makes me somewhat apprehensive as I have been hearing recent mentions of riding and archery lessons.

Recently, a colleague of ours dropped off a large bag of fresh oysters for our enjoyment. Folks, there are few foods in life I enjoy as much as oysters. I go nuts for them. So, that smelly bag of tightly-closed Virginian oysters made me dance in the kitchen. Until I realized that they would have to be shucked. To be honest, I didn’t even know the word “to shuck” existed before that day (I mean, can’t we just say “to open” the damn mollusk??) The Diplomat promptly went on YouTube, his personal guru on how to do, um, kinda everything and watched 8 videos on the subject. After that, he decided it was not for him and instructed me to do it. So, there I was, armed with an old kitchen knife, (NOT a specially-designated shucking knife as all those cool folks in the videos), trying to pry open – oh, pardon me! – to SHUCK the prized oysters using detailed internet instructions. What could possibly go wrong?! After cutting myself only 4 times, in 15 minutes, I had successfully shucked two, which I ate triumphantly and immediately. Eventually, I managed to shuck a few more, at the cost of Herculean and meticulous labor and an almost severed pinky. The rest had to be stored, and so the Diplomat made the brilliant suggestion to put them in cold water and into the fridge. Which pretty much killed most of them. Apparently, salt-water critters don’t do so well in the sanitized Arlington sweet tap water. The next day, when I opened the bowl, I saw a mesh of tentacles and other freakish-looking soft matter coming out of the semi-opened shells. It took a lot of dedication and love for oysters to dig through the slimy mess and find the resilient ones who were still tightly shut, and mercilessly shuck them and eat them with gusto. Ii will be some time before I decide to shuck oysters again. Until then, I will continue to eat them at overpriced restaurants.

Life in arctic Arlington continues its merry way.  Even though every Monday I resolutely tell the Diplomat that THIS weekend we are not going to host a single party, dinner, impromptu backyard drinks with neighbors, a BBQ or any other “thing” of such sociable nature, we inevitably end up doing such a thing and then spend the Sunday recuperating. Well, so be it! Life is better spent with friends!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Consular Fellows Program and the game of registering your car in Virginia

I have been meaning to write about the Consular Fellows Program (formerly the not-so-elegantly named Limited Non-Career Appointments, or LNAs as they are still popularly known) for a long time. Rejoice for today is the day! So, what is this program thing, you ask?

Well, essentially, the State Department has finally realized that visa demand in certain countries, affectionately known as “visa mills,” will just not slow down and will keep growing, while at the same time there can never be enough foreign service officers to tackle that demand. They did hire a whole bunch of us about 5 years ago (also know as “the surge”), which dealt with the immediate need for entry-level visa officers, but only resulted in a glut of us once we got promoted and started moving into the mid-level ranks. So, in a stroke of genius, rather than continue the surge, the Department instead began hiring smart folks who speak key languages in countries with high visa demand, for 4 to 5 year gigs as visa officers. The initial program proved to be so successful that now it expanded to hire speakers of languages like French and Russian. Thusly, currently, DOS is recruiting awesome smart people who can speak any of these: Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and French and are curious about living and working overseas for a few years. Check the recruiting schedule here: https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/consular-fellows.

For the duration of their contract, the Fellows are treated 100% like Foreign Service officers - they get trained in the supercool (not) Foreign Service Institute, get the dip passport, the paid housing, the consular immunity, their kids can attend private schools in that country, they get perks like student loan forgiveness, the usual health insurance and so on. In exchange - you get to do visa interviews and deal with American citizens overseas, or whatever other fun activities a consular section can throw at you. Depending on where you are, you can even go for a short period of time to a different embassy to help them out if they have a staff shortage (also called a TDY, or a temporary duty assignment). All of my LNA colleagues in Brazil got to go on at least one, if not more TDYs during their tours, to places like Jamaica, Cuba, Chile, Peru, China, you name it.

As the name of the program cleverly suggests, this is a limited gig only. The original contract is for 4 years, and you can extend for a 5th year, which almost everyone does. This is not a shortcut into the Foreign Service (although you’d think it would be?!) and after finishing, people go on to bigger and better things in life. Since I have not done the exam myself, I can’t really speak to it, but my understanding is that once your language proficiency is established, you will then go to an Oral Assessment exam, which is quite rigorous and resembles the FS one. Here is pretty good info on the way the exam is structured with some great examples. After that is all said and done, you will go through the exasperating and excruciating security clearance process, and if by then you haven’t given up, you’ll be ready to ship your life overseas for the next 4 years. All of your immediate family gets to go with you (unless you don’t want them to, which um, well, is your own problem, really). I have been asked many times on this blog whether I recommend the program and I cannot say YES with more conviction. I think it is an awesome gig, especially if you are fresh out of college, happen to speak quite good Mandarin and want to see if the whole living overseas thing is for you, or you really need to live close to Target, be able to call your aunt without international charges and have hairdressers actually understand how you want your hair cut.

In other news, we have finally managed to register our car in the great state of Virginia, no matter how much they tried to make us NOT to. Who knew that trying to register your car and actually driving it legally in the state of Virginia, in the county of Arlington, was tantamount to winning Survivor - full of hidden obstacles, pure endurance and Catch-22 challenges. The car arrived on a hot Wednesday afternoon, delivered by a 6’11” giant and his colleague. It was so filthy, you’d think they’ve used it in the mines for a week before they brought it back to us. In the remarks from the U.S. Customs, it was (possibly sarcastically) written - “Very dirty!” It sure was.

That same afternoon, rather naively I might add, the DIplomat and I went to the nearby DMV to register it. We only had the few customs forms sent to us from the Transportation Office at the State Department, essentially stating that this car is coming back to the US from Brazil and is in compliance with whatever obscure environmental standards there are. After staying in line for only 34 minutes, we presented ourselves, breathless with excitement, at the check-in desk at the DMV where a surly and officiant employee listened to our request to register the car that same day in disbelief, looked through our documents and asked us (fairly enough) for the title to it (since our car had never been registered in VA before, they had no record of it). We did not have it. What is worse, we did not know where it was. We looked guilty. We were clueless. We were poor excuses for car owners. We probably did not deserve to own a car. Until I remembered that when we were leaving FOR Brazil, I had to give a copy to the Transportation Office in order to ship it. The title was with the lender (the car is still not paid off) and I actually had the copy in my email. With some flair for good measure, I triumphantly waved the phone in her face, showing her the title. She couldn’t have been any less impressed. With a steel look in her eyes, she barked - “I need the original” and our little hearts sank.

We began to call frantically our lender to see if they would somehow agree to mail the DMV our title. Like, tomorrow morning, if possible. The lender pretended they did not understand for a while what we were talking about. Then they told us that we need to send them a formal request to send our title. We paid an unreasonable amount of money to fedex overnight such a request (a one page paper that could have easily be scanned and emailed). Two days passed in nail biting anticipation and when nothing happened, we called them again. They pleaded utter ignorance. Then they promised to overnight us the title after all if we paid for the mailing charges. Naturally, we did (interesting fact - overnight Fedex is expensive). Two days later, after I ripped the crisp fedex envelope apart, I stared in disbelief at a letter from BMW Financial Services, cheerfully listing the registration requirements for the state of Virginia, along with a form letter for us to fill out, requesting our title. Not the title itself. Not even a teensy little copy of it. Or maybe a teaser picture, you know, like proof of life with kidnapped people. I cannot tell you why the contents of the expensive fedex package could not have been e-mailed to us to save us 1) time, 2) money, 3) many expletives. Considerably pissed off, we called them back and after some yelling, the clerk sheepishly told us that actually, they do not have our title after all. Nope, never had it, not even for a moment. Turns out, the state of NY (where the car was previously registered) has our precious car title.

At this point, about 10 days had already passed from the day the car arrived. In the meantime, I managed to get car insurance, get it through inspection and do all kinds of other required things. So, when the Diplomat called the NY DMV and asked them to transfer the title to VA, which they did instantly, you’ll have to understand his unbridled enthusiasm going to the DMV 3 days later, reams of papers in his hands, ready to drive off with a freshly registered vehicle. After a minor snag, where he was sent back home to retrieve more documents after a testy exchange with yet another indignant DMV clerk, it all went fine and miraculously, at the end of the day we had a brand-spanking new VA-registered vehicle! Which was good, since we had been renting a car for over 2 weeks by then, which was yet another expensive element in the whole coming-back-to-America experience. Not a second too late, we received a letter from Arlington county to tell us that we owed them money for a (very classy) Arlington county decal because they have noticed that we “garage” our car frequently in the county, as well as some awesome car taxes. Now I am just waiting for our street association as well as the block community to shake me down for some more cash for more cool decals allowing me to “garage” my car in front of my own house. Welcome back to America!

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Olympics, Fat Cat does us a favor and we unpack in the U.S.A.

For the last year and a half, the Rio Consulate has been preparing for the influx of Americans for the Olympics and all the possible imaginable and unimaginable dramas that can come with that. Then the Games finally came and with them that enjoyable beast – the “official visit.” Now, every Foreign Service officer, at one point or another in their illustrious career, has had to deal with or, as we say, “work” an official visit of some type. It could be a CODEL (a Congressional Delegation), or a STAFFDEL (Staff Delegation), S visit (Secretary of State, our boss), a VPOTUS (the Vice President of the United States), POTUS (I will let you figure this one out), or even a FLOTUS visit (any guesses? No? Ok – First Lady of the US)(yeah, we have awesome acronyms in the State Department). These visits are meant to advance the interests of the United States in that country and our job at the numerous Embassies and Consulates around the world during said visit is to facilitate them in any way possible so that the visitors can concentrate on their mission.

So far, I have been lucky to work two S visits – of Secretary Clinton in Bangladesh and of Secretary Kerry in Rio. The first one lasted 23 very busy hours on a stifling Saturday. The second – 2 days, right before the opening of the Olympic Games in Rio. With about a ton of other heads of states and various important people from all over the world, in the midst of traffic and gazillion tourists, I am proud to say that Consulate Rio made sure that the S schedule went off without a hitch. Other than that, my work during the Olympics, thanks to all the great prep we had done, was rather unexciting apart from a visit to prison on my very last day of work to calm down an arrested American. It was a classy end to a fabulous tour.

We did manage to see some Olympic events in the meantime. Most sports were easy to get tickets for and we did enjoy some particularly riveting ping pong, badminton, and golf qualifiers. I went to see the rhythmic gymnastics finals (Bulgaria took bronze!) and even the basketball finals, where we saw the Dream Team destroy Serbia. A couple of days later, after an epic goodbye party at a friend’s gorgeous penthouse overlooking the ocean, we packed our bags and went to the airport to leave the stunning city of Rio de Janeiro and come back home. You’ll remember that at the time, Son was in Bulgaria with Grandma, and so it was just the Diplomat and I, plus a highly hostile Fat Cat.

For those of you traveling with pets around the world – this is yet another cautionary tale of how absurd travel can be with those beasts (whom we love, arguably). We booked our flights with the amazing American Airlines back to Washington, DC as we did not really have a choice of carrier. The government has contracts with all three US airlines, and wherever they have flights, we are obligated to fly with one of them if we are on official travel. So, AA it was. Once the tickets were booked, I called the airline to make sure we can take the cantankerous animal with us as checked luggage (as opposed to cargo, which is much more expensive, even though he’d travel in exactly the same place in the plane’s belly). I was told that I can and just to bring him in with us as we check in. So, armed with 4 suitcases, one carry-on, a large golf bag and a big cat carrier, the Diplomat and I presented ourselves brightly at the AA check-in counter at the Rio International Airport with only one thought in mind – how to upgrade ourselves to business class with miles! I handed the airline clerk our passports, smiled more obsequiously and broadly than a Cheshire cat and watched him as he began clacking on the keyboard completely expressionless for about 5 minutes. Then he said – “You cannot go on these flights.” Perplexed, and with an even bigger (admittedly, fairly fake) smile I asked him what he meant. Placidly and somewhat lethargically ven, he informed me that the connecting flight from Miami to DC was too small and would not accept cats.

People, what kind of a plane is too small for a bloody cat – are we going on a hang-glider, for Pete’s sake?? Perplexed, I asked him what exactly we were supposed to do and for the next 1 hour and 4 minutes the clerk and three of his head-scratching colleagues tried every single flight combo from Rio connecting to DC in order to re-book us. Additional complication was the summer heat rule, which says that if the average temperature on the tarmac on the day of arrival is above a certain temperature (say, 90F), a pet cannot land there. Since our original flight would land at 5 am, that was not going to be an issue. It was, however, a problem for the flights the rest of the day – the ones that would actually accept a portly cat aboard. Thusly, a feline Catch-22. Eventually, defeated and deflated and freezing (don’t get me started on Brazil’s obsession with the A/C), we were told that we were successfully rebooked on a NY flight that same night, from where we would fly to DC, Fat Cat in tow. Relieved, we immediately asked our burning upgrade question and the bleary-eyed clerk sent us to the Business Class lounge to sort it out, he was so sick of us. I like to think everything in life happens for a reason – once we got there, we learned that the Miami flight’s business class had been fully booked so if we had gone on it, we wouldn’t have been able to upgrade, but the NY was not – it had exactly two last seats left. Boom – champagne and warm nuts at take-off, score! Thank you, Fat Cat!

And we are back in the U.S.A! As every Foreign Service officer will tell you, the reality of living back home can be jarring and rather expensive. For starters, even though many of us have our previous furniture stored in some mysterious storage place in Maryland, after that gets delivered, one inevitably needs more crap to settle as we have acquired a lot more “ethnic” crap along our tours. And so begin the trips to IKEA and Home Depot (I have to say their legendary bad customer service has actually worsened, which is a feat in and of itself) and Target and Walmart, and then the countless hours putting all your new flimsy stuff together. Just when you think you have it all under control, the HHE arrives. For the uninitiated – when we move from post to post, our precious possessions get shipped to us in two distinct batches. One is called UAB, or the unaccompanied air baggage. That one is small, about 300-500 lbs (size depends on how many family members travel), travels on a plane and since it arrives fairly fast, folks generally pack their most important things there. The other one is called HHE, or household effects (I think?!) and that one goes on a ship. A real, big cargo ship, which moves at, you know, ship pace. Depending on where you are going, it might take up to 3 months to see your stuff, and usually when it finally makes it, you have almost forgotten what is in it. So, it is like a really bad Christmas where you get up to 7,200 lbs of your own old stuff, some of it moldy (depending on how long and where it has traveled), some you have hoped you had tossed away years ago and some you found delightedly (like a pair of brand new leather booties you had just bought before you moved to Rio, and then once you unpacked there, you never found them and thought they were lost). But it is all there, and all at the same time, all thousands of pounds of old clothes, books, forks and knives, ancient candles, your kids’ artwork from 2 years ago, broken Christmas toys, a large ornamental vase, which looked great in your living room in Guangzhou but screams kitsch in your 1950s Virginia town home, workout bench and two large bags of wine corks. We actually did not have that much stuff, and “only” had 138 boxes (trust me, that is not much compared to many others!). The issue was that all those 138 boxes got piled up in every nook and cranny of the house.

Our new house in Arlington has probably about a quarter of the closet space of our apartment in Rio, even if square-footage-wise it is much larger. That has made unpacking a challenge and at the same time rendered some decisions very easy – for example, to finally throw away a denim skirt I have not worn in 7 years but looks so damn cute, I was sure for all those 7 years that I would find a good occasion to wear it. I have not yet, and so the skirt has left the house. That said, I am not a hoarder and this lifestyle has been very conducive to regular purging of household effects. I even threw away a few pairs of shoes (collective gaps, I know, but they were fairly old and somewhat ruined by Rio’s salty air). Overall, progress has been made and almost all has been unpacked. Now all we need to do is register the car in the august state of Virginia and fight off the slugs in the yard, who keep eating the newly planted lettuce. Not sure which one is more challenging. Stay tuned!




Monday, July 25, 2016

A wedding in Bulgaria, monsoon in India and honeymoon in Rio


We just spent two eventful weeks in my homeland of Bulgaria, where we did absolutely nothing useful besides seeing family and friends, eating, drinking, shopping and playing golf and tennis. We arrived on a beautiful warm Saturday night after a 12-hour tortured Lufthansa flight, during which I was sandwiched in the middle seat in the middle of the plane, with Son’s sleeping head on my lap (more like, on my bladder). The child sleeps well on a plane. In fact, he does not wake up at all until we land. Which makes going to the bathroom a nightmare for me. At least I watched Zoolander 2, which, as you can imagine, was excellently terrible.

On Sunday, the Diplomat began exhibiting alarming signs of restlessness, explained only by desperate desire to play some sport. He even mentioned going to the new Sofia golf course, a proposal met with an icy stare by me. But the next day I capitulated, and after a lunch at Grandma’s, we embarked on the task of finding the damned golf place. It is newly built, and while everyone can point you in the right direction and tell you that it is a mere 20 min drive, no one really knows exactly where it is. My Mom bravely said that she will drive us, and so we all piled up in her car, along with a sullen Son, who’d rather stay home and play with the myriad of kids in front of the building. Nearly breathless with anticipation, the Diplomat was glued to the car window. We quickly got to the area where rumor had it the golf course was. And there the trail got cold. Nothing around suggested that there was or has even been a golf course there, or in which direction to go to search for one. We began asking. The first guy at a gas station sent us a few kilometers further down the road. The second guy at a car shop told us to turn around and go right back to the same spot, and turn left, from where it would be pretty obvious, he said. It wasn’t. We were in the middle of a village with no one around us. Suddenly we spotted a young woman with a lanyard and a formal looking ID dangling from it. We asked her and she exclaimed: “It’s right here!” and pointed to the nothingness behind us, and then rapidly disappeared. In utter disbelief, we tried out luck again and asked an aloof-looking man with faded blue pants held together by an old rope. He gave us a wild stare and silently pointed towards the sky. Finally, utterly exasperated, we asked an unassuming man on a dilapidated bicycle and a dainty hat whether he had ever heard anything about a golf course around there. He calmly gave us exact directions and rode off into the heat of the day. 15 minutes later we found it – in the middle of nowhere, really and with no signs whatsoever. We sent Mom and Son back home, and I kept the Diplomat company as he blissfully played the beautiful course.

While in Bulgaria, we were also lucky to go to the wedding of my closest cousin, which was pretty darn cool because 1) I have never been to a wedding in Bulgaria, 2) I like his wife, and 3) well, he is my cousin. In the midst of all the leisure and good food, the Diplomat and Son took off for India to see the In-Laws, while I devoted myself to fervent shopping and reconnecting with former middle-school classmates and various friends, while getting occasionally shafted by savvy cab drivers (don’t get me started). The Diplomat went to India, all ready and excited to continue his life of leisure on the swanky golf courses of Mumbai. Nature, however, was apparently concerned that he wasn’t spending enough time indoors, so it rained for seven days straight. It rained day and night, and some more in between. I kept receiving mournful pictures of thick rain and flooded streets. Monsoon ain’t for the faint of heart. Or those obsessed with golf. All in all, it was a time very well spent on all ends.

Son, as usual, thrives in Bulgaria. Speaking at times broken Bulgarian, he spends his days outside playing with the kids in front of the building and the innumerous kittens residing there. Apparently, the garden besides our apartment building had turned into a halfway house for libertine single cat moms, and at the time I was in Sofia, there were at least five of them, each with a litter of cute fluffy babies (brimming with lice) much to all the kids’ (and mine) delight. We thus left him with Grandma for the next two months and came back to Brazil to face the Olympics and enjoy free time like newlyweds.

It just so happened that recently was also our 13th wedding anniversary. To start off the celebrations, I booked us a couples’ massage at the Rio Sheraton hotel, in one of the most gorgeous spas that I have ever seen, perched on top of cliffs overlooking the fabulous Rio beach line. It has a luxurious common lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows, and delicious petit fours. The massages themselves are, of course, excellent. It is only fair albeit a bit embarrassing to admit that the Diplomat and I are addicted to that spa. (It does help that our health insurance, in a fit of genius, covers massages, recognizing their immense benefits for one’s wellbeing and kind disposition.) We go there often enough that the spa staff and its manager actually know us. Thus, it made all the sense in the world that we will go and have a massage in the spa for the special occasion, so earlier that day, I had called to make an appointment and did mention that it was our anniversary. After the sumptuous one-hour massage (ruined partially by the sonorous snoring of the Diplomat occasionally puncturing the serene silence), we put on the white robes and stumbled back, dazed, into the common lounge, only to by greeted by the splendid sight of a bottle of champagne, strawberries, cream, and chocolates, along with the smiling staff of the spa, congratulating us. See, that is why I love that place – they have class! And champagne! From there, after a solid dose of the champagne, we went on to one of the best restaurants in Rio, Lasai, which serves cuisine that I can’t really describe. Stuff with foams and sauces and tiny things mixed into bigger things and surrounded by some other things in surprising combinations, served in odd plates or on stones, all absolutely creative and incredibly delicious. Also, atrociously expensive but by then you are too full and drunk to care. It was a pretty good anniversary.

We have exactly one month left in stunning Brazil. Our ample possessions were packed out last week (typically that happens just a few days before one leaves post, but because of the Olympics, the Consulate had to pack us out way in advance since no one here would really work once the Games begin). As is Foreign Service custom, once our stuff is gone, the Consulate delivers to you the notorious “welcome kit,” which varies in quality and form all over the world, and depends largely on the creativity and taste of the General Services officer at that post. The idea is to give you enough household goods that you’d be able to survive in the empty living space until your own stuff arrives, things like pots and pans, cutlery, glasses, linen. In Dhaka, we got sheets with negative thread count and blankets made of what could only be described as horsehair. In Rio, we have fluffy blankets and nice sheets, but also pillows about 2 mm thin. Also, no wine glasses but a top notch grater. Seriously! But all over the world, no matter how many plates (usually 4) or trashcans (1) you get, regardless of whether you receive a working iron or a colander, or whether the pots and pans were actually washed by their previous owner or come with who-know-what grit caked on them, you will invariably get a snazzy 22-inch Coby TV smaller than your computer screen. We all get this welcome kit upon our arrival at post while waiting for our own crap to arrive, and then again once our crap is packed and shipped off. And so, depending on how long it takes for your own oversized TV to arrive or how much more you have left at post, you get to spend some quality time huddled around the tiny screen. But fear not, courageous Foreign Service Officers! There is light at the end of the TV tunnel – apparently, apart from the Foreign Service General Services Offices around the world, no one else was buying the tiny, exotic TVs and in 2013, after a costly dispute with Phillips, Coby Electronics went out of business. So, once these TVs finally give out, we might all get upgraded to - oh, call me frivolous! - 28-inch non-Coby TVs in our welcome kits! Until then, however, keep huddling!