Sunday, October 14, 2018

How (not) to Move to Russia in a Week


Once we came back from Europe, the move-planning machine went into overdrive. We spent about a week waiting for the final approvals of our travel, and you’d think we would prepare ourselves better for it in the meantime. We didn’t. So, when the approvals finally came through, we were left with about 10 days or so to call the movers, sort out our possessions, buy plane tickets, figure out how to transport Son from Bulgaria (where he was still hanging out with Grandma) to Russia, rent our house, change our residency to Florida, and well, move to Russia. Suffice it to say, it did not all go super smoothly.

For starters, the move itself was a nightmare logistically. The Diplomat and Son were actually moving to Moscow so that Son can go to school there, and I was going to Yekaterinburg (about 2 hr plane ride further towards Siberia) because my assignment was there. That meant that we were going to be packed separately by two different companies on two separate days. In addition, all of our furniture had to go to deep storage (generally, the State Department provides us with furniture overseas and there is no place for our own stuff) and that was to be done by a third company. And then there was the car and the cat. So, on a Friday morning, I called the State Department Travel & Transportation coordinator and boldly scheduled the three consecutive packouts on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the following week. And then we would fly out to Russia on the following Monday. We spent the weekend splitting up the household (“you get the circular colander, I get the rectangular; you get the fancy plates, I get the grater” and so on), sorting out clothing into air shipment (to arrive within 2 weeks) and ship shipment (to arrive… no one knows when), and showing the messy house to potential renters.

And just when you thought this was not complicated and exhausting enough, I got this idea that we needed to change our Virginia residence since we were not going to be VA residents anymore. Since we own a house in Florida, I decided that we can try and switch our residence there. As we had two days before the packout hell would begin, I figured that we might try our luck and go get driving licenses and establish domicile in the state of Mickey Mouse. We flew in very late on Sunday night, got up around 9 am, drove to the DMV at 9:30 am, and walked out of there at 10 am as proud owners of shiny new driving licenses and registered FL voters. From there we drove to the Courthouse, where we filed an official affidavit of domicile. That took 7 minutes. Everywhere we went, the customer service was courteous, jovial and efficient. Also, my license photo was amazing, which is always a plus. I know we chose the right state – in Virginia, this process would have taken 11 months and 3 days. Left with all this time on our hands (I had planned a whole two days to achieve this), we decided that it was wiser to try and fly earlier home on standby to continue to sort out through our life possessions. We were home by 10 am on Tuesday. All in all, I would say that were the 35 of the most efficient hours in my life.

And so, on Wednesday, the final madness began with a snappy crew of 5 Romanian movers who were fast, efficient and dead serious. In the meantime, the Diplomat took Fat Cat (who is still very much alive, thank you very much) to the vet. You see, in order to export a cat overseas, one needs to 1) take the cat to the vet to make sure it is healthy, 2) get said cat vaccinated for rabies (and probably some other useless stuff depending on the country), 3) get the vet to sign a health certificate, and then 4) either drive 2 hours to Richmond or spend a boatload of money Fedex-ing that certificate to the U.S. Department of Agriculture where it would get signed by some other certified someone and sent back to you with a pre-paid overnight Fedex for even more money ($75 per package to be precise). The whole process is utterly incomprehensible to me – how exactly is the USDA adding value here is beyond me but airlines refuse to board the cat as cargo without that piece of paper. The trick is that the cat has to leave the country within 5 days of its exam (hence the crazy expensive overnight mail). Despite the silly logistics, this could have been a fairly simple matter of just throwing money at everyone and getting it done, except that once the vet pocketed the $350 for the exam and the vaccine, she also produced an alternative Russia-specific form, which said that Russia requires the rabies vaccine to be one more than 20 days in advance of travel (SOMEONE, and I am not saying who but it wasn’t me, did not pay attention to the instructions we were sent way in advance). As you can figure out, we were about 5 days before travel. Uselessly, the next day I drove down to Richmond with my super friend M to try and convince the USDA to sign the form anyway. Which they did not despite my earnest pleading – the lady behind the counter literally looked at the form, then at me and curtly said, “No” and then disappeared not to be seen again. Crestfallen, we drove back. Fat Cat would not fly with us. Thankfully, Super M agreed to host Fat Cat for the following 2 weeks and coordinate with a cat shipper to send the portly animal to us in the end.

Then we hit the next snag, again due to a rookie oversight. Our recently purchased car could not be shipped without a copy of the title, which in the great state of VA is electronic. You’d think that means simply that you can go to the DMV and they would print you a copy. Such silly (logical) thoughts. No. What that means is that you make a request to get a copy, and then it takes an undisclosed time for the DMV to send it to you. And if this wasn’t enough, God help you if you bought the car through a lender. In that case, it is the LENDER who has to request the title. It took our lender a week, a WEEK to do that. So, the car would also not be traveling to Russia right away – our gracious neighbor S agreed to wait for the title to arrive and turn the car over to the movers once that happened. One more reason to be relieved not to be a VA resident anymore.

So, in the end, we left the United States with stuffed 3 suitcases but without Son, Fat Cat, and the car, relying on Grandma, Super M and Neighbor S to bring/send those to us. At least we found a lovely couple to rent the house and even managed to have a few goodbye gatherings.

In the following weeks, we slowly gathered the scattered family in Russia. Grandma brought Son a week later just in time for the school sleepover; Fat Cat flew on time and has been steadily spreading his hair all over our governmentally-provided furniture for the past month; and the ship carrying the car just docked in Antwerp (when it actually gets to us is anybody’s guess, of course). Now we wait for the rest of our belongings to join us – hopefully some time before next year.

Monday, September 3, 2018

DC-Sofia-Mumbai-Sicily-Sofia-Berlin-Reykjavik-NYC-DC


It has been an eventful summer, to put it mildly. In late June, I bid goodbye to my job in the Bureau of Consular Affairs in DC, and embarked on a month-long vacation with the Diplomat and Son. If you would kindly remember, our next assignment was supposed to be Ukraine, starting in the summer of 2019. This next year we were going to study Russian and soak up more of that special Arlington culture while Son finished elementary school here. The Diplomat had the whole year planned out – the man loves to go to class. He was going to study diligently during the day, and play as much golf and tennis as was decent in the evenings and the weekends. That idyllic plan all came crashing down when I was offered a one-year assignment in Yekaterinburg, Russia to fill a staffing gap, before we go to Ukraine. I am a typical Foreign Service officer – dangle a shiny, exotic post with tons of hardship and I will end up saying yes. Which I did with the Diplomat’s blessing – I convinced him to come and study Russian in Russia instead.

That little change of plans put a major spoke in our vacation wheels. We were supposed to cash in all of our accumulated vacation time and spend close to two months in Europe and India, seeing family, friends and some good, old European churches. We had spent over 3 days in total on the phone with American Airlines, cashing in on a ton of frequent flyer miles to do that and were feeling particularly proud of ourselves achieving an almost cash-free flight experience. With this new situation, we cut our decadent vacation plans in half, canceled all those hard-won tickets (which cost us a pretty penny), attempted to re-book (with zero success) and ended up buying a whole set of new tickets, some of which made for a very interesting journey back.

We landed in Sofia on a bright July morning, ate Grandma’s delicious home food, and a day later, the Diplomat and Son left for a 5-day India visit. And while they battled crippling jet-lag there, I devoted myself to endless restaurant nights with my family, my friends, and my middle and high-school classmates, which helped tremendously with that problem. When they came back, after one more satiating dinner with the family, we headed to sunny Palermo in the pastoral Italian island of Sicily. We spent two days roaming the streets of the old city, and nature must have really liked us because instead of the typical 40+ degrees scorching summer weather, we had very pleasant, mild sunshine both days. After arriving late in the evening, we went in search of a place to have dinner, fully mindful that it was 11 pm. You know, living in Arlington slowly and cruelly conditions you to accept the reality that everything shuts down at 10:30 pm every week night, something that my inner New Yorker could never come to terms with. But this was Europe and my hopes were high. Sure enough, after roaming the quiet neighborhood for 7 minutes or so, we found the most romantic little restaurant, which served us perfect pasta, immaculate Apperol spritzes, homemade lemonade for Son, and delightful conversation with the server in perfect English. Ah, Europe….

We spent the next day sightseeing old town (went in at least 3 churches!). Palermo is beautiful, and among the classic tourist places like Ballarò Market, the Plazzo dei Normani, and the Quattro Canti (a gorgeous Baroque intersection of two main streets, which used to separate the 4 districts of Renaissance Palermo), I strongly recommend you go to the little visited San Nicolo di Bari all’Albergheria Tower, from where you will see spectacular views of the city. I also strongly recommend this site, which offered great free walking tours of the city: https://wearepalermo.com/free-self-guided-walking-tours/.

That night we decided to try and have dinner in a decidedly non-tourist place (which is not easy in a city full of tourists and restaurants catering to them). On the recommendation of a very hip-looking young lady from a bar we had some more Apperol spritzes (hip = very ripped jeans and vividly purple hair), we headed over to a most amazing restaurant called Ferro di Cavallo. With the risk of ruining a good thing for the locals, I will tell you that that was the best restaurant we ate in our entire 10 day trip in Sicily. We arrived there around 9 pm, starving and impatient to sit down. We found a very lively establishment located on a side street, with both outside and indoor seating. In front of it was a loud crowd of about 50 people, all apparently waiting for a table while laughing, screaming at each other (but in mellifluous Italian, so it was ok) and gesticulating wildly. Somewhat disheartened, I asked the astonishingly energetic and profusely sweating portly host what the wait time for a table for 3 was, and was told 1.5 hrs! 
The free goods
About to take my disgruntled and hangry troops somewhere else, we were stopped by a muscular server who came out with a giant tray of enormous fried shrimp and to the loud ovations of the waiting crowd, placed it on a table right outside the restaurant entrance. Another friendly server came out with a platter of fried calamari and two bottles of Prosecco, glistening with water sweat in the intense evening heat. Apparently, these were free provisions for those brave enough to wait for a table, and to my utter amazement and delight, they kept being replenished every 10 minutes or so. We decided to wait. Finally, we sat down to a most incredible dinner with authentic Palermian food, which, including the bottle of wine, cost us a grand total of 35 Euros. Yup, 35 Euros…


Gorgeous Ragusa
The following day we made our way back to the airport and rented a tiny car – I had booked an Italian Fiat something (when in Rome, right?), but to our utter disappointment, we were handed a Ford Fiesta. Oh well – American car it is. After driving four hours through the somewhat barren-looking, sun-scorched Sicilian countryside, we ended up in the small town of Modica, where we had rented a gorgeous villa (or, “a mansion” according to Son) with a few friends. We spent a week alternating days of sunbathing at the decadent pool, drinking wine and Prosecco all day long, exploring Modica and its restaurants and churches at night, with trips to neighboring Siracusa (boring cathedral, fabulous ancient back streets), Noto (famous for its almond-milk granita – go to CaffĂ© Sicilia for the best), the beach at Santa Maria del Focallo and Ragusa 
Baroque Modica
(incredible Baroque architecture). On our last day, sated with impressions, food, wine and good company, we headed towards Taormina to see the famous ancient Greek amphitheater. While the said amphitheater and the city itself are breathtaking (Taormina is located rather precariously on a steep cliff), we were taken aback by the hordes of tourists and the restaurants, coffee, icecream, and souvenir shops catering to them stuffing the ancient tiny, cobble-stoned streets and totally ruining the overall atmosphere. I guess we had gotten used to the much calmer and less-visited towns of Southern Sicily and this tourist hell was just not cutting it for us.




The Etna funicular
Our next stop was Mt. Etna (of course), and upon realizing that the funicular taking you to the top of the volcano closes at 4:30 pm, the Diplomat stepped on the gas of the Fiesta and made it through the hairpin roads from Taormina in record time. After paying a whooping $150 for the pleasure, we managed to catch the last cable car up the volcano. This is probably a good time to mention that I have a pretty severe fear of heights, which makes trips like that particularly enjoyable. $75 a person will only buy you a trip to the middle of the volcano, and there we were, a few minutes later, walking through the blackish dust of the mountain, staring at the various dead craters from prior eruptions. The change in temperature from the coast (38°C or 100F) to the top (22°C or 71F) was quite striking and very welcome after the swelter of Taormina’s amphitheater. Since we caught the last car up, we had only 10 minutes to enjoy the view and had to get back. 

Our last stop for the day was the ancient port city of Catania, where thanks to an insightful expose on the city in the Wizz Air inflight magazine (yes, I read those!), we finally had fried street seafood at the unassuming hole in the wall called Scirocco Sicilian Fish Lab. I highly recommend grabbing a paper funnel stuffed with fried goodness, a small bottle of Prosecco, and sitting to eat them at the Fontana dell’Elefante at the Piazza del Duomo next door. That evening, exhausted and happy, we boarded a very late Wizz Air from Catania to Sofia. Feeling that we had not rested enough, we decided to spend a couple of days in the Bulgarian spa town of Velingrad. For two days there, the Diplomat, Son and Grandma and I soaked ourselves in the various mineral pools of the hotel, dashed in and out of the steam saunas and continued to eat great food, after which we returned back to Sofia for a final few of days of meeting friends and family, which even included a club-hopping night until 2 am, much to the Diplomat’s fatigued horror.

Leaving Son behind with Grandma, the Diplomat and I embarked on a complicated (but cheaper) route back to DC. From Sofia, we took Ryan Air to Berlin, where we spent a night at a cozy airport hotel (booked with random credit card points). Despite all warnings in the media and by Grandma, Ran Air was great and on time, and did not lose our luggage – what more can one want for a $49 flight. The next morning, we flew on Iceland’s Wow Air to Reykjavik where we had a solid 7 hour layover. Another new-ish cheap airline, Wow Air is comfy, pleasant and well, yes, cheap.

Always excited to see new lands, we decided to explore the remote city, starting with a distressingly expensive dip in the famous Blue Lagoon. Turns out, however, if you are ready to part with your hard-earned 55 Euros a head, you need to book your exotic swim months in advance as it gets booked long before you land there. And so, faced with the disappointing reality, we decided to take the bus downtown and see the city instead. What we did not count on was just how long it would take despite our 7 hrs there. We had to store our hand luggage, but the only place to do so was a 10 minute windy walk outside of the airport. Then we waited for the bus, and once on it, waited for the bus to fill up and leave. 40 mins later we were in the city, which effectively left us with exactly 45 mins to see it and hop back on the bus to the airport. It was enough – Reykjavik is not exactly a sprawling megapolis. I’d like to come back one day, rent a car and drive thorough the country which looked really beautiful. From Reykjavik, we flew to New York, landed at midnight and rented a car, which the Diplomat valiantly drove until 2 am when we passed out in a lovely Days Inn somewhere in the wilderness of New Jersey. The next morning, one free “continental breakfast” later (I’d like to know which weirdo continent serves that food), we were back on the road and made it back home in Arlington by 11 am that morning. What followed were two frantic weeks of preparing to leave for Russia and packing out all of our possessions – for more on that disaster, tune in next week!

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Spring Break Roadtrip, Ordinary DC Life and a NY Twist



For spring break this year, we had the brilliant idea to take a roadtrip from DC, slowly go down south and eventually visit good friends in Jacksonville, Florida. I had it all mapped out. First night – Charlottesville. That charming little college town in the gorgeous Shenandoah valley, surrounded by a many local wineries with actually good Virginia wine. We were supposed to arrive on Friday night, check in the cozy Airbnb house, tucked away in the woods, then go to a local pub and have grass-fed burgers and local brew, while Son reveled in the company of his parents. Then on Saturday, we would prance through 2 of the best wineries, and drive down to Charlotte – the modern, hip North Carolina city with fun downtown. I even sprang on a pricier hotel downtown, to be close to the action on Saturday night. Then on Sunday, we would walk its quirky streets before we went further south to Charleston to meet with our friends and continue the trip South.

Instead, this is what happened. On Friday afternoon, after coughing violently for about a week with no other symptoms, Son complained that he did not feel well. He tends to say that a lot, which can have various meanings, depending on his mood but most typically means he is tired, hungry and about to become really whiney. We gave him snacks and drove off excitedly to the Shenandoah. After driving through a million tiny roads into the woods and stopping at a creepy train crossing for over 15 minutes to wait out a seemingly endless train, we made it to a most fabulous Airbnb rental house. We left our luggage and rushed to the local pub, where we had fabulous freshly prepared pub food, the Diplomat and I sipped local brews and wines, while Son played Minecraft. We went back, and Son happily bounced about in the huge king-sized bed he had to himself, playing with an enormous stuffed pink pig left there. The next morning, he woke up, took a shower and said he felt really sick, and proceeded to fall asleep again. Mommy’s thermometer and instinct told me he wasn’t joking, and off we went to the local emergency clinic. A neat male doctor there told us that Son either has strep or pneumonia, which freaked me out. A quick test confirmed it was NOT strep, and off we were, reams of prescriptions in our hands, into the pharmacy.

Well stocked on antibiotics, fever medicine, thermometer, cough drops, and what have you, we decided to go for lunch so that Son can have a little soup before getting medicated. We ended up in a cute local favorite, which happened to have soup. Excited, I ordered one for him, and loaded the antibiotics. He gamely ate quite a few spoonfuls, took the first dose of the medicine, looked me sadly in the eyes, then turned to the still half-full soup plate and promptly barfed everything right back in it. I should tell you that I am a sympathy barfer, and it took everything out of me to keep cool. After the Diplomat gamely took the plate back, I fed the child medicine again, stopped trying to force him to eat food and went on the road to Charlotte – a 4.5 hour drive, during which we had to stop every 30 mins for him to barf some more water, until I gave up trying to make him stay hydrated. We finally made it to Charlotte, and he refused any food option we tossed at him, until I mentioned ramen noodles. It was a winner and a turning point. The next morning, the child was bouncing off the walls again, and later that day, spent 2 hours in the pool in the Charleston hotel with his buddy, while we sipped moonshine with our friends. The rest of the trip went swimmingly well but I still need to go back to Charlottesville and sample them wineries!

Life has been hectic around here with constant hosting, going out, traveling, filing taxes, drinking in the backyard with the neighbors (frequently), schlepping Son to art classes and golf and tennis lessons, and all the other joys of every day life. We just survived our very first school play with a rather incomprehensible plot, the complexity of which was exacerbated by the poor acoustics in the school gym and the fact that we did not hear much of what was going on. It had something to do with computer games, and Son and 20 girls from the elementary school sang their hearts out for 2 hours with some sort of a moral story in the end. It was fantastic, plus there were cupcakes for the cast in the end!

Last week, very close and very fabulous friends from Brazil were visiting New York and we went up to see them for the weekend. After a grueling 6 hour drive up there, we started with a wedding party at my friend’s (she owns an apartment in NY), which she was throwing for someone else. 17 glasses of champagne and a dozen macarons later, the Diplomat and I were ready to go to the hotel and pass out. We, however, have this thing about eating ramen late at night every time we go back to NY, and around 1 am decided to see if we can find a ramen place nearby. See, this is why NY will forever be my favorite city in the whole world – it was 1 am, and we were in the middle of Midtown East, and it was not a question of whether there was a ramen restaurant open anywhere in the city at that point but rather, whether there was a good one within 3 blocks of where we were. And naturally, there was – Hinomaru Lucky Cat – with the most delicious Japanese noodle bowls one can imagine on a cool spring night in Manhattan

The next evening, we decided to take our friends to a cute French bistro in West Village we had found randomly on Open Table – Le Baratin. Small, cute and cozy, Le Baratin serves classic French food and features classic cute male French waiters. What was a little unusual was the nice dance music that was going on in the background. The music was indeed so good, that after a bottle of wine and a good steak, one of our friends felt like dancing, managed to entice a few more people from the restaurant to join her in the tiny space, and soon the entire restaurant was dancing like crazy, and since the space was so small, some were dancing on top of the bar as well. Soon the owner joined us and sent us a bunch of glasses of champagne, which of course only further fueled the dancing frenzy. We left at 1 am again. Yes, I love NYC!


This past weekend, we spent a long and sunny afternoon in the Paradise Springs winery near DC. Now, I will be the first one to tell you that Northern Virginia wine is rather crappy, BUT this was an award-winning one and for a good reason – the wine was actually quite decent, plus the grounds were beautiful. Except that today, I pulled a tick out of my foot. Um, what??

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Dancing Adults, A Most Terrifying Sales Pitch and A New Assignment

It has been an eventful few months in ole’ Washington, DC. While Son spent a month with Grandma in Bulgaria in August, the Diplomat and I decided to find the fun side of the city and to prove to ourselves how youthful we are. During our month of child-free frivolity, we discovered a very cool bar in the basement of the Hay Adams hotel called Off the Record, which with its red velvet walls and old-fashioned luxurious cocktails feels like something out of 1930s. After a few martinis coupled with Moscow mules, we decided that it was time to go dancing. Our first stop was the old classic Black Cat, which features live music, cheap drinks and 99.99% patrons 23 or younger (the Diplomat and I formed the 0.01%). After 30 minutes of being jostled by said youth, we gulped down our scotch and left in a hurry.

The next weekend, determined to find our path, we ended up at the Living Room, a hip and relatively new club, which was decidedly a step up. This time around, the average age of the cavorting dancers was a much more mature 28 and so the Diplomat and I ventured on the dance floor ourselves. It was wild, unabashed fun for about 20 minutes until we realized that everyone around us was absurdly drunk and what we took for dancing in the beginning was more like swaying back and forth, trying not to fall down. We left soon after that. Not one to be deterred by such trivial setbacks on my path to fun, I decided to research and find that one elusive place in Washington, DC where people our age went to hang out, dance and not feel 107 years old. I went straight to Google and typed: “clubs for adults in washington, dc.” I think y’all can guess what results I got out of that. So, we are back to good old foot research and once I find that elusive cool spot, I will certainly let you know.

Once Grandma and Son came back, we decided that we needed to show them some really good time, and show them what a Virginia beach looks like. To cut the cost of the lavish weekend down, we booked ourselves in the Sheraton in Norfolk, VA using points. Turns out, Norfolk has a newly developed waterfront area with several hip restaurants and one bar with a mechanical bull and waitresses dressed in cowboy boots, fish net stockings, thongs, and Hooters-style …uum, let’s call them blouses. We had to wait a few minutes to be seated and that bar happened to be next to the waiting area of the BBQ restaurant. As a result, Son was glued to the bar entrance, claiming it was because of the bull and that he was not hungry. After spending Saturday in Virginia Beach, playing endless family games of Uno and frolicking in the water, on Sunday, we planned on going to Busch Gardens amusement park in Williamsburg. The thing is, I had come into this great deal where we would get 4 tickets for the price of one in exchange for one teensy weensy little timeshare presentation to last a mere one hour. MAYBE an hour and a half. So, bright and early on Sunday, we headed to the hotel where the presentation was to take place. While we were waiting, I was pleased to see that the sales people were going fast through their spiel and seemed cognizant of why people were there – to get free stuff.

We started off rocky – we grabbed breakfast and the sales person (Bob) insisted that we finish before he began, no matter how many times we asked him to get going. Then he also insisted in taking our plates and tossing them in the trash. During all this, he was “establilshing rapport” with us, which largely meant him telling us he is a retired military and his wife Connie and him have bought one million trillion timeshares and it is, like, the best investment ever. An excruciating hour and half later, as we were writhing in agony listening to his pitch (which made no sense whatsoever – do you really believe that Williamsburg is the third most visited tourist spot in the U.S.??), he sadistically made us go on a 30-min tour of the property to show us how amazing it was (it was not). Finally, we sat back down and he asked us which unit we would like to buy. We said – none. He was astonished. Like –outright shocked. Speechless even. Once he regained his ability to speak (endlessly), he asked us in rather rude disbelief, “Which part of this did you not understand???” At this point, I was reaching a very high boiling point (I had planned to be at the park an hour earlier) and told him flat out that we are out. Naturally, he had to go to his manager, a large, rather menacing looking lady standing across the room, who listened to him, squinted her eyes at me angrily and strode over to us, plopping herself at the table with a fierce thud. She began pitching to us rapidly, in a very pissed tone, at which point I interrupted her and told her we were promised to be there for an hour, and it was already going on 2.5. She stared me down and suddenly yelled, “You are here because you want something, RIGHT??????” Errrr, yes, m’am, I said meekly in submission. So she ordered me to shut up and spend five minutes going through the pointless motions. Finally, the top boss came, signed off on the paper and let us go on our merry way to the park. I have never worked so hard to get something for free. And I am pretty sure it was my last. To his credit, the Diplomat did not say one word to me during and after, and eventually, much fun was had by all in Busch Gardens.

Most recently, we decided to brave the Thanksgiving traffic and go up to NYC to celebrate the holiday with old friends. Oddly, there wasn’t an ounce of traffic and we got to the Big Apple fresh and easy. We spent a couple of lovely days eating, drinking and catching up with our friends, and made it back down to DC on a sunny Saturday afternoon, again with not a trace of traffic. What kind of Thanksgiving miracle that was!

In other news, we have our next assignment – we are Kyiv bound in the summer of 2019! This was a dream assignment for us, but it was a nail-biter until the very bitter end – for a while, we thought we were going to Ghana and the Diplomat was already checking out golf country clubs in Accra. Instead, we will be shopping for sleds and fur coats. Which is just fine by me, thank you very much!




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...