Sunday, April 6, 2014

There we go again – the end of a roadtrip and first impressions of Rio de Janeiro


After our fabulous roadtrip, we spent a week in California where I taught my nieces how to knit (I am a ball of secret talents), did a barbeque or two, and learned to drink fantastic boxed wine. People, boxed wine is the next sliced bread! It is fresh, it saves glass, it saves corks and most importantly – it is damn cheap! It will take over the world, I predict. A week of boxed wine, and we flew down to Fort Lauderdale where we climbed on a week-long cruise to a string of Caribbean islands whose names and sequence I promptly forgot.
Cruising! My goodness – have you done cruising? It is an outstanding way to vacation! I wish I lived the rest of my life on a cruise. Naturally, it does depend on which cruise line you do end up, so thankfully, with the expert help of our fabulous friends P&C, we sailed on the luxurious Celebrity Silhouette – an island of never-ending buffet, faucets of booze, a delightful British band called “The Smart Casuals” and hundreds of Serbian/Croatian/ Macedonian/Russian/Indian crew members, where you can see why we felt at home right away.  We were lucky to receive a free “classic alcohol package.” Yes, that means that we drank for free. That also means that we drank a lot. At times, indiscriminately even. There were says I thought I’d turn into a Mimosa myself. The last night, I simply could not have a night-cap. My body disagreed and my mind agreed with it. See, the problem was that 1. the booze was free, and 2. there was always someone to bring it to you. Anyway, the cruise was amazing, and no small of that was due to the awesome company of P&C, with whom we even played a couple of exquisite games of Taboo – a game both the Diplomat and P’s husband C particularly cherish. OK, I lied, they don’t. Good men.
Once we arrived back to the ever cultural Fort Lauderdale, we had a day to re-organize our two bulging suitcases and 3 pieces of hand luggage, which were so heavy one would think that we were smuggling led or gold bars. Now, I would like to run by you once again the logistics that was our month-long vacation. As you remember, we started out with 6 suitcases, packed for Brazil. As Brazilians adore shopping in the U.S., the airlines have allowed everyone going to Brazil from the U.S. two suitcases of 70lbs each per person to carry the loot back home. To capitalize on that, I had packed us accordingly. As we were going on a 3-week roadtrip though, we had to leave 4 gigantic suitcases in P&C’s house in Washington, DC, to be picked up after the cruise. We then took the remaining 2, limited them to 50 lbs each and overstuffed the hand-luggage. Once the cruise was over, we spent the night in Fort Lauderdale, and then the Diplomat took a 7 am flight to go back to Washington, DC to pick up the 4 70-lbs suitcases. Son and I then flew on a later, more human flight of 10.50 am to meet him in Washington, and to fly to Brazil.
Fat Cat, at the same time, also was about to board a plane of his own – since our connection to Rio in Houston was only 45 mins (apparently, insufficient for fat cats transfers), Fat Cat had to take an earlier flight and join us in Houston, so that we can arrive on the same flight in Rio. While we were gallivanting through the Motherland, Fat Cat was happily residing with a most amazing friend of ours in Washington. Thus, when the time came for him to fly, we engaged the expert services of an animal shipper, the lovely Action Pet Express. Contrary to my experience with other folks in the business, they were efficient and communicative, and apparently knew what they were doing – Fat Cat was unceremoniously collected from the house of my friend (after some running and hiding, apparently), and put on the plane to Houston. Thank you, Action Pet Express! Same day still, Son and I gracefully arrived at the Baltimore airport, where we soon met the Diplomat who had gotten a rental car and brought the luggage back from P&C’s place.
And there we were, 324 giant suitcases, one bored to tears child running up and down the airport, clutching a large plastic dinosaur, one bedraggled, grumpy and sleepy Diplomat and me – ready to burst into tears as I realized that in mere 6 hours I will be in international air space, leaving my beloved United States of America for two years AGAIN. Our terrific friends M&M came to the airport to see us off and give us one more last hug, which made me tear up even more. Going to Rio in business class helped though.
We landed in Rio on a beautiful Tuesday morning, when the sun was shining and no-one spoke English at the airport. We were picked up by our gracious social sponsor from the Consulate (new officers arriving at post generally are assigned a social sponsor who meets them at the airport, shows them where to buy salt and wine, how to sign up for internet, and is generally there to answer any kind of asinine questions you might have when arriving in a brand new country) and headed straight to the cargo area of the airport to pick up Fat Cat. That took 4.5 hours. For real. I don’t know why. It also took about 1234 pages of documentation, to handle which we hired an outrageously expensive local “broker.” This Fat Cat costs a LOT of cash for the paltry amount of affection I get from him. Just as I sit here and write this, he is lying next to me on his back, four legs high up in the air and his butt resolutely pointing in my direction, twitching in his sleep. Am I supposed to be endeared??
And there they are, my promised first impressions of Rio de Janeiro, the Marvelous City as they call themselves.
1.       Cariocas (people from Rio) are OBSESSED, POSSESSED, CRAZY about working out. Wherever you go, you’ll encounter hundreds of people running (men are always topless), bench pressing, squatting, stretching, lunging, lifting, pulling. There are contraptions every few meters on the beach that present opportunities to do all of the above. At times, I am afraid that as I am standing there talking to a Brazilian, he will burst into a spontaneous workout, or start doing push-ups as we talk not to waste of minute of the day without toning his already perfect body. Yesterday we passed by what appeared to be a public playground. It turned out to be a free gym for the retired. It was packed by 60-year old ladies, who were working out so hard as if they were being paid. It was 9 pm on a Friday…
2.       Every fourth person on the street wears clothes with the colors of the Brazilian flag – whether it is a t-shirt, a skirt, a microscopic bikini or bombastic shorts, the folks of Rio wear their Brazilian pride for everyone to see.
3.       Brazilian men largely consider shirts to be an inconvenience to life. Thusly, they have resolved to life without them. Many also scorn pants – it is warm, after all, isn’t it? Why bother? As a result, the streets of the city are filled with men walking around in absurdly small bathing suits (at least, I’d like to THINK they are bathing suits) and little else besides a watch. Some a pleasing to the eye. Some – well…
4.       Rio is gorgeous. It is busy, crowded, noisy, but it is also filled with trees and palms and flowers, the beach has powdery white sand, the ocean is inviting, and then when you look behind you, there are stark tall mountains, from the top of one of which looks down benevolently Christ the Redeemer. I feel calm and happy in Rio, and forge ahead with my somewhat forgotten Portuguese.
5.       I need to refresh my Portuguese or learn to carry a small dictionary. Today I purchased detergent, but to my dismay my whites’ laundry left a lot more to be desires. Cursing Whirlpool, I ran the laundry again. It was a tad better. Then I decided to read the label on the tub of liquid that I had bought. Not understanding what appeared to be a key word, I went to the dictionary. You see, it appears that I have been washing the clothes with fabric softener.

Summary: Rio is amazing and its people are wonderful. I feel very fat here. Rio is expensive. I need to be at work by 7.25!!!!!! Should I run on the beach?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Home Leave: The Roadtrip

Well, we are no more in Arlington, VA. We spent a solid month planning the move, which was being complicated by the planned Home Leave – that one month of mandatory vacation the State Department wants us to take every time we change posts in order to re-familiarize ourselves with the motherland. Our Home Leave was a 3-week road trip starting in Salt Lake City and ending in San Francisco, followed by a week of cruising. The complications: On one hand, Fat Cat could not come with us during Home Leave for the very simple reason that we are we did not think it was a wise idea to have a hyperventilating cat with massive claws stuck in the car with us for three weeks. Thus, we had to find a temporary home and someone to put him on a plane to Brazil. On the other hand, the planning was also complicated by the fact that Home Leave would include both skiing and visits to rainy states, as well as a week in California and one more in Florida. Which would mean that we would need one suitcase with warm skiing clothes, and one with light, summer clothes. A final complication is that we leave for Brail immediately after the cruise, for which purpose we have additional 4 suitcases, weighing about 60lbs each, which we clearly could not and would not take on the roadtrip with us unless we traveled on a school bus. Which we did not. So, we deposited the 4 monstrous suitcases with a couple of VERY close friends and the Diplomat will go fetch them after the cruise is over on the day we leave for Brazil and drag them somehow to the airport where Son and I will be eagerly waiting. As I said, a lot of planning went into this. I am also currently VERY suitcased-out.

I’d like to offer a few astute observations from our road trip so far:
  1.       America is beautiful.
  2.       America is largely under-populated. There were miles upon miles without seeing a single soul, whether it was human or bovine (and there is a LOT of bovine around the NW).
  3.       America has an astonishingly large amount of Walmart and Fedex trucks. Every second truck on the road is a Walmart truck, and every third one – Fedex. What are people SENDING and BUYING so much??
  4.       America has an even larger amount of microbreweries. Each one claims to have the BEST beer. Half of it tastes the same.
We started the trip in Salt Lake, leaving the frivolous life of FSI behind and flying over. We settled in a rather dated Sheraton in downtown SLC, and spent the next three days skiing in Alta, a fabulous skiing mountain, which was made even more fabulous by the fact that no snowboarders were allowed there (no hatin’ but suffice it to say that there is nothing more annoying to a skier than a posse of young snowboarders with pants bottoms hanging lower than Foucault pendulum, sprawled out leisurely in the middle of a run, usually right after a turn and thus, not clearly visible, chatting the day away oblivious to the frantic skiers trying to avoid them upon stumbling upon them suddenly and with great speed). Son was deposited in ski school, which he absolutely loved while we gallivanted though the sunny, powdery slopes and drank copious amounts of beer.
I would like to take a brief pause from my typically flippant writing style and pay homage to a good friend and reader of this very flippant blog who passed away about two weeks ago. The reason we began our trip in Salt Lake was indeed to see our friend, a fellow diplomat with whom we worked in Bangladesh, who was fighting a very cruel terminal disease. Ever courageous and gallant, just a month before our arrival he had told the Diplomat that he could not wait for us to arrive so that we can all ski together and have fun in their gorgeous house in Park City. In fact, he had been skiing every day until then with zero function in his arms. Lou Gehrig’s disease (or ALS) had other plans, however, and less than a week before our arrival, our friend suddenly passed from the various complications that come with ALS, leaving behind a gorgeous wife and two small baby girls. I am forever grateful that she allowed us to spend some time with her last week, sharing memories over exceptional homemade meatloaf and copious amounts of red wine. Dear D, you were an adventurer in the true sense of the word and you will inspire us forever! May you rest in peace!

From Utah, we continued through the vastly unexciting vast landscape of vast burnt high desert to the happening town of Boise, Idaho, where we stayed with another couple of fabulous friends of ours. They happen to have a set of twins the exact same age as Son, which made for a VERY loud house for the three days we were there. I must say that Boise was an unexpected delight – the very first night we arrived, the lady of the house H took me on a wine/beer/chocolate/nut/food tasting bonanza through town, also known as “First Thursday.” The idea is that every first Thursday of the month, participating shops and restaurants open their doors until later than usual, allowing Boisians and their lucky visitors to stroll through downtown, enjoying galleries hosting wine tastings, unique stores offering cheese and snacks, even nut shops featuring microbrews! It was fabulous! I barely remember getting home. I did manage to acquire, however, in my, err, rather felicitous state, a bag of exceptionally spicy peanuts, appropriately dubbed “Ghost Chilies.” I remember eating a few of them in the store, thinking them a stupendous idea at the time. Keep in mind that at the same moment I was sampling raw beer from a 25 gallon jug so my judgment just MIGHT have been clouded on that one. The next day it became apparent that eating more than one per day was injurious to the health. Also, no one else but me would go near the damn nuts. I persevere and eat them. As a matter of fact, I JUST had one, to prove a point. I am amazing! I am also currently breathing fire more impressively than the dragons on “Game of Thrones.” The point it – Boise is happening! Go visit.

From Boise, we set out to Salem, Oregon on a two-day trip, spending the night in Bend, OR. Thankfully, the landscape changed and we began enjoying rolling hills and multiple cows around us. In Bend we checked in into the stylish Shilo Inn Suites Hotel from the similarly named shabby chic mid-Western chain, which besides a rotating Lazy Boy also boasted a devastatingly handsome gas fireplace with an elegant wall timer, allowing for full 15 minutes of unmitigated romance and natural warmth. Looking dreamily into the gay, most natural flames of the fireplace, I began to think that I knew why those jetsetters Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt named their first-born child Shilo – could it be that she was the wonderful outcome of a playful night in front of the gas fireplace at one of the several locations of the Shilo Inn Suites in, say, Tillamok, Oregon after a day of sampling cheese or maybe in Nampa, Idaho or even Elko, Nevada?? I am just saying…
We had dinner in one of the ubiquitous microbreweries there, The Deschutes Brewery, where Son as usual drew dinosaurs all over the children’s menu (the kid is somewhat of a Dino Picasso, if I may say so rather proudly!) and I as usual ate an enormous burger with three kilos of French fries. Good times! The next day was back on the road towards Salem, another 130 miles or so. Easy, no? No. Everyone kept mentioning that we “would be fine if we have chains or traction tires.” Traction who? The weather was a pleasant 59 F, and I kept remarking just how lucky we had been with it all along. Apparently there was some mythical pass where the situation could be different. We scoffed, bought a coffee at yet another ubiquitous phenomenon in the Northwest – a drive through espresso joint – and went on our merry way into the forest. 20 mins later, it began to drizzle. Another 5 and it was raining. Then it turned into flurries, and to my amazement another 15 mins later we were full deep into a snow blizzard. WHAT?? The Diplomat was cool as a cucumber, and glued himself behind a semi-truck who slowly went up through “the pass” clearing the road for us. I sat there in the passenger seat, white-knuckled, without chains or traction tires, or even without so much as a sweater, counting miles. Folks, it was surreal! Mere 30 miles below, it is sun and rainbows. Up there – blizzards and traction tires. Another 20 mins and we were out of the snow inferno, back into pleasant green pastures and more placid looking cows. Soon we were in Salem, a delightful little city in the midst of the green vastness of Oregon. Son spent the next three days creating major mischief with his slightly younger cousin while we tasted wine, spent a windy day at the Oregon coast, drank more beer (where else) at a local microbrewery, and generally did not do anything useful besides laundry.

Next stop – San Francisco (well, San Ramon, where my sister-in-law, or SIL, lives). The trip had to be broken in two again, given the over 600 miles distance. The Diplomat decisively determined that we shall cruise through fun coastal roads rather than drive on the highway, and thus, had to wake up at the crack of dawn to be on the road by 7.30 am. I agreed and we managed to be on the road by 8.30 am, which isn’t bad given our usual standards. Packed with snacks and waving tearful goodbyes with his cousin and his 36-week pregnant wife, we drove off to the border of California in search of Redwoods and more sunshine. The Redwood National and State Park is located in the northernmost coastal California, right off the border with Oregon and stretches about 50 miles south, generally oriented along Route 101 between Crescent City and Orick. It is home to majestic redwood pines thousands of years old and quite ginormous. Some of the tree trunks are so large that some idiots earlier in the previous century decided to carve tunnels through them so that they can drive cars through the tree. Man and nature, true harmony.

We drove slowly through this natural wonder and decided to stop and take what was supposed to be a 30 minute hike through the grandiose forest. The trail, however ended back into the parking lot after 7 minutes. Clearly disappointed, plus Son insisted to checking for some of the alleged local fauna like Roosevelt Elk and banana slugs, I decided to take another trail that went somewhat parallel to the main road and promised to cross it in half a mile and go back through the trees on the other side of the road according to the nice map we looked at. All was well, and the Diplomat, Son and I were enjoying a pleasurable walk through the beautiful nature until it became clear that we are back to where we had parked the car except that we were about 400 feet from the road and while we could see the car parked there, there was no trail that led to it as promised. Clad in knee-high boots, I looked at the high grass and random shrubbery and decided that we will just cut across NATURE and get back to the road. While it wasn’t as easy as walking on a trail path, it wasn’t climbing Mount Everest either. The Diplomat disagreed. He did so loudly. In fact, he kept disagreeing though the 5 minute trek that did involve, among other daring things, climbing on a cut tree trunk and jumping over a small ditch that ran parallel to the road. The man is just not the outdoorsy type. Clearly, we survived. We managed to get to Fortuna that night, where we had dinner in a…YES, a MICRO-FREAKING-BREWERY! Dude…

The next day we had about 200 miles left and looked like we would make it to the house of SIL before lunch until suddenly the Diplomat got a hankering for mission-style burrito. So, tacos were had and then we just happened to stumble upon Sonoma Valley so we had to stop at our second favorite vineyard, Clos du Bois, to taste some of their newest inventions and eat our mission-style food (is it just me or “mission-style” sounds dirty??) Then one last pit stop at McDonalds and after 3 hours in San Francisco traffic, we were finally at the doors of SIL’s house in San Ramon, CA. Epic.

Fun fact – when I returned the rental SUV that same night, I decided to look exactly how many miles we had driven. Check this out – it was EXACTLY 2000 miles. EXACTLY! To the mile! Unreal. Karma. The trip was awesome. You’d think that spending 8-9 hour days locked in a car with your beloved and your small child for days on end will end up in several nervous breakdowns but it did not. It was, in fact, rather fantastic! Thank you, Mr. Diplomat for driving 1800 miles (I did drive here and there) and never once complaining about it! We should do this again. Like, in 10 years.

In the next post, I will regale you with stories of how Son entertained himself during the trip (very useful info) and how we went to a Go Kart place today. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We speak Portuguese!!

It has been practically a month since I last wrote, wow. Been busy, you know? Finishing language training, completing about 785 administrative tasks related to leaving the warm bosom of the Foreign Service Institute, packing my scarce possessions…

Speaking of the training, I just passed my Portuguese test, and apparently, in the learned opinion of the State Department, I now speak Portuguese on a fairly intelligent level. Look at me, yey!! Let me tell you about those State Department language tests. They are all conducted on the top floor of the building where there are few rooms and people only go to test. It looks and feels desolate. And desperate. You can practically smell the desperation in that area. Or maybe it is just sweat and dust from nervous students.\

The way the exam is conducted makes things even worse. After you check-in for the exam, and fill out a form that you will never discuss its contents with anyone, you sit there nervously in a semi-circle with other colleagues who are also awaiting the guillotine (also known as language test) while fighting the un-ladylike urge to bite on your freshly manicured nails. The testing center has exams all the time, in all kinds of languages. Everyone sits there, tightly wound, making stupid jokes and bitching about the testing process. You can feel something ominous up in the air. And then suddenly various executioners, cleverly disguised as examiners, come by and take the trembling officers one by one into the torture cells, designed to look like sound-proof testing rooms. It is a humbling experience. And if you are sitting there, wondering why this is such a big deal, let me tell you – each language student has to reach a certain level of proficiency, depending on the language and the job he or she is going to. If you fail, you ain’t going to post. You go home. You feel awful, you might even feel sorry for yourself. The department gives you more time at FSI to learn the language and you mournfully wish your colleagues who have passed to have fun and good luck at post. And so, you go in the testing room, facing the two examiners, and lose valuable 2 hours of your life trying to prove how great you know Albanian, or Farsi, Norwegian or Amharic or whatever else elusive and twisty language you have been sweating over the past months. Once it is done, you are sent back to the waiting room to watch how your hair slowly turns white from worry. Gradually, the rest of your compadres file out of their rooms and all gather back to discuss their performance. As it turns out, everyone thinks that they did God-awful. I just wish someone, someday has the balls to state coolly, “I killed that exam! I was awesome! I am as fluent in Bengali as was Rabindranath Tagore. I am THE shit!” Clearly, no one ever says that or else the rest of the trembling crowd might tear him or her to pieces in their neurosis after the exam. In a few deathly long minutes, you are summoned back in to be informed just how miserably you have done and how you have barely squeaked by the necessary score and just what a shame you are to the Department. Or not. Depends.

What I love watching, though, is the lit faces of those colleagues who just fly out of those rooms upon hearing that they have passed and look like happy lunatics! Yey, congratulations! You are now ready to go to Ouagadougou (yes, this is a real place!). I will never understand why the Department tests us. Our teachers, who spend way too much time with us every day can tell you in two seconds whether or not we are at a certain level, and how much more we need. None of this exam nonsense is necessary if you have studied the language at FSI and people have monitored your shaky progress. I have vowed to become boss of FSI one day so that I can dispense with this vile practice once and for all. Seriously.

This past weekend was spent pleasantly with 2 of our closest couples and their kids in a rented house in Deep Creek, Maryland. As the Diplomat passed his own exam on Friday morning, we collected Son from school, and set on the 3.5 hr journey to spend a lovely weekend with friends, eat and drink and try to forget as much Portuguese as possible. With about 30 mins to our destination, our friends P&C called us with the exciting news that the street leading to our house is solid frozen and their SUV refused to climb there. Given that we drive a toy car with rear-wheel drive, we would never make it. In addition, they cannot find where the house actually is given that the whole area is pitch black. Exciting! I immediately began calling the owner (who was apparently caring for her sick ancient aunt on the West Coast and her husband whom we later concluded works for the CIA (we based this clever deduction on the fact that we found a CIA mug in the house! Solid logic)). No one picked up for some time and it took a somewhat terse email to her to finally get some traction.

The owner informed me rather shocked that the plough-guy must have been there. Sure, I said, but he might just as well have been bird-watching for there was a solid sheet of ice on the way to the house. She then cheerfully asked me if we had any other place to stay in town. Icily, I remarked that we do not, that we have just driven 4 hours and have 4 tired, hysterical children in the cars. She said she will try to find someone to do something. I trekked up the street in utter irritation only to find that if the cars curved to the right onto the grass, it might be possible to avoid the ice. In true Bulgarian form, our friend C then gunned his SUV and actually made it all the way.

That did not solve the problem, however, that we could not find the house itself. It was 10 pm, the darkness blinding and my cell phone light could only go so far. It did not help that I decided that I saw a bear move in the woods. Finally, after a lot of brave loitering about, I stumbled on the path to the damned house and soon we were all in, bringing in massive quantities of food, enough to last us a week, and a bunch of hyper kids. By 12 am, we managed to send the broods to bed and opened up a bottle of bubbly. The rest of the weekend was filled with snow tubing, constant eating, drinking, yelling at the kids to stop yelling, more eating and drinking, games of Taboo (to the constant protests of the men) and testy phonecalls to the landlady to ask just why exactly the heating does not work on the first floor of the house and one could actually domesticate a penguin there should the desire befell. The landlady told us that there are some vents on the ceiling, and we should get our ass on a chair to go open them. Um, wow, you did not just say that. After we did climb and fiddle with them, and still nothing happened, we called again. Landlady got seriously pissed and proceeded to chide my friend for calling her too many times which she found to be rude. Awesome. Thankfully, otherwise the house was great and the company wonderful, the kids ran non-stop for 24 hours, yelling from the top of their lungs, falling, scraping, hitting, injuring and laughing themselves to their hearts’ content. And I got to drink tea from the CIA mug!

My precious belonging just got packed by two feisty Salvadorean ladies. It was a bit of an embarrassing experience as we kept forgetting stuff in closets and entire rooms. Oh well. Glad to be done! This Sunday we begin a month-long home leave. Yeah, that paid MANDATORY vacation that the State Department makes us take after each post. Man, I LOVE this job.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Swine Flu, Daytime TV and one Naughty Scale

Son and I just had swine flu, which lasted for 5 agonizing days. Well, truthfully, it was more like Son had it and then promptly gave it to me as I valiantly slept in his bed to watch over him at night. Internally disappointed that he had no flu at all, the Diplomat toyed with the idea of having nausea and upset stomach for a few hours three days ago, but I think once his stomach expelled the last vestiges of the super spicy Indian food he had just ingested for lunch that day, plus he got bored lying down, he miraculously got cured. Son and I, on the other hand, stuck to Tamiflu, limited mobility and endless television for 4 days each and we are as good as new. Only my voice is still gone, which I am sure is not lamented by anyone around me.

AS I said, I spent 4 days placed mostly horizontally in front of the TV! Whoever tells you that daytime TV sucks, is clearly not watching the right channels. Folks, daytime TV rocks! So educational and informative. Thanks to HGTV, TLC and National Geographic, I am now all updated on fiancĂ© immigration, plural marriages, how to loose more than 450 lbs in a year, remodeling a hovel, baby delivery in prison, buying million dollar properties in Manhattan, being pregnant without knowing it until you deliver in the toilet, everyone’s desire for an “open layout” in their houses, connecting to dead spirits in Long Island, choosing bridesmaids dresses with a bunch of obnoxious bridesmaids, having oddly themed weddings, buying apartments in Bolivia, having unexpected quintuplets, eating makeup, living your life as a real, alive doll and trying to conceive as a "small couple.” America is great! People, we are honestly an amazing country where EVERYTHING, EVERY SINGLE THING is possible. In fact, we do not need mandated home leave in the Foreign Service to get reconnected to our country. We simply need to be forced to spend a week watching a compilation of all such great reality shows from the past year and we will get re-acclimated very, very fast, plus we will save our government oodles of money.


Sadly, I am now completely hooked on those Property Brothers and Kitchen Cousins (who are SO easy on the eyes while they wield a hammer!; I wonder if there are more family members doing construction out there...some Bathroom Uncles maybe?) as well as Long Island Psychic, who is clearly for real and so are her nails. No shame. Validate! What??



The one positive outcome of the flu has been some good, solid weight loss as I discovered in delight this morning while performing my daily morning ritual of weighing myself. Interestingly however, few moments later I was summoned back to the bathroom (where the scales are) by the very distressed cries of the Diplomat. It appeared that something was wrong with the scales. You see, he also weighs himself every morning. (Yes, we are that kind of an obsessed family.) Apparently, however, the scales were showing him to be at least 5 lbs more than what he deep down knew to be at (and 10 more than what he had told me he was). I climbed back on the scales and with a cloying, asinine smile announced that no, the scales were just fine and I have apparently lost some weight. He gave me a murderous look and moved the scales around the floor to a new position, then climbed back on it. The scales indeed showed a drop of 5 lbs – apparently there was some sort of a mistake before, or maybe he did not see right, who knows. The reality, however, was that he still was weighing way more than he wanted/claimed to be. He spent the next 10 minutes moving the contraption in various sports around the bathroom floor in the hopes of finding the one uneven tile that will help him shed another pound or two. It was not successful. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Holidays Are Over. Phew!


Well, it sure was a busy holiday month for me. If I was complaining about my boring life before, I have gone into hiding this weekend to take a break from the holidays. We were very lucky to get several batches of guests visiting us on several occasions for the past month or so. The Diplomat’s sister and her family came for a blitz Thanksgiving visit, and her twin 10-year old girls entertained Son while they themselves obsessed over Fat Cat and his maddening sloth.
Then I spent two weeks getting ready for Christmas. I decided that the best time to buys a Christmas tree was in the middle of the first snowfall in Washington, and much to chagrin of a VERY unenthusiastic Diplomat, we set out on a mission to find ourselves said tree. I had noticed a place close by which claimed to sell trees and we headed there only to discover 4 sad small trees standing lonely in a parking lot. Elated, the Diplomat announced that they all looked great and we should buy one immediately and then go home and do nothing. I protested loudly and unfazed, took my grudging party to a more-distant Home Depot, which was selling many resplendent, ridiculously cheap trees. With the Diplomat standing steeped in obvious and deep boredom, Son and I pranced around in the falling snow, unfurling tree after tree to find the right one. We did and then spent the next 3 days decorating it. Well, it was more like me decorating it, Son hanging one ball and then breaking another and then wandering off to play with dinosaurs and the Diplomat murmuring that all looked very nice whenever he would pass by. In the meantime, I cruised the stores for days for various gifts, then spent several days wrapping them and then some more mailing some of the gifts to India, Bulgaria and Bangladesh. I also actively avoided the several boxes in the Diplomat’s closet that were clearly delivered for me by Santa Amazon and Santa Sephora. I was SO ready for that Christmas, you have no idea!
Then for Christmas we had a visit from our fabulous British friends, whom we met in Bangladesh (she works for the British Foreign Service) but now live in Jamaica (welcome to the Foreign Service life and its complexities). We had a manic Christmas Eve, where I cooked a traditional Bulgarian vegan dinner and we also had our lovely friends M&M and their two kids over (it is magical just how much noise 4 children can make together, even when they watch a movie). Then we went out the next two nights – we managed to find a lovely college student, daughter of a fellow FSO, who agreed to babysit on Christmas and the following day. Even though we clearly overdid it (the poor thing texted me around 1.30 am on the second night we went out to check whether we were alright. We were. We were dancing, drinking colorful drinks with many things in them and completely oblivious to the time), she agreed to babysit for us again!
When they left on the 27th, we spent a night with the Diplomat’s fantastic cousin and his wife, who live in Oregon but had come to visit their parents in the area. We happen to love them – they are doctors, and nothing fazes them out. We spent another boozy night with them, and then on the 28th the Diplomat and Son and I piled ourselves up somehow in the car and took off for NYC where other friends (whom we know from their own stint in Dhaka) had graciously agreed to give us their apartment while they gallivant in Argentina for the holidays. We arrived in NYC around 7 pm and headed straight to see yet another set of friends who had just arrived from Bangladesh (man, this Bangladesh connection just never stops!??). Finally, around 8.30 pm, we crawled into the apartment, put the child to bed and collapsed ourselves.
The next 3 nights are a bit of a blur to me. I know that we paid a pile of cash to the babysitter (a fabulous Tibetan lady recommended by the friends whose apartment we were invading, who sighed and said that yes, she would come on New Year’s Eve) so that we can go and eat and drink and spend even more money around Manhattan. We even managed to see Brook Shields in one of the restaurants! We went out for lunches, drinks, dinners, some more drinks, shopping, ice-skating in Central Park (a sure highlight for Son who skated for the first time in his life, and after falling give or take 87 times, concluded that he could skate very well), coffees and teas and finally it was time for New Year’s Eve. Well, that was going to be a night well spent.
I was determined to party the night away and it was shaping up to be that way. We were going to have dinner with a couple of friends, and then go dancing with another bunch of friends. As it happens in all crappy movies, everyone canceled mere hours before we were supposed to go. Undaunted and with grim determination, I slathered on a whole bunch of makeup, put on a skimpy dress (a GREAT choice in the 30F weather) and the Diplomat and I dove into the bright NYC night. We had a wonderful date! After randomly walking into a phenomenal restaurant in the West Village (Blue Ribbon), and having drinks at the Orient Express bar (it has a Portuguese bar tender, who overheard us speaking Portuguese, something we do when we have one too many, and asked whether we were Brazilian – whaaaaaat??), we ended up at Sounds of Brazil, aka SOBs where we danced until, I think, 2.30 am to the sounds of funky Brooklyn brass band. Then we took pity on the babysitter and headed home. You try to get a cab in Manhattan at 3 am on New Year’s eve. After 20 min in the streets, competing with dozens of other desperate taxi-aficionados, and slowly sliding into hypothermia, I think the Diplomat sort of threw himself in front of a cab which was clearly headed home. The bleary-eyed cab driver took one long at my bare legs and took pity on us. We were in bed by 3.30 am. Happy New Year.
The next day we drove back to Washington. You’d think that after all that, we’d just quietly go home. Not us for there is no rest for the wicked. We first stopped to see our lovely friends in Jersey City, the original Bulgarian-Indian couple, who had just had their first baby and were more or less locked inside their apartment. After fortifying ourselves with massively strong Indian tea and fabulous Bulgarian apple pasty, and Son pooped in their resplendent master bathroom, we set back on the road. Next we stopped to see one of the Diplomat’s 47 first cousins (or 43, or 38; the number of his first cousins varies constantly every time the Diplomat mentions them – they either die and resurrect themselves all the time, or he has no idea what he is talking about). He and his wife live in exciting Metuchen, and on that particular day, they themselves were hosting for the holidays his own brother, his wife and daughter (who live in Canada). The ladies of the house had cooked up a massive Indian lunch for us, which was so good that I was the last person to leave the table. It was embarrassing, really.
I have always enjoyed Christmas in their house. Albeit faithful Hindus, they put up a Christmas tree every year to the delight of their two your daughters. Gifts are exchanged and Santa is respected. Puzzled by the obvious religious discrepancy, I was told by the Cousin’s wonderfully progressive wife Mrs. H, that this was a Hindu Christmas tree. It is quite possible that she was joking. Then it turned out that she even organized a group of little Indian kids who went around their housing development caroling for the unsuspecting neighbors. I was speechless. Welcome to the melting pot.
After we managed to get ourselves out of the food coma around 4 pm, we got back on the road and an hour later arrived in Princeton, the last stop on our insane itinerary, for a brief visit to a couple of our oldest friends. As if we hadn’t eaten anything so far, we shamelessly attacked the amazing cheeses and champagne they offered us. What is WRONG with me? 8 pounds more, that’s what…

Finally, at 10 pm, we wobbled in home. It is official – the holidays are over. Hallelujah. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Getting In Shape

        
So, I have embarked on a (losing) journey to get in shape for the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. I signed up for overly expensive Pilates classes in the neighboring yuppie and pretentious studio. I religiously attend them once a week only to witness perky senior citizens twist their bony limbs like a pretzel while I try to mobilize my reluctant stomach muscles to lift my (apparently) giant upper body, panting like a Doberman after a good run. Not pretty. Since Pilates wasn’t cutting it, I decided to go further and signed up for full membership at the local YMCA.
Have you ever been to a YMCA? Man, it is amazing in there! They offer so much for so little and on top of that they provide free babysitting while you work out! He-llo! I decided to try out Zumba since it offered great movement, exercise and dancing skills, plus it is a Brazilian thing. Made in Heaven especially for me. I showed up to my first class only to find myself in the same room with more ladies of the wiry senior citizens variety, one seriously tall gal in her twenties clad in a strange outfit of purple sneakers and a t-shirt with no back that somehow was tied around her neck, and one gangly Chinese boy. Our teacher was a petite Venezuelan lady who would put the Energizer bunny to shame. She turned on some loud and overly energetic salsa, and began to Zumba. For those who are not familiar with this particular form of exercise – Zumba turned out to be a dynamic combo of a workout and overly suggestive nightclub dancing. Half of the time we would be doing squats, and the other – shimming our boobs and shaking our butts violently. The Asian kid seemed to move most of the time to some internal tune of his own. I will tell you one thing – no matter how much I work it, I can NEVER move my behind the way that tiny Venezuelan lady can. And neither can any of the old ladies, frankly. What is worse, there is a whole wall of mirrors in front of us, so that I actually have to watch my own misery and inadequate flailing of limbs up and down the room. I persevere.
Speaking of working out, it seems that the entire county of Arlington is on the same quest as me. Sadly, most of them have taken it outside the workout rooms and have flooded the streets of the area. Bloody runners, they are EVERYWHERE like some sort of shapely, energetic and menacing gigantic locusts that have invaded our quiet and boring neighborhood. The worst is that they run at night, in the dark, ALWAYS clad in all black, which means that if you are pensively driving through the back, less well lit streets, on your way to the supermarket busy with pondering what to buy that has less calories, you are bound to not see them as they come in seemingly from nowhere. Even worse, they inevitably will be blasting some inane workout music in expensive noise-isolating headphones thus not hearing your car that is happily humming along on its way to Giant. Last night, as I was driving back from Pilates around 7 pm, feeling rather good about myself and quite well disposed towards the world in the enveloping Arlington darkness, I was startled by a ridiculously well-shaped, tall female runner, who was also dragging 2 massive Collies along for the run. As I was approaching an intersection with beautiful green traffic lights, the fantastic specimen of female physique burst in from my left, not giving the red light in front of her any respect, and without stopping for even one second to see if there MIGHT be cars interested in utilizing the green light, ran across the street followed by her bored dogs. I honked for good measure, at which point, without stopping running, turned around, showed me the middle finger and screamed a rather offensive suggestion for me to go do something, frankly, physically impossible to myself. Really??

Life here is otherwise humming along. We go to Portuguese classes every day, try to amuse ourselves by spending money on the weekends. We hosted a Thanksgiving dinner last week when we had a visit from the Diplomat’s sister and her family who live in California. For the dinner itself, we also had invited the Diplomat’s pregnant cousin and her husband, and his aunt and uncle. Not sure what I was drinking at the time, but I told the Diplomat to procure a large bird this year – perhaps suffering from excitement that I had not cooked turkey in the past 3 years, or perhaps suffering from partial dementia, who knows. He delivered a 18-pound beast, which took about 6 hours to cook. In my head, there were going to be 8 adults and 3 kids. What I really ignored was the fact that Son eats 33 grams of turkey, the Diplomat’s family is largely vegetarian (with the exception of the holidays but they clearly are not trained to eat meat in unnecessarily large quantities like I am) and the pregnant cousin’s stomach was half its size due to the residing child inside her. And then aunt and uncle did not come. So there we were, 6 adults and 3 small kids and one towering, impressive turkey, roasted to a crispy perfection. We ate 1/18th of it that night. In the days that followed, I have been working those leftovers every which way I could possibly imagine. I made turkey, brie and cranberry chutney quesadillas, I made tremendous turkey soup, I made phenomenal turkey potpie, I made pasta sauce and then ate some more turkey. I still have some left in the fridge. I began feeling little turkey wings growing on my back….Next year I am cooking an undernourished turkey from a developing country!

Monday, November 11, 2013

How I Ditched the Boys and Went to NYC

So, last week I got a kitchen pass from the Diplomat to go to NYC for a concert of the best of the best of the old Bulgarian rock bands. I knew it was going to be amazing and all week had been trembling with excitement that I will see them (some of you don’t know that, and those of you who know me, don’t believe it, but I was an ardent hippie in my teen years and so rock was a religion back then and concerts were what we lived for). I bought a ticket on the Megabus (a double decker cheap bus that promised to take me from DC to NY in 4 hours) and began planning my trip.
Now, some will remember that the Diplomat and I bought a very centrally-located studio apartment in Manhattan over the summer, which was just renovated and cleaned and was being shown to renters. The problem was that the place was not furnished, and while the kitchen and the bathroom glistened with new paint and tiles, there was nothing else inside. I emailed a few friends in whose houses I had not already crashes during prior visits, and they generously offered couches and kids’ bedrooms. I realized, however, that I would likely come back from the concert rather late and so it might be rude to bother friends. So, the Diplomat offered to buy me an inflatable mattress (which he did, the dear, at 9 pm the night before I left) and I decided to slum it in our place. I packed the newly acquired mattress which had a pump included, Son’s giant Superman blanket, a roll of toilet paper, some makeup and my tightest jeans, and off I went on the 2.30 pm Megabus to NYC o a sunny Friday. The bus was supposed to arrive in mid-town Manhattan at 7 pm and the concert would start at 8 in Queens. I planned to get a taxi, leave my things in the apartment, spruce up to become a good-looking wild groupie and hop on the N train to Astoria with a friend from highschool.
I got a nice seat on the top floor of the bus, and spent the next 2 hours reading a book. At that point it struck me that we were not exactly moving at the speed of light, and according to the GPS in my cell phone, we would reach NYC at 7.30 pm at the earliest. Undaunted, I figured that I would be a bit late but then likely the concert wouldn’t start on time anyway so I returned to my book. A couple of times the driver, a stern lady, asked someone to turn off his phone as its glare was reflecting on the front window shield and was bothering her. I did not think much of that until I went downstairs to the bathroom and overheard a heated argument, accompanied by some peppery expletives, exchanged between the cool lady driver and a somewhat aggressive and clearly irked passenger. I went back upstairs and wondered what that was all about. Well, five minutes later, and the bus pulled over in the emergency lane. Apparently, the driver lady was trying to toss the offensive passenger with the bright phone off the bus. The time – 7 pm. I threw in a quick prayer for prompt resolution and began staring forlornly through the window at the Empire State Building, glistening just across the New Jersey turnpike, as if mocking me. So close and yet so far. 20 mins later and with absolutely no development, I started to get angry. I am going to NY only for this concert and I am about to miss it because some loser did not want to turn his stupid IPhone off. Apparently, I was not the only one to think so. I noticed that the 20-something guy in front of me was violently texting on his IPhone to someone things like, “Fuck! My life is so fucked. I am so fucked!!” I mean, the delay was irritating but perhaps THAT was a little overdramatic, it seemed to me.
Next thing you know, the police showed up. The POLICE, people! That led to another 20 mins of discussions. Next thing you know, the tall bulky angry phone dude is escorted by the cop to the second floor of the bus and where do you think he sits? That’s right – next to me. He spent the next 5 mins saying very violent things and some expletives to a friend on his phone, underscoring the fact that he is not a child, he has paid an entire $18 to be taken to 38th street in Manhattan and who is that ***** to tell him when and where and how to play with his phone. The time – 7.45 pm. I wondered if this was God’s way of punishing me for ditching the boys home to gallivant in Manhattan for a weekend. Then another Megabus pulled over, the cop scooped up the irritated fella with phone issues, put him on the other bus, and in about 10 mins we finally moved. We arrived a shocking 15 mins later. There was still hope! As luck would have it, my highschool friend who was supposed to wait for me at the drop off point could not get on the subway and so had to take a bus downtown. Clearly freaking out that she is making me even more late, the poor thing ran like a mad woman out of the bus to meet me. The time – 8.30 pm. We hopped into a cab and by 9 pm were inside the concert hall screaming delightedly with each song, my luggage happily stowed away in the cloak room. Needless to say, I did not change into my hot outfit and looked, ahem, a bit underwhelming. Otherwise, the concert rocked!
At 11 pm, we all went to the designated after-concert bar and waited for the musicians to show up. I kept drinking cheap wine and realizing that the slice of pizza I had while I waited for my friend mid-town is beginning to wear off despite its gigantic size. But then the musicians came in, and we all got frenetic trying to take pictures with them. Around 1.30, exhausted but happy, my friend and I piled into a car of some random friends we met and they dropped me on the East Side, close to my apartment, around 2 am. Another short cab ride, and I was finally safely home, rather exhausted.
I pulled out the queen-sized inflatable mattress and the pump that went with it, connected the two and pressed “on.” Nothing happened. Slightly suspicious, I opened the pump and stared in silent horror at the empty space where 4 D-size batteries should have been. It was 2.30 am, and I was dead tired in the middle of a fancy, completely empty studio apartment in Manhattan. I had two choices – roam the streets hoping to find a 24/7 store that sold batteries or to blow. I chose to blow – I could barely walk by then.
And so my blowing ordeal began – do you know how long it takes to manually inflate a queen-sized mattress, factoring in break times so that you don’t pass out from lack of oxygen and also factoring in slight inebriation? An hour. That’s how long. At some point, it occurred to me to try and hold the mouth of the mattress on top of the heating since it was on and was blowing air full force. I am not sure what impact that had, but I suspect it actually allowed some precious air I had blown in to actually escape, thus making it worse. While doing this, I realized that all that blowing had made me severely hungry. I quickly researched take-out places in the hood, and since it was 3 am already, my only bet was Domino’s Pizza. Which I love! So, no brainer! I quickly ordered pizza online (God bless my phone) and continued to blow air into the damn cavernous mattress in intervals. Finally done around 3.45 am, I plopped myself on it and settled in to watch the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy online while waiting for my delicious nocturnal pizza. Then I got a call from the doorman, who sounded genuinely puzzled and asked me whether it was possible that I had ordered pizza. Why yes, I answered gaily, and pranced downstairs in my satin PJs to collect it. I smiled brightly at the doorman and as I was leaving, he said, quite apropos, “Oh, m’am, we don’t have your number here in our records.” I was puzzled so decided to ask, despite the pleasantly wafting pizza and my desire to run upstairs as fast as possible, “So, how did you call me if you don’t have my number?” “Oh,” he said innocently, “I called the number on record for your apartment, which turned out to be your husband but he seems to be in Washington, DC so he gave me your number.”
So, as you can imagine, the poor doorman had called the Diplomat at 3.45 in the morning, deeply asleep in his comfy bed in DC, with the good news that his pizza had arrived. What pizza?? asked the incredulous and utterly asleep Diplomat. You can figure out the rest. I expected to get a quizzical phone call and was ready with my apologies, but I guess he was too sleepy to make the effort. I spent the next 50 minutes happily devouring the pizza and watching the show on my phone. I got up at 11 am the next day. Man, there are times when I really envy single people and winder what in the world do they do with all of their free time.
The next day I had a delicious birthday dinner with a good friend and then headed over to have drinks with another in Tribeca. In the spirit of this confused weekend, the evening went off with a few hitches. Apparently, after a martini and some wine, I did not pay much attention to the direction I was taking the subway to meet my friend (who was coming in from Brooklyn), and ironically ended up in Brooklyn myself. The time – 11.30 pm. More and more frustrated, I navigated the ginormous subway station and managed to get myself back into the city in about 20 mins. Rather than risk more confusion, I got off and decided to walk to the bar, which, my friend said, was on Duane Street. In confusion that only New Yorkers would understand, I misunderstood and instead ended up on Reade Street. There was no bar in sight. I was ready to just board the bus and go back to DC. Luckily, the bar happened to be just around the corner and I soon got there. After a few drinks, I headed home by cab (to make sure I don’t end up in Jersey or the Bronx or something, the way things were going). Clearly, the cabbie had to be Bulgarian and for the duration of the ride, I was questioned on my immigration history, lectured on the current crappy state of affairs in Bulgaria and bestowed with vastly unamusing tidbits of the cabbie's life story.
The next day I went to Brooklyn to have brunch with yet another friend. I was to take the 3 pm bus back to DC. We lunched leisurely, and when I was beginning to get nervous about going back to catch the Megabus, she assured me that if I took the A train, it would put me just a block away. Plus, it was a fast train, so I needed really about 30 mins or so. What my friend did not realize was that the A train had a different schedule on the weekends and did not stop where she thought it did. Not even close. Actually, kind of far. At the end of my rope, I ended up walking 8 very long NYC blocks to where the Megabus was parked. The last 3 blocks I ran in high-heeled boots, dragging a suitcase behind, sweating profusely in the warm autumnal afternoon. I made it with 13 seconds to spare. The moment I went inside, the bus closed the doors and we took off. 4 hours on the dot, I was back in DC.

It was a great, albeit very confused and maddening weekend. I should do it again some time soon.