Monday, June 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Cruise, the Diplomat Gets Cultural and I Shuck Oysters

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

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

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

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

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