Monday, September 3, 2018


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:

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!