Sunday, February 15, 2015

Greetings from Beirut!


Three and a half weeks ago I landed in a new city in a new country to begin a new posting. This is my third FS assignment. It is also my third FS assignment in the same time zone. Fascinating, right?

Beirut, Lebanon is a unique FS posting in terms of security, restrictions, history, and numerous other facets. It's not a PSP post nor fully unaccompanied, yet it is in some ways more restricted than at least one PSP post. In addition to not talking about work I'm not going to talk much about conditions of life here in Lebanon for reasons of safety and security. But this will continue to be a travel blog, with lots of appearances from fluffy felines and photos when practicable.

Yes, the cats made the trip here and are settling in well. They miss their stuff (as do I) but were excited by the UAB shipment's arrival this week along with some of their beds and accoutrements. I'll write about the trip here in another post.

For now I just wanted to check in, remind you I'm still here, and get the ball rolling on blogging more regularly.

Since arriving I've been up to the mountains to see Roman ruins in the snow at Faqra, experienced fabulous French and Lebanese food at some superb restaurants, walked around the yachts on the waterfront, and sighed with contentment every time I glimpse the Mediterranean on my daily walks around. Weekend brunch buffets at a Lebanese restaurant and the Four Seasons were a treat, and I love being able to buy everything I need at one supermarket.

Add in amazing regional travel opportunities, a fantastic team and challenging but interesting portfolio at work, and a cozy and welcoming apartment, and I'm excited for the next two and a half years!


Faqra - Roman ruins in the snow!

The weekend after I arrived from NH - not a huge difference in weather!



If you squint you can see the Mediterranean in the far distance. I'll get closer for better photos soon, I promise.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Christmas 2014 (featuring lots of cats)


It's doctor/dentist/vet appointment week, that oh-so-necessary feature of most R&Rs and home leaves. So I'll try to think of something more fun and recap Christmas.

I was lucky to spend a second Christmas in a row home in NH, and I greatly enjoyed hanging out with family and celebrating favored traditions.

My aunt and uncle came to visit the weekend before Christmas along with their one year-old black lab, and we had a wonderful time with them. Saturday my parents cut down a very special little tree from the back pasture, and we tried our best to make it pretty. On Sunday we had a big brunch with other friends stopping by, and we spent the afternoon stringing popcorn and cranberry for the birds and laughing and telling stories. As soon as the sun set we headed out on our holiday pilgrimage of lights, which I thought I'd blogged about before but now can't find. My brother, sister-in-law, and nephew joined us, so we had two cars of revelers. The road to the first attraction was treacherous, and we all slipped and slid on the ice after parking and walking to see the lights, meet Santa and Mrs. Claus (and the Grinch, and the elves, and - new this year - the abominable snowman). My nephew was so excited to see his name (and his sister's) on the nice list, and he sweetly posed for photos. We headed to the next two attractions and had a lovely time and then drove home for Dad's world famous homemade pizza and a fun kid-friendly trivia game. On Monday Dad and I met my aunt, uncle, and grandmother for lunch and then shopped for dinner, a delicious Italian feast. It was sad to say goodbye to my aunt and uncle (and puppy!), but they now live a bit closer than they used to, so we should see them more often.

My grandmother came over on Christmas Eve, and we spent the afternoon watching TV and cooking. Dad made a seafood scampi for dinner, and we talked to my brother in CO. Christmas Day we slept in and leisurely opened presents and finished cooking what we were bringing to my brother's. The cats were very excited by their presents; Callaghan helped unwrap his and just couldn't wait until the packaging was removed because, well, feathers. We loaded the car with the kids' presents and headed to their house where we were greeted by cute little excited kiddos who wanted to show us their hauls thus far, which were quite impressive.

We hung out for a while playing with new toys and the cats and eating yummy snacks and then opened presents. My nephew LOVED his new spy gear and immediately tried out the rearview spy glasses, invisible ink, and the motion alarm.  Grandma got the biggest box of chocolates any of us had ever seen (she has a bit of a sweet tooth), and her reaction was priceless. We were in stitches laughing at it. Their cats also got some presents, and Flower went berserk for her new laser pointer.

After a yummy dinner of venison stew and my favorite butternut squash recipe, we relaxed in the living room. My niece started enticing the cats with their new toys, but they were having none of it. So I pretended to be a cat and chased them. Which she thought was the funniest thing ever; she was laughing so hard she could barely keep swishing the toys. Then she and my nephew took turns playing the cat, and we all played spy games a bit more. After dropping Grandma at her home we continued home and went to bed before a very lazy day after Christmas. It was perfect and lovely.




The cats watch the tree going up with skepticism.

We ran out of colored lights at the top and didn't bother to undo the clumps.

Only non-breakable ornaments this year, thanks to the cats. They were quite good though, never actually getting into it.

My other nieces, Flower and Luna.

Flower going crazy for her new laser!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Flag Day Nostalgia

For the first time in many months I find myself getting through my blogroll quickly, easily catching up with the new postings most days. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that I spend some days in yoga pants and don't leave the house (hey, it's cold outside, and I'm on Congressionally-mandated home leave, which I sometimes interpret literally).

Anyway, I've been branching out to new blogs thanks to Life After Jerusalem and Subject Verb Object and their amazingly comprehensive blog lists. A few of the new ones I'm reading are from newly-minted FSOs and EFMs, just out of A-100 and Flag Day and still in training for their first posts. (The two today are Adventures in the Foreign Service and a B, C, D Adventure - you can tell I'm going in alphabetical order.) Reading them has me reminiscing back to those heady first days in the FS when there were so many unknowns, and everything was shiny and new. I like to think I'm not completely jaded these days and still find a lot about the FS shiny and exciting, but I definitely have lost some of that initial OMG-ness that comes with A-100.

I'm preparing to give a presentation on my FS life and travels at my grandmother's senior living community next week, which is also getting me to do research on places I've been and remember stories I've not thought or talked about in a while. Which gives me pause to remember how amazing the FS really is and how much I've seen/done/accomplished in almost five and a half years.

I spoke on the phone today to a college senior who is considering a career in international affairs and possibly the FS, connected by her aunt who works at the aforementioned senior living community. She had great questions and clearly had given a lot of thought to what to ask me that would help guide her next steps. I'll tell you what I told her - and what I tell everyone who asks, and some who don't: take the Foreign Service Officer Test. It's free, you can take it once a year, and one of two things will happen: you'll pass and get a chance to move forward in the process, or you won't pass but will learn what the test looks and feels like and be better prepared to retake it next year.

A lot of people put a lot of effort into preparing for the test, and for some that works. For me, though, I do much better when I don't over prepare. Read up on current events, brush up on international history and U.S. pop culture references through the years. If you need to study, study the thirteen dimensions that guide the selection process and what your chosen cone looks like. And be able to match your own experiences to the thirteen dimensions and your cone and be able to give specific examples. Careers.state.gov is among the best study guides out there.

All right, back to nostalgia. I like it. I can remember my own Flag Day and how much I was sweating in my suit on that hot August day in the FSI Fieldhouse (I believe Flag Days are now held in the newer, better-cooled K building). Never in a million years did I think I'd be assigned to Jeddah, though when I look back at it there was a moment in my CDO interview early on when my CDO asked if Jeddah met my preferences. I said it did and that I wouldn't mind it, but I never really thought that would translate into getting the Saudi flag a few weeks later. In an example of the small FS world, my first CDO is now a CON chief in NEA and someone I will be working with closely in my next job.

I love reading Flag Day stories because they're all unique but all so much the same as well. Most people are excited - either because they got a top choice and/or because they finally know where they're going after so much uncertainty. It's a bonding experience for an A-100 class (as is every other moment of those six weeks, but still). And it's something that every FS generalist and specialist (I think?) has in common. If nothing else, you can make small talk about Flag Day. There are few moments in life with such complete, but highly anticipated, surprise (maybe finding out the gender of a baby at birth, though few are able to resist the temptation to find out earlier these days, or where a medical student matches for residency) that have such a profound impact on your life. And for that reason I think the Flag Day tradition is pretty darn cool. I, for one, never get tired of reading/hearing about the stories. What about you?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

More DC Fun

Most of the DC touristy things I did during this round of training were while Dad was visiting, but I did get to do a few more fun things. Shopping, of course, was one of those: Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Target, Crate and Barrel, the Container Store, Origins, Leesburg Outlets, and even the rundown neighborhood Safeway were all havens of post-tour bliss.

I didn't get to all of my favorite food haunts, but I did get plenty of pho, pad thai, pizza, and other goodies Uganda didn't offer (or didn't offer tasty versions of). Thanksgiving was catered by Whole Foods, which is apparently a very 'in' thing to do, judging by the massive lines to even enter the parking lot and then to collect one's order. It was yummy, a relaxing day was had by all, and plenty of TV was watched (including the parade!).

What else? I made a few trips to the Mosaic District in Merrifield, taking advantage of a lovely spa there, a very nice nail place, their Sunday farmers market, the Angelika, and - of course - Target. I met colleagues for dinner at Pentagon Row and enjoyed a bit of shopping there as well as watching the ice skaters on the lovely rink.

D and I went to the Spy Museum one weekend. I hadn't been there, and I needed to buy 'spy stuff' for my nephew for Christmas. I don't think he quite knows what a spy does, but he knows he wants to be one. And the Spy Museum is a perfect place to load up on tools of the trade for an eight year old. We also saw Rosewater at Landmark Cinema (interestingly, since the last movie I'd seen in the theater prior to that two years before was Argo).

I didn't do a whole lot of cultural outings in DC, but I did attend an entertaining ballet performance at the Kennedy Center - the Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company. It was a nice mix of traditional (Swan Lake) and more contemporary pieces, which I enjoyed. I also went to see the Celtics play the Wizards at the Verizon Center, springing for seats pretty close to the court. Before the game I enjoyed Shake Shack for dinner and wandered through the downtown holiday craft fair, which had some really nice stuff, including jewelry I couldn't resist. The game was incredible - midway through the third quarter the Celts were down by 21, and people started leaving. The Boston bench came back and tied the game and forced not one but two overtimes! Boston ended up losing by one point - it truly came down to the final buzzer - but I wasn't too upset, since the game was so phenomenally entertaining. A great show by both teams, for sure.

Let's see. That may be it. I was only there a little over a month, so I did get a good number of fun events in. I think I already blogged about FS Blogger dinner #1; I also organized FS Blogger dinner #2 with Kelly from Well That Was Different, Nicole from Kids with Diplomatic Immunity, and Gretchen from Texpatica. Such a fun night of Thai and talking.

And, the best news: all of my purchases added up to 246 lbs, which was perfect for my 250 lb UAB limit! My car was not overloaded for the long drive to NH for home leave. Well, it was pretty loaded up thanks to all the Christmas presents and cat paraphernalia, but it wasn't overloaded.

More on Christmas in NH coming soon!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

DC with Dad

This fall I had just six weeks in the DC area to indulge in favorite sights, foods, friends, and fun. I was in training all day every day during the week but still managed to fit in some wonderful fun. First up, a visit with my Dad!

My dad brought me my car from NH when I first got to DC and stayed for a week to soak up history, culture, art, and fun. His stay coincided with some spectacular weather, and we had a great time seeing some new to both of us DC staples. On Saturday we headed to the National Museum of the American Indian, happily visiting on one of the days they were celebrating Day of the Dead. We were treated to some amazing displays of art, singing, and dancing while there. The cafeteria was quite busy and tasty, but I think it was too busy to be truly enjoyable that day. I'll have to go back and choose my foods based not on the shortest lines but by what sounds best.

We walked along the Mall a bit before heading back to VA for Dad's inaugural trip to Wegmans. It was lovely to be back at this oh glorious of food emporiums. We picked up assorted goodies and had a quiet night in. On Sunday we woke up to a power outage, which I realized wasn't as convenient in Uganda as the generator didn't automatically kick in. Luckily the power came on during our outing to Safeway and we were able to get in showers.

First up was a trip to Eastern Market and a wander through the stalls followed by brunch at the Boxcar Tavern. I had bought timed entry tickets to go up the Washington Monument so we headed back downtown and strolled among the Sunday sports leagues and enjoyed that wonderfully DC spectacle. After a visit to the WWII Memorial it was time to go up the monument. Neither of us had gone up before, and it was lovely to see the view of DC from that high up! My favorite part, though, was seeing the commemorative stones placed by various cities, states, and countries from the elevator down. So neat, and something you can't see from outside.

After that we visited the Holocaust Museum, always a somber look at a painful time in history. I hadn't been since high school and, especially having visited Auschwitz since my last visit, it was interesting to better understand some of the exhibits and put them into greater context. The collections (non-permanent) included video segments from Darfur and Syria, both current crises/genocides, depending on how you define them. I won't try to do so here. But seeing some of the footage from refugee camps in Uganda and knowing I'll soon be in Lebanon, these really hit home. We definitely don't always learn from history.

During the rest of the week Dad and I had dinner with my aunt and cousin at a lovely Balkan restaurant in Eastern Market, and D and I introduced him to the wonder of Pho 75. He's a fan of both. On his own that week, while I was at work, he managed to take in the Botanic Garden, the National Gallery, the Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery, National History Museum, most of the monuments - including MLK Jr and Einstein - and the Zoo. Quite a full week; his FitBit was super happy with his walking and gave him uber badges all week.

DC has long been a vacation destination for my family, since we have had family in the area since I was in high school and then with my going to university there and joining the FS. Next time I'm there for any length of time my parents intend to both come and stay for a while. The museums and sights never get old, and there's always something new to see and do (and eat).

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Keep Calm and Save Diplopundit

Most Foreign Service bloggers and much of the FS community are avid readers of Diplopundit's truly impressive blog. Unfortunately, Domani Spero will be forced to put down her pen at the end of the month as what started as a hobby has turned into a full-time unpaid job. Which is, of course, unsustainable. Fundraising efforts in the last year haven't been lucrative enough for the blog to keep going, and the post we all dreaded about the blog going black went up last week.

Enter an intrepid FSO who started a Go Fund Me campaign to save Diplopundit (thanks for this post's title goes to said FSO). In just two days more than $10k of the necessary $30k has been raised. This is tremendous and illustrates how important Diplopundit is to the entire DOS community. So let's keep up the momentum. Please take a few moments to give whatever you can to save this informative, well-researched, and entertaining news source. We may not always agree with Domani Spero, but her efforts to keep us in the loop of the good, the bad, and the ugly are unparalleled.

Keep Calm and Save Diplopundit!

Edit: as of right now the total raised stands at $19,972. Let's bump this up to $30,000 in the next couple of weeks! Please donate if you haven't already, and spread the word. The FS can't lose this valuable resource.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Home Leave Begins

Let's see if going backwards gets me blogging more regularly!

After a whirlwind and absolutely wonderful seven weeks of training, I am finally home in NH for home leave. I'm sitting in the kitchen at my parents' house, one cat curled up by the woodstove and the other surveying the veritable buffet of birds at the backyard feeder, spectacularly visible against the snow. Don't worry, these are strictly indoor cats, so no birds will be harmed this home leave.

My friend D, of so many Uganda adventures, was in DC at the same time, and she very kindly offered to supervise my UAB packout on Thursday while she had a free afternoon and I was a prisoner of FSI's 100% attendance policy. That's a little harsh since I really enjoyed my FSI classes, but let's just say the contracts with the moving companies being restricted to work hours M-F makes it very hard on single folks, especially those whose consultation days were frontloaded and reserved for actual consultations.

Anyway, the entire pile of UAB must-gos fit, and then the entire pile of if-possibles also fit, with a few pounds of spare for wrapping! I was ecstatic. I proceeded a lovely FS blogger dinner with Nicole, Kelly, and Gretchen at a favorite Thai restaurant with a big sense of relief that my car wouldn't be packed to the gills.

Friday evening D came over to help me pack the car, which went much better than expected. We got 90% of the stuff packed that evening; I just had to add the cats in their carriers and the last couple bags. Easy peasy. Then a final goodbye and a good night's sleep.

Saturday was a perfect day to drive up the East Coast - 45 degrees, sunny with scattered cloud cover, no precipitation, and - most importantly - no traffic. I made it home in nine hours exactly, which was not a moment too soon with two very unhappy traveling companions.

The cats settled into the house with familiar ease, having lived here during a previous home leave and recognizing my parents who they'd seen in the previous months. They spend their days busily exploring every nook and cranny, gazing out the many windows at actual views that a fourth floor apartment with a concrete balcony doesn't offer, and learning the wonders of the warmth of a woodstove.

I'm enjoying not waking up to an alarm (except this morning when I forgot I still had it set to 6:00 on M-F) and general relaxation. I'll ramp up to visiting and shopping and making plans in the next couple of days, but it's quite enjoyable to just being for the first time in many, many months.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Back to the US of A!

I've been back in the United States for a whirlwind two weeks; it feels like an eternity, frankly, since so much has changed in my life in that time. My last week in Kampala was a lovely way to leave - an appropriate amount of frantic-ness, a gradual winding down of work, two last game nights, eating my favorite dishes at the Embassy's world-class cafeteria for the last time, reassuring my increasingly-nervous cats, and completing the always-arduous check-out process.

There were a few stressful moments surrounding my evaluation and crates for the cats, but it all came together. I did end up buying two new crates as I decided the cats were just a little too big for the ones we had. Of course I couldn't decide this in time to purchase new crates through a reputable U.S. supplier, so I had to look on the local market. I found a great crate at the USPCA (albeit at an exorbitant price) and a sub-par crate at a local store (Game), also at an exorbitant price. I doctored the sub-par crate with the help of a neighbor and his drill so I could add in a million zip ties for security.

My last day at work flew by and culminated with an awesome lunch with my section, a combination of Lebanese mezze and Ugandan food. It was a perfect ending and not too sad, which I greatly appreciated. I finished up my last few emails, set up my out-of-office message, and took one last look at the section. Then it was time for one last ride in my car before it went to its new owner.

At home I spent the afternoon finishing packing, throwing out the remaining detritus of the last week, and prepping the cats' crates. Callaghan had moved under the couch on Wednesday and didn't seem to have come out much at all, so I was worried about him being dehydrated. I put water under there with him, but no dice. I had to move the couch and surprise him in order to get him in his carrier. Griffin, on the other hand, practically walked into his without any coaxing.

Motorpool was on time, and I got everything loaded and the keys turned over with no issues. Callaghan snapped out of his trance on the way there and started protesting which was, frankly, music to my ears. I had been afraid he'd just give up and not have the will to make it through the trip, so feisty was good. Traffic to the airport wasn't bad, and the expediter met us there to help with the cats.

Going through the first security screening wasn't too bad as they did a physical inspection of the crates so I didn't have to remove the cats (worry #1 eliminated). The price for the cats was $100 less than I'd anticipated, so that was a bonus! Check-in took forever, but I appreciated that they took their time to make sure no steps were missed. The cats each got their own porter and came with me through immigration. We said goodbye outside the gate, and the expediter went to the plane with them and watched them get loaded. He came back and found me at the gate afterwards and confirmed they were safe and happy, which I greatly appreciated.

Boarding was on time, and we took off a few minutes early. The flight attendants confirmed the captain was aware of the cats and had the cargo cabin at the right temperature. I didn't sleep much on the flight thanks to my seatmate who liked to elbow and kick and flail. We arrived in Amsterdam a bit early, and I headed to the transfer service desk to check on the cats. They weren't yet at the pet hotel but had been unloaded from the plane and were with the right people (and both alive, very important to know).

I indulged in a massage to soothe my tired-from-traveling self and then wandered and window shopped and grabbed something to eat. Then it was back to the transfer service desk to check on the cats. The pet hotel folks confirmed they were there and smiling. I didn't believe this last part but appreciated the inclination to soothe me. I settled down near the gate and took advantage of the free wifi until boarding. The boarding gate was way too small for the size of the plane, so I stood while waiting to board, knowing it was another eight hours of sitting ahead of me.

Boarding was on time, but there was a wait to take off, and it was clear we would arrive on time but not early. I finished watching The Fault in Our Stars, not a great choice on the plane since I was sobbing at the end (just like I did reading the book!), but oh well. I had started watching the movie on the previous flight, ending as the characters were on a plane landing in Amsterdam, as I landed in Amsterdam. Fascinating coincidence. The lunch meal was surprisingly tasty - meatballs with mashed red cabbage - and I watched more movies. Sleep was just not happening.

We landed on time but of course had to take one of the ridiculous people movers to the arrivals hall. We arrived at the same time as all 600 million other international flights that day, so the lines were horrid. They were worse in my mind than in reality as I was through in about thirty minutes, but it was still frustrating. The greeter guy did welcome me back home when he saw my dip passport, which was sweet.

I made a beeline for our baggage carousel and saw the KLM baggage desk with a large dog crate next to it and, thank goodness, two cat crates. Two identical cat crates. Which was not what I had put on the plane in Entebbe. But they were indeed my two cats inside them, and they seemed none the worse for wear. Both cats greeted me and purred and rubbed against my hand, and I truly relaxed for the first time in a week. I asked the desk attendant if she wanted to check my claim tags to prove ownership; she didn't. Griffin's crate had a note on it that his sub-par crate had been swapped out in Amsterdam. Stellar customer service, I tell you.

One of my bags came around the carousel quickly; the second one never did. It wasn't until about twenty minutes had passed that they made an announcement that a lot of bags from that flight had been moved to the side to make space. Sure enough, there was my bag. Then the challenge was getting a porter to help us get through customs and to a taxi. This was, amazingly, the hardest part of the whole day. 600 million international flights at one time, remember?

Finally someone came to help me, and we headed to customs. I have never in my life stood in line for customs in any country. Especially not for thirty minutes. There was no distinction for goods to declare or not; it was one massive line. When we finally reached the front of the line I told the CBP guy that I had live animals; he didn't blink and asked if I had wet food for them. I said no, he waved us through. Amazing.

There was no line for a taxi, so I loaded up into a waiting SUV and was on my way! The fall colors were at peak, and as we wound through the NoVa neighborhoods I was struck by how neat and pretty and clean everything was. Definitely a culture shock.

We arrived at the apartment building and unloaded. Check-in was fast and friendly, and the cats and I were soon home. I unpacked the boxes I'd sent ahead of time with cat litter and food, etc. and let the cats out. They both went straight to the water bowl and drank and drank and drank. I refilled it twice that night.

The rest of the night was spent unpacking and repacking (for a week-long training trip to another state the next day) and ordering in delivery and watching tv and relishing in being back. Both cats were very cuddly and enjoyed snuggling that night. The next morning I couldn't find Callaghan; twenty frantic minutes later I realized he was inside the suitcase under the bed. He spent most of the day under the bed, probably having some transition issues, but came out about an hour before I had to leave to cuddle. I left him on the bed on top of a t-shirt I'd worn, which seemed to soothe him. D said he spent the next day on that but finally warmed up to her and was back to normal by Monday afternoon.

Whew. That's a lot of writing for a blog post, so I'll leave it there. Next up - DC explorations interspersed with long-overdue safari posts.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Updates Coming Soon

I never meant to fall so far behind on blogging, but it has been a busy couple of months. I have so many stories to share, from East Africa safaris to PCS updates to DC exploring. Last night I met up with the lovely ladies of Tuk & Tam, SubjectVerbObject, and Novakistan, and that was the inspiration I needed to get even this short post up.

I'll write a detailed travel post soon, but - spoiler alert - the cats and I made it safely to DC with all our baggage. I took off for training in another state the very next day and then had an awesome visit with my father, so this is my first 'free' weekend since getting back to the United States. But I have plans to see friends each of the next several days and look forward to lots of catching up and lots more luxuriating in being in DC. I have ambitious plans to make it to Trader Joe's, a farmer's market, and the outlet mall in the next few days, but I may just do some get-over-jet-lag sleeping in too :-).

That's all to say that I hope to make use of the next few months and get caught up on the blog! For now, here's a couple gratuitous cat photos, taken by my awesome friend D who moved in to my apartment while I was away at training to ensure Callaghan and Griffin made a good transition.

He is actually a very happy and loving cat, but his facial expressions don't always match his personality.

Callaghan has adopted this scratcher as his new bed.

All is right with the world :-).