Sunday, August 30, 2015

Our Estonian Weekend

Right before the school year started again, we took the kids for a long weekend in Estonia and Finland. We chose those 2 countries because they were easy and cheap to get to from here (with a family of six, even the cheapest trip gets pricey, quick.)

I was in Talinn, Estonia, back in 1990, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. But B and the kids had never been, and truthfully, I didn't remember much about it, except that it was freezing in the late fall and there was nothing to eat. The only time we'd ever been in Finland was for our heart wrenching medevac in 2002 - so it's safe to say I didn't remember much about Helsinki, either, except for an ambulance and an operating room.

This post will be mostly pictures. Smiley, happy pictures. Because that's what you're supposed to post when you go on vacation, right? Truth be told, though, it wasn't all smiley. You try dragging four kids around cobblestoned streets and making them pose for pictures every three minutes, the weekend before school starts, when all of their friends are finally back in town after a summer away. See how far you get before the squabbling and the this-is-so-lame starts.

I remember asking my father-in-law once, several years ago, how they managed to drive from New York to Florida in the summertime without killing each other. I mean, did their kids not fight? Did they actually have fun together as a family? How did they do it? He gazed off in the near distance for a few moments before laughing and answering "time erases the bad parts."

So. Time. Eventually I will forget the parts about the squabbling kids and the cranky adults and the broken ATM machines. I will remember only the chocolate truffles and the blue skies and the cafe mochas and the fairytale towers.

Ainsley and Kyra fell in love with the Old City of Tallinn because it reminded them of a fairytale, with its turrets and towers and steeples. The boys were enamored of the hot chocolate at Pierre's, a small cafe and chocolate shop tucked away in a quiet little alley off the main roads.

It really is an impressive little town, with so much more going for it now than back in Soviet times. Restaurants, souvenir shops, sidewalk cafes, loads of tourists... and so much history.

The streets are lined with sidewalk cafes, with just enough room for tourists to stroll past. Very few cars.

The central square, full of doll house buildings.

Pierre's. (Thanks, AG, for the recommendation, or we'd never have found it!) Homemade truffles, cocoa, coffee. We actually went there twice...

There were life-sized dolls all over town. A made it her mission to pose with every last one of them.

Part of the Old City walls.

Totally fake smiles. I forced them to stand there smiling or risk losing the hot cocoa I'd promised them.

This church. The Cathedral of St. Mary. So beautiful, inside and out. Plus you can climb to the top and look out over the whole city and the Gulf of Finland.

View from the top of St. Mary's.

The inside walls of St. Mary's are decorated with medieval coats of arms.

Here's a view from one of the scenic overlooks in the Old City.

Alexander Nevsky Church

Stay tuned for more soon...

Friday, August 28, 2015

One Year Down

I'm a sucker for anniversaries.

In the Foreign Service, life is measured in small snippets: one more week until the bid list is due, two more months 'til we learn where we're going next, one day left before packout starts, been at post 3 weeks already! That's how we measure our Foreign Service lives. Sure, Christmas and birthdays and the Fourth of July all have special significance for us. But for us, the little personal anniversaries and milestones are important, too, as we break our lives into "before" and "after." Before I moved to Jordan. After I started Chinese classes. The day I got my Russian drivers license. After that medevac.

So of course I noticed when I hit the halfway point in my Moscow tour earlier this month. No flowers, no cake, but it was an anniversary nonetheless.

The one year mark, for me, is when I finally settle in a bit. Yes, it takes me that long to really start feeling a sense of belonging. For me, seeing that summertime flood of glaze-eyed new people wandering the hallways makes me realize - I belong here. I'm not one of those new people anymore. Not at this post, anyway.

I went to Back to School Night this week. I didn't go last year, because I had no way of getting there and back again, and I didn't know anyone whom I could ask for a ride. But this year, I knew how to get there - it's a few metro stops and a bus ride away. I saw some people I knew in the hallways. And somebody offered me a ride home, so on the way back I packed into a minivan with a bunch of other parents, all of whom I knew, some of whom I can actually call my friends. We chatted and compared notes about the teachers as one parent weaved in and out of Moscow traffic, speeding along down a road I've traveled many times these past twelve months.

I guess it's really been a year.

I had to go out in search of soccer cleats the next night. After dinner, A and I walked to Sportsmaster. (For those of you bidding on Moscow, it's a sporting goods chain with several locations around town, one just down the road from the Embassy. They have just about everything you could need, from ice skates to boxing gloves to goggles. So different from Moscow in 1991!)

It was dark out at 830 as A and I walked there. Ordinary Russians hurried down the street, anxious to get home to dinner, perhaps, or on their way out like us. Women holding hands, guys on cell phones, a couple of kids riding scooters through the underground perekhods. Moscow at night is lit up: street signs and flashing ambulance lights and billboards all blocking the view of the stars.

It's pretty, and it's busy, and A and I knew exactly where we were going, out there in the dark. We walked to the store, found the shoe section, chatted up the sales guy about cleats for turf versus cleats for grass, picked up some other gear, tested out the punching bags, and lined up with the rest of the customers to pay.

I was feeling good - I live here. I know what I'm doing. I handed the lady my Sportsmaster customer card, she rang us up, I paid. Then she asked me something in Russian, but I didn't hear her. "Shto?" I asked, and she repeated herself. This time I heard, but I didn't understand what she was asking. Something about a gift. Maybe I had earned a gift with my purchase? Or I would next time? Or were the shoes a gift? Definitely something about a gift, anyway. She repeated herself a third time, but when she saw the quizzical look on my face, she laughed good-naturedly and said "don't worry about it," as she handed over my packages.

So you see, it still isn't home. Or rather, it is home, but it doesn't always make sense.

This is the best and the worst of the Foreign Service. It is so frustrating to walk around in your world, knowing that half of what is happening around you is going right over your head. And yet - back home, a trip to the sporting goods store is just that: you walk in, you pay, you leave. Kind of boring, no? Here, every time I go out, I get a little adrenaline rush as I try to take in what's happening around me. Are those two women over there arguing, or are they just asking directions? Is that man drunk, or sick, or both? Why is that guy following me, and should I be worried? Did I just get on the wrong bus?

One year in, and still all these questions.

The kids are back in school, and I am putting my school year routine back together. It's quite mundane, really. Gym, work, write, shop, cook, kids come home, dinner, bed, repeat. But I'm creature of habit, so I like the mundane: Sunday is pizza night, m&ms are best separated by color, the dog needs a walk before lunch.  These things I take as fact. So, for me anyway, being one year in means I've found my stride. I've found a routine that works for me, and I'm happy.

It also means the bid list is due. Because this time next year, I'll be somewhere else entirely, starting over again.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

This is why I've been away for so long.

Seems like a good reason, right?

But the book is finished at last! At least the kindle version is. Hard copy to come, maybe, possibly, hopefully.

You can download it here.

Please do download it. And then read it and review it on amazon, or otherwise pass the word, if you wouldn't mind.

Thanks to all of my friends who helped me to make this happen.

And now: a nap.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Portugal, continued...

If you should ever find yourself in Lisbon and in need of a rental car, I am going to suggest that you not go to Budget Rent a Car. In fact, I would strongly encourage you to crawl on your hands and knees, dragging your luggage behind you, all the way to your beach rental house, before you even consider renting a car from Budget. It will ultimately be easier, faster, and far less painful.

I originally reserved a rental car beginning a day and a half after we arrived, figuring we wouldn't need it while we were in the city. But Bart thought it would be a pain to go back to the airport to pick up a vehicle, so he wanted to get the car right when we arrived. Okay, fine. Only I couldn't change the reservation through their website. So I decided to simply stop by the rental car desk when we arrived and ask them if we could change the reservation.

The rental car employee looked up our reservation and said that no, unfortunately, there were no cars available.

No problem, I said, thanks for checking. Can you direct me to the taxi stand?

Well, she replied, hang on, let me check with my manager.

After a lengthy conversation in Portuguese, she told me they did have one car available, but the price might be a bit different. How much different?, I inquired. Well, she said, there's no way to know until we process the sale. We can go ahead and change the reservation, and if you don't like the price, we'll just revert back to the original reservation.

Seemed weird, but okay.

We spent the next hour going through the process. First, I had to choose a car (turns out, they went from zero cars to 4, which should've been my first clue something was wrong). Then we had to choose all of the options. Then we had to find a GPS and load it up in English. And on and on. But finally we had a car, and for only $1000 dollars. $1000 for an entire week? Not bad, and pretty much the same price we'd originally gotten.

But wait, it was $1000 for the additional 1 1/2 days. That works out to more than $500 per day. Per day.

Needless to say, I was pretty pissed that they'd wasted my first hour of vacation. We cancelled the transaction and went to find the taxi stand instead.

That was the easy part. When we went back 2 days later, it took us THREE AND A HALF HOURS to get a car from them. That's three and a half hours when I was not lying on a beach in Portugal. Three and a half hours when I was arguing with them about whether they were cheating us on the size of the car, and whether they should've mentioned that they only stock standard shift vehicles, which I can't drive. Three and a half hours of arguing with an employee about whether we were responsible for a scratch on a car that we hadn't even driven away in yet. Three and a half hours of trying to locate a GPS. Three and a half hours of moving luggage in and out of three separate cars.

It was an absolute nightmare.

The only thing that made it remotely tolerable was that Uncle Sean was with us, which meant the kids were entertained the entire time and we had a willing victim to keep our airport Starbucks mugs topped off.

But no. Avoid Budget Rent a Car at all costs. Disaster from beginning to end.

Eventually, we did make it to the beach house (no thanks to Budget's GPS, which didn't actually work properly and kept trying to force us off the highway at random). The rest of the family showed up shortly afterwards, and the real vacation commenced.

The cousins played, the siblings were too busy to fight, the mom (that'd be me) drank glass after glass of vino verde and sampled every kind of cheese the Portuguese grocery store had on offer. Sand got everywhere. Naps were taken. Pool toys were inflated and then popped.

It was lovely.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What I did on my summer vacation.

We're back from a long-awaited, all-too-short trip to Lisbon, Portugal.

The trip was planned as a 50th anniversary gift to Bart's parents (who refused, while there, to give us any advice on how to reach that milestone ourselves).

All of the brothers and cousins were there, along with two amazing sisters-in-law (yup, that'd be me and C). I'm telling you, I lucked out in the in-law department, because I love them all, every last one.

We arrived in Lisbon before the rest of the family, so we spent a day exploring the city before hooking up with the rest of them at our beach rental house.

A whole day to explore - but with 6 people to cart around, we didn't get far. It's okay, though. We did exactly zero prepping for the trip, so had only a vague idea of what we wanted to see. I had exactly four things on my to do list, and we managed to do three of them: we saw the Torre de Belem and the Castelo de São Jorge, and we had an amazing seafood meal. Okay, so maybe I'm the only one who had the seafood. But I guess since I'm the one who made the to do list, it's only fair that I got what I wanted.

We asked the concierge where we should go for dinner late that first evening when we rolled into town. He only had one solid recommendation, so we headed there and took seats without even asking to check out the menu. Well, it turns out it was a seafood restaurant. As in, that's pretty much all they served. I should mention here that Portugal isn't maybe the best place to vacation with 2 vegetarians and 3 kids who don't like seafood. The waiter was baffled when he came to our table bearing a tray of whole raw fish from which we were expected to make our dinner selection, and we asked instead what he could make that wasn't fish-related. He agreed to ask the chef to make "something out of vegetables." (It turned out to be one of the most delicious pasta-and-bean stews I've ever tried, anywhere.) Ainsley and Kyra then asked if he couldn't make them steak instead of fish, and he cheerfully agreed to that, too. I was the only one who ordered off the menu, and I've been dreaming about that garlic-shrimp-bread soup ever since.

The next morning, we walked from our hotel down the main street to the waterfront. (No need to mention the name of our hotel, as I really didn't like it at all, but the people who worked there were so unfailingly kind that I hate to complain about them in public.) The front desk clerk estimated it would take about 30 minutes to walk the distance, but she was waaaaay off - it was more like an hour and 30 minutes. Plus or minus stops for coffee and cups of fresh sliced mango and watermelon.

The main street was beautiful, with trees growing into canopies in many places. And yet I still got fried to a crisp that first day.

We walked down to the water, then hopped on a tram to the Torre de Belem. That's it, back there behind us. It was built on the Tagus River back in the 1500s, in part to defend the city and in part as a sort of ceremonial gateway. These days it's a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I had hoped to see the nearby monastery, but by the time we finished our tour of the tower, it was well beyond lunch time and the kids all needed a break. And a hamburger.

Later that evening, though, we found our way to another place I really wanted to see: the Castelo de São Jorge is perched high on a hill overlooking Lisbon and the Tagus River. The views from up there - amazing.

We walked all around the castle walls, stopping every 3 feet to take more photos. There really weren't any bad places to snap photos up there.

When it was time to leave, nobody wanted to walk down the steep narrow streets, so we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to the bottom. It was maybe a 15-minute drive? But at the very end of the week's vacation, when I asked the kids what their favorite part of Portugal was, they all agreed that those 15 minutes in the tuk tuk were the best 15 minutes of the whole week. It was a bit, how to say?, terrifying. But we were all buckled in and we made it safely to the bottom.

At the bottom of the hill we wandered through a touristy street of cafes until we found one where I could try more seafood while the rest of the family could enjoy more not-seafood.  It was here that I first sampled vihno verde, a mildly sparkling Portuguese white wine. I'm ashamed to admit that once I tried it, I didn't stop drinking it for the entire week. So good.

We snapped the shot below while sitting in the tuk tuk. We laughed at the time, but I think it cursed us because tomorrow was much, much worse indeed.

But today. Today was lovely.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Monday, June 29, 2015

And she wrote back.

We lost another tooth this week.

And because it is summer, and because we are reading and writing and doing other school-ish things to pass the time, she decided to write a letter to the Tooth Fairy.

Can you read it? Here it is again, up close:

"thank you for the mone [sic] you are the best tooth Fairy
Please write a letter back!"

There was much excitement in the house the next morning when it was discovered that not only did the Tooth Fairy write back, but she wrote back with a pink pencil! And with such beautiful swirly letters!! And with exclamation points shaped like hearts!!!

"Wow," she said. "The tooth fairy really loves punctuation."

That she does.
Please. Write your own stuff.