Saturday, July 12, 2014

Android en espaƱol

La semana pasada descubrí cómo escribir con "gesture typing" en mi android. Hoy descubrí que no sólo puedo escribir con el mismo método en español, sino también puedo escribir con mi voz en algunos idiomas. Dios mío, eso es cool!

(Forgive my Spanish, I'm just learning.)

Tandem bidding

Chuck and I have made our lives somewhat complicated by both being employed by the State Department--what is referred to you as a "tandem couple". We have been in Washington for a year and now. With one more year in DC, we have to start considering our next post.

This being the third post for both of us, we have to start lobbying various offices and bureaus for our jobs instead of being "directed". We have to look at projected vacancies and start negotiating before the final bid list is revealed. It's like a big puzzle in which the pieces are changing shape all the time. We have been lucky so far and have been able to find positions at the same post, but there is no guarantee that we will continue to do so, although it is our top priority.

Adding to the complexity, I am a Foreign Service Specialist. And in my specialty, in any given year, there are only so many jobs. In a way, it might make things easier to limit ourselves to the places that are available for me. On the other hand, we might consider lobbying for an "excursion" tour, something outside my specialty. This could open up the world to us, but we would have to make an especially convincing pitch and there is always the risk of not getting permission or, potentially, burning bridges with my home office.

Another consideration is do we know the language needed for the post? Do they require a certain level of proficiency? Have they built in time to learn it? Is it required for both of our positions so we can stay in sync? (Again, no guarantee.) Does the timing work with our present job? Do we want to use our Arabic language before our proficiency scores expire?

Then we get into personal considerations. How far away do we went to be from our families? We'd love to pick somewhere they can visit, but we get more credit for serving in "hardship" locations. Can we bring the cat? Do we leave her with a trusted foster family if we go somewhere particularly dangerous or that doesn't allow cats or that has a long quarantine period? You get the idea.

It is an uncertain time. It is an exciting time. And we get to do all of this while carrying out the duties of our current positions, naturally. We try to tap in to a sense of Foreign Service Zen and never pin our hopes on any given post until we are on the ground in country... and, even then, maybe we shouldn't....

Monday, June 23, 2014

April Reading 2014

Here are my April reads. Better late than never!

16 April 2014
The Perils of Morning Coffee (Isabel Dalhousie, #8.5)The Perils of Morning Coffee by Alexander McCall Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I continue to love Isabel Dalhousie and know I can always call upon her when I need a lift or want to restore my faith in humanity. Alexander McCall Smith brings his gentle Scottish philosopher to life in a story of how an innocent meeting over morning coffee can lead to misunderstanding and, eventually, empathy and a better understanding of others.

12 April 2014
Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2)Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hilary Mantel does it again! Thomas Cromwell is such a compelling character. Here we read about the intrigues and alliances formed around the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Reality is so dramatic, there is no need to dramatize it further, but to see it from the Cromwell's intelligent, methodical, yet not disinterested perspective is new. In the meantime, life goes on in his household and in the country. Mantel brilliantly captures Tudor England and what it might have been like personally for the people around Henry VIII. I couldn't put it down.

(Oh, and she heard her readers and made it clear who "he" was--still usually Cromwell, but it helped in following the story.)

View all my reviews

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Every Dog(wood) Has Its Day

One day in early May, Chuck and I went for a walk around our neighborhood. It was a glorious day, at the very end of cherry blossom time, as can be seen by this petal-covered yard. Most of the tulips were done for the season, but the dogwoods were in full bloom, as were many other flowers.

We saw:
  • Iris
  • Alyssum
  • Bluebells
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Fuscia
  • Pansies
  • Daffodils
  • Buttercups
  • Magnolia
  • Periwinkle
  • and the purple pompoms known as Allium
It is wonderful to be back in the U.S. in springtime. I'm just trying to take it all in!

A Family Gathering in Boston (well, Framingham)

On Mother's Day weekend, I got to meet up with my family in Framingham, MA to celebrate my nephew's graduation with his doctorate in Pharmacy--way to go, Chris! (My brother--his dad--is much older than me. ;) Since arrangements became a little more complicated than anticipated, I ended up spending a few more days than originally planned. This gave me the chance for some quality time with my folks along with the larger group of extended family. Chuck joined us over the weekend for the main event and related meals and festivities.

It was fun to hang out with some of my sister-in-law's family who I hadn't seen in years and get reacquainted. There were 10 or 11 of us at any given time. One day, most of us went in to Boston proper and while some of the group walked part of the Freedom Trail, my mom and I took the Duck Boat tour. We'd never been on one. It was a great way to see the city and hear about its history while having fun. There were people of all ages and it was a good choice for someone with mobility issues, too. Plus, I got to drive the Duck when we got onto the water! 

On another day, we drove out to Newport, Rhode Island and wandered one of the Vanderbilt homes, "The Breakers". It would be the perfect setting for the American version of Downton Abbey. It was grand and gaudy and fascinating! The audio tour was very professional and we even got to take the original elevator to access the second floor more easily. 

We ate twice at Ken's (the original Ken's Steakhouse of salad dressing fame), consumed lots of seafood, had good boiled bagels, but no cannoli. 

I had the experience of driving in Boston--not recommended--and realizing my phone GPS konks out when inside long tunnels. Since the tunnels featured various exits, it was...challenging. And brought on an impromptu performance of "The M.T.A. Song" by myself and my parents.
Did he ever return,
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn'd
He may ride forever
'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned.
We made it in the end and are left with some fun stories to tell.

Typical DC

I took a few hours off this afternoon to prep for an upcoming work trip. On the walk from the office, I ran into a friend from Bangkok. I decided to take the bus in to Rosslyn with her so we had time to chat.

After I caught up with that friend, I decided to walk up to Courthouse. I hadn't made it out of Rosslyn before I ran into a friend from Abu Dhabi. By the time that conversation was done, it was nearly 2:00 and I still hadn't eaten lunch. So, partly from convenience, and partly due to warm weather, I chose a cold lunch of sushi and salad.

I will be mentally if not physically prepared to face a long trip....

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

In honor of Memorial Day, I wandered through the cemetery in The Burlieth neighborhood. I read the inscriptions from affectionate mothers and loving spouses and listened to the bells chiming from the Cathedral.

It is called the Holy Rood Cemetery and there are many Irish names inscribed upon its stones. Some date back to the early 19th century.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Dessert Experiment

We had dinner with friends last night and said we would bring dessert. I had been trying to decide what to make when I took a bite of some cornbread we had warmed up on the Foreman Grill. It brought to mind these delicious lemon cornmeal cookies I'd once tasted. I loved the granular texture of the cornmeal and everything tastes better with lemon. So, I looked up a recipe and found one on the My Recipes site that looked promising.

Adapting the recipe slightly, I cut the sugar by 1/3 (and would use even less when I make them again). I only had one large lemon to zest and could have used more. It called for ground ginger, but since we didn't have any, I used Trader Joe's Pumpkin Pie Spice--good call. I made bigger cookies and baked them for about 18 mins, but less time will make for a chewier texture next time.

To serve with the cookies, we bought a pound of strawberries which I washed, stemmed, and sliced, a couple of boxes of raspberries, and some vanilla ice cream. All together, I thought it made a rather elegant dessert. Since Safeway had it on sale, we also brought some Ben & Jerry's That's My Jam Core--chocolate ice cream, raspberry fudge chip ice cream, and a raspberry core. It was quite yummy, although it sort of overwhelmed the more subtle tastes of the rest of the dessert. Yet somehow we managed to make it through.

I definitely will make the cookies again, but to avoid temptation, I'll wait for another dinner party to do so. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Further Adventures of the Ward-Fee-Greens

What a joy it was to have my sister Mindy and nephew L. visit last week. It was the most time any of us had spent together in years (certainly during L’s lifetime)! It gave us an excuse to explore the city as tourists and share some of our favorite restaurants with them, too. It was also reassuring to see that Mindy and I still speak and laugh in unison, burst into song at random, and easily follow each other’s circuitous (meandering?) thoughts.

One evening at dinner, I remarked that, in spite of the different paths we’ve taken, we’re still basically the same person. Nature? Nurture? Who knows?

I knew that we’d adapted to walking a lot around the city, but not quite how much of a challenge that would be for a 10-year-old who’d been cooped up for the winter. (We may suggest a conditioning regimen to future guests prior to their visit.) But what a good sport he was! Never a complaint, just occasional pauses to catch his breath.

And what an adventurous diner he is! He declared our Ethiopian dinner at Dukem some of the best food he’s ever eaten—and he has quite the experienced palette in spite of his tender years. He also enjoyed the vongole pizza at 2Amys and tangy skewers and spicy sauce at Afghan Kabob House, ordered Thai and Lao food boldly at Bangkok Golden—“is this the squid?”—and sampled Turkish plates for Easter brunch at Agora. Naturally, there were fried green tomatoes and bleu cheese stuffed, bacon wrapped dates at Founding Farmers. We also had ice cream at Larry’s, gelato at Dolcezza (two locations!) and Boccato, and frozen custard at Shake Shack. Good thing we were walking everywhere!

Between meals, we visited the National Cathedral, several of the Smithsonian museums (there are 19 and they’re all free!), and the International Spy Museum. Aside from our awesome visit to the Museum of American History, we went to the Natural History Museum one day. There we played in the Q?rius lab where we learned about geological formations, the microscopic makeup of beach sand from around the world, and the elements included in pottery from different eras. We also visited the dinosaur hall before it closes for 5 years for a makeover and saw the Hope Diamond. I suggested to Chuck that we become archaeologists when we retire. I still have some work to do on that point…

We explored the Air and Space Museum where L. tried out one of the flight simulators, to his delight, and where we tracked down an original model of the starship Enterprise in…the basement of the gift shop. One evening, we stopped in at the Portrait Gallery just to see its lovely courtyard.

We went to one performance while they were here—the clever comedy of the Capitol Steps. One of Mindy’s friends from her theater days is a “Step”, so it was even more fun to see the show. Beforehand, we put our heads together to predict which political figures and stories they would highlight. We were right on, choosing Putin, Chris Christie and the bridge, and Obamacare, among others. I laughed so hard I thought I might lose my voice.

On our last whole day, Mindy, L., and I spent several hours exploring the Spy Museum. It was expensive, but worth it. We tested our skills trying to remember our cover stories and seeing how quietly we could crawl through a (carpeted) ceiling duct. We saw all sorts of gadgets and read about different tricks of the trade. Most fascinating for me were the videos describing the “James Bond” moments of real intelligence agents.

Aside from the museums and restaurants, L. got to see our daily life—what it’s like to live in a high-rise and use the Metro as a main mode of transport, both new experiences for him. It was a good trip for all of us. I’m so grateful we had this chance and hope for more!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Visit to Moscow

One of the best things about my job is that it allows me to visit places I might never see otherwise. Even better, I often see them with friends who’ve gotten to know the places and have grown to love them.

A few weeks ago, just as the Olympics were drawing to a close, I went to Moscow to help a friend with workshop and seized the opportunity of any free time to explore the city. I had been prepared for typical Russian winter weather, but was pleasantly surprised that they were having an unusually warm spell at the same time we were experiencing unusual cold and snow.

As you might expect, food was an important aspect of my visit. My friend being a vegetarian, Russian food does not provide a lot of options. Fortunately, Moscow offers a variety of cuisines. For starters, we ate at an excellent Uzbek restaurant where I saw some definite crossover with Turkish food. It’s fascinating to think about how cuisines have influenced each other over the centuries—I’m sure someone has written a dissertation on this, especially along the Silk Road. Another evening we had excellent Mediterranean/continental food in a restaurant in an old chocolate factory on the river.

Cat Circus poster
On our second evening we attended the amazing Cat Circus—the cats appeared happy and well-loved and most of their tricks were natural cat behavior like walking across a narrow surface or winding between someone’s feet or sitting around looking pleased with themselves. The theme was the Olympics and the performance, which was mainly for children and families, included some very professional (mostly non-creepy) clowns. For dinner we had Georgian food and I learned about the oh-so-satisfying Khachapuri (a round of bread stuffed with tangy, melted cheese).

Looking down the banya hallway
Over the weekend, we visited the banya. A group of us rented a private space at the bathhouse that included a hot tub, cold pool, sauna, shower, changing rooms, and lounge area where you could order yummy Georgian food! This time I tried the Khachapuri with egg on top (also delicious). It was a fun, social time and I even experienced having my back beaten with oak leaves in the sauna before plunging into the cold pool. That night, we had excellent Chinese food for dinner.

One evening we visited a historic house outside of town where a very knowledgeable guide highlighted the artwork and artifacts before we had a huuuuge multi-course dinner of mid-19th-century Russian cuisine. The dinner was created by a food historian who reconstructed the dishes from primary sources.

They served duck soup; barley soup; lots of pork; turnips; pickles made from apples, cabbage, cucumbers, and garlic; salmon and potato pierogis; fishcakes with a garlic sauce; cauliflower with a wonderful green sauce; a huge pie of beef tongue, pork, mushrooms, and bouillon (of which I tried a bite of the crust); and finally apple cake and blini for dessert. Amazing!

I didn’t totally neglect the historic culture of the city itself. I took a walking tour of Red Square and had lunch at a little restaurant set up like a Soviet-era cafeteria (in one of the fancy malls). I wandered through St. Basil’s and visited a couple of other Orthodox churches. When we went out to the see the monumental Bolshoi Theater, there was a commemoration in the city square just opposite for Defender of the Fatherland, or Men’s, Day—It featured bombastic music and a lot of red banners, just what we might have pictured as a Russian celebration during my childhood. On a more modern note, we saw a ballet at the Bolshoi whose acts were centered upon common household objects. The first of many brief movements was entitled “Bidet”.

For such a short visit, it was jammed with experiences and I’m so grateful to have had this chance!