World War II Flyover

The past few weeks have been a blur of long, long work days. As my boss said, “Things actually aren’t that busy right now, it just seems like everything in your portfolio is blowing up at the same time.” Fortunately, with this part of the world people are so accustomed to dealing with crises that no one gets too worked up about things that would be a four-alarm fire elsewhere in the building. The last year has been a great experience professionally, and I’ve grown a lot as an officer, but I am definitely ready to move on to the next thing in a few months…

I had the first chance to escape my windowless office  in weeks (and today’s post is the product of an additional breather, enabled by an epic metro meltdown, which has resulted in a suspension of service into DC, blocks-long bus lines, and a run on cabs and Uber.)  There are relatively few perks of working in Foggy Bottom, but proximity to the Mall is definitely one of them– Think mid-week picnic lunch under the Cherry Blossoms. But last Friday was a particularly special treat, and one I won’t soon forget.

In honor of the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, a private group organized a large flyover of WWII-era airplanes– everything from small planes used to train pilots to the last flying B-29 bomber. The group flew along the Potomac, over the Memorial Bridge and turned away from the Mall just past the Washington Monument. I’ve never seen anything like it and I don’t think there will be many opportunities to see such an event again– supposedly it took more than a year of planning to get all of the permissions needed to fly that route.

I’ve been to Udvar-Hazy and seen many of these planes in person, but there was something extra special about seeing them in the air. You got a better sense for their size, speed, and function– and you could hear them! My favorites were the F4U Corsair and the B-29, which was big and lumbering. It’s hard to imagine 200+ B-29s conducting a raid over Japan at the same time; also unfathomable to me is that we even had the industrial wherewithal to build so many planes. I also had finally gotten around to reading Unbroken over Christmas and watched with a newfound appreciation of how perilous flying these planes during wartime really was.

The event was made more special in that so many thousands came to the Mall to see it– people from all walks of life lined Memorial Bridge and filled the lawn around the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and took a moment to remember what a great and tragic achievement ending World War II was. There will soon be a day where there is no living person who can remind us what surviving it– on the front lines or the home front, was like.

Seasons of Change

My lack of updates has not been for lack of worthy life events. The truth is, life is rather contentedly rolling along for the moment. Last May, I had a brief existential crisis where I contemplated leaving this life– and Washington– forever. In a world full of entrepreneurs and makers and doers, work was leaving me unfulfilled. There is nothing worse than working all day, week after week, and all you have to show for it is a paper (or maybe even a single point) which has been rendered virtually unrecognizable after edits from 20+ clearers, which your principal will never read anyway. I wanted to work with my hands, or even with my mind, to actually build something. And I wanted a home– not in the DC metro area– to call our own. Then I started my third tour on a big, busy desk in a strategically important country. I picked said job on the sole basis that the portfolio– energy, environment, science, technology, and health– sounded so awesome, even though I knew virtually nothing about said country. And it hasn’t let me down yet; I have an extremely fascinating job and though many times it feels like we take two steps forward and two (or three) steps back, I’m learning a ton from a great group of colleagues, maturing a lot professionally, and generally enjoying life.

BUT– When I left Guayaquil, I told myself that the Foreign Service life is one I I didn’t want to live alone. Some officers, stronger and more independent than I, have thrived going at it alone. But I accept my limitations– I am an introvert, I need some consistency from place to place, a force multiplier to help me with how difficult mundane life in a foreign country can be, and most importantly, I was tired of accumulating memories and adventures with no one to share them with. I came back to Washington to regroup; fell in love with a fellow FSO and got married in October.

We make a great team, but this life poses its own unique challenges. He has an onward assignment to a medium-sized garden spot of a post, where there is unlikely to be a job for me. Do I stay behind in Washington and finish the job I love? Do I go to a warzone and visit him during R&Rs? Or do I step back from my career for a tour, slow down and take the time I never had to pursue leisure activities and personal– not professional– growth? The answer was heartbreaking, but pretty simple. Long distance works for some people, but I don’t want to do it, especially for the first years of my marriage. I’m still aggressively pursuing creative options that may keep me employed– bidding above my grade, begging for overseas telework positions, etc. but I’ve run into mostly dead ends.

And so it appears with near certainty that I will take unpaid leave and follow him, and this summer I’ll fall back into the rhythm of FS life, but this time as a trailing spouse. It’s not a fun proposition for me; my work is a huge– admittedly disproportionate– part of my identity. Any bandwidth I can spare is spent obssesively updating a draft email to myself with a list of things that can occupy my time– join an archaeology dig, learn photography, learn to sew, run a marathon, become a Top 100 Amazon reviewer, finish (start) a wedding album, make a family cookbook. I harass my husband for updates– has the assignment cable gone out? do we have a housing assignment? which has only helped me understand how truly difficult it is for spouses, so much feels like it is out of their control and since you share a household with the only person who can get answers, you really can’t harass them that much if you still want to be on speaking terms come dinnertime.

And then, because I am a compulsive worrier, I wonder how I will re-enter the workforce in 2017, having lost two years’ of work experience (not to mention pension and TSP contributions, and other savings) compared to my A-100 cohort. Will I be able to lobby effectively for a job without access to the network, to contacts and information? Will my colleagues remember my work over the last few years, and be able to lobby effectively for me, or will I be lost in the glut of officers, fighting over the precious few overseas positions? Maybe the most challenging job for me will be not having one at all. It is frightening, exhilarating, and liberating. I suspect it will test me more than anything has to date. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t have picked a better partner to help me through it!

Tangier, Morocco

I was reading through some of my old posts, and I realized that I have an annoying habit of starting to blog about trips but never fully finishing. I did it with Peru, with the Galapagos, and with Morocco. So I figured I’d finish what I started– better late than never, non?

I think Tangier gets an unfairly bad rep; I found it quite pleasant– but perhaps that’s because we were there in March, when the touts weren’t so bad, the weather was great, and the city was largely empty of tourists.

We really only spent one day in Tangier proper, wandering the medina and looking for antique maps (we failed on the latter, in spite of our best efforts). It was a good launching point for trips to Cap Spartel (where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean), Asilah, and Lixus.

A real highlight of Tangier for me was a trip to the American Legation. The Legation is the first foreign landmark to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was a functioning U.S. diplomatic installation for 140 years, and now serves as part cultural center, part museum– full of fun diplomatic artifacts!

The coolest part was that it was located in the heart of the medina. In fact, there is a second-floor walkway that actually crosses over one of the interior “streets” (more of a walkway) of the medina. The legation itself is a refuge from the claustrophobia of the narrow streets and dark alleyways.

Cap Spartel is a short drive from downtown. You can’t go into the lighthouse though, so there is really nothing to see but the view…

One draw of Cap Spartel is a visit to the Cave of Hercules (there are, of course, locals to greet you and charge you admission. It’s a cave just like every other ocean-side cave I’ve ever seen, so if that is not novel to you I recommend you pass). Outside of the cave, there was this pretty cool cafe:

Asilah was a funky town south of Cap Spartel. We stopped for lunch and walked around. I could see this being a really fun place to a rent a house and stay for a week in the summer. There were cool murals around town and lots of funky art shops, which were unfortunately closed when we were there.

I noticed that it was much easier to navigate the Moroccan coast than other parts, as a good number of the locals spoke passable to fluent Spanish– obviously, given its proximity to Spain and its popularity with Spanish holidaymakers.

The best part of the whole Tangier experience was the hotel– La Tangerina— which I would highly recommend to anyone passing through. It had great personality, was located on a quiet street, and each room was totally unique. Ours had a loft and a fireplace, which they lit for us. It even had a vintage radio that was retrofitted to play great mood music– I felt like we were in the 1930s and a million miles away from home, in the best possible way.

DC’s Best Kept Secret

Minus the time I spent in Ecuador, one summer at home, and various extended business trips, I have lived in DC for almost a decade (it hurts me to say that, it really does!) Granted, only a few of those years were with a car, so I can forgive myself for having taken this long to get to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

I had originally stumbled across the Aquatic Gardens when looking for tourist options for my future mother-in-law back in March. We tabled it when the Yelp reviews said there is really nothing to see until summertime…and promptly forgot about it until last weekend, when we were crawling up the walls of our apartment dying to get out– and completely bored with going to Great Falls.

When we first arrived, we saw a big marshy area with some tiny white lotuses, smaller than the size of my fist. We couldn’t even get close enough to really appreciate them. Oh well, I thought– it was worth checking out to know we weren’t missing something spectacular.

But we kept walking, and then we saw fields of giant lotuses– some five or six feet tall, with paths leading through the marshes.The website advised visiting early in the morning, when it was still cool out, as the lotuses will close up in the heat of the day. They were very much open when we visited around midday, but it was overcast so maybe that helped. Regardless, it was pretty buggy and swampy, so I would recommend visiting in the morning (maybe with a thermos of coffee and a pastry!)

There were white ones and bright pink/purple ones…I’m not sure what the alien looking pods are– maybe they are the beginning of the blooms, maybe they are after all the leaves have fallen off, or maybe they are totally separate seed pods?

We loved the way the water collected on the lily pads…

And we saw egrets, frogs, bumble bees, Monarch butterflies, and many many dragonflies, like this fellow:

I highly encourage all in DC to go check this place out…you can go to Union Market afterward and visit the Dolcezza Gelato Factory for a great day trip!

More from Charleston, SC

For some reason, I thought the last job transition would be easy– no big deal, I thought– after all, I’m living in the same apartment, working in the same building, eating lunch with the same friends…so I will admit I was caught a little off-guard by my nervousness the first few months. There was a new region to learn, names to pronounce, and perhaps most importantly in Washington, a new and fairly complicated bureaucratic landscape to navigate. My chain of command is atypical for the Department, the office is huge, and the complexity of the things I am working on cannot be overstated. It’s amazing, but exhausting! I’m still cementing my understanding of who all is interested in what, but even just two months on the Desk has made a huge difference and I’m starting to feel settled again. It helps that my portfolio– primarily energy, but also issues related to environment, science & tech, health, and natural resources– is probably one of the richest and best in the building (in my humble opinion!)

Fortunately, before the transition, I was able to get a lot of the wedding planning done so I can focus all of my attentions on work. Since we weren’t sure where/what/when the fiance’s onward assignment would be (more on that later), we put ourselves on the six-month wedding planning timeline. Since we’re getting married in California, I’ve had to deal with the additional stress of doing everything from a distance. I even bought my wedding dress online; it was a sample so I got a dress that I otherwise never would have been able to afford. That said, in spite of our best efforts (and my desire to have a city hall/restaurant wedding and be done with it!) to keep costs under control, we have had to upward adjust our budget more than a few times…mostly as a product of my totally unrealistic original goal of $5000 in a major U.S. metropolis, but also as a result of the “the wedding is not really for the couple” phenomenon!

So, back to Charleston. In light of all that craziness we left the grumpy people of the beltway behind for a weekend and enjoyed views like this:

Our main activity in Charleston was walking around and admiring all of the amazing historical houses. It reminded me a lot of Old Town Alexandria, southern style– expensive mansions that have been meticulously and lovingly restored, with beautiful planters full of glorious flowers (I’ve been having garden envy lately, given my apartment-bound existence!)

We wondered if the residents got annoyed by the hoards of tourists by foot and horse-drawn carriage constantly stopping in front of and photographing their houses. But then I pointed out that if you spent millions of dollars to live here, a part of you probably wanted people to stop and look at your house (fittingly, I proceeded to snap a million photos!)

This house was amazing– it had this great patio, and then another gate to a second patio with small pond and furniture. I could never live in such an awesome house; I’d never want to go to work!

I liked that they had stamped the street names into the sidewalk. (Also– another similarity to Alexandria, they had the whole series of royalty streets!)

And lots of beautiful ironwork…

I was obsessed with these planters– I’m amazed these people didn’t come outside and chase me out of their front yard. But they were dangly and I loved how the leaves were so colorful.

Ok, one more flower post…This one’s for my mom who has been stuck in bed with a broken leg for the last six weeks! Feel better mom!

Love, Life, & Elephants

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the discounted books section at Politics & Prose and came across Love, Life, & Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick. I instantly recognized the name from my Nairobi trip five (!) years ago, when I was visited, but apparently forgot to blog about, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

One thing I did not appreciate before going to Kenya was how intelligent and socially complex elephants are. This figures prominently into the book, which chronicles the many orphan elephants Sheldrick worked with over her life and how they grieved for their family members killed by poachers and later became attached to their adopted humans.

The great thing about the Trust is that these elephants are not doomed to a life of captivity– the ultimate goal is reintegration into wild herds. Plus, aren’t these babies adorable? Look at those little trunks!!! They all came stampeding out to the viewing area because they knew it was feeding time.

They also rescue rhinos, which in the book seem to be more difficult to rear (and then more prone to death in territorial rhino duels if not released properly). I just looked up this little guy on their website, and it looks like he died a few years ago as a result of pneumonia.

The book was a great escape and a glimpse into Daphne Sheldrick’s fascinating family history as a settler in Kenya. It would be a great read on the beach or in a hammock this summer, if you’re in the hunt for a good book!

Charleston, SC

I figure that as long as I am posted in Washington, I should continue to explore places for which Washington is a logical jumping-off point. And though I have been tempted by a series of IcelandicAir ads in the metro, my most recent trip was to the Lowcountry– Charleston, South Carolina. (For you other DC readers, shortly after I booked our trip using frequent flyer miles,JetBlue announced direct service to Charleston from DCA…but I would advise waiting ’til the end of summer to visit, if you think DC is humid!)

This is where I make a brief plug for one of the greatest cooking shows on television: PBS’s Mind of a Chef. We prepared for our Charleston trip by watching the first half of the second season, which follows Sean Brock through some of the ways the region has influenced his food. After watching the show, I had a greater appreciation for the heritage of the food, from the Carolina Gold rice to the variety of beans and vegetables that we came across just about everywhere.

Our Charleston itinerary was indulgent, but unstructured. It consisted mainly of food places that I had bookmarked on Yelp, and was capped by a trip to Sean Brock’s restaurant Husk. There was a large amount of to-ing and fro-ing; we visited the battery, admired the amazing mansions and wonderful window planters, and wandered through the touristy City Market. In the future, I’d like to go back to do a culinary tour and visit Ft. Sumter– we just didn’t plan far enough ahead to do that this go-round.

We arrived on Friday night with no dinner reservations, but walked into S.N.O.B. (Slightly North of Broad) and were seated right away, side-by-side at a communal table with a perfect view of the kitchen. I thought the food here was really an unexpected highlight of the trip– excellent bread, a delectable grilled peach salad with the best blue cheese and fruit I’ve ever eaten, and an OK chicken dish with very tasty grits. My fiance (!!!) enjoyed the largest pork chop I have ever seen, and a delicious veggie-bean hash underneath. We were so full from dinner that I couldn’t even eat dessert…which I’m pretty sure is a first for me!

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If you have done visa interviews in the Spanish-speaking world, you will be familiar with the refrain “pasear y conocer”– a response that used to annoy me to no end. Surely, if people were planning the trip of a lifetime, they would have an idea about the kinds of things they wanted to see or do. But if you ask me what we did with our time…the only reasonable response I can think of is precisely pasear y conocer. We strolled through the market, where I scoped out the goods– I wanted to buy some rice, some artwork, a Christmas ornament for our tree, and a fridge magnet (those last two are souvenir shopping traditions in our newly formed household, we have quite a collection going already!)

Then we meandered through the neighborhood and admired houses we could never afford…they were all full of lovely details and beautiful flowers– I especially love the flowering trees, something I will always appreciate about the East Coast. As the carriages rolled by, I strained to hear the tour guides, hoping to steal a tidbit or two about the places we were looking at.

We walked to the battery, found a good coffee shop, walked to another part of town, bought another souvenir or two, and met up with friends who just happened to be in town at the same time as us. We walked so much that day that I think it’s safe to say we earned our wonderful (albeit late, at 9:45 pm!) dinner at Husk.

Sunday was a bit disappointing, as we headed back to the Market to make a few purchases and the sky opened up with a heavy rain. Soon, the streets were choked with water from the sky and from backed up storm drains. Even if we had had an umbrella (which someone did not want to carry so he left it at home), it wouldn’t have done us much good as there was a solid six inches of water in the streets.

In spite of our soggy end, Charleston was a wonderful time and a great weekend trip from DC. I think it would have been better to have two full days there instead of the 36 hours that we did, but nonetheless I am happy we went there and would happily go back!