Catching up

Greetings!  For once, when I talk about catching up, I’m not just talking about catching up on blogging.  After feeling like I’ve been living under a rock between homework for the Econ Course and playing catch up on missed classes for awhile, I’ve managed to catch up with several FS and grad school friends in the last few weeks now that I have a bit more free time.  I’ve been catching up with FS friends who are moving back to town and grad school friends in the area whom I’ve neglected to reach out to in a long time.  It’s been really good to hear what’s new with them and to see people whom I’ve missed.

Other than that, I haven’t been up to anything much exciting, with one exception.  Last weekend, I saw on Twitter that Colonel Chris Hadfield was signing copies of his books at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the National Mall.  I was covering space issues in Canada while he was on the International Space Station, and it was amazing the buzz he created and how well he connected with people through various forms of social media.  So, it was exciting to hear that he was in town and I wanted to get his new book anyway, so I went down to the Air and Space Museum to get the book.  One of the fun things about living in the DC area.

The German continues to German.  I had a progress test a couple of weeks ago and they said that I was where I should be, which was good.  It’s not over until I actually get my 3/3, but it’s good to hear that I’m on the right track toward it, so hopefully I’ll get my 3/3 and get to Frankfurt on time.   I’m also working through meetings with DC-based people I’ll work with once I get to Germany and doing some of the other stuff I have to do in DC before I head out.  I’ve also gotten my orders and housing assignment, which makes it that much more real. :)

So, that’s what’s new here.  Hope all’s well in the blogosphere.

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Filed under Canada, Frankfurt, FSI, Germany, NASA, Ottawa, Smithsonian, Tourist, Washington DC

5 Pros and Cons: Ottawa Edition

Ania over at The New Diplomat’s Wife started an FS Blog Roundup on the topic of five pros and cons about your post with her lovely review of being posted in Copenhagen.  FS bloggers did these a couple of years ago and I came up with five pros and cons of being posted in Ciudad Juarez last time around but never did one while I was in Ottawa.  Since a few people have already covered life here in the DC area, I decided to focus on Ottawa for this one, even though I’ve been gone for several months.  So, here goes.

Pros

1. People – Canadians are nice, friendly, and easy to meet.  It’s easy to get out and be involved in the community in Ottawa and I made some wonderful Canadian friends while I was posted there.  It’s easy to blend in in Ottawa and you don’t have to rely on the embassy community for your social life, which I enjoyed.

2. LQA – Ottawa is an LQA post, meaning that you get an allowance and find your own housing instead of being assigned housing from a housing pool like in most posts.  There are some cons to it that I’ll get to later, but after having safety and security frustrations with my house in Juarez and feeling like I had no power in the situation, it was so nice to pick out something that I liked.  I had a lovely apartment and very nice landlords, so overall had a pretty good experience with LQA.

3. Pet friendly – Ottawa is very pet friendly and it’s very easy to import pets to Canada from the United States.  I don’t know if it’s different for dogs, but all I needed for the Diplocat was a rabies certificate, and they weren’t at all interested in seeing it at the border when I entered with her.  Vet care in Ottawa is very good, though more expensive than in the States.

4. Safety – Ottawa is a very, very safe city.  Coming from Ciudad Juarez, it was sooooooooo nice to live somewhere safe, where I never felt like I had to look over my shoulder, worry about my safety, etc.  Maybe if you’re coming from the U.S. or are coming from somewhere else where it’s safe, this wouldn’t make quite as much of a difference in your quality of life as it did for me.  But after spending two years in Juarez weighing the security risks of simple decisions like going to the grocery stores, it was just such a breath of fresh air to be able to go about my business without safety concerns.

5. The summer and fall – Ottawa is BEAUTIFUL in the summer and fall.  The summers don’t get too hot and everything’s nice and green.  There are a lot of fun events in the summer and lots of great outdoor opportunities in area parks and lakes.  The fall is also beautiful, with changing leaves, crisp air, etc.  Again, lots of fun hiking opportunities with beautiful fall foliage.

Cons

1. Winters – There’s no way to beat around the bush.  The winters in Ottawa are really long and really cold.  It gets down to -20F with wind chills down to -40F.  And, the winters last from about November to April.  Maybe this is no big deal if you’re from Minnesota, but the winters were rough for this Texan who’s used to being able to wear flip flops throughout most of the winter.  And, after two years of being trapped in my house because of the violence, feeling trapped inside by the cold, snow, and ice was a bummer.

2. Expensive – While I was there, Ottawa was a pretty expensive place to live.  The U.S. dollar has appreciated considerably against the Canadian dollar since I left, so I’m not sure if this is still the case, but it was expensive to grocery shop, go out to eat, etc. in Ottawa.

3. LQA – While being able to choose your own housing was liberating for me, there are also downsides.  You have to have a chunk of change ready to cover initial expenses.  There were several hiccups in my case that were not normal, but at one point I figured out that I was out over $10,000 in LQA and unreimbursed travel voucher expenses.  It’s also stressful to decide on a place to live when you first get to a new city or sight-unseen before arrival.  There’s also a lot of extra paperwork involved in getting the housing approved and reconciling the costs at the end of the year.  So, while there are a lot of good things about LQA, there are some down sides, too.

4. Internet connections – This may seem surprising since Canada’s very much a first world country, but while I was there, internet packages usually had a monthly GB cap and you could incur very high fees if you went over your monthly internet usage.  The speeds were also nothing to write home about.  That said, looking back at the website of the internet provider I used then, it looks like they do now offer unlimited internet traffic.  So, maybe that’s not as much of a con now as it used to be.

5. Deceptively similar to the USA – There are a lot of things about life in Canada that are similar to life in the United States.  You’ll see many of the same products on the shelves in stores in Canada as you would in the United States, there are even many of the same stores in Canada that you’d find Stateside, there aren’t language difficulties (usually), etc.  So, you can feel a lot like you’re in the United States, until you run up against one of the weird differences like the internet download limits, etc.  Then, because the difference came out of nowhere, it hits you that much harder.

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Filed under Bidding, Canada, Ciudad Juarez, Diplocat, FS Blog Roundup, FSI, LQA, Mexico, Moving, Ottawa, Snow, Texas, Texpat, Transfer, Washington DC

The Great Cherry Blossom Hunt of 2015

My mom was here in DC visiting me for about 10 days and it was great to have her here!

She got some genealogy work done at the National Archives and the DAR headquarters, and we went to Mount Vernon, had dinner with a cousin of hers, test drove a car I’m considering for Germany, and went on a hunt for the elusive DC cherry blossom.  Neither of us had been to Mount Vernon, so it was really interesting to check it out, despite it being fairly cold and windy when we visited.

Mom had planned the timing of her visit to coincide with the Cherry Blossom Festival but this year, Mother Nature just wasn’t cooperating.  It’s been colder here than usual this year, so the cherry blossom trees weren’t blooming quite yet.  We did go down to the Tidal Basin area to see what we could see, and one of the volunteers there told us that she’d heard that there were some blooming by the WWI Memorial.  We had a map that showed where the trees were supposed to be located, so we set off to find them.  We wandered for awhile and eventually found about five blooming trees near the DC War Memorial.  Not exactly the same as the whole tidal basin full of them, but still something. :)

In other news, German’s continuing to go well and I’ve also continued to whittle away at the things I have to do before I go to Frankfurt.  I applied for my new diplomatic passport, which turned out to be more complicated than I expected, since they’d changed the procedures.  But, after a few e-mails and phone calls, I found the right person who could get me the right form that I needed to submit with my passport application.  I should get it back in another week or two and can then apply for my German visa when I get a little closer to my departure date.

I also put my proposed itinerary in to the system, so eventually I will get my orders back from those.  I couldn’t do that until I was transferred from the Econ Course to the German Department in the system.  Then, of course, I forgot that I needed to update my medical clearance before they could issue my orders, so I had get that updated.  Fortunately, you can renew your medical clearance with a form if you haven’t had any major health issues, and MED updated within a few days.  So, I then re-submitted my proposed itinerary and hopefully my orders will come back in a few weeks.

That’s most of the news here.  Here are a few pictures of the stuff that Mom and I got up to while she was here.

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Filed under Easter, Family, Frankfurt, FSI, Germany, Paperwork, Pictures, Spring, Texas, Vacation, Washington DC

Los geht’s

So, I’m now two weeks in to German training at FSI and so far so good.  My teacher is great, my German’s slowly coming back a bit, and I’m getting back in to the swing of FSI language training.  I’m learning vocabulary related to the impact of social media on society, elections in Israel, the Greek economic situation, and other such things that one doesn’t spend much time learning when one is a high school exchange student in Germany.  There’s also the whole FSI language test format to remember, so I’m also getting practice interviewing a native speaker, preparing 3-minute speeches on policy-related issues, etc.  I still have quite a way to go, but I can feel things coming back and am getting in to the swing of things.

I’m getting more and more excited about getting to Frankfurt.  I need to do more here, like going through my belongings and donating stuff I don’t need any more, throwing some stuff out, and eventually organizing what will come to post with me and what will go to storage.  But, it’s definitely getting a lot more real and I’m really excited about it!

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Filed under Frankfurt, FSI, Germany, Moving, Washington DC

Graduated!

On Friday, I officially graduated from the FSI Economic Studies Course!  Woot!  It was a lot of work, made somewhat harder by missing two weeks when Dad passed away and then not being 100% when I came back, but I made it through.  Though, I’m not entirely sure that it counts since we didn’t actually get to see the gold at the Federal Reserve when we went to New York.  ;)  Our last week of class had the excitement of a snow day, and cramming all 20 of our capstone presentations in to one day instead of the two they’d had scheduled.  It was hectic, especially since I had to go a day earlier than planned, but at the same time, there wasn’t as much time for tough questions.  Fortunately, though, all’s well that ends well and the snow is now melting and the next week or so should be warmer.

On Monday, I will start German classes at FSI.  I’m looking forward to using my brain a bit differently and I think that getting in to German classes will also help make my assignment to Frankfurt feel a bit more real.  I’ve been so focused on getting through the Econ Studies Course that I haven’t had too much time to focus on the excitement that will be my move to Frankfurt in June.  I need to sit down with the departure checklist, an arrival checklist for Frankfurt, etc. and start making a list of what I need to do and deadlines for things that have them, like getting the Diplocat’s paperwork in order, etc.

So, that’s the news here.  I hope all is well out in the blogosphere!  I’ll leave you with this video from Carly Rae Jepsen (I saw her perform on Canada Day in Ottawa in 2013, btw) that cracks me up.  I mean, Tom Hanks lip syncing to a pop song.  What’s not to like?

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Filed under Canada, Canada Day, Diplocat, Frankfurt, FSI, Funeral, Funny, Germany, New York, New York City, Ottawa, Snow, Spring, Washington DC, Winter

Sightseeing in DC is out of this world

What!?! TWO updates in one month?  What kind of craziness is this?  Well, don’t get too excited, this update will be a short one.  After months of living in the Washington, DC area, I finally got out and did some sightseeing.  I’ve been in a rut of going to FSI for class, doing homework, doing errands, etc., and haven’t really taken advantage of many of the very cool things to see and do in the DC area.

So, yesterday, I made the trek to the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum out by Dulles airport.  Most visitors to the DC area are much more familiar with the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, but the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum is quite impressive, too.  It’s a huge hangar and has hundreds of full-sized airplanes, from historical pieces like the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, to more recent ones like the Red Bull Stratos that Felix Baumgartner jumped out of in 2012.

And, it’s home to Space Shuttle Discovery!  I will admit that Discovery is the primary reason that I went.  I’m a sucker for space shuttles.  And, this one even had its Canadarm displayed next to it, which ties things back to my assignment in Ottawa where I covered space issues and visited the Canadian Space Agency HQ and saw where they train astronauts on how to use the Canadarm.

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Filed under Canada, FSI, Houston, Montreal, NASA, Ottawa, Pictures, Smithsonian, Texas, Tourist, Washington DC

NYC…and other things

Shortly after my last post, I went to New York City for three days with the FSI Economic Studies Course.  We visited the NYMEX, the NY Federal Reserve Bank, the U.S. Mission to the UN, a credit rating agency, and a couple of banks.  It was a really interesting trip and I learned a lot from all of our appointments.  It’s one thing to learn about the theory and to look at data and another thing to talk with people who are actually making sovereign risk assessments, analyzing foreign economies for the Fed, etc.

I’d actually never been to New York City before, so it was also nice to finally see some of the sites there during our free time in the evenings.  One of our meetings was close to the World Trade Center memorial, so some of us stopped by there on our way back to the hotel at the end of the day.  I also met up with one of my friends from A-100 who has since left the Foreign Service and it was reallllllly good to catch up with her.  She left the Foreign Service for a variety of reasons and it seems like things have worked out well for her and it’s really good to see her happy there.

We’re now in to the Country Data Analysis section of the course which has been interesting.  Essentially, we’re taking a lot of what we’ve learned and applying it to analyze economies of the countries we’ve been assigned.  This first part is in groups of four and then we’ll each do an individual capstone project.  Most people do something related to their onward assignment, but it’s not necessarily required.  I suspect I’ll do something related to Germany but need to see what issues I might want to try to dig in to.

I’ve also continued to organize some of the administrative stuff that comes with transferring, like getting myself enrolled in German language training after the Econ Course and a required leadership class, too.  I’ve gotten my housing survey from the Frankfurt and am filling that out.  I’m pondering what I want to do about a car there, meaning whether to ship my current car, buy something else here and ship that, buy something else there, etc.  I’ve also started to make some basic lists of what I’ll need to take on the plane with me, in my suitcases, in my air freight, etc.  The lists will evolve, I’m sure, but it’s helpful to start sketching things out a bit.  I also need to get my diplomatic passport renewed so that I have the new one back in plenty of time to apply for my German visa.

I also ended up having to find an urgent care place to take care of an illness that popped up in January.  I hadn’t had to see a doctor here in the DC area before, so I didn’t really have a relationship with a primary care provider here.  I searched a few Foreign Service groups, and found a recommendation, took myself to the urgent care place and got it taken care of.  Fortunately, it turned out to be something easily treatable, but I wasn’t sure what it would be going in.

So, that’s what’s new here.  Hope all’s well in the blogosphere!

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Filed under Diplocat, Family, Frankfurt, Friends, FSI, Germany, New York, New York City, Spring, Transfer, Washington DC, Winter

A glorious week at home

The Christmas to New Years week is one of the few times that students at FSI are actually allowed to take annual leave, so I decided to avail myself of this option and went home to Texas for a little over a week.  It was really nice to be home and spend time with my mom, friends, and other relatives.

It was definitely weird not to have Dad there.  I think the best way to describe it is that he was conspicuous in his absence.  Dad really liked to cook and saw holidays as a chance to really go all out in his cooking.  If he had been there, there would have been lists, lots of different snacks, a fire in the fireplace, etc.  Mom and I are both a little more low-key on those things, so it was just quieter overall.  Going to church on Christmas eve was also hard, since that’s something that we’d always done as a family and it was the first time for me to be back in our church there since Dad’s funeral.

It was, however, just good to be home and spend some quality time there.  Mom and I test drove a few cars, since she’s eventually in the market for a new (to her, at least) car sometime in the next few months or so.  I had some good Tex-Mex and barbecue, and just generally enjoyed the break from the econ course, spending time with family, and being home.

In non-vacation news, I’ve worked out a tentative arrival date in Frankfurt, have reached out to a couple of the offices at post that are involved in the transfer office, and so on.  So, things are moving along towards my departure in a little over five months.  So, that’s exciting!

The econ course continues to march on.  We’re working on money and banking now, and it’s interesting stuff.  Next week, we’ll start on development economics, which should also be interesting.  It continues to be a lot of work, and I was very grateful for the break around Christmas, but it’s interesting and I can see how a lot of it will be useful in future posts.

All in all, things here are going well.  Hope all’s well out in the blogosphere.

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Filed under Austin, Cancer, Christmas, Family, Frankfurt, FSI, Funeral, Germany, Holidays, Home, Shiner, Texas, Vacation, Washington DC, Winter

Thanksgiving recap (belated, of course)

I’d originally planned on not going home for Thanksgiving since I could only take the Friday after Thanksgiving off due to FSI’s leave policy and flying on a holiday weekend for such a short amount of time just didn’t seem like a great idea.  But, when Dad got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September, I decided to go home because who knew if it might be his last and certainly it was easier to get home to Texas from DC than it would be next year coming from Frankfurt.  So, I booked my Thanksgiving flight to Austin in September.

While I was home after Dad passed away, we talked about our plans for Thanksgiving and ended up deciding to spend it with family in Oklahoma City, rather than my mom and I staying home and having Thanksgiving just the two of us.  Staying home or even going to Thanksgiving dinner at our church there seemed like it would just exacerbate the feeling of loss.  So, I changed my flight to fly in to Dallas Love Field, which was about halfway between home and Oklahoma City.  It’s a nice little airport but I hadn’t used it until I flew back to DC after Dad’s funeral since, for quite a long time, the Wright amendment had limited flights out of Love Field to just a few states.  However, that restriction was lifted in October, and there’s now a non-stop flight on Southwest between Love Field and Washington’s National airport.  I was worried that snow on the east coast would cause problems with my flight, but it went smoothly and Mom picked me up there on the way to Oklahoma City and away we went.

We stayed at my grandmother’s house there in Oklahoma City, which had recently been nearly emptied out in an estate sale (my grandmother passed away in 2009), so sleeping arrangements were creative involving recliners, air mattresses, and such.  In an unexpected wrinkle, my aunt and uncle who’d planned on hosting family for Thanksgiving dinner had just moved houses and unfortunately their oven self destructed instead of self-cleaned so we ended up going out for Thanksgiving dinner and then back to their house to visit afterward.  It was still a little weird to me to not have Dad there, but it was really good to spend it with family and I’m glad we went.

The day after Thanksgiving, we joined my aunt and uncle, cousins and their kids at the horse race track in Oklahoma City and visited some more.  I didn’t make any bets, but it was fun to watch the horses race.  Then, on Saturday, we went to the Oklahoma City Science Center, which we used to go to frequently when I was younger.  It was fun to see the new exhibits as well as some favorites from my childhood.

On Sunday, we packed back up and headed down to Dallas where Mom dropped me off for my flight home which fortunately also went smoothly.  So, all in all a successful Thanksgiving!  It was definitely a little difficult to not have Dad there but I had a good time and it was great to spend it with family. :)

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Filed under Austin, Cancer, Dallas, Family, Frankfurt, FSI, Funeral, Germany, Holidays, Home, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, Texas, Thanksgiving, Travel, Washington DC

The Brave Little Toaster

Well, it’s been three weeks since Dad passed away.  I spent two weeks at home and have been back in DC for a week.  The first week was a blur.  There were so many emotions, so many decisions to make, and so many things to do that it all just ran together.  Mom and I would get several things done each day, but we’d eventually hit a wall and would just be too fried to do much else that involved thinking or deciding anything.

We held a visitation on Friday and the funeral was on Saturday.  It was so good to see so many people turn out for both and to hear so many stories from people who knew him from work, community service, etc.  I’d heard some of the stories, but heard a lot of new stories, too.  I was also impressed by the wide range of people who showed up, from the current mayor and a county judge, colleagues from all levels at the agency where Dad worked, friends from church and community service organizations, to a group of mentally handicapped residents from a group home of the agency Dad directed.

The second week was a bit less hectic but still plenty of work to do.  There was stuff to do around the house, administrative things to work on, and things like cleaning out Dad’s office at work.  It seemed like most of the things we set out to do ended up taking longer than expected, but we got a lot done.  It was also a chance for the loss to sink in a bit more and without as much chaos.

Then, Saturday, I headed back to DC and went back to class on Monday.  It’s been good to be back in to a routine, but it’s also weird to be in an environment where everything’s normal and no one else knew Dad or has been affected by Dad’s passing.  I also wish that I could be home and helping my mom with the things that she’s having to do, like finishing cleaning out my Dad’s office, some of the paperwork, etc.  But, everyone’s been very nice and very supportive.  The econ teachers and my classmates have been great about letting me copy notes, helping me catch up, etc.  Nicole at Kids with Diplomatic Immunity took wonderful care of the Diplocat while I was gone and Sadie at Sadie Abroad picked me up at the airport when I got back to DC.  And, many others have checked in on me and offered some type of help.

I’m also back to the unpacking.  My HHE arrived a little over a week before Dad passed away and I left town for two weeks, so there’s still most of it left to unpack and last night I tackled a few of the kitchen boxes.  In one of those boxes was my “Brave Little Toaster.”  When I moved in to my first apartment, my parents gave me some of their old kitchen items and I’ve replaced or upgraded some of them, but I still have a bunch of them.  One of the things that I still have is a metal toaster, not too different from the toaster in the Brave Little Toaster movie, that Dad bought at a garage sale when he was in graduate school.  I’m not sure when he got it, but it must have been in the 1960s, and it was used at that point, so who knows how old the thing is.  It’s a bit annoying to use it because, while the heating coils still work fine, sometimes the lever won’t stay down on its own and you have to stand there and hold it down if you want it to toast something.

But, even before Dad passed away, I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it because of its history, even though I know a newer toaster would work better, and now I certainly can’t.  Realizing what was in the paper as I unwrapped it, I couldn’t help but tear up and eventually start to full-on cry.   So, even though I’m back to my normal routine and am doing pretty well for the most part, there are still things that trigger some memory or some thought about the permanence of Dad’s passing and result in tears, like finding the Brave Little Toaster that Dad had rescued from some garage sale probably somewhere around 50 years ago, repaired, used for many years, and then passed on to me.

So, the grieving process is a journey with ups and downs and will continue to be so for awhile, I’m sure.

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Filed under Austin, Cancer, Diplocat, Family, Friends, FS Life, FSI, Funeral, Home, Moving, Texas, Transfer, Travel, Unpacking, Washington DC