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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Buzz

Have you guys heard of Buzz Bakery? Well, until recently, neither had I. A couple of our Hindi classmates brought breakfast goodies and cupcakes from Buzz and yeah, they are all pretty darn good. That’s why I’m bothering telling you so. They may just be better than Georgetown Cupcake and we know how I feel about them. And yes, I did just say that. If you don’t believe me, go try Buzz and let me know your thoughts.

Anyway, I was considering making Buzz my dirty little secret but we wouldn’t want me to be the only obscenely happy and fat person now would we, so had to share the joy.

Like Georgetown Cupcake, Buzz cupcakes are not cheap but they are sinfully delicious. Their frosting is smooth and rich and the cake moist and tasty. In the picture below you see (from top left) Chocolate Vanilla, Chocolate Mocha, Red Velvet, Gingerbread, Cookie and White Vanilla. Yum, yum, yum!

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But Buzz is more than just cupcakes. They have coffee, scones, muffins, croissants, waffles, sandwiches, cakes and other baked goodies. They have two locations – the original one in Alexandria and a new one in Ballston – walking distance from the metro and conveniently, just a hop, skip and jump from FSI.

So, if you happen to be in the DC/Northern Virginia area and in desperate need of a little pick-me-up, Buzz might just be the place for you.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

South Asian Wedding Celebration

As promised, here is a long overdue Hindi related update. So Paul and I are at least knee deep in Hindi at this point and are fighting our way through the grammar as best as we can. It’s not easy but language learning is a humbling experience. You have to be OK with sounding like an idiot for quite a while. We have become really good at that.

The good news is that we had our our progress tests (evaluations) this week and were told that we are both on track to get to the 2/2 score Paul needs for his consular position in New Delhi. In case you are wondering what that score means, the first number is a speaking score and the second – a reading one. We started at 0/0 in early September and are supposed to get to 2/2 by the end of March. The top of the scale is 5/5, which is native speaker fluency. Right now we are at 1/1, which was a relief because the evaluation is not really calibrated to our current level. The format and the difficulty of the material are the same as those we’ll have at our final exam at the end of March. The only difference is that at our progress evaluations we get one less long newspaper article than we will at our final exam.

What that means is that getting through the progress evaluation was really hard, painful at times even. We know how to read but our vocabulary is very basic and newspaper articles are way out of our league right now. We can also hold basic conversations but load us up with high level vocabulary and we are lost, which is kinda what happened during the evaluation. The evaluation takes two hours – one hour for speaking and the second for reading. The speaking part has three subsections: conversation, presentation and interview. The reading part has two subsections: reading 6 small articles in 5 minutes and then discussing their gist in English and reading one longer article in 7 minutes and presenting the gist of it in English.

So, amazingly enough, we got our 1/1, which we are told is where we are supposed to be at this point, so we are thrilled. But enough about that.

More importantly, a few weeks ago we had an awesome South Asian Wedding celebration at school (The Foreign Service Institute). It was supposed to be for Dashain, Diwali and Eid (major holidays in South Asia). Three days before the party/luncheon, the management of the South Asia Language Department learned that one of our classmates, Ben, was getting married and decided to make it a wedding celebration instead. Each language group secretly prepared a little number in the language they are learning and performed it for the groom at the party. Ben had no clue what was going on and was majorly and pleasantly surprised. The teachers also performed wedding rituals from their respective countries for Ben. Of course, there was a lot of yummy South Asian food as well.

The Hindi group performed an old wedding song. Our teachers had to help us with it, of course, making sure we understood the lyrics and helping us come up with the right rad moves for the song.  It was a little strange at first - we felt silly singing in Hindi and dancing around but we quickly got into the spirit and had a great time. Our teachers felt that we had to perform the song in Indian clothes but since almost none of us had any, they let us borrow clothes from them. The boys all wore kurtas (long shirts) and the girls sarees and churidar kameez ( tunic and skinny leg pants). This was my very first time wearing a saree and I absolutely loved it.

The saree I wore was made of pink and blue silk and I thought it was gorgeous. Putting it on was a little bit of a challenge but after watching a few youtube videos, I got the basics. I put it on myself on the day of the party but many of our teachers took the opportunity to fix it, which was a good thing because putting on/wearing a saree is really more of an art. Going to the bathroom in a saree is also tricky, especially if you’ve never done it before and the saree you are wearing is amazing and very much borrowed. I am happy to report that the saree did not get soiled in the process – whew. But I digress…

Without further ado here are some pictures of the festivities:

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And here is a video of the song we, Hindi students, performed for the groom:

Aaj Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai (Today Is My Friend’s Wedding)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Very Late Thanksgiving Recap

This year we spent Thanksgiving in Deep Creek, western MD. It was just us, the kids and my Mom. We stayed at the cottage of one of Paul’s brothers. We had a nice, quiet and relaxing long weekend. Since we weren’t in our home, we decided not to do much cooking, so we got a cooked turkey breast and a small ham with a bunch of sides instead. I rather liked that because we were able to spend a lot of time taking walks, naps and relaxing, which was just what the doctor ordered.

We did see a bunch of wild turkeys and deer. No bears this time but we did see a bear trap not too far from where we were staying. We also did some hiking at a state park with a bunch of beautiful waterfalls. It was a nice break from our “all Hindi all the time” routine but now we are back at it.

Speaking of Hindi – there’s a lot going on there but we are also so busy at school that I haven’t had a chance to gather my thoughts and write about it all. I will though, very soon, I promise.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Drama Queen Birthday

Yesterday was Her Cuteness’s 8th birthday. We had a theater inspired party for her and her best friends at Creative Cauldron in Falls Church. The focus was a hands-on acting workshop lead by the wonderful Laura, a teaching artist, who was terrific at getting the kids excited and keeping them engaged in each activity.

The party started with creative introductions. Each kid picked a movement that represents their personality, which they used to introduce themselves to the group. Everyone then acted out not just their introduction movement but everyone else’s too – an excellent ice-breaker.

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Then there were a series of Charades-like activities in which the children were separated in teams of six and would act out something as a group for the other team to guess.

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The last activity involved a imaginary chest full of magical gifts. Each child got to pick a gift from the magic chest for Nia’s birthday and give it to her. This was my personal favorite because the kids were not allowed to use their voices. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of kids playing quietly like that. It was awesome:

Gifts for the birthday girl from an imaginary magic chest

Laura surprised me by inviting me to participate in the activity, which was tricky because I was filming at the same time but I managed somehow.

We closed the party with birthday cake and other treats. I had made rainbow colored cupcakes the night before and had them all in my new fancy double-decker cupcake carrier. Everything was honky dory until the handle broke and the cupcakes turned into a mangled frosted mess but we ate them anyway because the mess was contained in the carrier. Everyone had a great time and I’m pretty sure Nia is going back to Creative Cauldron  for more acting workshops/camps.

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This was probably the best kid birthday party we’ve attended and we highly recommend Creative Cauldron if you need something different for your 4-14 year old.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Proud

My peeps (Paul, Her Cuteness and Chutney) have be unusually awesome lately, so I couldn’t help but brag about them a little.

I have known Paul was a Foreign Service Badass for a long time. I even dedicated one of the first posts of this blog to his Badassery. So, naturally, I was thrilled to learn that he was nominated and won an award for his work at the Office of eDiplomacy last year.  His award was Government Computer News’ Rising Star Award celebrating outstanding IT achievements in government. He got it in recognition for his efforts in organizing a number of events called Tech@State over the past year. So, a few weeks ago we got to go to a gala at a fancy hotel in Tysons Corner to collect his award. I think this was the first gala I’ve attended and it was a nice one. The set up was great, the food delicious but of course, the best part was celebrating my husband’s awesomeness.

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Then, the other day we had a parent-teacher conference with our daughter’s teacher. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you may recall that we had a little bit of a painful experience after Her Cuteness was moved up to second grade mid-year last school year. She got a new teacher this school year and we were both hopeful and nervous at the same time. She seemed to be doing well but we weren’t sure because we hadn’t had the opportunity to talk to her teacher in detail until now.

The day of the conference, I asked Her Cuteness what she thought the teacher would say about her. She said he’d say that she’s  a good reader. I asked her if she thought he’d have any recommendations for improvement and she thought he may say that she needs to work more on her math. That made sense. She’s always been a great reader, but she doesn’t exactly love math or writing. She can do them but she doesn’t seem to enjoy them nearly as much as reading. Her second grade teacher had specific concerns about her math and writing skills last year, so we were expecting to hear something along those lines again.

Imagine our relief when her teacher told us that yes, she is a great reader but she is doing great in math and writing as well. He showed us her math tests and her writing assignments. He had nothing but wonderful things to say about her. He said she was smart, curious and imaginative. He also said she behaved well and got along with all her classmates. We were blown away, in a good way. Because hearing that your child is doing great at school is like music to any parents’ ears. We made a big deal of it to our daughter and went out for special treats to celebrate the occasion.

Last but not least, the littlest of the littles, Chutney, has been working extra hard too. He is 9 months old today and healthy and happy as can be. It’s been amazing to watch him in the last month as he seems to have gone “fast forward” developmentally. He has decided that walking is the most awesome thing ever and has been working his tail off (quite literally) to figure it out. He can’t really do it just yet but that’s all he wants to do. A mere two weeks ago he couldn’t lift his butt off the ground no matter how hard he tried. He was a little, shall we say, ahem, butt-heavy, (I hope you’ll pardon my Hindi, Son!) so he couldn’t crawl.

I was convinced he was going to skip crawling because he just didn’t seem interested in it (plus the whole butt-lifting wasn’t happening) but a couple of weeks ago, a miracle of miracles, he lifted his butt of the ground and started crawling. That didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for walking though. He has been pulling himself up on everything using his arms and mouth (yes, you read that  right – wish I had a picture of that…). He constantly wants one of us to hold him by his hands and walk with him. His latest accomplishment is figuring out how to work this thingamajig:

Chutney learning to walk

I am pretty sure he’ll be walking really soon. Guess I’d better go babyproof the house, huh?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick or Treat

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Here’s hoping that your Halloween was a thriller and that your pumpkins are overflowing with good candy!

Our last Halloween in the US for a while was splendid, though a bit chilly. This was the first time I’ve seen snow on Halloween and let me tell you: I am not a fan. I liked our Florida Halloweens better. In Florida, you can go Trick or Treating in your flip-flops and you can do it all night long, if you want to (not so easy with wee ones) without dying of exposure. There, you can be a princess or a fairy without having to put on a turtleneck underneath your fancy spaghetti strap costume (which looks oh, so stylish) or donning your fairy wings on top of your pink parka (which is harder than it sounds). Oh, Florida, I didn’t think I’d say this but I guess I do miss you, after all.

Aaaaah, those days are gone but I am hoping that Trick or Treating in India will be kinda like in Florida. A girl can dream, right?

So, yeah, our Halloween was fine, despite the cold. We went to a couple of parties, we carved a pumpkin and Her Cuteness got to go Trick or Treating old-style (door-to-door) in our neighborhood. Nia was supposed to be the Little Mermaid. She’s had the costume for a while but had a change of heart because she decided in the last moment that “Princesses are so baby-ish!” and I had to whip up another costume in a couple of hours. Fun times! She was a flamingo*, a little improvised but hey, I’ve seen worse.

Max had a little 6-9 month-sized alligator* costume. He is not quite 9 months old yet but the hunky babe that he is, he was busting out of it a few weeks ago, so I had to look for something larger. I found just the thing  at a yard sale - a cute little Dalmatian outfit for $1. It’s perfect - made of fleece, so it’s nice and warm on his cute little bum-bum. Plus, it’s for up to 24 months, so he just might be able to wear it next year.

Anywhoooo, without further ado, here are some pictures of the festivities for your enjoyment:

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*We accidentally ended up with a Florida theme of sorts – I guess that’s our tribute to our former home state.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Sight For Sore Eyes…

So we’ve been in Hindi for almost 7 weeks now. We can read and are starting to get into the weeds of Hindi grammar. We still can’t say much because we know only one tense (Present Habitual) and our vocabulary is pretty limited but we are getting there – slowly but surely.

In an effort to expand our Hindi vocabulary I decided to watch as many Bollywood movies as I possibly could. Paul sort of agreed to watch with me but we soon realized that most of the highly rated Bollywood movies on Netflix were 3+ hours long. Paul was not going to watch a 3+hour long movie, so the first time we looked until we found something shorter. I don’t remember the name of the first movie we saw but it was not worth it. It was way not what we expected. It was mostly in English, had no dance numbers and was about wife swapping – very weird.

The second time we sat down to watch a Bollywood movie I thought we’d try one of the longer ones, so I picked Jodha Akbar a historical drama (made in 2007), which I thought would help us not only improve our Hindi but also better understand Indian culture. The only problem was it was 3 hours and 40 minutes. Paul fell asleep after the first 30 minutes, so I watched the rest alone.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect much but boy, was I pleasantly surprised. I did learn a few new Hindi words and a thing or two about Indian culture and history but better than that (and I mean way better) was this:

Hubba, hubba!

You’re welcome, ladies! His name is Hrithik Roshan and he plays the Mughal Emperor Akbar (the male lead). When I saw that scene I was all Ooooh la la…

Is he hot or is he hot? I don’t know about you but I can watch that scene until I am blue in the face… (I may be turning Avatar-ish hue already, ha!)

So, yeah, I have a crush on the guy. Oooopsies! I know, I know, it’s been a couple of years since I was in high school. I shouldn’t be having crushes anymore, right? I thought that when you pass the age of 25 and/or have a kid or two, the part of your brain responsible for crushes dies. Apparently not. Now I am the butt of all kinds of jokes around our house... Whatevs…

If there are guys reading this – do not despair for the female lead (Jodha Akbar) is none other than Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, the most beautiful woman in the world, according to many. Here’s a little something for you, guys:

Jodhaa Akbar, Hrithik Roshan,Aishwarya Rai,Sonu Sood,Kulbhushan Kharbanda,Suhasini Mulay,Raza Murad,Punam Sinha,Rajesh Vivek,Pramod Moutho,Ila Arun,Surendra Pal,Visshwa Badola,Prathmesh Mehta,Shaji Chaudhary,Manava Naik,Disha Vakani,Abeer Abrar,Indrajit Sarkar,Aman Dhaliwal,Nikitin Dheer,Pradeep Sharma,Balraj,Sudhanshu Hakku,Digvijay Purohit,Uri,Sayed Badrul Hasan,Dilnaaz Irani,Tejpal Singh Rawat,Shehzor Ali,Ulhas Barve,Jassi Singh,Raju Pandit,Bharat Kumar,Rajiv Sehgal,Gurmmeet Singh

So, though it is long, the movie is a feast for the eyes and ears. The costumes and scenery are amazing, the music and dance numbers – lovely, and the plot - very interesting. According to some reviews Akbar’s character is depicted accurately, while Jodha’s not so much but even if that’s the case I’ve forgiven the movie creators and totally, wholeheartedly recommend the movie.

Enjoy!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Georgetown Cupcake!!!

Yesterday was a rather gloomy day. It started out being cold, drizzly and just unpleasant. But it got better. A hell of a lot better…

Paul and I had to run an errand in Georgetown that was kind of a drag but on the way home I noticed a miracle of miracles: no line outside Georgetown Cupcake!!!

Boy did that make my day. I had heard people rave about Georgetown Cupcake ever since we moved back to the DC area a year and a half ago. I really wanted to try them but every time we went to Georgetown there werre unbelievable lines outside the store, sometimes going on for blocks. There was no way in hell I was going to wait for hours for cupcakes and I didn’t really understand the people who did. It’s cupcakes after all, how great could they be. And at $2.50 a piece they weren’t exactly dirt cheap. So I had sort of given up on the idea but today in the the cold, nasty drizzle those cupcakes were just calling my name.  The fact that there was no line out the door was just the icing on the (cup) cake. Pun intended.

So, yeah, I am only human. I can resist anything but, you know, temptation. I ran in quickly before Paul had a chance to change his mind and mine. Inside the door there was a little bit of a line but it was just long enough to let me make up my mind about what I wanted.

I knew I may not get these beauties again because of the insane lines, the price and because stuff like that goes straight to my badonkadonk, which is not exactly small these days, so I went for the dozen. I got Mint Cookies N Cream, Salted Caramel, Gluten Free Lava, Chocolate Birthday, Chocolate 3, Peanut Butter Fudge, Coconut, two Pumpkin Spice and two Red Velvet. There were about 15 girls working in the store, who looked like they’d never had a cupcake in their lives. They wrapped my cupcakes and put them in a beautiful pink box.

I could hardly wait the 30 or so minutes it took us to get home and eat lunch before we could try the cupcakes. And let me tell you, those things were not just pretty. They were deeeeeeelish! I think the Red Velvet and the Salted Caramel may be my faves.

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They are very sweet. One is about all you can have at one sitting. And they are not very big. But they are tasty. The cake is good but that’s not that hard to do. It’s the frosting that’s pretty incredible. It’s light and fluffy and heavenly….

While I was at the store I noticed that they were promoting a book written by the two sisters who started Georgetown Cupcake. The book tells the story of how they started the company but it also has recipes. And guess what, I’ll be buying it as soon as it’s out on Nov. 8 because I have to figure out how to make that frosting. I just have to!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Passed the QEP!

I am greatly relieved to report that my personal narratives (short essays) somehow made it past the Qualifications Evaluation Panel(QEP) and I am moving on to the next step in the process of becoming a US Diplomat, the Oral Assessment (OA).

Needless to say, I am very excited to have made it this far but I also know that unless I make it all the way, none of it really matters. Now I have to figure out how to prepare for the OA.

The OA, in case you were wondering, is an interview on steroids. It’s an all-day affair that starts at 7 a.m. and may last up until 6 p.m. It includes a group exercise, a structured interview, a case management exercise and an exit interview. More information on each of these components of the OA as well as sample questions/scenarios can be found here

At the end of the OA, you know if you have passed or not and if you are one of the few that pass, you get to go home with a conditional offer of employment. It’s conditional because you still have to get medical and security clearances and pass the final suitability review. If you pass the final suitability review, you get to hang out on the hiring register, where everyone is arranged according to their scores from the OA. That’s the list of candidates from which the department makes the hiring calls. There are actually five different registers - one for each of the five career tracks in the Foreign Service (Consular, Economic, Management, Political and Public Diplomacy). You pick your track at the very beginning of the process, when you register to take the written test (FSOT). I picked Management.

If you know a foreign language or are a veteran, you can get extra points, which would improve your position on the register. The higher you are on the register, the more likely you are to get called. But again, there are no guarantees you will get called because you can be on the register for a maximum of 18 months. New people are constantly being added to the register and their scores may be higher than yours, in which case you will get bumped down in your position on the register. If you don’t get called within 18 months, your name simply drops off the register. Which means, too bad for you because if you are still interested in becoming a diplomat, you have to go all the way back and retake the FSOT and all the steps thereafter. Yeah, let’s hope I won’t have to do that but this will be my first time taking the OA and I know more than a handful of excellent Foreign Service Officers, who did not pass the OA on their fist attempt and had to start from scratch (sometimes multiple times).

So that’s where I am right now. I have scheduled my OA  - it’s on January 27. Wish me luck and if you have any advice on how to prepare for the OA, I am all ears.

Thanks!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Adventures in Hindi

So it’s been two weeks since we started Hindi and I am still loving it. I hope I don’t jinx us by saying that but so far it’s pretty awesome. That is not to say that it’s easy or that I am doing all that well. I just enjoy it. I’ve always loved languages and it is very reminiscent of the way I learned English in Bulgaria as a teenager.

Our Hindi teachers are really nice and the other students in the group are very cool too. We have 4 to 5 hours of instruction and drills in Hindi every day and then language lab time in the afternoon. But class is more than just learning Hindi because we often talk about Indian culture. We spent some time talking about big fat Indian weddings and Bollywood movies/music last week, for example.

We are finding out that they weren’t kidding when they told us to expect to gain 10 lbs each in Hindi training. At the end of our first week of Hindi the students who are learning Hindi at FSI ahead of us had an Indian feast for us. They had made/bought a bunch of  Indian treats to welcome us to Hindi – so sweet. Then last week we celebrated the birthday of one of the students in the earlier group and the engagement of another with cake and ice cream respectively. So, oy do I need to exercise!

We are making progress with Hindi for sure, though it may be in fits and starts sometimes. We know almost all the letters of the Hindi alphabet (yay) and are starting to read. We can now hold very basic conversations and d0 s0 multiple times each day. We also spend hours and hours doing various drills. There are a bunch of sounds in Hindi that do not exist in English or Bulgarian, so it’s been hard getting my ears to differentiate them and my tongue to pronounce them correctly. Some things make no sense. For instance, there is one word for yesterday and tomorrow in Hindi. That totally baffled me at first but our teacher said it was completely logical because you would know what the speaker was referring to based on the tense they use. I guess I have to trust her on that one for now.

The word order is different than in English or Bulgarian and they use postpositions instead of prepositions in Hindi, so instead of saying “I am from America.” you say “I America from am.” That takes some getting used to but hopefully with time it will become second nature. Hopefully!!!

So, I totally feel like a kindergartener but that’s OK because some of the constructions are starting to make sense and I am slowly starting to read the beautiful filigree that is Hindi, which is such a wonderful feeling. And get this, I can now write my own name in Hindi!

It looks like this:

डानिएला

How cool is that! I even installed the Hindi keyboard on my computer. Finding each character takes me forever but who cares - I can type in Hindi, sorta, kinda, almost!

Being in Hindi class each day has made us even more excited about moving to India. We have been watching Indian movies, listening to Indian music, eating Indian food, talking about India non-stop in class and outside, so no wonder we can’t wait. We got the New Delhi Embassy newsletter last week and they had announcements for trips for embassy people to Rajastan for the camel festival there and to the Taj Mahal (which I now know means Crown Palace!). It’s a bummer that we have to wait at least 8 months before we can see those places. 

Taj MahalSource

I just can’t wait to get my own sari, decorate my hands with henna, take the trip to the Taj Mahal and experience all that India has to offer. I am also a little nervous because India is very much an in-your-face type of place with overcrowding, insane traffic, pollution and crushing poverty but hopefully we’ll learn to handle all that somehow. Everyone says that you either love it or you hate it. I hope it’s the former for us.

Speaking of the Taj Mahal, I recently read this article about it in the Smithsonian magazine. It’s a serious piece about the damage the amazing sight has sustained through the years but there are some neat pictures, videos and graphics that go with it too and I never tire of looking at pictures of the Taj. Thought you might enjoy them too.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fancy Onesies for My Little Man

This post is about something fun I did last week but tomorrow is 9/11 and I can’t help but think of what happened on that day 10 years ago. The media have all kinds of stories about the anniversary and how our lives have changed in the last 10 years. I toyed with the idea of writing about where we were when it happened and how the events affected us but it’s just too depressing and I don’t want to go there. I will never forget it as I am sure no one who lived through it or was in any way touched by the events would. 9/11 and the events that followed robbed the world of its innocence  (or whatever was left of it) as far as I am concerned. I don’t have anything profound to say about it other than wishing I had a magic wand, so I could undo it. Unfortunately, have no magical powers. But enough about that.

Back to my fun project. It’s been a long time since I had done anything creative and my hands were just itching for a neat little project. I had seen several cool little onesies ideas on Pinterest but had to wait until I was done with ConGen before I could gather the necessary supplies and work on one. I ended up picking a tie onesie for Chutney that ended up looking like this:

IMG_1071Sure, the tie on this one came out a little fatter than I envisioned it (kinda 70s style) but isn’t he adorable in it anyway?

I made two of them using the instructions here. I used two plain white onesies and two silk clip-on boys ties I found at a second-hand store. I was going to ruin the ties to make the onesies, when I realized that I could use the back hangie piece for the onesies and still be able to use the ties for Chutney when he’s a little bit older. I guess I am cheap thrifty that way. It’s a fairly simple project but my decision to use actual tie material (silk) made things a little more complicated because silk is quite flimsy. I had to use some interfacing to strengthen the silk and the back of the onesie, so the needle didn’t put holes in either material. In addition to being flimsy, the grey-blue silk is bleeding fabric die onto the onesie but oh, well. If I make more, I’ll probably just use simple but colorful cotton fabrics. You live, you learn, right?

So here you see the ties and how I chopped off the backs for this project. Below are the two finished onesies.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Everybody Back To School

Today was the first day of school for everyone in our family but Chutney.

After a summer that apparently was too long and boring (not really), Nia was delighted to start third grade. She could hardly wait to meet her new teacher and classmates. Here she is all smiles heading off to school this morning:

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It was also the first day of Hindi language training for Paul and I because I did get into Hindi. I am happy to report that we all survived our first day of school.

For Paul and I it was an interesting first day, though it was a little light on actual learning. We had orientations, tours of FSI and introductions to teachers, systems and services in the morning and a series of tests to determine our learning styles in the afternoon.

We started language with about 1,000 other people all learning different languages. Some were learning a language for the first time, others had quite a few under their belts. It was neat to see some of our ConGen classmates go into language training at the same time as us. Two of my ConGen classmates are even in Hindi with us, which is pretty awesome, though they both know some Hindi already.

I had started working with Rosetta Stone Hindi way back when I was pregnant but by the time Chutney came, I had hit a wall and had a really difficult time moving forward without help. After Chutney was born, Hindi sort of fell by the way side somewhere in the blur of sleeplessness.

By the time I resurfaced out of the post-partum daze, I realized that I had somehow in a hormonal lapse of reason signed up for the FSOT and ConGen (I’m a glutton for punishment, I tell you), so Hindi had to stay on the back burner a little longer.

I had applied to take Hindi with Paul but didn’t know if there would be space for me in the class until late August. But I lucked out and here I am on the cusp of mastering the Bollywood lingo. I am rather excited that I have this opportunity because it will help me when we get to India and it may be useful if/when I become a Foreign Service Officer myself. I get to learn a language and I don’t have to pay for it – pretty darn awesome, no?

Our Hindi group at FSI is rather small – only nine people right now but one of our classmates will only be with us for 5-6 weeks. The rest of us will be studying Hindi for 36 to 44 weeks, which is quite a while if you think about it. All but the classmate who is leaving in a few weeks are headed for New Delhi, so it’ll be good to get to know the people with whom we will be serving at the New Delhi Embassy/Consulate.

We are starting out in the group of nine until we figure out how to read Hindi (called Devanagari script), which apparently should take us between two and four weeks. So for now Paul and I are in the same group but after we learn to read we will more than likely be separated into two smaller groups for the remainder of language training, which is fine.

Language learning at FSI is apparently really intense but a lot of fun too. There are a lot of tests as well as cultural activities and tons of food, which is a blessing and a curse. I already gained a few pounds during ConGen and was hoping to shed them during Hindi but today we were told to expect a weight gain of about 10 lb during Hindi training! Yeah, not good for those of us trying to lose the baby weight but I do like me some Indian food every now and then. Just thinking about it makes me salivate…

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Operation Belly Button

Last week was natural disaster week here in Northern Virginia with an earthquake early in the week and a hurricane on Saturday. Luckily, we suffered no damage from either, so we decided to end the week on a high note and complete a mission we had been postponing for six months. It had to do with Chutney’s future and his belly button. Yep, you read that right.

Let me ‘splain. Since I hail from the wondrous and oft misunderstood land of Bulgaria, I am somewhat susceptible to various superstitions and old wives’ tales, one of which says that your baby’s belly button is so powerful that it will determine his/her future. Got that?

Just to clarify, when I say belly button I mean the left over piece of umbilical cord that shrivels up to almost nothing and falls off about two weeks after a child is born. It looks like this:

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It’s kinda gross, I know, but it’s got strong juju, so you don’t just toss it in the trash. Oh, no! Unless you want your kid to be a garbage man, that is, for the kid’s future career is at stake.

So what do you do with the thing? Well, you think long and hard about your kid’s future and you toss the belly button at a place that matches your kid’s personality and your hopes and ambitions for him/her. For example, if you want your kid to be a soccer player, you’d toss his/her belly button at a soccer stadium; if you want him/her to be a lawyer, you’d toss it at the court house and so on, you get the idea. Some people set money aside for their kids’ college education, we toss belly buttons*. Much more cost-efficient, don’t you think?

Coming up with just one place for each of our kids’ belly buttons seemed quite limiting to us, so several years ago, when Her Cuteness was a baby, we developed a patent-pending diversification strategy for belly button tossing. It involves cutting up the little shriveled up thing into pieces and placing them in several strategic locations. In Nia’s case, since we lived in St. Petersburg, FL at the time, one piece went in University of South Florida – so she’d get a good education, the second piece went in the Salvador Dali Museum – so she’d be artistic, the third piece went in the Pointer Institute – so she’d be a great writer (like her Dad, who was a journalist at the time), the fourth piece went in a swimming pool** – so she’d be a great swimmer, the fifth piece went in city hall – in case she decided to run for mayor one day. There was one more piece, which we saved for years, so we could toss it in The White House. Yeah, that very important piece got lost in the move, ruining our daughter’s chances of ever becoming POTUS (President of the United States)!!! Unbelievable, I know – she will probably never forgive us…

So, we had to have a second child. That’s right, in case you were wondering, the only reason we had Chutney was so we could pile all of our presidential hopes on the poor little guy. No pressure, Son!

And guess where the first and largest chunk of his belly button went?

In The White House, that’s where. Or The White House garden, to be precise. It was a little tricky, with all the security guards lurking around. But we did it and here’s the proof. IMG_1049

But shhhhhhhhh, don’t tell anyone.  And don’t be surprised when he becomes president one day, alright?

But we didn’t stop there. Because being POTUS is pretty much as badass as it gets but he can’t do that forever. This is not North Korea! We have term limits, which means he has to have a regular career too, so we had to do the whole diversification strategy for him as well. So smaller belly button chunks went to Main State and the Foreign Service Institute– so he can be a diplomat like Daddy; the Capitol – so he can be a Congressman, the Kennedy Center – so he’s artistic, the World Bank, University of Maryland, the University of Maryland football stadium, and a swimming pool.

So, Operation Belly Button, Chutney Edition was completed successfully this past Sunday and now we can breathe a sigh of relief because our children are going to be OK.

Whew!

*Although to be perfectly honest we are setting some money aside for the kiddos just in case too.

**When I say in a swimming pool, I mean in the grassy area at the pool entrance, not the water itself.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Conflicted

Well, ConGen is over and that’s good, I guess but I am feeling very conflicted right now.

I jumped into ConGen and put everything else on the back burner and that’s not working as well as I thought. I am behind with pretty much everything including this blog but most importantly I feel really bad about abandoning the kids. They are home with my mom and she’s doing her best but they miss me and their Daddy terribly. It’s not going to get better for a while because it seems like I may actually get into Hindi. I am really excited about that but at the same time dreading it a little because it means that both Paul and I will be at school every work day for seven months starting Sept. 6.

It’s what every working parent has to deal with, I know, and I’ve been there before but it doesn’t make it any easier. Our daughter is starved for attention and misbehaving and our son looks so lost and sad when we leave each morning. I’ve spent the last several days trying to give the kids my time and attention and do the fun things I wasn’t able to do with them when I was at school and I am just exhausted. And I have just two kids. I don’t know how the people with more kids do it…

I am also trying to get caught up with everything else before Hindi starts but my head is one big jumble that looks/feels like this:

Wordle 
Needless to say, I am not much fun to be around right now. 
 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chutney’s 6 months old

It’s been a long time since I last blogged. I have been pretty busy with ConGen, which is going well despite all the readings, case studies, role plays and weekly exams. But I digress…

Max turned 6 months today. We are delighted to report that he is doing great considering he was a preemie. He is happy and healthy and growing like a weed… a chubby weed, that is because he has almost tripled his weight since birth (going from 7.5 to 20 lbs).

A few weeks ago he started rolling over:

and sitting up:

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He says Baba (grandma in Bulgarian) and Mama.

He loves people, especially his Baba, who is watching him while I am at school. He adores his big sister, who loves to entertain him by clowning around. We are all quite smitten with him and can’t get enough of his smiles and giggles.

And yes, you are looking at the same baby in the video and the picture. It’s just that I gave him a hair cut after I took the video and he looks bald in the picture.

Happy half birthday sweet Chutney!

We are beyond thrilled that we get to keep you!

Monday, July 11, 2011

ConGen, Baby!

Today was my first day of Basic Consular (a.k.a. ConGen) training at FSI (the Foreign Service Institute), where US diplomats learn their craft.

No, I did not become a FSO (Foreign Service Officer) overnight. My candidacy is still in the works and will probably take another year and a half but as the spouse of an FSO, I am eligible to take classes at FSI, if there is space available. I have been trying to get into ConGen since March.

In order to qualify for ConGen, I had to take a 75 minute pre-test, which was not a problem. Then I was placed on a waiting list. Getting into ConGen as a spouse is especially hard in the summer because that’s transfer season and that’s when most FSO’s need training. FSOs, understandably, get priority for training classes at FSI, so I was waiting and waiting but nothing was happening.

I had been checking in with the powers that be to see if there’s any room at all in any of the ConGen classes. Up until the middle of last week, I was told that, unfortunately, there was no ConGen for me. Boo!

So, I had lost hope and was warming up to the idea of spending the summer at home with the kids and my Mom. Then last Thursday I got a call. Someone had to cancel and all of a sudden there was a seat in one of the classes starting on Monday (today). Would I be willing to take it?

Would I? Would I? Are you kidding? I had been waiting for something like that to happen since March and now that I had my chance, I wasn’t going to miss it. I immediately accepted. So, now the kids are home on vacation and it’s back to school for Mommy (and very soon Daddy).

But that’s OK because I think I may actually like it. I can’t write about any of the material covered in class but so far it seems fascinating, especially for someone who has been on the receiving end of consular services both as an immigrant and a US Citizen. Of course, it’s only been one day. Ask me again in a couple of weeks when I am buried in reading materials and case studies and have to prepare for my exams. Yes, there are four exams too, though in all honesty they are open book but still, I am bracing myself for a lot of work.

So, I’ll be in ConGen till 8/22. After that I get to relax for a couple of weeks. Then, on 9/6, I am tentatively enrolled to start Hindi at FSI, if there’s space available again. If I get in, I’ll be studying Hindi until I am blue in the face 3/31/2012.

Paul is starting his training next week. First, he has a couple of days of security training, then ConGen (in a different section) and then Hindi from 9/6 to 3/31/2012 as well.

So, that’s that. Now I need to go catch some fitful Zs in between baby feedings because I gotta go to class in the morning…

Friday, July 8, 2011

Janel’s Visit

Our friend Janel visited us for a long weekend a few weeks ago. Both Paul and I used to work with her in Florida. We liked her a lot but didn’t get a chance to hang out together as much as we wanted to, so we had a great time reconnecting. We talked a lot and ate maybe even more. One night we went to Adams Morgan and ate at a Turkish restaurant. The food was really good. The rest of the time we cooked and ate at home. My Mom made Bulgarian food one day. I cooked Indian the other. We did some sight seeing. Good times!

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But the highlight of the weekend for us was Janel taking pictures of the family. You see, Janel is a badass photographer. She used to work for the U.S. Air Force (Combat Camera), the UN (UNPROFOR) and the St. Petersburg Times. She’s covered some hot spots such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Panama, Liberia and Bosnia. And the Swiders, cause we are hot stuff, that’s why.

The pictures she took of us are nothing short of amazing and we can’t thank her enough. Here are just a few of my favorites:

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Janel is back in school now pursuing a Master’s degree in Strategic Communications Management. She’s looking into moving to the D.C. area when she’s done with her studies at the end of the year. We certainly wish her luck and look forward to spending more time with her and her family.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

4th of July at Lincoln Memorial

Since this is our last 4th of July before moving to India, we decided to go downtown D.C. Paul and I had done it many years ago when we were young and childless. It was awesome, except getting back home after the fireworks took forever. We decided not to subject the kiddos to the insanity of driving or taking the metro downtown and back. Instead, my smart husband booked us a hotel room a couple blocks from the Mall. Clever fellow, he is!

It worked out really well. We drove downtown around noon yesterday, checked in, relaxed at the hotel for a bit, then had a nice dinner at Bertucci’s before heading over to the Mall. Around 7:30 p.m. we packed our stuff and the kids in our handy-dandy foldable wagon and strolled to the Lincoln Memorial end of the Mall.

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In hindsight, we should have left earlier because the choice spots were already taken. We ended up in a spot that was great if you wanted to enjoy the Lincoln Memorial but less than optimal if you wanted to take pictures of the fireworks with the Washington Monument as a backdrop. We got some nice shots nonetheless (the Washington Monument one would have been nicer if they hadn’t ripped out the Reflecting Pool but oh, well…).

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Around 8 p.m. it started drizzling, which threatened to ruin the whole experience for us but luckily the drizzle lasted only about 15 minutes and the fireworks proceeded without a hitch.

The fireworks were glorious and we all enjoyed them. This was Chutney’s first 4th of July and he marked the occasion by sleeping  right through the very loud fireworks but hey, I am not complaining - he could have been crying the whole time.

Here are a few more pictures:

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More Butt Kicking (I passed the FSOT!!!)

I am on a roll today, I think.

Guess who else kicked some serious butt this year?

me

Photo courtesy of the fabulous Janel Norton.

Me, that’s who!

I just learned that I kicked the FSOT (Foreign Service Officer Test) in the butt earlier this month. I am still in disbelief after last year’s epic failure described here and here. It’s a miracle of miracles really because I had only two weeks to prepare this time around and having a three-month-old doesn’t help. But I guess having gone through it all last year helped because my results improved in all three sections. Here are my FSOT score breakdowns for last year and this year:


                                                                     2010                        2011

Job Knowledge:                              53.58                       53.69

Biographic Information:             31.72                      47.10

English Expression:                       57.67                      61.41

Multiple-Choice Total:               142.97                    162.20

Essay score                                       n/a                               6

I needed a multiple-choice total of 154 or higher in order to get my essay read, which thanks to a dismal Bio section, I didn’t achieve last year. The Bio was still my weakest section this year but it was a little better than last year and that, plus slightly higher scores on the Job Knowledge and the English Expression sections put me over the hump. The minimum passing score for the essay is 6 on a 12-point scale and that’s exactly what I got. Not fantastic, I know, but I ran out of time on the essay, so I am happy I got a 6.

I am majorly relieved that I passed. I was starting to think that I am just not Foreign Service material, so this is a nice surprise. Of course, the FSOT is just the first of multiple steps that I have to take before I can become a Foreign Service Officer. There are no guarantees and I could drop off at any point in the process but without passing the FSOT, I could never have moved on to the next step, so I am taking it one step at a time.

Next, I have until 7/19 to write 6 essays known as Personal Narratives. Wish me luck! I know I will need it big time.

THAT Kid

Guess who kicked some serious butt in school this year?

Photo courtesy of the one and only Janel Norton

Her cuteness Nia, that’s who!

It wasn’t easy but she did it. That’s the kid, who was moved from first to second grade in the middle of the year only to land in the class of a teacher who didn’t think she belonged there. The teacher wanted Nia put back into first grade. I agonized over what to do and shared my thoughts here, here and here.

We had a rough few months but I am thrilled to report that Nia was able to learn the material she had missed and successfully closed the three-month knowledge gap.

But wait, there’s more – not only was she assigned to third grade at the end of the school year but she was placed in the gifted program for third grade as well! That we did not expect. When we got the forms about the gifted program a couple of months ago, we said that we didn’t think she would qualify because she was moved up and had to focus on learning the material she missed. But the gifted committee tested her and determined that she belongs in the program, despite what her teacher said.

We knew you could do it all along, sweet Nia! You proved you are one smart cookie and we are so very proud of you!!!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

House Fiasco

If you know me, you probably know that I am not very quiet or shy. Whatever is on my mind is usually on my lips. The only time I may get quiet is when I am really upset. So, something’s been eating me for a while now and I have been avoiding writing about it because it’s just so unpleasant that I didn’t want to go there. On the other hand, I needed to write about it because I wanted to get it off my chest and move on.

This is not going to be a short or happy post, so if you’re not in the mood for drama, you may want to skip it. Here it goes:

We had a house in St. Petersburg, FL. It wasn’t big or fancy but it was our first home and it was special to us. We bought it in the end of 2002 when the real estate market in Florida was pretty hot. We had been looking for a while and made offers on several other homes but kept getting outbid. Finally, we came across this home. It was a little two bedroom/two bath with a small pool in a very nice neighborhood. It was right next to a beautiful park, with a lake, tennis courts, a baseball field, and a playground. It was walking distance to downtown St. Pete, Tampa Bay and a bunch of restaurants and shops. We loved living in that house. It wasn’t the house of our dreams but over the years we made many improvements to it and it was getting as close to it as it could. We added a master bedroom, knocked down half a wall between the kitchen and dining rooms to open up the floor plan, turned a window in the guest bedroom into a door to the pool, screened the pool and paved it, put a new roof, new A/C, new flooring throughout, new paved driveway, painted it inside and out.

Here are some before (left with previous owner décor) and after (right) pictures:

house after

While we were busy making the house our home, it started to settle (as in sink), which is not unusual in Florida but is still something no one wants to see happening in their home. When we bought the house, the previous owners had disclosed there had been settlement in the house but said they had fixed it. Naturally, we were concerned about it, so we asked questions. We talked to the company that did the work. They said they had fixed the settlement and the house was solid as a rock. We had an inspection. The inspector also said the house was solid. That gave us peace of mind to move forward with the purchase.

Then when we saw settlement a couple of years later, we were not happy but it wasn’t really bad, so we fixed it before it got worse. A couple more years later there was more settlement. This time it was bad and happened over a short period (six months). So bad, in fact, that our closet doors fell off their hinges. So bad, that if you looked from one room, you could see into the other - under the wall! I know it sounds bizarre, so here are a couple of photos, in case you can’t picture it. It was very strange and very, very worrisome.

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I kept hoping I would wake up and realize it was a just a nightmare. No such luck. We started wondering if it wasn’t a sinkhole. We had sinkhole insurance coverage. We called First Floridian, our insurance company, and filed a claim. The insurance company said we had sinkhole coverage but no regular settlement coverage and tried really hard to prove what we had was not a sinkhole but regular settlement. They hired an engineering company and the engineering company found that (surprise, surprise) there was no sinkhole on our property. We were not convinced, especially because we had talked to a settlement sinkhole expert, who thought we had a “classic sinkhole case.”

Oh, how I wish we had believed him and just sued the insurance company right then. We didn’t want to believe him because he seemed like a jerk but we shared the information with the insurance company. They said they’d get a second opinion. The second opinion concurred with the first opinion – no sinkhole. It’s important to note that this happened right before we had a master bedroom added to the house. Whether or not there was a sinkhole, was important to know no matter what but it had a whole new level of importance before we went and spent $65,000 on a new addition. If there was a sinkhole on the property, we were considering knocking the house down and putting a modular (not to be confused with mobile) home in its place. Modular homes are less susceptible to sinkhole/settlement issues. We had looked into modular homes and found that they had come a long way in terms of quality, options and reliability.

But the insurance company said no sinkhole and we believed them. We believed that what we were seeing was regular settlement, which is more fixable and less scary than a sinkhole. Big mistake! They rejected our sinkhole claim. In a way we were relieved because it meant that we could move forward with our master bedroom addition.  But the rejected claim also meant that we were on our own as far as fixing the damage. And get this, as soon as they rejected our sinkhole claim, the insurance company dropped us like a hot potato stating that they were trying to limit their coastal exposure. This happened right after a particularly bad hurricane season in Florida and all insurance companies were doing that. Except, we were not coastal. As in our property was on higher ground and not in a flood area. That didn’t seem right and the thought of suing crossed our minds but we didn’t because we are not sue-happy people and we weren’t sure we were being cheated.

Nonetheless, we had to go to the insurer of last resort, Citizen’s (the state of Florida), because no one else was writing homeowners policies at the time. We couldn’t go directly to Citizen’s for some reason. We had to go through an insurance agent, so we used our State Farm agent, who wrote our auto insurance. We told them what had happened and that we wanted the same coverage as before. They wrote the policy. Shortly thereafter when we got our policy and reviewed it, we noticed that there was no sinkhole coverage. We called our agent and asked them to add it. They said it was too late but that we could add it at renewal (a year later). A few days prior to the renewal date (we had set up a reminder, so we don’t miss the deadline this time) we sent the agent a letter requesting the addition of sinkhole coverage. They said they’d add it. More on that later.

Meanwhile, we still had damage to fix. We had been saving money for the addition but now we had this unexpected expense to deal with. And let me tell you, settlement/sinkhole work is expensive. We got several quotes and picked a company that seemed reasonably priced. The work was incredibly messy. Our damage was such that fixing it required raising the floor. But because our house was built on a slab and had no crawlspace, there was no other way to to raise the floor than to go through it. Which meant the company that did the work had to dig 15 (yes, 15) 3x3-foot holes in our original 50-year old hardwood floors and the concrete slab underneath it in order to raise and support it. It looked like this:

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It was even more awful in real life! But we did it and paid for it out of our own pockets. The hardwood floors were irreversibly damaged and we had no matching wood to fix them, so we had to “bury” them and put new flooring on top. At this point we were burning through money like it was going out of style. In an effort to curb our expenses somewhat, we decided to install the new bamboo flooring ourselves. The savings evaporated, however, because Paul herniated a disc in his back in the process and has been in and out of therapy ever since.

It was a very painful process but when the dust settled, we felt we had done what every good homeowner would – we had invested in our home by fixing a pesky problem. At this point, the thought of selling crossed my mind. We should have, because the market was pretty good then but we didn’t because we had just spent all kinds of money making the house the way we liked it and had gone through all the grief and none of the joy. We wanted to enjoy our creation. Unfortunately, the joy didn’t last. About 6 months later we noticed more settlement in an area that had not settled before and therefore had not been stabilized. The settlement was much less this time and in a much smaller area but it was visible and that was just maddening. We did not want to rip out our brand new bamboo floors in order to fix it. We had bought extra flooring just in case, we just did not want to go through all the pain again. But we had to do something, so we called our insurance agent and told them what was happening. They responded shortly thereafter saying we had no sinkhole coverage. WTF??? It turned out that the person we had been dealing with, did not add the sinkhole coverage to our policy. We later learned that that same person had messed up other things and had been fired, which was beside the point because now we had no coverage.

But wait, there’s more. We call the settlement company that did the stabilization work to see what it would cost to fix the new damage only to find out that they have gone out of business. At this point we already knew that in the field of settlement repairs, it is very difficult to get one company to fix another company’s work. It’s a liability issue – everyone points fingers at everyone else and it gets ugly. Not that it wasn’t ugly already. I am not a violent person but I have to admit that I was having violent thoughts, seriously violent!

That’s when a friend of ours told us that he knew someone who lived in our neighborhood and had a similar problem. They had sued the insurance company and won. Unbelievable! We talked to that person and hired their lawyer. We filed two lawsuits – one against First Floridian and another one against our State Farm agent.

That’s when Paul got the offer to join the Foreign Service. We were overjoyed – finally good news! But that meant we’d have to sell the house with two lawsuits hanging!

After months of legal back and forth both First Floridian and our State Farm agent settled out of court. We used the money to pay our mortgage, so we no longer owed anything on the house, which was definitely a relief. We were also fortunate that Paul’s first post in the Foreign Service was a one-year assignment in D.C. That definitely bought us some time and allowed us to wrap up both lawsuits.

However, the house was not selling. After being on the market for more than a year, we had only two offers, neither of which was serious. We had to disclose the issue with the house sinking and that was scaring people away, even though the house looked beautiful, with the exception of the last small settlement area, which we decided we were not going to fix. We agreed not to put any more money into it and sell it as is. We had discounted the asking price drastically to allow for repairs. Still no luck.

At this point, I wanted to rent it out. I was concerned that tenants may not take good care of it but I thought, if we rented it while we were overseas, we’d be getting a little bit of cash from it (very little because as a rental it would mean higher taxes, higher insurance and hiring a management company to deal with any maintenance issues while we were overseas). If it was still standing when we hit retirement, we could live in it. If it was seriously damaged, we could knock it down and put a modular home in its place.

Paul wanted to get rid of it. He didn’t want to have to worry about it from overseas. While I understood where he was coming from, it was becoming pretty obvious that even if we did sell it, we weren’t going to get much for it and I hated the idea. I did not want to give it away.

We talked about it many, many times and had to agree to disagree. After much discussion, we finally decided to sell it at an auction. A scary thought, right? What’s scarier is that we went with what’s called an absolute auction, which means there was no minimum or reservation price because we were told it tends to attract more bidders and thus yields a higher selling price.

So, the good news is that the house sold. The bad news is that it sold at a substantial loss. To the tune of $60,000 after all’s said and done. Yes, it sold for less than half of what we paid for it when we bought it back in 2002, never mind all the improvements we did to it. And that just breaks my heart. I wish I could say “it’s just money” and let it roll off my back because we are not the only people that lost money in this economy. I am not there yet.

Paul is a lot more philosophical about the whole thing. He looks at it as a bad investment, which it most definitely was. He sees the dismal real estate market as a large contributing factor and there is no denying that it made things worse because Florida has the worst problem country-wide in that respect. He says it was a money pit and we just had to get out of it. While I agree with all of that, I can’t help but think that it didn’t have to get this bad, that there were various points along the way, where we could have done things differently to avoid or at least limit our losses. Of course, hindsight is 20-20. If we had known then what we know now, we never would have bought the damn house. But we didn’t. And we were very naïve and trusted people we shouldn’t have along the way. And we paid for it through our noses. I am still in shock over it. It will take me a while to even consider buying another property.  Not that we have the money to do it but just saying…

So there you have it, our house fiasco, in all its sordid details. I realize it’s not nice of me to dump my emotional garbage on you like that. It’s selfish but I need a cleansing ritual, something to bring closure and get rid of the bad mojo we had somehow brought on ourselves. I am hoping that spilling my guts about it here will help me deal with the funk and let me move on to happier things.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Epic Cake

Have you guys heard of Pinterest? Neither had I, up until a month ago, but now I am absolutely addicted to it. It’s probably the main reason why I haven’t been blogging as often as I would like to lately.

What is Pinterest? Well, it’s kinda like Facebook but with a lot more pictures. It looks like this:

image

If you are a visual person like me, this thing may just become your heroin. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you!) How does it work, you ask. You basically “pin” images (and links) of things you like – foods, places, things, ideas, quotations, books, and whatever else floats your boat.  You put them in various categories (boards) on you profile. You can browse other people’s pins and “re-pin” them, “like” them, comment on them or follow other people.

Prior to discovering Pinterest, I’d stumble on really cool things while surfing the web but often couldn’t find them again when I needed to. Not any more. Now, I can just pin the things and save them in the appropriate categories(boards) on my profile and then when I need them, Bada Bing, they are there! It’s really awesome. And no, I am not paid by Pinterest to advertise for them, I’ve just been so inspired by them that I had to share the joy. It’s still in beta and you have to request an invite to join but it’s fairly simple and quick.

So, anyway, I was sitting on the couch one night looking at cool stuff on Pinterest, when Her Cuteness sat next to me and started looking at the pretty pictures (and I don’t mean Gilles Marini ‘cause I hadn’t pinned him just yet but that’s a whole different story…). She was instantly intrigued by this:

Can you blame her? It’s the Rainbow Doodle Birthday Cake and I was kinda drooling when I first saw it too. It took Nia a couple of seconds to decide that it’s the cake she wanted for her birthday. Well, I thought, her birthday is not until November, I have plenty of time to figure out how to make it, so I foolishly said “Sure, honey, why not!”

Then, just for the hell of it, I looked at the recipe. Boy, was that thing way out of my cake league. It was quite intimidating but inspiring and irresistible at the same time.  I couldn’t risk making it for the first time for her birthday. So many things could go wrong. I had to figure it out... like NOW. And since my birthday was conveniently coming up in a couple of weeks, I thought, “What the hell, I’ll test-make it for my birthday and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll eat it anyway.” So, happy birthday to me, right!???

This is probably a good time to mention that one of my birthday gifts this year was a…

KitchenAid KSM75WH Classic Tilt-Head Stand Mixer

… yup, a Kitchenaid stand mixer and I was just dying to use it for something awesome. So it just had to happen, you know,  the stars were perfectly aligned. Her Cuteness’ request, the recipe, the mixer – it was a trifecta, really…

The only problem was I had never made anything so involved. This was not a whip-it-in-a-half-an-hour cake. I mean, when I first read the recipe, I had to look up a few words. It has things like Swiss Meringue Buttercream and fondant, for crying out loud. Those are not for the faint of heart. But for my sweetheart, I was going to figure it out. So about 10 days out, I started collecting coupons (‘cause I am a coupon maniac queen) and buying the supplies. I had to find just the right kind of food coloring (gel) and the decorator pens. I actually cheated on the decorator pens because I am cheap thrifty and the ones the recipe called for were quite pricey and unavailable at my local craft store, for which I had 50% off any one item coupons. I ended up getting a set that had half the colors but ended up costing me a lot less. I also had to get industrial amounts of butter and sugar because that’s like 90% of the cake. Seriously!

It took me the better part of three days to finish the darned thing but finish it I did and it looked like this:

Rainbow cake2

Not too shabby, eh?

It didn’t have to take three days to make the cake but there were diapers to be changed, homework to be done, dinners to be prepared, and all kinds of other fun stuff, so I had to squeeze cake making where I could. This is how it went down. On day one, I made the layers, put them in plastic wrap and stashed them in the freezer. On day two, I whipped up the fondant. I opted for a marshmallow fondant recipe but used butter instead of shortening. I have a thing about shortening. It kinda grosses me out. The fondant had to sit overnight before I could use it. On day three, I made the Swiss Meringue Buttercream and assembled the whole monstrosity cake. The buttercream actually turned out exactly as described in the recipe. The fondant on the other hand was kind of tricky but I am guessing, it may have had something to do with my substitution of butter for shortening. It ended up sticking to the countertop, so my Mom had to help me with it (she has some wicked rolling pin skillz) but we figured it out.

Last but not least, we had Nia decorate the cake with the decorator pens (markers, really):

IMG_0375

She wanted to draw a fairy with black hair and diamond wings. The final design looked a little Goth but she liked it and that’s all that matters, right? Here we are before cutting our masterpiece:

Rainbow cake1

Was it tasty? Well, yes but to be perfectly honest, it was so rich that we had a hard time finishing our pieces. It’s incredibly sweet. So sweet, as a matter of fact, that Nia decided she doesn’t want it for her birthday after all. So sweet, that 10 days later we still have a quarter of it in the fridge. So unless I figure out something lighter to use instead of the Swiss Meringue Buttercream, I probably won’t be making it again. Which is a shame because it is such a beautiful cake and I just figured out how to make it. The fondant didn’t help either. But if I figure out a substitute for the Swiss Meringue Buttercream, I can make it without the fondant. I’d also use a white cake mix instead of making the layers from scratch. Oh, and I’d probably hide the black marker – it made the design a little scary.

The inspiration behind this cake actually did not have the fondant and it was featured on Martha Stewart, so if you want to try making it, you may find this video helpful. The recipe for the original Rainbow Cake (without the fondant and the doodles) can be found here. It is very detailed and has links for making the Swiss Meringue Buttercream as well. The original recipe called for lemon extract in the buttercream but I am not a big fan of lemony cakes, so I used orange extract in mine and it turned out good.

If you know of a good, lighter and less sweet substitute for the Swiss Meringue Buttercream, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!

 
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