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Sunday, January 28, 2018

2015 Recap

This is the first of three recap posts I have decided to write - one for each year of my unintended hiatus to bring us to today. If you are looking for the other two recap posts, you can find them here: 2016 Recap and 2017 Recap. Then my plan is to fill in with more retroactive posts before I start moving forward.

January

Max and I arrive in Addis on New Year’s Day, after having “celebrated” New Year’s Eve 2015 on board of a Turkish Airlines flight to Ethiopia. I somehow imagined ringing in the new year in the air with Champagne, courtesy of the airline and perhaps festive food. Yeah, that only happens in my dreams. The flight is crowded and pretty dreadful and the mood is, well, the opposite of festive. Paul, my Mom, Nia and the cats arrived in Addis a couple of days before Max and I and have already taken care of some of the basics, which is nice. We spend the rest of the month getting settled at home, at school and at work, figuring out where to go for various things, meeting people, exploring Addis, learning about Ethiopia and Ethiopian culture, enjoying the nice weather and one of Ethiopia’s greatest delights, Ethiopian coffee. Speaking of coffee, we arrive in Ethiopia during coffee harvest season, so we get to harvest, dry, roast and experience our own home-grown coffee from the two coffee plants growing in our back yard, which is pretty darn fantastic.

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Also, we like our new yard so much that we decide it’s only fair to share it with our cats. So we start the short-lived cats-on-leashes-in-the-yard experiment, with mixed results. Why on leashes, you may wonder? Well, because our cats are known escape artists. And why are the results mixed? Two of reasons: a) our cats have always been indoor cats and the surfaces they find acceptable are hard flooring, carpet (loved for the scratchability), furniture and litter. They aren’t quite sure what to do with the grass. It looks inviting but walking on it feels weird. Turns out the comfort of known surfaces can’t be beat. I guess the grass is not always greener…  and b) after a few outings, they end up with worms and deworming them is about as fun as it sounds, so that’s the end the cats-on-leashes experiment. But we tried it and here’s a picture to prove it.

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February

Max turns four in February but because we are new at post and don’t know many people, we mark the occasion quietly at home. A few days later we celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary in true Foreign Service style, by romantically unpacking our belonging as we get a shipment every weekend in February – first our UAB, then our HHE (which has been in Belgium since we left Delhi, waiting for us to get to Addis), then our consumables and lastly, our car. Getting our car is a huge deal as it means we can now venture beyond the walking-distance area. Game changer! Also, we luck out with our stuff arriving during the dry season thereby avoiding water damage and mold.

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We  take two great embassy-organized trips outside Addis in February – one to Lalibela, a favorite pilgrimage site for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians,

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and another to Wenchi Crater, which as the name implies is a lake in a crater.

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March

We were so happy with the two embassy-organized trips we took in February that we take another one in March, this time to Debre Libanos, a beautiful church with colorful stained glass windows:

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and Portuguese Bridge, located at the edge of the Blue Nile Gorge:

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Between Debre Libanos and Portuguese Bridge we also run into some monkeys, much to the kids’ delight:

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Last but not least, in March I visit Ya Bunna, a small specialty coffee company in Addis, where I learn a ton about coffee and fall in love with medium roast and Yirgacheffe coffee.

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April

We celebrate Easter at the Embassy and at home with egg hunts

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and egg fights.

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Nia plays the trumpet in a concert

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and performs in a Shakespeare play.

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May

May is wonderful. Summertime is always busy for GSOs and I know I won’t be able to take time off but we also hear that POTUS (President of the US, at the time Obama) will visit Addis in July. My bosses encourage me to take time off in May before all hell breaks loose. Unfortunately, the kids are still in school in May, so we can’t take a proper vacation but there are holidays at the beginning and end of the month, so we take two awesome short trips – one to Istanbul, Turkey,

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and the other to Cape Town, South Africa.

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Both trips are fantastic but we have been to Istanbul before, so we know what it’s like. That doesn’t mean we don’t thoroughly enjoy the sights and the delicious food. Cape Town on the other hand, is new to us and we fall in love with it. We see ostriches, penguins, cheetahs, go up Table Mountain, and to the beach, have nice wine at a winery, and all kinds of delicious food. We would love, love, looooooove to be posted in either of those places some day.

June

School slowly winds down in June and the rainy season starts. The rains bring these critters:

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That’s right – termites. They swarm like crazy and shed their wings all over our yard. Some get inside the house driving the cats absolutely bonkers. The first time we see them, we freak out because we used to live in Florida and there termites can destroy your house. We are told that their African cousins, do not cause damage like the ones in Florida. Whew!

This particular rainy season is very wet in Addis but there is a serious draught elsewhere in Ethiopia, leading to famine in several parts of the country. Very sad situation and my colleagues at the Embassy, from USAID, State and other agencies work very hard to bring aid and distribute it to those most affected.

But generally speaking, I am not a fan of the rainy seasons in Addis because it’s cold and there is very little for the kids to do. Most kids leave Addis for good or just for the summer, either way they aren’t there for play dates. There are summer camps but only for two weeks which is not enough for us because we are stuck in town all summer. The kids are bored. We try to come up with stuff to do with them. One day I take them to Sabahar, a really cool organization run by a Canadian woman who teaches homeless and destitute Ethiopians to spin silk and cotton thread and weave it into beautiful scarves, tablecloths, bed covers, bags etc. Their items are lovely but not cheap, however, the cause is good, so a lot of expats shop there. Sabahar is located not too far from where we live and they have silkworms! The kids love seeing the silk worms and the women spinning, especially Max, who decides he wants silkworms as pets.

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Another day we go to see the giant tortoises that live in the yard of the kids’ school.

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I am experiencing serious cheese issues. We bought some cheese in South Africa but it’s gone in no time. Addis is not the best place for cheese lovers. There are some local cheeses but they are more like cottage cheese and while they work for Ethiopian food, you can’t use them as a substitute for other cheeses we are used to. Imported cheeses are available but very expensive and almost always frozen and let me tell ya, defrosted cheese is just, ahem, suboptimal. I decide I have had enough defrosted cheese and take matters into my own hands making my own Mozzarella.  It’s both easier and better than expected. I use this recipe, in case you want to try it. You do need rennet (I used tablets) and powdered citric acid, both of which are available on Amazon but other than that, it’s no biggie.

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I then use my home-made Mozzarella on home-made pizza. I make my own dough, using this recipe. Both the cheese and the dough are approved by my picky eaters. I teach our housekeeper how to make cheese and pizza dough, so for the rest of our time in Addis, we are pretty OK in the Mozzarella and pizza department.

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July

July is a whirlwind. My colleague Tara arrives in Addis. She and I met a few months earlier in GSO training in Washington. We don’t know it at the time but we will become almost inseparable by the end of our time in Addis. I pick her up at the airport and on the way to her house tell her POTUS is coming to town in a few weeks. She freaks out a little because she knows it means a ton of work before she’d have a chance to get her bearings but we roll with it. Before that, however, I have a big party to plan. I’m in charge of the official 4th of July event at the Embassy. I have been working on it since I got to Addis in January and most of the work is already done. The beer and wine arrive just in the nick of time but the event is great and both Ambassadors (we have two in Addis – one to Ethiopia and the other to the African Union) like it. Tara helps me on game day. Here we are at the end of the event with James Dean and Frank Sinatra. Oh, I almost forgot – the theme of the event is Old Hollywood, hence the cutouts.

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With POTUS coming soon, there is no time to rest. We have to immediately jump into preparations for the visit, which is a huge challenge. A visit of that magnitude is a challenge for any embassy but some embassies are in a better position to handle it than others. About a thousand people from various US agencies come to Addis for the visit. Just housing them in decent hotels, feeding them, getting them water, communications, vehicles, and tents to protect from the rain during outdoor events is a logistical nightmare. I’m in charge of procurement and property. I negotiate with hotels and car rental companies to make sure there are decent places for everyone to stay and cars to take them where they need to go. There are certain requirements hotel rooms must meet for a visit like that. And there just aren’t enough rooms in Addis that meet our requirement, so we have to get creative with some groups. Right before the POTUS visit there is a major international development conference in town. We have a contract with a car rental company to rent vehicles from them as the embassy vehicles are not enough. Except when we go to get the vehicles, they aren’t there. The people who had them for the conference, have not returned them as previously agreed. So we scramble to find a solution. Some of the drivers we hire from outside aren’t very professional - they don’t always show up when and where needed, or different drivers show up, all of which is unacceptable because the schedules, movements and security for a POTUS visit are extremely tight. Thankfully, the major kinks happen with the advance team (people who arrive to help a post with a visit a couple of weeks in advance, hence the name) and we iron them out by the time the President lands. My staff is constantly running around town looking for all kinds of items various teams need for the visit. We also have an issue with the flags. At one of the venues (the Presidential Palace) the required flags have different dimensions than what we already have, so we need to have some made. We find a company that says they can do it. I offer to leave them a flag sample to make sure they get the colors right. They say they know our flag. Except when I go to pick up the flags, both the colors and the dimensions are wrong and have to be redone. I am stressed out and frustrated and so is the vendor as we are running out of time but in the 11th hour as the President is touching down, they finish the flags and it all works out. I remember waiting at the vendor for the flags to be finished with both of my kids in tow because it’s the weekend and we don’t have a nanny on weekends and Paul is already at the airport supporting the arrival. The kids and I go to the meet and greet with the President at the Embassy. Max gets some nice shots with the President. Nia and I, being tall, have to be further back and only get pictures with half of our faces in them. But I am not complaining as I get to go to the President’s Speech at the African Union and that’s all kinds of awesome.

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August

Most of my colleagues relax after the visit and take time off. Not me. We had to stop accepting new arrivals at post in July because of the visit and now have something like 30 new colleagues arriving in the first week of August because the school year at the International Community School starts in early August and colleagues with kids arrive in time for the kids to start school. That means the Property team I’m in charge of has to make sure the 30 houses for the new people are properly furnished, cleaned and prepared for occupancy. We had already been working long days and weekends for the POTUS visit but have to keep going to accommodate the new arrivals. Meanwhile, the other team I’m in charge of, the Procurement team, is working on End-of-Year procurement, which is hard to explain but let’s just say that due to how the State Department is funded, a large percentage of the purchasing for the year happens in August and September. So I was busy, busy, busy. And exhausted.

September

We have four holidays in September, one American (Labor Day) and three Ethiopian (a Muslim Eid, Meskel and Ethiopian New Year), which is great because I really can use some rest. Ethiopians have their own unique calendar and time and celebrate the New Year in September (their calendar is 8 years behind ours). The largest Ethiopian holiday, Meskel (celebrating the finding of the true cross) is also in September. We have an annual event for our vendors at the Embassy for Meskel. Here I am at the event with vendors. I made the tunic myself out of gold-thread Ethiopian fabric I found at Shiromeda, a large market for traditional Ethiopian fabrics and clothing near the Embassy. Tunics are not big in Ethiopia but I had fallen in love with them in India for the awesome coverage they provide, so the tunic is a marriage of Indian style and Ethiopian fabric. I get a lot of compliments on it.12039362_10153718684229359_6421808682064343085_n

I also try kitfo, an Ethiopian spiced raw beef dish, for the first and last time at this event. I am a little tentative (left picture below) at first but it tastes very good (right picture), though my tummy does not feel so good the next day, so I stick to cooked food after that.

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October

Finally, I get a breather and we escape to lake Langano, where our Embassy (as well as others) has a campground, for a few days. We see millions of flamingos, camels, and ostriches.

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November

The annual Marine Ball is in November. We both wear Indian clothes, because why not. I had made Paul a wonderful Indian suit and bought myself a saree (one of about 30) at the very end of our time in India and I hadn’t had a chance to wear it yet.

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Nia turns 12, which we celebrate with a sleepover. We stay home for Thanksgiving and invite three Peace Corps volunteers and our nanny/housekeeper Sara, who make it special (sorry for the blurry picture).

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We have turkey and pumpkin pie from scratch:

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December

We travel to the US for Christmas and Paul’s Dad’s 90th birthday and celebrate both with Paul’s family. Here’s a picture of Grandpa’s birthday at a German restaurant in Washington.

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Then we go to Bulgaria and celebrate New Year’s with my family.  Here are my parents and the kids at Rila Monastery:

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