Pages

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

2017 Recap

This is the the third 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: 2015 Recap and 2016 Recap. Then my plan is to fill in with more retroactive posts before I start moving forward.

January

New year, new beginning. I do some research for April dates to climb Kilimanjaro. To my shock, there are no April dates because it’s the rainy season there. I hate it when it rains on my parade Kili plans. I’m mad at myself because who makes plans without checking availability first??! Tara and I may not be able to climb Kili after all, or at least not together, which is a total bummer! Tara has had health issues lately and has not been able to walk and work out with me all the time. She doesn’t think she can do Kili. I keep working out because I am not ready to give up. If Tara doesn’t come, do I want to do it alone? I learn that a few other people from the Embassy are going to climb Kili and for a little while I am excited because they are OK with me joining them. Then I learn that my nephew will be in Addis the week they intend to climb Kili and know it’s not going to work. But those guys provide me with the contact information of the company they are using. I also talk to other people from the Embassy who have climbed Kili and they give me contact info of companies they have used, tips and advice and encourage me to do it.

The travel restrictions are lifted and we can leave Addis again. I take a long overdue work-related road trip to Bahadar and Gondar. I love road trips, even if they are for work. This one is a road assessment. I travel with one of my Motor Pool staff. The objective is to determine how long it takes to get to Bahadar and Gondar as they are two of our most frequent destinations. Currently drivers are supposed to make it there in one day but they have to follow speed limits and cannot drive for more than 10 hours nor after dark, which the drivers have been telling me for months is impossible because there are a lot of towns and villages along the way as well as road construction zones. The distance between Addis and Bahadar is 560 km and it ends up taking us 11+ hours, which means I have to change the guidance and make the drive to Bahadar two days. The trip is fascinating. It goes through a lot of small towns and villages and I get to people-watch. Watching people go about their daily lives is one of my favorite things to do. We also go through the Blue Nile gorge, which is huge and breathtakingly beautiful.

IMG_6055

We get to Bahadar, which is on the shores of Ethiopia’s largest lake, Lake Tana. Our hotel is on the lake and we arrive right in time to see the lovely sunset over the lake. 

IMG_5596

Shortly after sunset there is an explosion in the hotel next door. We are unharmed but our security colleagues in Addis hear about the explosion and are quite worried. They advise that we leave at day break. We head on to Gondar, which is another 180 km from Bahadar. Gondar is also a two-day trip from Addis. We get to Gondar with a few hours to spare before sunset, so we decide to do some sight-seeing. Gondar was the capital of a Medieval kingdom and there are impressive ruins in the town like Fasilides Castle in the picture below.

IMG_5786

We drive back on January 7, Ethiopian Christmas, an important religious holiday for Orthodox Ethiopians. It’s the end of a long fast and a lot of families celebrate by killing an animal and cooking a big feast. We see a lot of people preparing for their feasts along the way.

IMG_6000

Then a miracle happens: we are allowed to go to the Danakil Depression, which has been off limits for us during my whole time in Ethiopia. The Embassy organizes two trips but so many people want to go that we have to have a lottery. Tara and I win the lottery and get to go. The Danakil is in Afar, way up in North Ethiopia by the border with Eritrea. We fly to Mekele and are taken by cars with drivers from there. It is hard to describe the Danakil Depression - it is a desert below sea level with an active volcano, salt flats and colorful sulphur springs. It’s one of the lowest and hottest places on Earth. There are no toilets or showers, so it’s not exactly a comfortable place but I like it. I wouldn’t want to live there because the climate is extreme and very little grows there but it is so different than anything I have ever experienced that I find it riveting. The Afar people are tough. Perhaps because it’s so unusual, the Danakil trip is my favorite trip in Ethiopia so far. I will do a separate post on it but until then, here’s a picture of the sulphur springs.

image2

Oh also, Tara and I cause some confusion and laughter when we accidentally marry Ahmad, one of our Afar guides at the salt flats. Oooopsies! We “honeymoon” at nearby Asal lake.

image2

February

My dad’s birthday, Max’s birthday and our 20th wedding anniversary are all in the third week of the month. I plan to go to Bulgaria then but when I talk to Paul, he urges me to go during the last week of February when the kids have a school break. I am not crazy about that but agree it’s better to be there when the kids are not in school, so I can spend more time with them. The third week in February is suddenly available. I realize that’s the only time I have to climb Kilimanjaro. If I don’t do it then, it’s not happening. I contact a couple of companies recommended by friends who have climbed Kili. One of them, Tanzania Expeditions (www.tanzania-expeditions.com), responds promptly saying they can add me to a small French group doing the seven-day Machame route, which is supposed to be the most scenic route. I beg my boss to let me go and he does. Off to Tanzania I fly and spend a week, including Valentine’s day, with 19 men I barely know on the roof of Africa and it is one of the most amazing experiences of my life because I actually summit. Kili is not technical, so it doesn’t require any rad skills but still not everyone summits because it’s 19,341 ft/5,895 m and a lot of people have altitude problems. Kili will also get its own post but until then you can read my review of Tanzania Expeditions here.

IMG_7177

At the end of February, I fly to Bulgaria to celebrate my dad’s birthday, Max’s birthday and our 20th wedding anniversary.  We visit my parents for my Dad’s birthday then we go skiing in Pamporovo in the Rodope Mountains of Southern Bulgaria. This is the kids’ first skiing experience. They hate the first couple of hours on skis but then they embrace it, more or less. Nia gets good fast. Max is not comfortable skiing on his own, so he insists on Paul or I holding him the whole time – not ideal but we make the best of it.

P1040073

March

This is my last month in Addis and there’s a ton to do to prepare for my departure. I sell my car and a bunch of other stuff. I have several goodbye parties. I organize my stuff for pack-out. And (drumroll please) I fit in my skinny jeans! Those are not just any jeans – they are the non-stretch jeans I wore before I got pregnant with Nia way back when – hallelujah!!!

I have missed all the formal events in Addis in the past year but one, the Irish Ball, which is scheduled for a week before I leave Addis and I am not missing this one. I have bought a dress for it and everything. It’s a peacock dress, because I am a little peacock crazy. Here’s a picture of the ball with some of our Marines:

IMG_4596

A few days before I leave Addis, Tara has a brilliant idea. She and her mom are going to the Seychelles and ask me to join them for a few days before I go to Bulgaria. Now that’s an offer I can’t refuse. The Seychelles are a dream destination. Paul and the kids went there when I was on a work trip in the US and loved it. I had been thinking about taking a short trip there because there is a direct flight from Addis but somehow it never worked out. Until now. We spend four days in paradise. We go to a different beach every day. We pretend we are mermaids in the surf. Aging Seasoned mermaids, perhaps but mermaids nonetheless. We go hiking at a couple of gorgeous parks, visit a giant tortoise sanctuary, eat yummy seafood, take a boat trip, go snorkeling, and see all kinds of bright fish and coral. In the evenings we make Seychelles rum cocktails and drink them watching the sun set at the beach. And that, my friends, is how I say goodbye to Africa.

IMG_7297

17814314_10212954233393248_4041223994305781559_o

April

I’m reunited with my family in Bulgaria and it’s great. It’s glorious spring – everything is green and lush and in bloom. For Easter, we go to Sozopol on the southern Black Sea coast. We drive down the coast to the border with Turkey one day and up the coast to Nessebur another day. Nia is officially taller than me. Even though we are not home, Max gets to color eggs at the hotel and that makes his day.

18057788_10155310765999359_1578389653012344184_n

18033565_10155297546214359_1264467432562657384_n

The Political Section at the Embassy in Sofia, where I am supposed to start working in June 2018, is telling me someone is curtailing and they would like me to start as soon as possible. That means I don’t have to be on leave without pay for more than a year, which means money but it also means I have to start working soon. I was just starting to warm up to the idea of not working for a year. Now I have all kinds of admin hoops to jump through to get my orders done, so I can start work. I am at the embassy almost daily. I need a Bulgarian visa and a new diplomatic passport to put it in because my old one doesn’t have enough validity. It’s like working, except I don’t get paid because no orders.

May

There are a couple of holidays in the beginning of May, so we go to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city. I haven’t been to Plovdiv in 20 years and it has changed a lot. We stay in Old Plovdiv, which is incredibly charming. Many of the old homes are beautifully restored. There are new (to me) Roman ruins to explore, and delightful ice cream parlors and cafes to enjoy.

IMG_7737

We go on a hike to Malyovitsa in Rila (mountains in Bulgaria). There is still snow on the mountain but there are also purple crocuses everywhere. My shipments haven’t arrived yet and I don’t have my hiking gear, so I hike in my five finger Vibram running shoes, which are totally wrong for this hike because the path is basically a rocky snowmelt creek, which I would have enjoyed a hell of a lot more had my feet not been wet and numb from the freezing water. But nothing needs to be amputated, so no major complaints.

IMG_7817

IMG_7832

My US driver’s license expires, which is a problem because I can’t renew it without going to the US. I thought I would have to go there for training for my new job but apparently I don’t need training, so no US. This means the earliest I can renew my driver’s license is Christmas. I get on the phone and beg, plead and cajole the DMV (the drivers’ license gods) to give me an extension because I am a diplomat posted overseas and I can’t go back to the US, yada, yada, yada. They say the best they can do is a 90-day extension. I take it because it’s better than nothing but I am looking at not being able to drive for 4 months at the end of the year. Urgh!

Tara finishes her assignment in Addis and comes to visit on her way to the US. We take her to Rila Monastery, then she and I go on a road trip to Plovdiv, Varna (where we visit my besties Nassia and Radostina), Balchik and Veliko Turnovo (where we hang out with my parents). On the way back we cross the Balkan Range at the Shipka pass and drive through the Rose valley. The weather is not ideal and it rains for some of the trip but we have a great time nonetheless.

19621364_10155551696294359_7575472133995074245_o

I get my shipments the day before I start work, cause unpacking while on leave is for sissies. I am curious about one particular item, our scale because I have lived the last couple of months without weighing myself. But I have been eating like food’s going out of style and have been a slacker when it came to exercise. And what do you know, I am 16 lbs heavier than when I previously weighed myself right before pack-out in Addis in late March.  Ouch!

June

I am a Political Officer now, covering Human Rights. I have a lot to learn and don’t get training but I overlap with the colleague whose job I am taking and he is great about introducing me to contacts and helping me learn the ropes.

The school year ends and we take the kids to stay with my parents for a couple of weeks. It’s the first time ever the kids have been with my parents (or with anyone) without us there. We buy an inflatable pool for them to play in. Max is apparently having a blast. Nia, as a typical teenager,  is bored out of her mind and playing electronic games most of the time.

July

Paul is the main organizer of the official 4th of July event at work. I help with the event too. I meet a lot of our contacts at the event. The event goes well and the Ambassador is pleased.

Paul and I decide to go hiking at Seven Rila Lakes. I have heard a lot about it but somehow never made it up there. They have built a lift to the area, which has made it a lot more accessible. The hike is steep and challenging but not impossible. The views of the seven glacial lakes cascading down the steep mountain are to die for. It’s mid-July and there’s still some snow on the mountain. It is truly one of the most scenic places I have ever seen and I can’t wait to show it to the kids. The current blog header is from that trip.

19990210_10155580078574359_3479798962218596859_n

August

We go hiking to the Pirin lakes (a different set of lakes on a different mountain), this time with the kids. Max is excited to hike, Nia would rather be somewhere else. Did I mention she’s a teenager? She’s also having a hard time keeping up with the pace of the group. Paul and Max continue with the main group. I stay behind and help Nia pace herself, so she can keep going. We make it up to the lakes and are rewarded with breathtaking beauty.

20770483_10155698051714359_4548385247104209956_n

20840636_10155698051609359_550947601337588100_n

At the end of August, we take a long weekend and go to the Black Sea where we soak up some sun and spend a few lovely days with friends.

21106485_10155739562429359_4419798623721331884_n

Last but not least, both Paul and I get promoted, which is a big deal because promotions were very hard to get this time around. But we are among the few and we are now mid-level officers, for what that’s worth.

September

Nu Boyana Studios holds an open house and we go. We see gladiators, SWAT teams and zombies stage a variety of scenes as well as some special effects, including a real explosion.

21751493_10155788982324359_3010466211691426570_n

I harvest a bumper crop of my own home-grown tomatoes. I planted late because I had just arrived from Ethiopia. My first plants froze due to a late snow (I wasn't home to cover/protect them) and I had to start over in late April. Things weren't looking good at first but they finally established themselves and we get a whole bunch of nice, red, juicy, delicious tomatoes. We make salads, salsa, spaghetti sauce and more. We have a bunch of slugs competing for the tomatoes with us but there are so many that they are enough for us and the slugs. Next year though, I will figure out a way to deal with the slugs.

21751511_10155788194309359_7920641614914309710_n

We discover Kokolandia, a rope obstacle course entertainment park in Borisova Gradina in Sofia and both kids love it.

21432844_10155767711869359_544470438323939658_nIMG_20170930_131022

October

The kids have a short break and we go on a mini-vacation in Greece. We visit Athens and do the main sites: The Parthenon, the changing of the guard at Parliament, Theater of Dionysus, Panathenaic Stadium, Monastiraki, the National Garden, Acropolis Museum, Temple of Zeus, and Pireus. We stay at and Airbnb in the Plaka area and it’s a fantastic location. We do half of our sight-seeing on foot, the other half on a hop-on, hop-off bus and cover a lot in three days. The weather is perfect – nice and sunny but not sweltering hot.

22519523_10155866457569359_3046321393457914405_n

Then we take a boat to Santorini and are spellbound by the beauty of the place. It’s a c-shaped volcanic island. Very little grows there – just these cherry tomatoes and a local grape varietal, grown on the ground, not up in rows like elsewhere because of high winds. Impossibly scenic and very hard to describe - a symphony in blue and white, a feast for the senses, a shopper’s paradise. I am failing miserably here but let me just say that if scenic is your thing, you should go to Santorini. You can thank me later.  I need to do a separate post on Santorini as well but until then I am going to park a few pictures right here as a teaser:

27983241_10156197184139359_8077952319695618048_n

22520152_10155877872944359_8821765888572129280_n (1)

22688857_10155877764584359_6196332639744497261_n27857855_10156197174374359_3334500663592152865_n

It’s Halloween and we go to a party at the Embassy, where I am part of the haunted house and my job is to scare the puddin’ out of people. Max is Bumblebee (a transformer, explaining because a friend pointed out that unless you have little boys, you don’t necessarily know these things). Nia doesn’t dress up or trick or treat. That’s not what the cool kids her age do, apparently. Then there’s trick-or-treating at the school and in our neighborhood. Max collects way too much candy and Paul and I make some of it disappear as any self-respecting parents should. Nia helps too – she’s a helpful sister that way. We can’t let the kid have that much sugar!

22886091_10155910734364359_3886880287321160759_n23131943_10155910734509359_5556788017099801858_n

November

The Marine Ball is this month. I am excited because I missed it the prior year – I was in Bulgaria when the one in Addis happened and in Addis when the one in Bulgaria happened, so I got nothin’. But this year, we are going. Paul wears the tux I had custom made for him and I recycle the peacock dress I wore earlier this year to the Irish Ball in Addis (except I am a little heavier and the dress doesn’t fit as well but such is life). Some people feel like they have to have a new dress for every Marine Ball but I think it’s the best event to recycle things you love. We move every 2-3 years, so the chances of anyone knowing you are recycling are infinitesimally small. My Facebook and blog buddies have probably noticed but I am not going to let that get in the way of my recycling scheme.

23434893_10155937244169359_6801499332157595109_n23517441_10155937226219359_444807974249459392_n

Nia turns 14 and doesn’t want a party or even cake, so we celebrate quietly at home. She is allergic to me taking pictures of her these days, so I don’t have any to post here. 

We celebrate Thanksgiving with my besties Nassia (and her husband) and Radostina. We’ve known each other since college but have never celebrated Thanksgiving together, so it’s a Friendsgiving celebration this year, complete with turkey, stuffed pork roll, Brussels sprouts, potato salad, Shopska salad, a cheese ball, apple pie and pumpkin pie (both from scratch, though the pumpkin one wasn’t sweet enough as the pumpkin I got wasn’t sweet at all).

23916630_10155978667819359_1389487339797451425_o

23916676_10155978667844359_3576403536300225699_o

December

Flu season is here and we know it even though we all have our flu shots! The kids pick up viruses at school and bring them home, sharing liberally. We are all sick for weeks. One of our two 15-year old cats, Dodo, is not doing well. We take her to the vet and they tell us her kidneys are failing and it’s a matter of days. She lasts less than a week. We’ve had the cats longer than we’ve we had kids, so losing Dodo is hard on all of us but seems to affect Max the hardest.

We head to the US for the holidays and somehow end up in the Ice Age. Seriously, it’s the coldest weather I have ever experienced in the US. Needless to say, we don’t spend a lot of time outside. We spend Christmas with Paul’s father and his sister and her family in Chicago and it is lovely despite the crazy cold. Two days later Paul’s dad turns 92 and we mark the occasion at Hofbrauhaus (a German Beer Restaurant) in Chicago.

25994788_10211018565361986_716398187055565960_n (1)

We go to Florida. We take a quick trip to Tampa Bay to show the kids where we used to live. Nia doesn’t remember much and Max has never been there, so it’s all new and fascinating to them. We make a pilgrimage to Disney and Universal and celebrate New Year’s Eve at Magic Kingdom.

26111974_10156077504299359_5811468361131089058_n26168905_10156082227939359_6532008300527786342_n

Monday, February 5, 2018

2016 Recap

This is the the second 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: 2015 Recap and 2017 Recap. Then my plan is to fill in with more retroactive posts before I start moving forward.

January

Our vacation in the US and Bulgaria is lovely but fattening. I don’t like the fattening part, so I sign up for the embassy’s weight loss challenge (aka The Biggest Loser). I had tried to establish an exercise routine the prior year but couldn’t stick with anything. I am determined to try harder this time. I start walking at the embassy during my lunch break. Tara joins me and we keep each other motivated. We usually do about 2.5 miles on the path around the embassy compound. I Santa had gotten Paul a FitBit for Christmas and I am a little jealous. I like how it keeps track of his activity. As the days go by, I start thinking that maybe I need a bigger goal, something to help me stick to an exercise routine better. (And a FitBit to track my activity – I may have said it out loud once or twice.) I remember that way back when I first learned I was assigned to Addis, I thought climbing Kilimanjaro would be cool. Then life happened and and I forgot about it but now I wonder if a goal like that may not be what I need to keep going. Hmmm…

The Embassy organizes a day trip to Bishoftu on MLK day, which is a day off for me but not for the kids. Paul is out of town, so I decide to take the Embassy trip and go see Bishoftu, which is only about an hour away from Addis. There are several crater lakes in the area and it is quite beautiful. Tara and her mom (who is visiting at the time) are also on the trip. We do a little hiking in the area, have lunch and come back. Here’s a picture of me and Tara at one of the crater lakes. And yes, I am fat!!!

12485882_10208735186319708_9107122597224897271_o

The year is young and I am feeling ambitious or something because I take out my sewing machine and sew for the first time in a very long time. I had seen this neat criss-cross back apron idea on Pinterest and I want to try making it. Creating the pattern takes some time but I figure it out and use some cheerful fabric to make one. It turns out pretty good, if I say so myself, so I make another one. Now all I want to do is hang out in my cute aprons and cook… or pretend I’m a domestic goddess, ha!

12651345_10153984556369359_4059797496464913571_n12592423_10153986362594359_3740610538171221554_n

On January 19th Ethiopia celebrates Timket (Epiphany). We hadn’t seen the processions the prior year, so we decide to watch them this year. We go to a church not too far from our house and watch the elaborate procession there. It’s pretty impressive. Here are the priests with the Ark of the Covenant.

IMG_3808

Paul is in Niger for work at the end of the month, when he gets an offer for a GSO job at the US Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria starting in August 2016. It’s very exciting because I am originally from Bulgaria but it’s also complicated. It’s an out-of-cone (out of his specialty) job for him which is less than ideal but it also means he would have to curtail his position in Addis and we would have to separate for about a year because he has to go to training in the US in April. The kids would stay with me in Addis until the end of the school year in late June and then join him. I would visit them as often as I can in Bulgaria until I finish my assignment in Addis. I am not bidding for another nine months, so there is no telling if there would be any work for me in Sofia. It’s far from perfect but bidding as a tandem is never simple. We had tried several other options that didn’t work out. While not ideal, this is the least bad best option on the table, so we take it.

February 

Max turns five and we have a party for him – finally. He wants a pool party. We are actually in a position to do that in Addis because the weather is lovely and we can do it at the Embassy compound pool, so it works out great. Here he is making a wish before blowing out the candles on his special rainbow car cupcake and dancing in the Ethiopian outfit our nanny Sara gave him for his big day:

IMG_3855P1020930

And making a splash with his friends:

IMG_3939

At work I hold a Vendor Day event trying to drum up some business and explain to local companies how to bid on embassy contracts.

12646900_10154008238994359_1517391188921025048_o

We celebrate our 19th wedding anniversary on Valentine’s Day and I get a FitBit! How did Paul know? But seriously, that little gadget helps motivate me to stay active. Tara has one too and so do several other friends, which is cool because we have FitBit competitions. I find trying to get 10,000 steps a day meaningful somehow. I have to make a concerted effort to hit it every day but I love getting the little thing to buzz and display fireworks when I do. Also, I start using the FitBit silent vibration alarm in the morning and I my sleep gradually improves. It’s the little things, people!

March

Pyramids, baby! We take a five-day trip to Egypt. One of the good things about living in Addis is that it’s an airline hub and there are direct flights to many great destinations including Cairo. We fly Egypt Air and the direct flight takes four hours. We stay at the Intercontinental Cairo Semiramis, which is right downtown on the Nile on one side and on Tahrir Square on the other. Our room is dated but the rest of the hotel seems nice and the breakfast buffet pretty extensive. We go to the Egyptian Museum, The Alabaster Mosque, The Citadel, Old Cairo and the Christian Churches, Khan El Khalili Bazaar, the Pyramids of Giza and Sakkara, the Sphynx, Memphis, and on a short Nile cruise. Cairo and the Pyramids had been on our bucket list forever and we are absolutely delighted to finally see them. We wish we had the time to explore more -  we would have loved to see Alexandria, Luxor/The Valley of the Kings and Sharm el Sheikh but it’s not meant to be on that trip. A few other observations: Cairo traffic is really bad, it gets chilly in Egypt in the winter months, especially at night. Also, Arab Spring and the multiple terrorist attacks have hurt tourism really bad – we see very few foreign tourists around. Every Egyptian we talk to is like: Tell your friends to come, tell them it’s safe! The people we talk to are generally nice, especially the women and girls – so many of them want to take pictures with us. Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic but I find Egypt generally less developed (people seem poorer), more polluted (a lot of trash around tourist sites) and more conservative than I thought it would be. Men stare at me intensely and make me feel uncomfortable even though I am with my husband and children and don’t wear anything offensive. One of our guides talks almost exclusively to my husband, ignoring me and my questions most of the time, which takes away from the otherwise amazing experience of visiting a special place like Egypt.

IMG_4355

Later in March Paul is traveling for work again, so I take the kids to the Indian Embassy for Holi, a colorful Indian spring celebration. It is not quite like being in India but Holi never disappoints.

12400715_10154130094899359_5560831957427422303_n12801183_10154130095704359_6683727347975239824_n 

April

The Embassy weight-loss challenge ends. I am not the biggest loser but I manage to lose the 8 or so lbs I had gained during our vacation to the US and Bulgaria. I want to lose more. Tara and I continue walking daily even though I don’t seem to be losing weight any more.

Tara and I travel to the US for a work-related conference where we get a Safe Driving award for our embassy. We spend the weekend before the conference with Tara’s family and have a wonderful time. Tara and I go for a walk in her neighborhood one morning. I feel like skipping, so I go for it down the hill from Tara’s house and she joins me. Some of her neighbors see us skipping and it becomes the talk of the neighborhood, apparently. Ooopsies, I didn’t know skipping while adult was frowned upon. Oh well…

Back in Addis, our friends the Sarnos teach us how to make sushi:

12512766_10154159747049359_9195637582963514855_n

I am a model at an Embassy charity fashion show and sale organized by the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Patricia Haslach, benefitting Ethiopian women’s NGOs. I donate clothes to the cause and buy the Ethiopian outfit I wear at the show (below).

12967458_10154166187504359_1312187882786356645_o

I reupholster our embassy-provided dining room chairs. I never liked the original upholstery and had some nice blue and white fabrics I had bought while in the US. See before and after below – so much better, no? Living in a house you did not choose and can’t modify to your liking, full of furnishings you didn’t pick can be hard. This is my small way of personalizing “our” house and it makes me happy. Again, often it’s the little things that make a big difference in our day-to-day lives. The covers are removable and I take them off before I leave Addis.

13083239_10154223560279359_6514336623584842740_n

13062219_10154223560169359_7495711421863786654_n

Paul leaves Addis for good at the end of April. He has to take a couple months of training in Washington before he starts his next job in Sofia, Bulgaria. The kids and I see him off with heavy hearts – we know it would be months before we see him again.

May

I start thinking about things to do with the kids before they leave Ethiopia for good. I weigh our options, talk to people who travel around with their families and decide to go on a safari in Kenya. Paul has been on a safari in Tanzania years before but the kids and I have not. I hear a lot of good things about the Masai Mara park in Kenya, so I decide to go there. The company that helps me organize our trip is Phoenix Safaris (phoenix-safaris.de) and they are great. We stay in Nairobi one night on the way in and another night on the way out and spend four days at Masai Mara. In Nairobi, we stay at the La Maison Royale hotel, which I book through Expedia. The hotel is fine but there is no hot water the next morning, so I let the receptionist know. When we come back from Masai Mara for our last night in Kenya again at La Maison Royale, they make up for the no-hot-water SNAFU by upgrading us to the penthouse apartment, which is very nice. At Masai Mara, we stay at the Mara Serena hotel, where we have a lovely cabin overlooking the Mara river and the park – way cool. The food is pretty good too. The drive from Nairobi to Masai Mara is interesting because you drive through the Rift Valley and get to see the countryside but about halfway you get off the paved road and start down a dirt one which is some of the worst I have ever experienced (I actually do experience something comparable later in the lava fields of the Erta Ale volcano in Northern Ethiopia but that’s for a separate post). It’s just painful. We all have headaches by the time we get to the park. Oh, also because it’s the rainy season in Kenya when we are there, we get stuck in a huge puddle (more like a small lake) on the way back and have to be pulled out. Flying from Nairobi to Masai Mara is an option but I consciously decide not to take it because I think it would be cool to see more of Kenya. In hindsight, we should have flown but hindsight is always 20/20. We love the Masai Mara – the safari is incredible. The kids and I have a large vehicle all to ourselves. Our driver, Rafael, is awesome and shows us all the animals. The kids have a blast riding in the vehicle standing up and spotting the different animals in the grassland. I will do a separate post with lots of pictures of the animals but for now, let me just say, there’s so much beauty and wonder in Masai Mara that you can’t help but fall in love with the place. If you have a chance to go on a safari at the Masai Mara, do it. You won’t regret it. Here are a couple of pictures. The first is from our visit to a Masai village with the men performing their traditional jumping ritual. They believe that the one who jumps the highest will fetch the prettiest bride. The second is of the kids riding standing in the safari vehicle – So. Much. Fun!

IMG_5070

IMG_5368

June

June is hard. The rainy season starts. I understand the rains are vital in many ways but am not a fan of the rainy season. School is winding down but I have a lot to do to prepare for the kids’ departure from Ethiopia. I am doing a pack-out of Paul’s and the kids’ belongings to send to Bulgaria and have to go through everything and organize it all. Shipping some but not all your family ahead of schedule is not trivial, I learn. I reach out to Washington for guidance and they send me instructions. I follow them meticulously until the day before pack-out when a different person from Washington tells me the instructions I had been given earlier were all wrong and my orders are now all messed up and unusable and have to be redone. I can’t tell you how frustrating that is on the day before pack-out. I can’t pack out without orders and I can’t use the set I have. I am so stressed out I just about have a heart attack. I spend hours on the phone and emailing people to get it all straightened out in time, so the packers can do their job. I am already a mess because I have to spend months and months away from my family and feel terrible for not finding a way to keep the family together. I don’t need this, especially when it’s not my fault. I had done my best to follow instructions. But frustrating as it is, that too passes… and life goes on. Max loses his first baby tooth during that pack-out.

13346807_10154317616559359_7877395204537339896_n

The kids enjoy ginormous “school’s-over” lollypops.

13432419_10154322972909359_8971221710739439009_n

Also, Father’s Day is approaching and the kids are missing Daddy and Paul misses them. I decide to do something to celebrate despite the separation. We have some fun on the trampoline creating a Father’s Day greeting for Paul.

13445239_10154346401149359_1553563218444436772_n13494818_10154346401374359_187970886711288315_n

13418865_10154346400799359_11557606136565638_n

July

On July 1 Max and Nia leave Ethiopia. As in for realzzz and for good! I can’t travel with them because of work, so I they have to fly alone, for the first time. Fortunately, it is a direct flight to Washington and Paul is waiting for them on the other side. There are also several friends on the flight who keep an eye on the kids for us. They make it to the US without any issues. I am happy for them but also totally bummed out. They are going to spend a month in the US with Paul and then move to Bulgaria. My Bulgaria. And I won’t be the there to show it to them… Not only that but I would be away from them for 9 long months. That’s hard for a mom. With the kids gone, I don’t need a nanny, so I help Sara find a job with a new embassy family.

Of course, there’s work and plenty of it. We are in the throes of another busy summer, so I basically focus on working and working out during the week. I often work late. But no one is waiting for me at home, so I don’t have to worry about it. Now that I’m alone, I start thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro again. Tara wants to do it with me. We decide we’d do it the following April, at the end of my time in Addis because we work in the same section and can’t take time off at the same time. But in order to climb Kili, we have to prepare because it is not cheap and I am not going to spend the money and not summit. So we decide to up the ante on exercise. We start running, or should I say run-walking because that’s all we can do at first. That’s right folks, at 44, and at 8,000 above sea level, I start running, ever so slowly. Me, running – crazy, I know! I had never been a runner. I had done other things when I was younger but running was not one of them. It just seemed so boring. Well, not sure why or how but running makes sense now. It’s pretty simple, you don’t need anything special to do it, and you can start slow and work your way up. Tara and I also decide to start hiking in the hills above Addis and for the rest of our time in Ethiopia, we hike every weekend we are in town, which was great prep for Kili but also really good for our sanity.

Work is hectic. It’s transfer season again. For most of July, Tara and I are the only Americans in the GSO section and cover for other colleagues who have either left Addis for good or are on R&R. There is unrest in South Sudan and we are asked to provide logistical support. The Second Lady of the US, Dr. Jill Biden, visits Ethiopia and I am responsible for motor pool, airport and travel support. While this visit is smaller in scale than POTUS, I have more responsibilities and am on call 24/7. Working the visit is very interesting and I even get to see Lucy (the skeleton of one of the oldest humans on Earth) during the visit but it’s also exhausting and I am glad when it was over. Here’s my end-of-an-important-visit smile.

13692508_10154424118944359_8344579597077008132_n

August

August starts with an emergency MedEvac for me. DentEvac, actually. I had this problem tooth and it had been acting up for a while. I try to ignore it because I have no time to deal with it. Then I try to address it with local dentists but it keeps coming back. Waking up with a swollen cheek and in a lot of pain gets old. After a few of those episodes, it’s time to take care of it. I need a root canal and a crown and when you live in Addis, you go to South Africa for those kinds of things. So off to Pretoria I fly. I am referred to an excellent dentist who takes care of my problem faster than I thought possible. It goes down like this: Day one - root canal. Day two - another inflamed chipmunk cheek episode but they pump me full of antibiotics and pain killers and I am on cloud nine for the rest of the day. Day three - the dentist “installs” the crown and I feel oh, so royal. Day four - I am cleared to go back to Addis and fly back on day five. Just like that.

Around that time, Tara and I decide to add yoga to our exercise routine. We still walk for about 40 minutes at lunch daily, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays after work and hike on weekends. Now we add 40 minutes to an hour of yoga on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After looking around for a good yoga program, I settle on the DownDog app, which offers a variety of routines and routine lengths and I like the way the instructor leads her classes. It works for me and Tara likes it too. We are starting to get stronger and build stamina. The weight is not coming off but I feel good.

Also, I get tenure. And last but not least, there is cholera in Addis.

September

It’s time to visit Paul and the kids in Bulgaria and to move the cats to our new home in Sofia, which sounds a lot easier than it was. Getting all the paperwork and shots, so I could take them out of Ethiopia is like pulling teeth. Seriously. But I get to fly first class on Turkish Air and use their ah-mazing lounge in Istanbul, so yeah! That’s oh, less than two months after the attempted coup in Turkey but I’m not going to let something like that get in the way of traveling in style. How did I get to fly first class? Well, Paul had a regional job while he was in Addis and traveled so much that he managed to rack up a bunch of miles on Ethiopian Airlines. He tried to use his miles to get upgraded when he flew to the US and then again for the kids’ flights to the US but neither worked. It works for me and the cats though and it’s soooo nice! Did I mention the Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul is awesome? I did? Well, it bears repeating. That’s how awesome it is. You should check it out.

Being in Bulgaria and hanging out with my family is just what the doctor ordered. I missed them so much. My mom moves in to help Paul with the kids and everyone seems to be adjusting well. The kids like their new school and are making friends. I go to the school and meet most of their teachers. I am mom again for about 10 days. Oh also, they had just gotten their shipments, so I get to unpack them – yey! Paul is getting used to his new job. I am bidding (looking for my next job) and I am trying to get a job in Sofia. There are only two jobs there I can bid on – both are out-of-cone for me and one is double-stretch, which means either of them would be very hard to get but I have to give them my all because my family is there.

Back in Ethiopia, with my family and the cats gone, I have time for myself. It’s been so long since I’ve lived alone, that I don’t remember how to be alone. Tara and I meet a couple of Ethiopian kids on our hikes to Entoto (a mountain above Addis) – two boys about ten years old, Cherunet and Bereket. They hike with us every time we go to Entoto after that. We knew they are very poor, so we start bringing them food, clothes, shoes, toys and other things. We tell some of our friends about Cherunet and Bereket and they give us more clothes. We bring the clothes up Entoto one day to give to the boys’ friends because there are a lot of other poor kids up on the mountain and we want to help. It seems like a good idea at the time but goes out of control. All of a sudden we are surrounded by kids and more kids are running from all directions. Everyone is pushing and pulling and wants something. We try to give each kid a little something but it’s a great big mess with tears. Some of the littlest kids are getting squished and crying. We give away what we brought but it’s overwhelming and a little scary, so we decide not to do that again. We continue to help the two boys with whatever we can until we leave Addis. Here is a picture from one of our hikes to Entoto, with the Meskel flowers in full bloom.

14359243_10154625621849359_3781515005988785347_n

On the way back from one of our hikes, we get mugged and Tara’s phone is stolen. We are very close to the Embassy and get help from some of our security staff. We have to go to the police and testify but somehow eventually the phone is found and returned – unbelievable! That experience scares us a little, so we start hiking with friends who have dogs. Most Ethiopians are afraid of dogs, so they leave us alone. That’s one way to stay safe.

October

Things are not going well in Ethiopia politically. There has been intermittent unrest in the country for almost a year. Protests intensified during the summer. The government often shuts down communications in response, so we often have no internet, sometimes phones and text messages don’t work either. Even when the internet is on, the government is blocking social media sites. There are periods when I can’t get in touch with my family for days. Naturally, they are worried because very little official information comes out of Ethiopia. One time, when Paul can’t reach me for a few days at work and on social media, he calls the Ethiopia desk in Washington and asks them to check on me. They pass a message to me that my family is worried. When the internet is restored, I contact them and let them know I’m fine but communications are very unreliable. Of course, we don’t like it but it is much worse for a lot of locals – many people lose their jobs, others are arrested or disappear. Everything comes to a boil in early October, when there is another peaceful protest, which is violently put down. Things escalate resulting in more violence, businesses and farms are burned or looted. The government declares a State of Emergency and imposes a curfew and checkpoints. They also limit foreign diplomats’ movements to 25 km outside Addis. There are a lot of military and police all over town. Our work is also affected – there are huge delays in the processing of documents and shipments (including those for disaster relief) which is a serious problem for our new colleagues, who can’t get their belongings. Everyone is frustrated, which is affecting morale. Our embassy has a lot of State, USAID and CDC programs outside Addis which require constant travel but now that our movements are limited, travel is extremely difficult and those projects suffer.

With all the chaos going on in the background, I try to maintain as much control of my surroundings as I can. I decide that I am going to surround myself with positivity, which is easier said than done because there is a lot of negativity around. I work with a lot of people who are stressed out and unhappy. I am not going to say I don’t get upset, I do but I try real hard not to dwell on it. Tara and I vent to each other during our daily lunch walks. Walking (and venting) helps us “get the mean out” and go back to work feeling better. Exercise also helps us keep a positive outlook on life. I print affirmations and put them on my walls. I listen to uplifting music and watch movies that make me happy. Paul knows things are rough and the internet atrocious, so he sends me shows on DVDs. I get to watch grown up shows for the first time in forever. I watch all of Mad Men, Sex in the City, MASH and The Tudors, which Tara lets me borrow. I hang out with friends. We all need to process what’s happening around us and let steam out. We also need a distraction, so I decide to have friends over for Dushera (an Indian holiday). I cook Indian food, play Indian music and my favorite Indian movies. I  bring out my collection of sarees, show my friends how to put them on with Indian jewelry and make-up. It’s good for our sanity.

IMG_5497

On our hikes Tara and I often see women carrying wood on their backs from the top of Entoto mountain (at around 10,000 ft) down to the bottom (around 8,500 ft) to sell for firewood. The road up/down the mountain is steep and their loads heavy. A load fetches them about $5 and they can each do just two loads a day because of the distance and the time it takes to cut/collect the wood. My heart breaks every time I see these women because I know a lot of them end up with serious back injuries. One day, we see a pregnant woman do it (pictured below). I have heard that it leads to miscarriages but somehow I never imagined a pregnant woman's family would allow her to do this. Unfortunately, I am wrong. We ask the woman how far along she was while she is taking a break. She indicates she is seven months pregnant. We give her some money but wish we had enough Amharic to tell her about this local NGO we know of, which trains women like her to weave scarves, so they don't have to carry wood on their backs. We often buy scarves from them because it’s a good cause and they make nice gifts.

13782033_10154441223954359_6528435138527875061_n

I start going to happy hours at the Marine house and get to know the Marines and other colleagues I didn’t have a chance to meet when my family was still in Addis. The Marines had a “Work Out with The Marines” program. Tara tried it and liked it. I did not. I was too intimidated to work out with the Marines – they are like half my age, very strong and in excellent shape. But we keep talking about it and I decide to give it a try. It’s usually some type of high intensity workout and it kicks my butt. Every. Single. Time! But I know it’s good for me, so I decide it’s worth trading one of our two weekly yoga sessions for a work out with the Marines. I try to sneak another yoga workout at home on the weekends sometimes. I work out a lot by this point – six or seven days a week and while I am still not shedding weight, I start noticing that my clothes fit better. I am losing inches. OK, maybe not inches but centimeters or at least millimeters.

November

Donald Trump becomes the new President of the US! We hold an Election Day event in Addis and watch the election live. Democracy in action or the greatest manipulation in US history – you decide. I am supposed to be apolitical.

I decide to limit sugar and carbs from my diet. It is darn hard but I am generally good during the week. I also start experimenting with intermittent fasting – you know, intentionally skipping meals. I usually have one giant cup of very milky coffee with coconut oil for breakfast, normal lunch and skip dinner. I eat whatever I want on the weekends and while traveling. I finally start shedding some weight!

I want to be with my family for both Thanksgiving and Christmas but can’t be gone for both holidays, so I have to pick one. Thanksgiving makes more sense because it’s close to Nia’s birthday, so I can be there for both. Plus, I was off for Christmas the prior year. It’s only fair to let my colleagues take Christmas off this year. So I travel to Bulgaria again in late November. Our friends from Addis, the Sarnos, visit us in Bulgaria for Nia’s birthday, which we celebrate at an Indian tea house in Sofia.

Then we drive to Dobrich in Northeastern Bulgaria, where Paul and I met 21 years prior and celebrate Thanksgiving there. After that we drive down the Black Sea coast stopping to see sights along the way and also visit my college besties Nassia and Radostina in Varna for a couple of days, which is lovely.

IMG_20161125_123608

IMG_20161125_113226

When we return to Sofia, we get a nice heavy snow. This is the first time the kids have lived in a place with a real winter, so they are thrilled. They play in the snow and we decorate the Christmas tree, which is a lot of fun but before I know it, I have to go back to Addis.

15676389_10154914753949359_8122395701524595659_o

Great news is waiting for me in Addis – after bidding my butt off, I get one of the two positions I bid on in Sofia. It’s a Political position starting in June 2018. We are majorly relieved and overjoyed – we are going to be together again but as most tandem bidding situations, it is not all perfect. It’s an out-of-cone position for me, so we will both be out of cone, which is not the end of the world but you work out of your specialty and it can be hard to learn a completely new one. It may also make it harder for us to go back to our specialties after that. I will have to be on leave without pay for a year, which under the circumstances sounds good – I have lost time to make up with my family and I can use the break, however, it will cut our income by about half, which is significant when you have two kids to put through college. Our tour dates will be two years off, so we’ll be together for about two years before Paul’s current tour in Sofia is up and then he has to go somewhere else - another separation. But the timing of my tour will allow Nia to finish high school in Sofia, which is good. It’s the best we can do, so we embrace it and try to focus on the positives. C’est la vie, right?

December

The weather in Addis is warm, sunny and beautiful but I have a hard time getting into the holiday spirit. This is the first time since getting married that I am going to spend Christmas and New Years away from my family and I’m not looking forward to it. Tara is having a Christmas party at her house and has invited a bunch of friends. I decide not to go because I’m bummed out about being away from my family and don’t want to spoil the holiday for my friends but she talks me into it. In hindsight I am glad I did because I end up having a nice Christmas despite being away from my family (certainly better than sitting home alone and feeling sorry for myself). It’s a potluck, so everyone brings good food they have been hoarding for months for the holiday. We have turkey and a bunch of other deliciousness. Then we play Cards against Humanity – the terrible game for terrible people like us but OMG does it feel good to relax and laugh again! For New Years, we do the same thing but at my house and it’s time to kiss 2016 goodbye. It has been a strange year and I am glad to put it behind me.
 
Locations of visitors to this page