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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!!!

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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!

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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.

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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:

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And making a splash with his friends:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

1 comment:

  1. WOW. That is definitely an amazing year for all of you. I hope that things have smoothed out a bit since.

    ReplyDelete

 
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