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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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:

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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!

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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