Monday, May 09, 2016

Bucket List

Someone from back home made a comment to me a couple weeks ago that she would hate to see my bucket list...that is must be a blank page.

It isn't blank, but not just because there are a few places on the original one (that yes, is actually written down in a place I can access regularly) that I have yet to visit (I'm looking at you Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, and Angkor Wat), but also because the more I travel, the more I want to see. So the list keeps growing.

Before I met my wife, I had left the country exactly once, for my "once in a lifetime" trip to Germany. Of course, I have since been to Germany numerous times and have no doubt I will go back. And I also no longer think of travel as once in a lifetime. I've traveled now to 28 countries outside the U.S., many multiple times and seven new ones and several returns to previously visited ones in just the past nine months.

Our most recent trip was two weeks ago, to Slovenia. You should go there...Lake Bled is amazing!

That was a recent bucket list addition. Dracula's Castle is as well, now that we are close enough to Romania. That will probably be in a couple months.

In case you are curious about some of the other places, they are the usual suspects: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Neuschwanstein in Germany, the pyramids in Egypt, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Sea of Galilee, Petra in Jordan, the Hagia Sofia in Turkey, the Acropolis in Greece. I've been to Rome and the Pompeii. I've visited Stonehenge. I've snorkeled in the Red Sea. And Estonia wasn't on my original bucket list, but it should have been.

Not bad for a kid who grew up in a Mill Village in South Carolina.

Any one of these and numerous other trips I've been lucky enough to make could have been a "once in a lifetime." Now they are more like, "this is my life" trips.

You miss a lot being in the Foreign Service, and I'd be lying if I didn't long sometimes for the comforts of home. I miss my family, my house, being able to buy cheddar cheese... But I have gained a lot too.

Travel is one of the best ways to combat prejudice and open minds. I am a different person than I was before my first trip overseas. And I am a changed person with each place I visit. you take a little of it home with you. You find that you love your own country a little more while realizing that there is so much the world offers that we do not.

Why am I being so introspective today? Probably because it is May. As I mentioned yesterday, Mother's Day gets me. This year marks 20 years since she passed. It also marked the passing of the date at which I was older than my mother had been when she died. And May is her birthday month, and that of her mother, who became like a mother to me (and me like a daughter to her) after my mom died. I lost her six years ago. May makes me think of what I miss, and therefore what I am missing by being away.

But it also makes me hope she can see me, that she would be proud of the person I have become and the adventure that has become my life. Some of the places on my bucket list are places I would have loved to have shared with her.

I kind of hope I have.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Mother's Day Dogwood

As spring has rolled around here in Kosovo, I have found myself really homesick. Not because I am not happy here. I am. But Spring is my favorite season, and I miss my yard.

When we moved into our house in July of 2014, I set about making it a home even though I knew we would move in exactly one year. Folks wondered why I was investing so much energy, but it was because I knew we would likely return after two years, meaning two years of growth to all the plants and trees I planted.

Two years for the azaleas to remind me of my grandfather's yard, which was full of him (boy do I wish I had inherited his green thumb!). Two years for my butterfly bush to attract all the little flutter-bys.

And two years for my dogwood to grow.

My baby dog and my baby dogwood
I knew that the moment we had a yard, I wanted a dogwood. They are my favorite tree, and I love to see them growing wild in the South. But in Maryland, you have to hunt for a blight resistant one. After some searching, I finally found one and planted it almost exactly a year ago.

Part of why I love dogwoods, I am certain, is how much my mother loved them.

When I was a kid, and my parents bought their first home, my mother was determined to have a dogwood in our front yard. But of course, her only child was a bit of a tom boy, and much to her dismay, she planted it in a perfect spot in our front yard to serve as first base in our kick ball games.

Which also means the little thing never stood a chance, and broke after one too many times of being grabbed by a runner trying to be "safe."

I don't think she ever managed to have a dogwood live there.

So I hope mine lives for her in our yard in Maryland.

You see, this year is my 19th Mother's Day without her. July will make 20 years since she left us, way too soon.

It never gets easier.

And so this Mother's Day, I hope if you still have your mom, you hold her close. I hope you call her often and visit her often. When she is gone, nothing will fill that hole.

And if you see live in my neighborhood and see my dogwood, think happy thoughts that this one makes it.

For my mom.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Every Breath You Take

Smoggy Sunrise

I remember the first time my wife came home for R&R from Baku. Those were the days when as a same-sex spouse and non-employee, I was not allowed to live with her at post unless it was a country that would recognize our relationship. And such countries were even fewer and farther between than they are now with the advancements our country and others have made in terms of marriage equality.

So in those days, I was allowed to visit on a one-month tourist visa, after which I needed to leave the country before I could return. So over the course of her two-year tour, I visited three times for a month each trip, and she came home to North Carolina for R&R twice. (Of course, that doesn’t “count” as our having done an unaccompanied tour, because our marriage didn’t “count” at the time).

All of which is to say she was in Azerbaijan without me. And I remember her first trip home because as we drive back to Chapel Hill from the airport, she kept hanging her head out of the window to sniff the air. “It smells so clean!” she kept saying. “It is almost sweet.”

I admit I didn’t get it. Clean air, or at least reasonably clean air, was something I had the luxury of taking for granted. Neither Jerusalem, with its occasional sand storms, nor Tallinn, with the #1 air quality in the world (yes really), disabused me of that privilege.

Pristina has.

There are many reasons those of us in the Foreign Service are allowed to retire after 20 years instead of the usual 25-30 for other federal employees. The biggest reason for that is the toll that living in some of the places we serve take on our health. And pollution is a big part of that toll. If you want to read some other posts on it, check out this, this and this.

Kosovo is a country without the luxury of multiple means of electricity. Basically, its options are coal and coal. The two aging coal plants in the city provide all of the country’s electricity. And they belch out pollution all year, but especially so in the winter when people need heat. There are plans for a new coal plant, which will pollute less than the two they have now. But there is simply no option other than coal. And then there are the coal fires coming from every building in the winter. Lignite is cheap and people can basically dig up piles of it to burn in their homes for heat and hot water.

Some days, you can barely see across the street for the haze created by the smoke. Most days really. Because we are in a valley and very prone to fog, the smoke and fog come together and make smog. Did you know smog freezes? I didn’t either until I came here and saw the dirty ice crystals on all the plants. The fog/smog also means that often it is impossible to fly in or out of the airport here because the runway is not long enough for the navigational equipment needed to land when you can’t do it by sight. Everyone here has missed a flight or had it diverted. Ours was diverted to Skopje, AFTER the pilot tried unsuccessfully to land and had to pull up hard at the last minute. (No, that wasn't terrifying at all...)

And the smell permeates EVERYTHING. All of your clothes, even fresh from the dry cleaners, smell as though you have been standing by a camp fire.

And you smell it in your house as well. We have air purifiers running constantly in our apartment and have extra weather stripping under the doors. And you still smell it. Our stairwell seems to funnel the smoke from outside upward to all of the apartments in our building. Even my dog sneezes when she goes outside. And I wear a scarf every day, not because it is cold but because it gives me something to breathe through. I wonder what it is doing to all of our lungs…I already breathe heavier going upstairs than I used to. And on our trips out of the country, I feel like an ex-smoker, my lungs trying to clean themselves out of the toxins I am taking in.

Soon the embassy will have air quality monitors, and we and the public will have a better idea of the amount of pollution in the air. Of course, maybe that will just make us feel worse about it. But in the meantime, I am glad we decided not to extend. Not because I am not glad to be here. I am. The work in interesting and important and the people here are great. But as a committed life-long non-smoker, it is more than a little alarming that after only five months here, it sometimes hurts to breathe.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Gezuar Vitin e Ri nga Kosove!

New Year's fireworks over Pristina

Happy New Year!

I hope whatever your 2015 was like, whether awesome or awful, that 2016 is even better.

I have to confess my 2015 was pretty awesome. Except for that little language test hiccup and the drama of getting my dog to post, both of which were ultimately overcome, things in 2015 were pretty awesome. We spent time in our new house, found a church we love, made lots of friends both at work and outside of it. We and our animal children are all healthy and happy, as is much of our family. My wife even managed to stick in another half marathon this year. And of course, the Supreme Court on June 26 ruled that marriage is a civil right. No more worrying that our marriage won't be recognized when we cross state borders!

Since we got to Kosovo, we have been able to travel more, already adding six countries to the list of places we’ve been. Just since our trip to a winery in Stobi, Macedonia, we have visited Neuschwanstein in Germany, Munich twice (the second time for the Christmas markets), Salzburg, Austria (also for the markets), Sarajevo, Bosnia (for a public diplomacy offsite), as well as a road trip through Albania and Montenegro on our way to Dubrovnik, Croatia.

But the purpose of this post is not to give you the abbreviated version of my Christmas letter. The purpose it to try to jumpstart my blogging again. If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know I kind of suck at New Year's resolutions. But this year I am resolving to do two things: blog more and read more.

After my lapse in blogging, I considered hanging up my blogger hat and walking away. But a few folks asked me not to, plus there is still cool stuff to share. So for the blogging, I am going to try to fill in a few things I have done personally and professionally over the past few months. For example, never mind that I haven't shared any pictures from our cool travels, I don't even think I mentioned Randy Berry, the LGBT envoy, came to post.

And then I am resolving to post at least once a week. Hopefully.

And on reading, I am going to shoot for at least 25 books this year. Preferably real books (I want to wean myself away from reading the iPad in bed). My hope is more, like one a week, but I am a notoriously slow reader. So I am not going to set myself up for failure.

So for now, I will leave you with this, a video that we did as a New Year's message from our Ambassador. And like him I wish you a Happy New Year!!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Markets!

The first time I ever went to a real Christmas Market was in Estonia, and it was love at first Gluwine!

The sights, the smells, the spirit, I love everything about it.

So this year, because we are so close to Germany (a quick 2-hour flight to Munich), we decided to check out some Christmas markets this year.

We went for Munich (which has like five or more in different parts of the city) and then took the train to Salzburg, Austria to check out their market as well.

The Munich Markets:


The Salzburg Market


And then in Salzburg, there was this (I missed the beginning):

Sunday, October 04, 2015

So They Make Good Wine in Macedonia

I haven't left Kosovo since I got here back in the beginning of August, but I finally rectified that yesterday.

CLO (Community Liaison Officer, or basically the morale officer for post) organized a trip to the Stobi Winery in Macedonia.

Now we all know I pretty much don't drink (probably why I didn't get promoted is sort of a Foreign Service requirement...), but I do like the taste of some wine. That said, we decided to go on the trip mostly for my wife, who likes wine a lot.

But actually, they had some really good wine! And the trip was a lot of fun.

We toured the vineyards first. They have some 600 hectares of grapes of a variety of types.

Pinot Noir and Riesling grapes in one bunch

You can see the mountains in the background

Then we toured the winery, where we got to see all the way from "skvishing" to the end of the process.

And then we got to taste...there was a frickin' lot of wine. We sampled 12 before lunch. I just took sips...some of our group were VERY happy by lunchtime (which was at 3:30! Twelve samples before a lunch that late seems risky, but fortunately everyone was very behaved.)

The logo comes from a mosaic at nearby Roman ruins...
that I didn't hear about until we got home! Guess we'll go back!

We ended up buying four cases of wine, good wine, for only about $135. We bought Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvingon, Cuvee and Sirah. We figure they will make good gifts when we go to other people's houses plus we will have plenty to serve here as well.

Plus, the trip got me another country visited...I love living in Europe.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Houston, we have an apartment

It is no secret that I am a nester.

I like to have my home decorated with things that mean something to me: art, souvenirs, pictures, things that tell stories.

So when we pack our HHE (and to a degree, but less so, our UAB), I like to include things that make our place overseas feel like home.

Apparently, my wife also likes that I do this, because this time, even she was clamoring for something to make our apartment (which is ginormous) look less like a corporate apartment.

So we were both really happy when our HHE finally arrived a week ago Tuesday. And there was lots of it, like 6000 lbs (and that number is low because I deliberately reduced how much we brought this time!). Of course, probably half that amount is books...

Lotsa Stuff

The cats approved of the boxes

And the paper
And true to form, I got all of our stuff unpacked and the boxes thrown out within two days (with the help of a local holiday...yay! Bajram!..on Thursday). Admit it, you wish you were married to me.

Making progress
Friday, I put in the order for GSO to come hang our pictures (I tried it myself, but the walls are concrete and I lack concrete nails or transportation to go buy some). And they came yesterday. So now we even have art on the wall.

Even my office at work has a touch of home:

Why yes, I am from SC, why do you ask?
Now it feels more like home...for another 21 or 22 months anyway...