Monday, July 30, 2012

A Mess in Metz But Calm in Colmar

The plan was to head on Saturday morning to Metz to tour around a bit before heading to Colmar...but Metz was a mess. They had a market that day right in front of the Cathedral. And not the kind of market with touristy stuff. The kind with clothes. And mattresses. And lots and lots of people.

Add to that our "upgraded" rental tank and a teensy parking garage, and we were just not in the mood to stay there long. So we snapped a few pics of St. Stephen's Cathedral and headed out.

Our other original plan had been to stay in Thann, at the southernmost town on the Wine Route, and then head north and stay two nights in Colmar, towards the center of the route. But realizing how close together these towns actually were, we decided to stay three nights in Colmar instead. Points if you know why I snapped the picture below.

Good decision. We had a great room at the Hotel Colombier in Colmar's Petit Venice, right on one of the canals. The picture below if from the garden off of our room...if you look closely, you can see a white cat in the doorway.

We had dinner that first night at a little Wistub, where I had a traditional Alsacian dish called Choucroute. And the tables are such that they may sit someone with you who you don't know. So we spent dinner with Ots, a guy from Holland who had just retired and was walking from his home country to Basil, Switzerland. He had been at it for seven weeks.

Sunday was a lazy day around Colmar. The town is beautiful, and has really inspired me to start drawing again. I really understand why artists sit around in plazas of places like this and draw what they see. How could you not be inspired? I took tons of pictures from our little walking tour around the town to get me started!

On Monday, we headed to Thann to start the Wine Route. We had no particular place we wanted to see...we just took the back roads and stopped occasionally to take pictures. When we hit the town of Cernacy, my wife decided to head up to the Grand Ballon, the highest point in the Vosges. The Ballon is basically a radar station. You can actually see the Alps from there. The hike to the top was nice but the wind was frighteningly strong and I was not properly dressed for a hike (because, you know, I thought we were going to be visiting wineries...I was wearing a polo and a fleece). Needless to say, I thought I was going to freeze to death.

After the hike, we had some lunch and headed on, stopping at a winery to test the wines. I found I really like the Alsacian Gewurtztraminer (or something like that), and we bought four bottles (word of warning...apparently wines count as liquids when going through airport I nearly lost two of our bottles...more on that in another post).

We also spotted a stork in her nest, clacking her beak at her mate. The stork is the symbol of the Alsace...they were nearly extinct before an active breeding program created a healthy year-round population there.

We got back to Colmar in time for dinner and for my wife to prove once again that she has no gaydar. Two men from Switzerland sat next to us. I knew immediately they were a couple and in the course of chatting, I let them know that we lived together. My wife worried about me "outing" her. But a little context: They were travelling together with their dog, who was eight and who they had owned since she was 10 weeks old. They ordered one meal to share. They poured wine for each other and one swapped glasses with each other towards the end because he felt he had had too much. They smiled and commented to each other about the rainbow logo on my fleece...and here is the kicker...they whispered in German to each other about the cute male waiter. But my wife missed all that and wondered why they had asked if we lived together if they were also a couple. I told her they likely assumed two government employees had to be closeted.

One funny note...he asked what wine I liked and I said white. I had already told him about my granddad's family being from the Alsace, so he said, "of course you like whites. You are French. You are more French than this place!"

Oops, I did it again! Welcome 168th!

Doesn't someone out there want the job of reminding me when the next A-100 is about to start? I can only pay with my eternal gratitude!

 So, two weeks late (and that is what, half of your time in class?), a belated welcome to the 168th. The bloggers I have for this class are:

All Aboard the Crazy Bus

Frequent Flyer McGuires

and our old friend Tabbies In Tow, who has long been on the blogroll as a Foreign Service Specialist but is now in A-100 as a generalist.

Welcome to the Foreign Service y'all! I have moved your listings to the FS Blogroll.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Where The Horror Is Real

On Friday the 20th, we headed for some more such "exciting" stuff, the town of Verdun in France.

Verdun was the site of a brutal 10-month long battle during World War I. We started with the Citadel in the town, where you take a little car through the tunnels and hear the story of the battle. The ride felt a bit like a haunted house ride at the fair, riding through dark tunnels until the next horror was illuminated. But here, the scary stuff was real. Some 500,000 perished during this battle.

We left the Citadel and visited the sites around the battlefield...whole towns were just wiped off the map. These towns, like the town of Fleury, are marked with signs showing where roads, homes and lives used to be. And what really struck me was the land. The earth is covered in undulations that resulted from thousands upon thousands of explosions. Standing there, you could imagine the sounds of the bombs...and the sounds of the screams. I continue to find it haunting and unsettling. If you look at the ground around these gun turrets, none of that is natural.

Also haunting was the ossuary...more than 100,000 unidentified soldiers from all sides have this as their final resting place...the building is constructed with piles of bones in the walls. I took pictures of the building, both from a distance and from up close, but I felt it would be disrespectful to photograph the remains, which are visible there.

I did photograph the Trench d'Bayonnets. This is the site where soldiers in a trench were literally buried alive by an explosion. They weren't discovered until three years later when someone came across their bayonettes sticking out of the ground. Haunting...but at least they are buried with markers.

We finished out the day at Ft Douamont before heading back to the hotel, where I had a surprise waiting for me. Some 30 years ago, my parents got me a book on the history of my last name. The book was basically mass produced with a lot about how to do genealogy and not much on my actual family except a list of everyone with my last name that they could find in any phone book in the world. My last name isn't is a short book! But in the book was a man in France with my dad and granddad's same name. So I wrote him and asked if he knew anything about our family history. He ended up getting interested in genealogy, and together, we connected our family here to our family there and have our direct line traced back to the Alsace to 1630! And by total coincidence, he lives in Thionville! So he came to the hotel and we got to chat for a while about our family history.

How cool is that?

The View From Above

Have you ever noticed that when there are beautiful, tall places, people with a fear of heights sometimes forget about the fear until they get to the top?

We spent a few days in Strasbourg, France, and one of the must sees there is the Cathedral. And of course, if you are married to my wife, one of the must do's is a climb to the viewing platform 66 meters up.

In case you are wondering, that is really frickin' high. See that flat area next to the spire? That is the platform.

Luckily, I am NOT one of those people who is afraid of heights. I am just one of those people who is out of shape! Of course, as I climbed the bazillion stairs, I took comfort in the skinny people who were also panting going up...and admired my wife who practically sprinted to the top.

I later learned that her speed was related more to fear...

After snapping some pictures of the city from that height, we headed back down. She of course sped along...she is in MUCH better shape than I am, but my attitude is to just keep moving and I will get there eventually. I may finish last, but that is ahead of those who don't try!

Behind me was a skinny guy...I offered to let him pass me, but he declined. You see, on the way down the spiraling stairs, there are sections toward the interior of the Cathedral and sections with floor to ceiling windows, like the one below...with no glass. I realized after he declined to pass me that what he was doing was descending normally through the interior parts and scurrying REALLY QUICKLY past the open windows.

Seems he forgot his fear of heights too!

While we were at the Cathedral, we also got to see the astronomical clock strike noon, and I purchased a replica of the beautiful stained glass window for a Christmas tree ornament (I used to have a completely teddy bear angel Christmas tree, but for the last twelve years, I have slowly replaced the bears with "ornaments" we get on our travels. Some are actual ornaments, but some, like this piece, are meant to hang on walls, sit on shelves, etc. For example, on this trip, I also got a teensy tinsy Alsacian pottery cup to hang on the tree). After the Cathedral, we took a boat ride on the river that surrounds the was nice to get some sun!

Thursday, we intended to head to Metz on our way to Thionville, our stop so my wife could see the Maginot Line and that other "exciting" stuff like the World War I battlefield at Verdun, but decided instead to check it out on our way out of town in a few days. Instead, we went straight to Ft. Hackenberg, the largest fort of the  Maginot Line.

The Maginot Line was constructed as an impenetrable system of tunnels stretching along all of France's border with Germany. The motto of the line is "One shall not pass." Unfortunately, as the war showed, one might walk around instead...the Germans simply went through Belgium and the fort was surrendered without conflict. It was an American force that ultimately took it back from the Germans.

We spent the next two nights at the Hotel L'Horizon in Thionville...if you, like my wife, have a burning desire to see the Maginot Line and other such "exciting" stuff, it is the place to stay. The owner is an expert in the history of the area, and he is also an amazing chef! The meals we had there, often out on the terrace overlooking the city, were amazing!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Finding The Past

The idea behind this vacation was two-fold: I would get to see the places my ancestors are from and my wife would get to visit battlefields and other such "exciting" stuff. There would be castles, wine and chocolate. What's not to love (other than the battlefields and other such "exciting" stuff)?

We flew into Frankfurt on Monday the 16th. We had reserved a Ford Focus, but got upgraded to a small tank. Why we would want such a car in the last of tiny roads and tinier parking place is beyond me. But I am not experienced at driving a stick (I can do it, but I am not super comfortable with it), so this was apparently our only option.

We stayed that night at a place in Griesheim and got up first thing Tuesday morning to head to Herrlisheim, Rohrwiller and Sessenheim. Herrlisheim is the city my family originates from in the Alsace, though they moved from there to Rohrwiller and then Sessenheim before immigrating to the U.S. Herrlisheim was nearly completely (about 80%) destroyed in World War II, so there wasn't a lot old to see there, though I did find one interesting memorial crucifix on the edge of town heading toward Offendorf dating from 1775 for a Johannes Schohn and his wife Catherine Hermann.

In Sessenheim, I got to see the church where my family worshiped before they immigrated to the U.S. I couldn't go inside that day because weirdly, BOTH the Catholic and Protestant Churches in town were having funerals at the exact same time. I guess even in a small town, you had to choose between whose funeral you would attend. Makes me wonder if there is a Hatfields and McCoys thing going on.

The first picture is of the Catholic church. The second shows the domed Lutheran church from the Catholic not a lot of distance between those two funerals...

With all of this visiting the places my ancestors were from, much of this trip has resulted in some interesting issues of identity for me. My mom was mostly Indian, with a bit of German tossed in to make it interesting. My dad, as far as I have always believed, was 100% German. My last name too was 100% German. Or so I thought.

My granddad had always been clear that his family came from the Alsace. But the language he grew up speaking was German, the foods he cooked were German. He said he was German.

The Alsace, of course, is in France. But the area has a complicated history, going back and forth from Germany to France. The people there now consider themselves French. My relatives there consider themselves Alsacian and French. Not German.

Turns out, my last name is not German. It is Alsacian. And while the Alsacian language, food and culture are Germanic, they do not consider themselves to be German.

I am still a good bit German. Like I said, my mother had German ancestry. And my dad's father's mother was Bavarian. My dad's mother, near as I can tell from her genealogy, was also German. But at this point, who knows?

Did You Miss Me?

I have been AWOL for a couple weeks.

I know when that happens with most FS blogs, people often fear the worst...that the Tigers have gotten them.

No Tigers here...just a nice long vacation....well, two weeks long anyway!

I am in the process of organizing my pictures and I took lots of notes so I could write about the trip for anyone who is interested...that would be mostly my Dad.

I'll leave you with this one to start:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sixteen Years

Sixteen years ago today, the thing that continues to most profoundly affect my life happened.

I lost my mother.

A friend told me then that it never hurts less, it just hurts less often. Thanks for that, Joan. I have found it to be the truest thing ever said to me.

To lose a parent is to be made to feel like a lost toddler in a Department store. I still feel that way sometimes.

But mostly, I just feel this profound hole that nothing fills. I keep wanting to pick up the phone and call, wanting to tell her all of my adventures.

I do tell her, but it isn't the same.

The last time I spoke to my mother was on my birthday in 1996. She called me, like she did every year, at 1:26 am, the time of my birth. It was the one midnight call I got each year that never made my heart race thinking something was wrong. I grumbled each time I was roused from sleep, but I secretly loved it and I miss that call.

I wish my family had been the kind to make home movies so I could hear her voice again, see her again in something other than the still photographs, like the one above with my grandmother, great-grandmother, and a certain little baby dyke, that never quite capture her spirit.

I am lucky. I still have my dad and he is awesome. But I am jealous of people like my wife who have both of their parents.

So do me a favor. If you still have your parents, call them. Tell them you love them. Do it for me.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


I'm on vacation.

I am also still at home.

It is kind of hard to think about leaving Estonia when it is such an awesome place and the weather here is pretty darned pleasant (okay, it is raining at the moment, but the temps are still in the 60s in July...I would have all my windows open if I didn't think the Village Idi-cat would plunge to his death!).

Last night, we went on a harbor cruise on this cool old sailing ship. It is a schooner, basically the size of the boats Columbus took when he "discovered" America. I don't know how you spend months on a boat that size!

This vessel was built in Norway in 1939 and served in World War II. The Germans thought it was just run by drunk Norwegian fisherman, so they were never caught while carrying their cargo. Pretty cool.

And the weather last night was lovely, perfect for being out on the water.

After the cruise, we went with friends to Kochi Ait, a restaurant on the port none of us had gone to before. In fact, we only went there because the first place we saw had closed its kitchen for the night. The food was excellent...M and I just had snacks since we had eaten before the boat trip, but they were tasty and we will definitely be back.

Nice way to start our vacation.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Saying Goodbye

I said goodbye to my Ambassador today.

He isn't leaving yet, but today is my last day before vacation, and he will be gone by the time I return.

I didn't cry when I hugged him, but I came close.

I have been very lucky to work for this Ambassador. Everyone I spoke with about him before I came here said they would serve with him again anywhere. In the Foreign Service, that is the highest compliment you can pay someone.

He chose me for this position. It was a stretch assignment for me, and I feel like he really gave me a chance to prove myself by letting me come here and run my own PD shop. I feel like I have really grown, and continue to grow, and I owe him a lot for seeing some potential in me and letting me learn.

I also appreciate how much faith he seemed to have in me. If he ever questioned my judgment, he never let me see it.

He expects a lot. He expects people who serve here to behave as though this is a larger embassy. So we do a lot of things bigger embassies do and smaller ones do not to prepare us for running larger sections. And I feel ready for that for the guidance he has provided.

And while he expects a lot, he is also profoundly reasonable. If you give something your best and it just can't be done, he accepts that. He is easy to laugh with and is even willing to laugh at himself. He expects you to be respectful, but doesn't seem to think that means you have to be distant. I have seen him angry, but I have never seen him yell. He doesn't take out his frustrations on his subordinates. And when you do accomplish something, he is free with praise.

What I never told him is that I have one character flaw: if you micromanage me, you will get exactly what you ask for and not one thing more. But if you manage me the way he has, trusting me, expecting a lot and being reasonable, I will do backflips to get done what you ask.

So I am very sad to see him leave...this has been a great year. I am sadder still to know I will not have the chance to serve with him again. This is his farewell tour as he heads into retirement.

So farewell Ambassador Polt. I have enjoyed working for you and with you, and I wish you and your family all the best in your future endeavors. I hope to see you again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Read This

I hesistate to write this post.

Most FS blogs are interesting (well, at least to those of us in or wanting to join the Foreign Service...), but few are Laugh Out Loud funny.

And when I find one and I call attention to it, inevitably, they stop writing regularly (I am looking at you, L, from Four Globetrotters! Write some more, dammit! And I have basically given up on M over at Facts are Strictly Optional...nine months without a new post).

So I admit that I am nervous about pointing you in the direction of Wild Thoughts From Wild Places. her writing reminds me a lot of The Bloggess (who is not Foreign Service but if you aren't reading her, you should be!).

Kate is a newly minted EFM heading with her husband, Mr. Kate, to Togo. And she is funny. I want to be her friend. I married my wife for her ability to keep me entertained, so I clearly place a high premium on funny. Though I don't value funny enough to bid on Togo to serve with her and Mr. Kate. That would be stalkerish. And it would be in Togo, which is not Estonia (where the temperature is currently a lovely 63 degrees...all you people in the states (you know who you are) who mocked me this winter for the brutal cold? I am sitting in my office with the window open and the sun and a cool breeze streaming in thinking that you can suck it!).

But seriously, how do you not laugh at someone who screams "We are vegetarians in the middle of a national park! Why the hell would we have meat tenderizer?!"

Go read her.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Speaking animals

I was finally able to relax this weekend after a marathon week last week. The 4th was exhausting and then we had issues with getting the Mobile American Corner app up on iTunes and Android (it is up now...a little late but better late than never. You can find the iTunes version here and the Android version here.)

To celebrate, M and I went out with friends to a little restaurant called Paat in Viimsi. The food was great and we got to sit in a covered outside area right next to the Baltic. A thunderstorm rolled in while we ate, and it was beautiful watching it over the water.

On our way home, we saw a large schnauzer running frantically in the street. It was neatly groomed, had a collar on and was running up to any car that stopped as if he thought that car would pick him up. M and I both assumed that he had escaped his fence during the storm. We drove a bit further in silence. I was fretting about the dog getting hit. Apparently M was too, because she said, "Maybe we should go back and get him." I think I had completed my u-turn before she completed the sentence!

We found the dog pretty easily. M called out the window, "Hi dog!" And I said, you probably need to spak in Estonian.

Sure enough, when I said "come here" and "are you a good dog?" in Estonian, the dog happily trotted over to me. I got him to hop into the car.

I just want to stop here and say that this goes to prove that the folks who think animals only understand tone and not words are wrong. I remember the little girl in Jerusalem who used to babble at Noostie in Hebrew. When I finally explained that Noostie didn't understand Hebrew, she looked at Noostie and said, in English, "Dog." Noostie looked at her. So she asked how to say sit in English, I told her, and she said, "Sit!" And Noostie sat. Because Noostie doesn't understand Hebrew. She understands English.

Likewise, our tone with this dog was no different in English or Estonian. But he didn't understand the English. he understood the Estonian perfectly.

Anyway, we stopped a guy walking down the street and asked if he knew where the dog belonged and he pointed out a house. We went there, told the owner what had happened and returned the dog, who seemed really happy to see his home and his mom. 

I am not sure which surprised her more, the foreigners speaking Estonian or the fact that they had her dog in their car! But she seemed geniunely thankful either way and took her dog inside.

And we went home feeling good about our good deed.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Happy July 4th!

Yes, I know I am a day late wishing you a Happy Independence Day.

That is because when you are serving overseas, July 4th is almost always a work day. For us, that meant the work day started at 8:30 am and didn't end until after 9 pm. And then I was too exhausted to write anything more than my Facebook status. So if we aren't Facebook friends, I apologize for being late!

Here is Tallinn, we had not one, but two events. I was the MC at the first event, a not too painful job. I don't mind public speaking. It occassionally makes me nervous, but yesterday I think I was too busy to be nervous. There were SO MANY moving parts. Luckily, this embassy is chock full of awesome folks, Americans and Estonians alike, and we work really well together. We managed to pack into one event the Ambassador's final speech, the introduction of the Mobile American Corner, show off the electric car we bought that is the first electric car in an Embassy fleet in Eastern Europe (it is a Chevy Volt and it drives GREAT!), give the Legion of Merit to an Estonian general, have a performing band (more like small orchestra...), announce the winners of the photo contest, AND have the Philadelphia Boys Choir (SEVENTY-FIVE BOYS!). And then of course there was the, gorgeous, gi-nourmous cake! (photo above is courtesy of a member of my staff, since by the time I got away from the podium, the cake was mostly devoured!)

Even on July 4th, this embassy punches above its weight.

So to all of you out there, but most especially those of you serving our amazing country in the military and Foreign Service, Happy Independence Day! Your hard work helps insure we get another 236 years of freedom!

Monday, July 02, 2012

Cure for Homesickness

Remember how I was saying the other day that I was a little homesick because we weren't really having summer? How I wanted it to be warmer?

Well this weekend, my hometown had this:

While my current home had this:

Yeah, feeling a little less homesick now.

In all seriousness, I know lots of people had a lot of damage because of the storms that came through, and still more are without power in the heat. Stay cool and stay safe, y'all.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Weighing In On Having It All

The Atlantic published two pieces this month by women at the State Department on the notion of "having it 'all'." The first was by Anne Marie Slaughter, who served as the Director of Policy Planning at State, and was titled "Why Women Still Can't have It All." The second, "How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children" was by Dana Shell Smith, the Principle Assistant Deputy Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

I have been having a number of discussions about these two articles, to say nothing of The Atlantic's decisions to essentially pit two women at State against each other, with lots of my friends inside and outside of the Department.

It took me a long time to decide to weigh in, and even now, it is mostly because of the way the debate is being framed. No one seems happy with either woman's conclusions. Not that Slaughter concludes that society has to change and not with the amount that Smith admits she has given up.

First of all, I think the framing of the debate as women having it all is bogus. No one, not women but not men either, gets it "all," at least not if you have decided to buy into what society says "all" is.

It reminds me of the paradox of Israel. Thomas Friedman posed it this way: Israelis want to have a Jewish state that is a democracy in the Biblical lands of Israel. But they can only have two of those three things. That can have a Jewish state that is a democracy, but then it can't be in all the Biblical lands of Israel because there are non-Jews living there. Non-Jews with a higher birth rate that they have. So they could have a Jewish state in the Biblical lands of Israel, but it requires disenfranchising those non-Jews, so it is no longer a democracy. Or they could have a democracy in the Biblical lands of Israel, but it would not be a Jewish state because of the numbers of non-Jews there and their aforementioned higher birthrate.

The same is true of those wanting what society has decided is having it "all." Meaning, high-powered career and family with happy, well-adjusted children that you get to spend time with.

My wife and I are child free by choice. Most days, this is a decision I am happy with. When I was younger, I always assumed I would have kids. I like kids. But I have made a choice that children don't really fit into the life that I want for myself. And like Smith argues, I have owned that choice. I don't think that I can have a high-powered career, do all the travel I want, and give kids the kind of parent I'd like to be.

Of course, I have also made choices that mean I am unlikely to have a high-powered career. I work late when necessary, but only when necessary. I am less concerned about getting ahead than I am having a happy marriage. The same is true of my wife. She turned down a tour at the NSS, thought to be a career-maker in the Foreign Service, because she wanted to come to Estonia to study Estonian while living with me. Because we have both decided that at the end of our careers, we want to have each other to share our memories with. And so we have made choices that may slow down our career trajectory but definitely are in the best interests of our marriage.

But I reject too that any of this means we don't have it "all." What I have come to understand is that if you look to society for your definition of having it all, you can never succeed as an individual. You have to decide what it is at the end of the day that makes you happy and go for that. If it is the high-powered career, go for that, but recognize that it means you won't get time for your kids or your pets or your spouse or your hobbies. If you want time with your family, recognize that this means your career may not be as face paced as you'd like. If you want to spend all your time with your kids, be a stay at home parent. All are valid choices, but choices we have to make.

And realize that maybe all for you is not getting to spend as much time with your kids but finding a spouse who will. Or is raising kids who hopefully understand you won't be there for every recital like you'd like but that it doesn't mean you love them less. Or not having kids at all, and still choosing to go home at five to spend time with your husband, wife, or pet. Or to read a book, or train for a marathon.

We all have to decide what work-life balance is for us. No one can decide what "all" is for you. And society isn't going to change for us. Yes, we could, and should, hire more people so that we aren't "doing more with less," the ever constant mantra in the State Department. But even if we did, there would be those who would work those extra hours for whatever perceived advantage it got them.

No one gets society's "all." Not men. Not women. Not single, married, with or without children. We all have to make choices that fit what will best achieve our own personal all. And go for that.

And as an added bonus, let's not make judgments on what someone else's "all" is. Let's all own the choices we make, and make the choices that make us happy.

And by that definition, I have it all. And I hope you do too.