Monday, July 29, 2013

House Hunter Overseas Part II

So we were done. Void the contract and walk away done.

We'd had the home inspection, and there were some issues that needed to be addressed. The seller had already told us he wanted to sell "as is." So our option was to suck up the repairs or void the contract.

We offered him a last chance to negotiate. Because the house is cool, but this is business. It isn't emotional, it is an investment. So if he wasn't going work with us on the price, we had no reason to bother. There are plenty other fish, er houses, in the sea.

And he said no dice.

So we told him we were walking. We voided the contract and cancelled the loan. We were out.

And then tonight, he had his agent call our agent.

Would be interested if he cut the price by $20,000?

So now we are back in.

Of course, there is still the radon and termite tests. Oh and the appraisal.

So it isn't a done deal. But we are a little closer to turning this little sunny spot into a garden.

And a little closer to being residents of a state where we are full citizens. That part I am emotional about.

Friday, July 19, 2013

House Hunting Overseas

You might think that with the US Supreme Court's having found the so-called Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional, everything would be all hunky dory now, right?


You see, my wife and I are Virginia residents. We have been considering moving to Maryland, which has state marriage equality, for a while now. In fact, one of the first things she said to me after we heard the court's ruling was, "Okay, you can buy a house in Maryland now."

It isn't just about not wanting to continue paying taxes to a state that chooses to discriminate against us, though that is certain part of it. But it is also that the states can still do nasty things to us. Like, for example, not allowing us to make burial decisions for our legal spouse.

So we are house hunting in the Silver Springs/Takoma Park area. From half a planet away.

A friend who recently departed from post to spend a year on LWOP (leave without pay) recently did the same thing and bought a place in Colorado. Where she had never even visited. And I thought she was nuts.

And now we are doing it.

I have been searching online using MRIS Homes, looking a pictures, schools, location, etc. Then I am using google street view to "walk" the neighborhood (oh look, is that a crack house next door? I didn't see THAT in the pictures they posted! And seriously, I think some of these houses were on Curb Appeal before being listed!). Then I look at Zillow to get even more stats, including most recent sales prices of the home I am looking at, the estimated values of all the nearby homes and what recent homes there have sold for.

Once I have done all that, sometimes watch for a couple days. Homes prices well are moving in a few days. Homes that are over priced, even just a little, will often sit. And I am a bargain hunter, so I look for places where I can perhaps get it for less than asking, like in places where people have gotten no offers because they priced it poorly. And finally, I ask the realtor to take a look. She has even made walk-through videos for me.

We have already put on offer in on a place. Of course, we first had the realtor go and make a video walk through. And then we had a friend go by and walk through it again (thanks again, A!).

We are much less emotional than when we bought our first home together. We are not Property Virgins. We know how this works. We have already countered their counter offer. We know we may not get this place, and that is okay. We like it but don't love it. Nor do we need to love it. It isn't our retirement home (we will probably build that anyway). We have certain things we are looking for: a certain number of beds and baths, a yard, near the metro. It needs to be rentable when we are overseas. This property meets all of that and is cute too, but the seller is a personal representative on behalf of an estate, and for what seem like more emotional than practical reasons, isn't budging as much as I had hoped.

And even though this isn't personal, it is just an investment, I now know what my friend R felt like waiting for a response. Because it IS a big decision. Knots in your stomach don't begin to describe it. And the time difference doesn't help...sure, go ahead and try to fall asleep when the response will come in at maybe 6 pm their time, which is 1 am here.

So we shall see. We have a year before we will likely be back in the states, and we still don't know whether that will be for a tour or just for language training (blech...bidding....). A lot can happen in that time. We could buy a house. Or not. Virginia could adopt marriage equality (I really wish they would...I seriously love Northern Virginia). Or not.

In the meantime, I will try to focus on other major life decisions. Like bidding.

Blech. Think I will look at more houses.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History: Being Gay in the Foreign Service

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training has published a piece on Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History: Being Gay in the Foreign Service, which draws from an 2000 oral history interview with retired FSO Russell Sveda.

The piece begins:

"Public perception of gay rights, including the right to marry and to serve in the military, has undergone a sea change in the last few years, so much so that President Obama nominated five openly gay ambassadors. However, it was not that long ago when simply being gay meant automatic suspicion as a security risk and often harassment or worse. In these excerpts, Russell Sveda talks about persecution from the Diplomatic Security (DS) bureau, the ensuing bureaucratic battles, and his subsequent 14-year grievance case, the longest in State Department history. He also discusses the fear he and others had when they started the Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) in 1992 and the support he received from other FSOs. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2000."

You can read the entire piece here, and you can read the oral history here.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

GovExec: Same-Sex Spouses Eligible for Benefits Regardless of Residency

One of the questions arising from the Supreme Court's finding of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional is whether legally married couples living in states where their marriage was not recognized would be eligible for federal benefits.

President Obama said that he hoped that the government would use "place of ceremony" rather than "place of residence" in determining residency, and indeed, the first green card was issued to a legally married couple in Florida, where their marriage was not recognized. Definitely a good sign.

Government Executive has a piece today that suggests that the "place of ceremony" will be applied to all federal benefits. In their piece, Same-Sex Spouses Eligible for Benefits Regardless of Residency, they cite new federal guidance from the Office of Personel Management regarding health benefits that says that "Same-sex spouses of legally married feds and retirees are eligible for health and retirement benefits regardless of which state they live in."

The guidance reads:

"Coverage will be available to a legally married same-sex spouse of a Federal employee or annuitant, regardless of his or her state of residency. This decision does not extend coverage to registered domestic partners or those employees or annuitants in civil unions."

Because we already knew separate was not equal.

This is exceptionally good news for people like us who (until we can find a house in Maryland to buy) live in states like Virginia, which does not recognize our marriage.

The other part of the guidance I like:
"OPM sent letters last week to insurance carriers about extending health, dental and vision coverage to same-sex spouses and children of feds and annuitants, underscoring the need for equity. “Carriers will be cautioned against imposing any new rules in response to the Supreme Court’s decision that could be seen as having either the purpose or effect of creating barriers to enrollment for legally married same-sex couples,” stated the July 3 benefits administration letter from OPM’s John O’Brien, director of healthcare and insurance."

You can read the entire Government Executive piece here.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013


I haven't gotten (knocking furiously on wood) any trolls on this site in a while. I am sure they are out there still. But next time I do, I am using this picture to ward them off:

Or maybe one of these:

Sometimes the trolls are foxy!
There sure are a lot of trolls in Norway!

Una-fjord-able Norway Part 3 - Return to Oslo

We headed back to Oslo on Friday. The train ride took 7 hours or so, but it was so much more comfortable than a plane (and I did not get motion sick...bonus!) that even with the screaming kid the last hour or so, it was totally worth it.

Saturday morning, we went to the Viking museum. Two things: I think Vikings are really cool, plus I have profound jealously of archaeologists who get to recover wood, leather and textiles. So this museum was a pretty cool cap off to the trip.

Plus we got to eat at TGI Fridays, which does American-style burgers, and really, no one does a burger as good as we do. So in spite of the cost (holy crap...I'd tell you, but my wife reads this blog and I told her not to look, I would just pay the bill, but to give you a clue, even our little bar food meal of burger and a beer for her and fajitas and a soda for me was over $100!), definitely worth the trip. And I need to go back...there are other cool things to see and do in Oslo!

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Una-fjord-able Norway Part 2 - Bergen

We got to Bergen Monday evening and checked into our hotel, the Det Hanseatiske Hotel. The hotel was really cute and the staff was excellent. They have two nice restaurants in the hotel, the Casa Del Toro that serves the best tex-mex I have had since moving to Estonia (not a high standard...tex-mex is absent here...but the food was pretty good!) and the Finnegaardsstuene, which is considered one of the best restaurants in town. We had to make reservations there because they were always packed.

We wandered around the town a bit the first night, but most things were already closed. Like Tallinn's Old City, cruise ships bring in hoards of tourists during the day, but it really quiets down at night. But since we had several days in town, we weren't in a super hurry.

The next day, we headed up (in the rain...apparently Bergen gets like 260-some days of rain per year) to visit the local Stave Church. This particular church, Fantoft Stave church, was built in Fortun in Sogn in 1150 and moved to Fantoft in 1883. Sadly, the church was totally destroyed by fire in 1992 but was been rebuilt to look the way it did before the fire. It is a cool, old-looking church, but it feels new. Which made me sad.

The interior is the part that looks most obviously new. One cool thing is the lepers window, seen below. Lepers were not allowed in the church, but could received communion through the window.

Lepers' Window
 After visiting the church, we checked out the Rosenkrantz Tower and Håkon's Hall. Parts of the tower was built in the 1270s, and it was the home of King Eirik Magnusson, the last king to hold court in Bergen, until he died in 1299. The current form incorporated that building and one other when in the 1560's the governor of Bergen Castle, Erik Rosenkrantz, built it at the order of King Frederik II. There is even a dungeon in the cellar that served that purpose from the 15th to 19th century.

Håkon’s Hall is 750 years old, and was built by King Håkon Håkonsson as a royal residence and banqueting hall. I could tell you more, but the cat barfed on the copy of the info guide I picked up on it. Sigh.

My wife atop the Tower, looking at the Hall. Terrified face not shown.

Inside the Hall
Both the tower and the Hall were damaged when a German ammo ship exploded in the harbor in 1944, but both have been restored.

Next we wandered around the town for a bit...for a few moments it was rain-free and I was able to get some pictures of the cool old buildings there.

Mean looking fish!

Mean fish bites!

The next morning, we opted for more fjords, taking the White Lady four-hour fjord tour. The tour was a lot of fun and really relaxing. Finally I got to see the kinds of fjords I was looking for...the ones with the really steep walls! Amazingly beautiful.

Of course, this is also the day that the DOMA ruling was released. I had been watching the clock all day, because I knew it would come in at 4 pm our time. But I have already talked about my reaction that day.

For our last day in Bergen, we took the funicular up to the view atop on of the seven mountains surrounding Bergen. We hiked a bit around the mountain, seeing some breathtaking views as well as a few trolls, and giving my part mountain goat wife the nature fix she was looking for.

There sure are a lot of trolls in Norway

Lonely White House on a hill
That night, we ran into friends from the embassy, who purely by coicidence, were vacationing in Bergen as well. We had a nice sushi dinner together, and we headed back to Oslo the next morning.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Una-fjord-albe Norway part 1 - Norway in a Nutshell

You may or may not have gathered that last week, I was away. I managed to get in a few dumping DOMA related posts in, but posting using my ipad is nearly impossible. But not posting on something as relevant to our lives was even more impossible.

The reason for my absense during that week was that my wife and I were on our long-awaited (but too short) vacation to Norway.

Norway is amazing (but really, really expensive!), so I thought I would share a bit of it with you. I'll break this into several posts so you can read or not as much as you like.

We flew into Oslo on the 23rd, and M had found us a hotel right inside the Grand Central train station. This meant that coming from the airport was an easy 20-minute train ride and we didn't even have to leave the station to go into the hotel (but of course, we did, because of course we couldn't find it at first and of course it was raining. AND I had no rain gear). The hotel was funky, with weird wall art and very stark feeling rooms. I liked it a lot, but it was a bit too warm for my liking. Something I discovered in Norway is that there are a lot of places with devices on the wall that would seem to indicate they have air conditioning but the device is just for decoration. The other thing I learned was that I can never go home to the South again. Because temps in the 70s are now hot.

Since we got in reasonably early, we decided to walk around Olso a bit. The town is pretty interesting, and the Akershus fortress is pretty cool. Of course, lots of stuff was closed or closing because it was Sunday, but we did get to wander around the fortress.

We headed the next morning to Bergen on the Norway in a Nutshell tour. We took the Bergen train to Mrydal, then the Flåm railway to Flåm, then a fjord cruise to Gudvangen, then a bus to Voss, and finally back onto the Bergen train to Bergen. Some of the views we got were amazing.

1222 m above sea level. Felt like the top of the world.
The Bergen train is great...comfortable, reserved, confortable seats. Not so much for the Flåm railway. Our train was ever so slightly late, meaning the one car for those not with some tour group was full. We managed to find seats, though not great ones, right behind the standing area. And I spent much of the trip worrying that the Japanese guy who seemed to be making a film of the trip for Japanese television (seriously, not a random tourist) was going to have his head snapped off by the tunnels we passed through while he was hanging out of the window. Being covered in filmmaker parts was not how I hoped to start my vacation. Luckily, we arrived safely, and some of you in Japan may one day see me on tv, as he occassionally filmed our car. I wonder if I will get royalties?

The fjord cruise was lovely. Some of the little towns along the way simply don't look real, and some of the isolated homes on rock outcrops look so stark and yet picturesque. The rain did put a damper on it, but luckily we had seats under a cover and could take turns venturing out for pictures during breaks in the rain.

In the bathroom on the cruise boat was a sign that I have to share with you. Feel free to print it and post in any icky bathroom you have to deal with on a regular basis!

The bus trip to Voss...not so much. Taking motion sickness medicine before the trip started would have been a better ideal...I didn't get sick, but ick...and a road at an 18% grade with 13 hairpin turns, not so much fun.

But Voss is a really pretty little town, since we all know my thing for churches, I'll share a picture I took of the church there.

Finally, we got on the train to Bergen and were there a short ride later.