Sunday, October 15, 2017

Remember that sand pile I bought?

A lot can happen in two years, but maybe you remember back in January 2015 when I bought a lot in Florida.

I’ve had plans for a LONG time to build on the lot and that moment has finally arrived!  As expected, it turned out to be really difficult to build a house remotely and just the permitting process has been a rollercoaster.  But I’ll spare you the novella and just say It’s been an adventure so far and I am hugely indebted and extremely grateful to my father who has basically taken on the contracting as his second job right in the middle of an incredibly busy and stressful time for him too.

So thanks/sorry Dad!

Ok, where was I? Oh yes, I bought the lot in January 2015 and it took about a month to close.  The exact dates are a bit fuzzy to me now, but I think it’s safe to say I spent about two full years in the preparation/waiting phase. Why so long?  Because, with this crazy lifestyle I wasn’t willing to take on a the debt load of a mortgage until I was sure I wasn’t going to be assigned to DC for my follow on tour after Rome.

Side note: A posting in DC would mean I would be paying for an apartment in one of the most expensive cities in the US ... while simultaneously paying down a mortgage. I’m a big saver and all, but that’s just not a realistic scenario.  Granted, I may be able to eventually rent out the house when I’m not around to use it, but there’s no guarantee that would be a steady enough source of income to mitigate the risk. So I waited until October 2016-ish before greenlighting the next steps.

Of course, in the meantime I picked out a floor plan and had it modified (again, thanks Dad!) to better suit me. I looked at paint colors and appliances and worked hard to pay off the rest of the land loan and save up for the construction process.

Once I knew I was headed to San Paulo and would have a few years to get my finances settled before any potential DC assignments we moved forward and my dad/general contractor obtained the many, many permits necessary for the build.  Since the lot is right on the beach that required a lot of work with the environmental authorities to make sure we weren’t destroying any dune mice habitats and everything was turtle friendly. (The area is apparently a nesting site for sea turtles.) There are still lots of rules we’ll have to follow with the construction and materials but that’s a small price to pay to be living in such a beautiful place.

It also took forever to obtain a construction loan which I’m sure is partly an overreaction to the housing market crash and partly our banker’s uncertainty about working with an overseas homeowner. Had I known how slow that process would be I would have gone with a bigger bank, but in the end it’s done and that’s the important thing.

I promise to keep you updated on the beach house progress now that things are moving along at a faster clip.  In the meantime, here’s a teaser!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Home leaving it up

Home leave only comes around every couple of years so it's hard to restrain oneself in the planning phase.  I wrote a list about a mile long of all the things I was planning to do when I got back home.  Naturally, I have scaled back a bit after the plane landed but I'm still seeing the sights and spending some quality time with my relatives in the Midwest.

I have to admit, I was a bit nervous about this home leave but America's been awfully good to me this year.  What have I done so far?

  • had a bonfire
  • tailgated and cheered on the home team at a college football game (Go Hawks!)
  • shopped at the farmer's market
  • gone sailing - in fact I joined the local sailing club just so I can try to squeeze in a couple more sails before I leave
  • donated my hair to Locks of Love
  • kayaked on the lake
  • hiked, biked and swam
  • helped my mom host a tea party
  • attended the local orchestra's outdoor show
  • picked apples, raspberries, tomatoes, cantaloupe, peppers, and zucchini from my mom's amazing garden - and even dug up some potatoes too! 
  • sampled every new restaurant that opened in the past couple of years (and all our old favorites of course)
So basically, it's been one big Norman Rockwell painting.

Still on the to-do list? Visiting a semi-famous local attraction that's been on my to-do list for years, learn to can something (one of my New Year's Resolutions in fact), visit the site of my house and check on the construction, and hopefully do some 'hometown diplomating'. That last one is a state department program where you speak to local schools or media to share what Foreign Service Officers' do. It's a bit dependent on the local group's timing, but I'd be excited to share a bit with my community, I'm not entirely sure people know what it is I've been doing around the world these past few years.

I'm also working on a couple of side projects, but those will have to wait until I can report some substantive progress.

A dopo! And here's some pictures to enjoy. :)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

San Marino

As promised, here are some photos from my weekend trip to San Marino.

I'm so glad my friends were willing and able to make this trip happen - I was much too distracted with sick dogs and moving preparations to do any trip planning myself.  Overall I had a fantastic time and would totally recommend a visit - if you have a car and some serious time on your hands.  It's very difficult to reach San Marino by public transportation and even with a car it took 5-6 hours of (easy highway) driving from Rome.  Not to put you off or anything, just be aware this trip is a real time commitment.

So, back to the fun stuff!  San Marino is a tiny country - only 23.6 square miles and feels like more like a hill town when you visit.   The main thing to see in San Marino is a series of three towers/castles on the highest point of the hill. Two can be toured and there's a nice hiking path that connects all three.  There are also a surprising number of museums given the country's size.  We happened to visit during some sort of comic book festival which added a weird vibe (museum, historic tower, basilica, Spider-Man...) but also gave us lots of great people watching opportunities.

If you go remember to bring your passport - in the center of town at the info point you can have it stamped for 5 euros - and speaking of Euros, you can ask for change in special coins minted just for San Marino.  They make a nice keepsake.  Other than sightseeing and collecting souvenirs, I would highly recommend devoting some serious time to eating. We ate at La Terrazza and it was amazing. (Try the local wine.)

Random fact: San Marino has the most relaxed gun laws in Europe - hence a gun store on seemingly every corner. Considering that there were no vehicle checks or customs when we left I wonder how many of those guns are just floating around the EU?

So there you go! I did make it to another country after all! Here's the proof:

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Hello from the other side!

... of the pond that is.

That's right, I have PCS-ed (left post) and I'm now back in the States on home leave.  I really ought to have posted once or twice more while in Rome - a trip log from my quick visit to San Marino, an ode to my temporary home, a heads-up that the countdown clock was really ticking.  Instead, however, I was pretty busy and stressed and just barely managed to get myself and all my stuff out in one piece.  Hopefully from the outside it looked a bit less chaotic, but on the inside I was comparing my move with all the previous ones and shaking my head.

What threw me off this time?

Well, health issues mostly. I was dogsitting my favorite little guy for almost a month and what should have been a month of spoiling him rotten turned into a whirlwind of vet visits. Poor guy had kidney stones - apparently a big issue for pets here as he's one of several pets in the embassy community to face the same.  Unfortunately, the vet (like seemingly every other Italian) wanted to take leave in August so his surgery was postponed for four long days, a decision I think actually rode the border between carelessness and cruelty on the vet's part since the dog was NOT well and needed urgent care.  In the end though he did get the stones removed, though his recovery was a lot harder than expected, a fact I firmly attribute to the delayed intervention.  Between lunch hour appointments at the vet, a half-dozen trips to the pharmacy, dealing with a catheter (yuck!), cone, and open wound.... it sort of ate my August.  On top of that I had a med appointment myself that should have taken only an hour or two to check off my list. Instead, due to the fact that the doctors also all wanted to take leave in August, it necessitated two visits (during work hours, naturally), one med unit appointment, lots and lots of angry follow-up calls from me and my referring doctor and several hours of my last afternoon at post. Boo!  In the end it only took a mountain of arm twisting but I got it done.

The whole saga though did help me remember that every post - even my beloved Rome - has it's imperfections.  And while the mass exodus in August is usually just an annoyance, it can really become an issue when you don't have the flexibility to wait a month.

In any case, all that is behind me now and I'm working hard to reassimilate back in the States.  I'll post some pictures of my very domestic, and very cherished, adventures back home. But no rush! I intend to spend this home leave relaxing like there's no tomorrow.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017


My very generous friend with a car offered to take me wherever I wanted to go in Italy in the limited time I have left in order to help me finish my Italy bucket list.  While there are TONS of beautiful towns and whole regions I haven't visited, I really wanted to see a bit more of Tuscany since it's so close and densely packed with picturesque hill towns.  We ended up making a day of it - drving to Montepulciano for lunch, shopping, wine tasting and just generally touristing.  

The day was lovely and we seemed to have magical timing - got a great parking spot, the perfect lunch table overlooking the valley, and missing out on the big tourist crowds.  I'd certainly recommend a visit if you have a car. Otherwise it's a bit challenging to reach.

Finally, two local crafsmen I thought deserved a shoutout. Both were kind enough to let us watch them work and explained a bit about the artistic processes they use - in case the pictures aren't super clear one makes wood collages, the other makes mosaics. A piece from either artist would be a great souvenir but I passed up the chance so I could spend all that hard earned money on gelato - priorities! 

Baths of Caracalla

Yikes! I'm falling behind when it comes to documenting all my adventures. Just a quick one this time with my Tuscan hill town and beach adventures saved for later.

A couple of weeks ago I went with a friend to see Carmen performed at the Baths of Caracalla.  It was a lovely setting, though I didn't have time to look around much since I arrived just minutes before the start.  And this was a great chance to see the Baths, which otherwise are kind of a second tier sight that takes some extra effort to visit.

As for the opera itself it was fun.  They did a modern take on the story, set in a Mexican border town in fact. While I enjoyed it I do tend to prefer the elaborate costumes and sets from traditional opera. But I did get this great shot to make all the DHS colleagues at the Embassy smile. (Isn't that sign in some way proprietary?)

(Also, please appreciate the stuffed figures who are supposed to be trying to climb the border wall.)

Another check off my to-do list in Rome. I'd highly recommend a visit if you get the chance. This summer they're also featuring Nabucco and Tosca.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dog days of summer

These are, quite literally, the dog days for me. Not only is it incredibly hot but I've been dogsitting lately, which has me out and about all the time.

All those 6am walks have renewed my appreciation for my neighborhood (thanks housing board!) - one that will be hard to top again in my career. It's just so effortlessly beautiful (an Italian ideal) and incredibly livable (also very Italian). Why can't we do apartments this way back home? There are little coffee  shops every block or so, and cafes with covered tables on the sidewalk.  There are little details on every building - random sculpture, wrought-iron railings, functioning shutters, immaculate balconies. There are little courtyards with fountains for every building and streets lined with flowering trees. Friendly doormen and little old ladies. Gelato shops, fruit vendors, even a Vespa dealership. Sigh.

I really am going to miss it here.

Below : a photographic ode to my 'hood

And of course, the dog himself, pictured here with real milk delivery. See what I mean? My neighborhood is the best.

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Ok, this is probably - almost definitely - my last international trip for this tour so enjoy!

There are a number of countries I thought I would visit while posted to Rome, but the reality of leave schedules, savings goals and simple travel fatigue made me cut back quite a bit.  This year I knew I wanted to go somewhere though - Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Iceland, Malta, Greece and a smattering of Eastern European countries were all in the 'maybe' box, just waiting for the right circumstances.  Obviously, Spain came through a few months ago and this month with less than a hundred days left at post,  Ryanair offered a flight to Stockholm for the price of a couple meals out in Rome and I just couldn't resist. Knowing my own tendency to put things off and pay the price I snatched up the flight and booked a micro hotel before I could change my mind and I'm so glad I did.*

Stockholm was colder (and rainier) than I like - and that was with my winter coat! - but I loved getting out in nature a bit and seeing something new.

I basically hit the standard tourist sites, starting in Gamla Stan (the old city), touring three different museums - the Nobel museum (informative), the Vasa museum (about an old ship - meh) and the ABBA museum (surprisingly fun).  All in all I'd recommend skipping Vasa - if you're headed to Norway they have a similar museum with more, and more interactive, exhibits - but suggest the other two.  If I had more time I would have checked out Nordiska - about Nordic culture - and the Photography museum. They also have some open-air "living museums" if it's a nice day.  I really, really had my heart set on a boat trip in the archipelago - thank goodness I didn't book a sailing trip as intended since it was freezing and rainy off and on all weekend - but in the end I found a great 2.5 hour archipelago tour that fit the bill. Had I been in town another full day I would have signed up for the full day tour but this was just right given my timeline. 

Gamla Stan! The Nobel museum is just off to the right in this shot.

Vasa museum - mostly just this one boat with a smattering of exhibits on the boat and its passengers. You aren't allowed to go inside the Vasa unfortunately.

The Vasa was a ship that capsized on it's maiden voyage and was salvaged in the 1960s.

Here's the Nordiska museum on the island if Djurgarden - highly recommend a whole day there, especially if the weather cooperates.

The ABBA museum is just up the street. In fact all three museums are an easy stroll from each other and the below amusement park.

One site I didn't make time for was this adorable amusement park. It didn't sound so fun for a solo traveller but especially if you have kids it seems worth a shot.

The boat tour in a rare moment of sunshine.

There's no better way to see Stockholm and get a feel for the culture than to get out on the water.

I also just enjoyed getting lost in the quieter streets - Stockholm was remarkably empty compared to Rome, especially considering that the tourist season here must be so short.

Finally, if you visit, check out the neighborhood of Ostermalm and its food market.  I sampled some local delicacies (elk, cloudberries, and reindeer) and purchased some chocolates for the ride home. Oh, and one last note about food - make sure to eat the cinnamon rolls/buns - they're a national specialty and available just about everywhere at any time.  It's a good thing for my waistline that I had to get back to work! A cinnamon roll every day might be a bit much even for a sweet tooth like mine.

Ciao Sweden, thanks for the hospitality!

*A note about being cheap in Europe.  First off, my micro hotel (I think it was just called Hotel Micro)  turned out to be more of a hostel. But unlike other hostels I've visited it was full of travellers of all ages and felt a lot more civilized. There were private rooms with key cards and shared (but clean) bathroom facilities. Honestly it was as comfortable as some of the very expensive places I've stayed in the past few years and put me close enough to walk to the attractions. Eating out in Sweden was very expensive so if you go it might be worth booking a place where you can make a few basic meals in the room.

As for Ryanair - I have a love/hate relationship with them - love the prices but hate everything else from the constant tricks to try to make you spend more (forgot to print your boarding pass? That'll be €50 euros!) to the fact that the advertised fare into Stockholm actually lands at an airport an hour and a half away.  In the end I still think I saved money but next time I will have to calculate out the added cost of transportation to and from these out of the way airports. For Rome's Ciampino, for instance, unless you leave yourself TONS of spare time to catch the bus from Termini you'll waste more than the cost of your flight on a taxi. On the Stockholm end I think the bus fare was 14 euro each way. So beware!


Well, what have we all been up to since my last post? It feels like forever but probably just since I've been busy.

Immediately following my trip to Milan (in fact, during a five hour 'layover' on my way home) I stopped to see a city that's been on my list for awhile.

Recognize this?

I'll give you a hint - it isn't Pisa. ;) While one of these towers does in fact appear to be listing to one side this is actually the culinary mecca of Bologna, once known for the dozens of towers (maybe as many as 180) used by wealthy families to protect themselves from attack (only about 20 remain). I ended up really enjoying the town and I found it pleasantly 'undiscovered' compared with the rest of Italy. What a nice change of pace!

While there are some canals the city reminded me much more of Florence with the architectural style and slower pace.

I ended up leaving my bags at the train station in the luggage deposit - a fantastic deal for day trippers - at a cost of 4-5 euros, I can't quite remember. Then I followed around a walking tour from here:

I toured the inside of this historic building, used as the city hall...

...and this church - the Basilica of San Petronio - notable for it's half-finished facade...

...then I made my way to the world's oldest university to see the famous surgical theater where they taught anatomy with cadavers. It's been rebuilt after being heavily damaged in World War II but it's still an impressive space.

Then I mostly just walked around - hoping to climb one of the towers, which I was disappointed to discover were closed. Oh well! Maybe next time.  In the meantime, if you want a quiet Italian city to explore without a few thousand of your closest tourist friends, this is the place. I hearby declare Bologna 'undiscovered Florence'.

I did find time before leaving town to have an excellent aperitivo and buy two traditional high quality Bolognese specialties - first, fresh pasta which managed the trip to Rome in excellent shape- 

And Balsamic vinegar - the real stuff from Modena.  It costs a mint but after two years of indoctination into Italian food culture I really couldn't resist. Saving this little vial to enjoy with my family in September. 

If you have a full day I'd recommend also checking out the Portico of San Luca - a 4km long portico leading to a basilica overlooking the city. I didn't have time but maybe when I come back some day!