Sunday, December 31, 2017

Resolutions - Resolved! (mostly)

It’s that time of year again! I’m looking ba k today to see how well I did on all my New Year’s Resolutions from 2017. If you don’t remember I made this list back in January/February.
  • Be a better communicator - Write to family on their birthdays, send actual letters, respond quicker to invites... All that good stuff Yes! This one has been a great opportunity to connect more with friends and family - I definitely want to keep it up again next year.
  • Know the Hatch Act, live the Hatch Act.  I plan this year to be a more reponsible (read: active) participant in our great democracy. I plan to do something to support causes I believe in at least once a week. Yes, for the most part. I was a bit more active at the beginning of the year, but I’ve been writing and calling my senators, signing petitions and supporting causes I believe in on a fairly regular basis even this late in the year.
  • Finish three or four more books in Italian - I already have Jhumpa Lahiri's In Altre Parole mostly finished and I also intend to finish the last three by Elena Ferrante (I read the first already this year) Barely, but yes. This goal ended up being a bit too ambitious, especially since I insisted on reading the quite tough Elena Ferrante series rather than something easier. But it was a rich experience and I did finish three books before I switched to Portuguese and went cold turkey on the Italian.
  • Cook seafood. I've always been intimidated by seafood but no more! Spaghetti con vongole (clams) and calamari are on the menu. Yes! I made frito misto (awesome,  but not as leftovers), salmon steaks, and spaghetti alle vongole as promised. All    delicious!
  • Also on the cooking front - learn to can food Kind of. I canned tomatoes with my mom. Will need to try it on my own someday to really count it but the lesson was definitely a first step.
  • Go sailing (bonus points if I manage to take a course) Yes, but just once. I joined the sailing club near my parents’ house while back on home leave but only made it to the lake for one lesson. Kind of disappointing but it does still count.
  • Travel - two new countries, two new states, two new Italian cities Yes, no, yes. I visited Spain, Sweden and San Marino and within Italy saw Capri, Ancona, Montepulciano and Bologna. But I didn’t make the road trip I had planned during home leave. In fact it was a conscious decision to save money since, ironically, it is cheaper to visit a new European country than a new US state - at least if the States left on your list are kind of far from home. But two out of three isn’t so bad.
  • Finally go to Tuba Christmas in DC Yes! It was fun but probably no need to go again.
  • Have friends over for dinner more often More often is kind of relative, and I haven’t done this at all since I got to DC but I did host several friends for dinner, coffee, and one mega-brunch this year and I call that a win.
  • Find a solid volunteering gig in DC and stick with it Yes, although ironically I think I might switch to a location that really needs my help, I have been going to a homeless shelter for a couple of months now. 
  • Learn how to make a really kick-ass cappucino before leaving Italy Yes! Wish my frother and French press had made it into the UAB but I guess I’ll see them all in São Paulo! 
  • Be able to play level 4 (will have to explain this later) songs on the piano and actually sight read The difficulty level was confusing, but basically I can now play four songs - Fur Elise, Pachebel’s Canon in D, Bourrée and the one whose name I can never remember. It’s something bland like Minuet... and I can very, painfully, slowly sight read. I’ve really been enjoying it - and even bought a second keyboard so I can practice while I’m back in the States too. Win! 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Latest house update

Just got this photo from the builders. As they put it -it’s starting to look like a “real” house now. While I still think the framing is what made it all seem real, I agree that the siding does make it blend a little better with the neighborhood.

In DC news I got a surprise behind the scenes tour of the National Zoo this weekend. I got to feed a 400+ pound turtle and pet all the things (that weren’t deadly). It was totally an animal lover’s dream come true.  And the Zoolights stuff wasn’t bad either.

Sadly I can't figure out how to make the iPhone 'live' photo play here... maybe that's a project for my next long weekend.  In the meantime, just remember my fingers were inches away from this hungry fellow's mouth. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Merry Tuba Christmas!

Just wanted to share a few photos from the very festive Tuba Christmas performance I attended at the Kennedy Center. Thanks Millennium Stage for the free entertainment!  This is one of the last few to-dos on my list of New Years Resolutions to get crossed off and it was a great way to enjoy a little holiday spirit in the middle of a season that can be pretty stressful if you aren’t careful.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Holiday Rush

A million years ago, in Sri Lanka, I met a girl named Ellen. We worked for the same company but we only overlapped by a day. Still, in that one day (and in the constant mentions from all of our mutual colleagues and friends) I discovered that Ellen had a superpower. Ellen was the world’s most efficient person.  The amount she could accomplish during a given day would put whole teams of otherwise efficient folks to shame.

So obviously I’m exaggerating, but not much. Her combination of endless energy (including mental stamina which I’ve found is even more important at the end of a rough day), alongside vision, organizational skills and persistence made her a tough act to follow.  Most of us just don’t have the energy to program our every waking moment. Have a five minute walk to the shuttle? Why aren’t you filling it with an audio lesson? Microwave going to take 90 seconds? That’s enough time for a few scales on the piano. Had a long day at work and out to dinner and just got back at 9? Why, that’s plenty of time to write and address all of your Christmas cards, clean out the refrigerator and change all the smoke detector batteries!

Getting exhausted yet? I hope it’s not just me!

I thought of Ellen today when I sat down and looked at my to-do list.  Somehow I’ve managed to overlook my love of laziness and sitting still generally and sign myself up for a whole lot of activity.  It’s all good stuff of course - learning new skills, volunteering, celebrating the holidays, hitting the gym, getting together with friends... it’s just a lot altogether.  At least I’m becoming a little better at juggling it all with so much practice. Maybe in the end I’ll develop some Ellen-level efficiency skills of my own! Here’s hoping!

And three cheers for a beautiful snowy weekend to round out the Christmas trifecta (tree-gingerbread-snow). It’s just the motivation I needed for that last burst of gift buying and card writing.

Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Is it already December?

Well, what’s new with you faithful readers? Tudo bom?

Portuguese is progressing well, as far as I can tell -we haven’t had our first progress evaluation yet, but all that Romance language background from high school Spanish, Rosetta Stone French and FSI Italian has been helping me out a ton ...when I can remember to stick to Portuguese in class of course. Sometime I'll have to post a list of the language resources I've been using like I did with Italian - I really am incredibly lucky to be studying a language with so many extra (free) resources available.

On the home front I hosted my family for Thanksgiving - well my folks that is - though we did get to Skype with my brother and niece. With any luck my brother and his family will be able to attend the next turkey day in person. Fingers crossed! I was really looking forward to the visit and we had a great time.  We didn't get out too much - just one museum if you can believe it.  It turns out that after so many temporary stays in DC the city is starting to feel like something of a second home to all of us and we've seen just about every tourist attraction I could think of.  (I was here for a year after undergrad, two years in grad school, once for A-100, once for Italian and now this time will make a total of almost 5 years.)  We did at least make it out of the house every day and on a particularly beautiful day even managed to burn off all those holiday calories with a walk from Judiciary Square to Arlington - no tryptophan comas here!

As I discovered last time around, the language learning process isn’t a great blog-content generator so I’m glad I have more photos of my house construction. The only major change since my last update (yikes, almost a month ago!) is the addition of (some) of the windows.  While things probably should  be moving a bit quicker it's been hard with me stuck in DC and trying to coordinate between contractors and subcontracts a half dozen states away. I’m not 100% sure what’s next - besides the obvious completion of the window and door insulation. Maybe siding or something a bit more substantial on the roof?  I'm a little nervous because this means that pretty soon yours truly has to put on her grown up pants and make a call on flooring.  Since we anticipate a lot of sand will be tracked in carpet and real wood floors have been ruled out - too much wear and tear.  (Plus I hate vacuuming so carpet wasn't really on my short list.)  I’m still torn between a hardier laminate and tile. I hate cold floors, but tile does sound easy to maintain... And of course there's the whole price issue to consider.

Any and all suggestions would be welcome!

It's crazy how you can look straight through the back windows from this view no?

The kitchen - the framers fixed the window (you can see the before version on my post from last month) so us short folks can finally look out while standing at the sink which was a big relief.  The original plan basically put the window sill right at eye level for me so I'd be standing on tiptoes to see out. 

Dining room - and stairs jutting into the hallway, which is also scheduled to be fixed. 

Second floor porch

Just the view. :) Incidentally - I wonder who has to get all those stickers off the windows since I'm not around? I wish I could be there to participate a little!  In my imagination I would be super helpful on the construction site.

If it was me I think I would have put railings on the deck earlier on - it just seems a bit unnecessarily dangerous with the balconies open, no?

That's it for today folks!

As we say in Portuguese, até logo!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

TWO floors! :)

What?! Two ENTIRE floors?  Time really is flying now.  Honestly I was so excited to see this set of photos that if it was up to me I'd probably just halt construction and go live in the house as-is.  You know, if I didn't have a day job that keeps me here in DC learning Portuguese. (More on that in another post.)

I don't really have much to share other than photos, so enjoy!

This is the master bedroom - the ceiling looks vaulted which I didn't even notice in the plans but it's a nice surprise. 

 Guest bedroom (and since these walls are still pre-drywall you can see behind it the bathroom, stairwell and bunk room).

Sunset from the porch.  :)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Video of the Week

Well, it took less than a week, but I knew it would happen. This past Friday the Girl from Ipanema made her first appearance in the Portuguese classroom.  I'm hoping after three years in Brazil a little bit of this cool rubs off on me - it's only fair right?

First are the Portuguese lyrics, then the English comes in about halfway through.


Saturday, November 4, 2017

First floor - up!

And now for the most exciting part of the house building process so far - driving up to the construction site, climbing a ladder (they'll add the stairs later) and standing ON (in?) MY HOUSE. So awesome!  

I climbed up, turned around and this was the first thing I saw - the view from my dining room. Of course, the stressful part of building the house isn't over quite yet, but at least it finally feels like a payoff is coming.  

Sadly I won't be sharing all the awesome pictures of me and my family pretending to enjoy the house and staring out the windows into the middle distance - so you'll have to use your imagination on those.

Well, really, the whole thing requires some imagination but if you saw my last post with the floor plans, this is the kitchen, facing more towards the left front corner of the house.

And finally - the view from the front hall - kitchen on the left (close to the camera) and living/dining rooms along the back wall. What you can just see off to the right is the bathroom door and just behind it is the study/downstairs bedroom.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The best laid plans

I forgot a step with my last post, so backing up just a bit - this post is just a quick glimpse of the house's floorplan so when you look at the construction pics you'll know what I'm talking about. 

If you want to purchase this plan you can do so through the website of the designer.  

Ok, starting from the top- once we had the lot (and after I’d read the covenants outlining how far back from the edge of the property the house needed to sit) I started searching for house plans that fit.  Though I love architecture I wasn’t quite up for designing my own home -so I left this stage to the professionals.  The below plan came from a rather generic website but it had three big things going for it 1) we knew it was up to code, 2) it was relatively inexpensive, and 3) it was one of very few that fit everything that we needed. The house had to be both very narrow and raised on piles (basically stilts) to avoid the risk of flooding.  We also wanted something that was oriented to take advantage of the views.  In the end what we bought is below.

I included the off-the-shelf version (above) plus the final plans including some modest changes (below) in case you’re curious.  Sorry I couldn’t get a ‘cleaner’ copy  -this is the version the framers are using so it’s pretty detailed.

As you can see, I eliminated the separate living/dining room at the front of the house and moved the kitchen into that space.  That allowed me to put a large dining room where I actually want one - by the ocean. As a bonus that change left space to build a bigger kitchen as well.  Since I love to cook that was a big plus for me - and I’ve never been a big fan of formal vs informal eating areas anyway. Might as well have a nice space that’s so comfortable you can use it every day. We also enlarged the bathroom downstairs so it would have space for a shower. That way when I have a full house that space can function as a guest room.

Second floor

As for upstairs, there were fewer changes. I eliminated the atrium in the entryway - to me it just looked like a bunch of wasted space that would attract dust or spiders or both.  Instead I added a hall closet upstairs - a feature that I’ll need to store all of my personal stuff if I ever rent the house out. And I am adding built-in bunks to one of the rooms upstairs.  The plan is that when my brother and his family return to the States my niece (soon to be joined by a little sibling!) will get to stay there. Oh, and I eliminated the tiny toilet room because I just find those too weird.  No accounting for taste, right?

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Phase 1: Piles! (stilts for houses)

I'll just pick up where I left off a couple weeks ago - once I had permission to start building from the state and the all-powerful HOA the contractors cleared the land and poured these piles.  The piles are required since it's in a flood zone.  And speaking of flood zones, I got a first hand economics lesson this summer about the cost of flood insurance on the coast. Having sweated my way through hurricane season I definitely see why it's necessary, but the initial bill did sort of take my breath away.  (The news from Houston and the Caribbean also drilled home how blessed I am to be able to afford to not only insure my house but construct a stronger home in the first place. I know most of the people hardest hit didn't have that luxury.)

Just a couple pictures of this phase since I wasn't able to get down to FL to see it myself.

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.