Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hola! Me llamo Yessica!

Today was day one of Clase de Español.
And I am so ready for this.

I have been waiting all my life for the year when I could eat, breathe and live Spanish and maybe even feel like I was fluent. Here it is! All this summer I am going to study my little gringa butt off and get ready to cement all the studying with 2 years of living in Guatemala.

John gets 6 months of Spanish class, intensive Spanish for Diplomats, where they teach him how to talk about anthrax, nuclear proliferation and economic policy. At the end of 6 months he has to test out at the 2/2 level (indicating professional proficiency). He’s under a good deal of pressure and from what we’ve heard from the other language students, it’s going to be the hardest 6 months of his life. Thank goodness it’s Spanish and not Mandarin!

This may be the only chance in his OMS career that they’ll give him language training at FSI so he’s savoring it, and is extremely grateful to even have the chance to get paid to learn a language.

As the wife of a Diplomat I was told I could get into his same class as long as there were open seats. No go on the open seats, so I got put in the “FastClass” that lasts 8 weeks. The registrar said if a seat opens up in the longer more intensive class I can try to test into it. Until then I’m learning “survival Spanish” as in how to ask for something at the grocery store, how to order something in a restaurant, and lot’s of “Como esta? Muy bien, y usted? Muy bien, gracias!”
So I need to be studying my materials AND the hubby’s homework to try to keep up. But what else am I doing right now? The Smithsonian etc. can wait until the weekend…

So today when we got home from class I made some guacamole (I was totally CRAVING it for some reason), and then we plugged our little headphones into our laptops, and started pronunciation practice. It’s adorable listening to John pronounce Spanish words! He’s sounding more and more autentico by the minute!

Wish us some buena suerte as we rediscover the full-time student lifestyle.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Living Car-less in DC

And now it's time for a fun little bit of local trivia about The Metro.

I love public transportation. No matter how long it takes, or how many times you have to switch lines, it will ALWAYS be easier than driving and parking in the city.

I've forever fantasized about ditching my car to live in a big city with an awesome public transportation system. I never imagined it would be DC... but here we are in the Virginia suburbs, living the dream.

I've ridden the subway in New York, I've hopped on and off the Metro in Barcelona, and I have to say, the coolest looking, least gritty, and perhaps most expensive Metro system is, by far, the one I'm riding everyday here in DC.

We live out in the 'burbs and our apartment is located a very easy 0.8 mile walk from the East Falls Church Metro stop. If I time it right I can catch a ride on the free hotel shuttle (which only runs in the morning, late afternoon and evening  --  perfect for people commuting to work, but not as great for me in the middle of the day). From the station it takes me 30-45 minutes to get to the Smithsonian stop, and about that same amount of time to get to any other Metro stop in DC, depending on how regular the trains are.

In the morning, paper dudes with bright orange safety vests are handing out copies of the Washington Post Express paper and saying nice things like, "Happy Valentine's Day sweetie; Good morning ma'am; You have a great day now." It's a lovely way to get short snippets of world news and stay in the know on cool happenings in the city.

The trains are pretty nice, as in they have cushioned seats and carpet, yes carpet, that doesn't reek of piss, puke or mildew. How they do this, I do not know. The trains run until midnight during the week and until 3am on Friday and Saturday, so it's not like they're keeping the drunks off. I never see any homeless people sleeping on the trains, and rarely is there anyone riding them who looks like they don't have a job in an office or are rich students with pretty handbags.

There are a couple regular characters on the routes I ride who inject a little adventure into my journey.

One short black dude who I see pretty regularly riding the train and begging, he puts on this super quiet whiny voice and asks, "Excuse me ma'am, am I in any way offending you or causing you distress? I'm asking for your generosity right now and hoping that you can spare a little money to help..." he uses this exact line on everyone. It's pretty annoying.

The other guy is a very tall, loud, black dude who looks like a Black Panther from the '60s and shouts about how homosexuals are violent, scary, and taking over the world.

But seriously, 2 dudes. That's it. The Metro police must be pretty strict and thorough in kicking the trouble makers out.

Plus there's no food or drink allowed. And there's no cell phone reception. Just sit down and ride quietly people, thank you very much.

I kind of miss that gritty side of the subway, but then again, riding a train around in peace is pretty darn nice.
Not that you can let your guard down. There is a rise in pickpockets and phone theft right now, and last week some guy killed himself by jumping on the tracks at the Chinatown station in the middle of rush hour, totally messing up a lot of people's commute home (sounds like that happens a couple times a year, so sad).

Our local friend who lives here told us to enjoy the Metro now, because starting in the spring, the tourists invade and totally screw up the Metro harmony and flow. For example: skinny city dwellers who wear stylish clothes and know how to hold onto the overhead bar when the train starts moving will soon be surrounded by loud, fat, mid-westerners with obnoxious kids who stand up and trip and stumble their way to the door while the train is still moving in preparation to exit. Meanwhile, the tourists waiting to get on the train all crowd in front of the door so no one can get off, instead of standing to the side while people de-train and then smoothly stepping on without panicking because they know they have enough time. And then there's escalator etiquette that everyone follows ensuring a clear path for the folks in a hurry: you stand on the right and pass on the left; no standing on the left gapers!

Look at me! I'm complaining about the gapers already. I must be a local! Now as soon as I stop going to the Smithsonian, I'll really be a local... oh, those crusty locals...

The underground tunnels at the stations look like you're on the set of Star Wars. It's a honeycomb-textured, arched ceiling with red flashing lights on the floor to warn of an arriving train. And that leads me to that little bit of trivial knowledge you were waiting for.

Designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, the station tunnels display late 20th-century modern brutalist style, with repetitive design motifs and lots of exposed concrete. Some don't like the cold, totalitarian feel of it, but that's what you get when the government wants to save some money. I think it's kind of cool and modern looking, and it's unique, so you always know you're on the DC Metro. 

After some infighting about whether to build big freeways or a big railway system of transit, construction began in 1969, and the Metro opened in 1976. Since then they've added to it over the years, giving us a 103-mile, 83-station system. And they're still working on extending it all the way out to the Dulles airport. The Washington Metro system sees the third highest number of riders in the US, behind the New York Subway and Chicago's L Train. In 2012 the Metro averaged 954,200 trips per weekday, but it never feels that crowded to me and I usually even get a seat. New York? 8,093,900 trips per weekday. 

The Orange Line, that's mine!

How much does it cost you might ask? 

I don't really know. It seems expensive, but I suppose I might be breaking even with how much it would cost to drive a car. They have what they call a "Smart Fare" system that has different rates depending on the distance and the time of day you're riding, like are you riding off-peak, during peak, or at the peak of peak. As far as I can tell, the same exact ride can cost me anywhere from $2.10 to $3.10 each way. I have a plastic card, looks like a credit card, I swipe it when I enter the tunnel through the turnstile, and then swipe it again as I'm exiting to get up to the street. When the value on the card dips to $20, I have it set up to auto-reload another $20 onto it. 

I suppose I'll see how much I spend at the end of the month and decide if I should switch to the unlimited, but I doubt I will, the 28-day unlimited pass is $230. Still, all told, anything is cheaper than owning a car, putting gas in it, paying parking tickets, and sitting in crazy DC traffic.

Hope you all get to visit DC someday and ride the Metro! In the meantime, here's a little taste of our world...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Museum Fatigue

Oh man, it's been a busy week. We got our assignment, John got sworn in, John's Mom and her friend were in town visiting, we have some awesome friends who are always up for going out, and DC has a million amazing things to do 365 days a year. So when John said he'd rather stay home today to catch up on laundry, grocery shopping and errands, I have to say I was all for it. Plus it's 30F outside (like every other day here) and I'm tired of under-dressing and freezing my butt off every time I go out. I thought Bend was cold, but with the humidity and wind here, DANG! Somebody please tell me, are my lips purple right now?

Our visitors were little energizer bunnies. I thought I had museum stamena, but these ladies really knew how to put in full days at the museums and other sites in DC. Going from 10am to 5pm closing time and then enjoying a meal with John once he got out of class. I might need a couple days off from museums this week to recover. We kept on reminding ourselves, "we can't see it all..." but we still tried. and even after all that gaper-time I could easily go back to all these museums and spend 3 more days in each of them, and probably still not see it all...

Museums and sites we checked off:
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian US Botanic Garden
US Capitol Building
Library of Congress
Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Old Post Office Building and Clock Tower
The Newseum
The Kennedy Center

All of it was awesome. We saw an Orchids of Latin America exhibition, walked along a catwalk in a giant greenhouse full of jungle, toured the Capitol Building, got all excited to read a Dan Brown novel in the Library of Congress, learned how to play the American Indian game Snowsnake, rode a glass elevator up to the top of the clock tower of the old post office building for the best view in DC since the Washington Monument is closed for repairs, saw gangster guns, the Unibomber cabin and Waco artifacts from the FBI evidence lockers and cried a few tears at the Berlin Wall and 9/11 exhibits at the Newseum, and we saw a free choir performance at the Kennedy Center. Highlights of the week of course were spending some quality time with his Mom and her friend, seeing his sister and her family who drove down for Flag Day, and witnessing John take the oath of office to serve our country.

My partners in crime, I mean tourism, for the week

The first Smithsonian building on the Mall, the Smithsonian Castle

Orchids of Latin America

Giant greenhouse full of jungle

Family portrait on the National Mall

Running up the steps of the Natural History Museum to see some dinosaur fossils, cavemen and crazy taxidermy

 Triceratops fossil

The Old Post Office Pavilion 

View of DC from the top of the clock tower

A lineup of front pages from across the US and around the world in front of the Newseum

A few big chunks of the Berlin Wall at the Newseum

The crumpled antennae from the top of the Twin Towers in front of front page articles from Sept 11

A map of the world showing how "free" the press is in each country. Guatemala is looking "partly free".

John and his classmates taking the oath of office at the Department of State headquarters, so proud of you hubby!!!

Warning: Food Porn Ahead

We went to Jaleo, a Spanish tapas restaurant for a post swearing in celebratory meal and made it just in time for their $20 prix fixe 4-course lunch menu. It was heaven. I will definitely be going back there someday. Chef Jose Andreas is a well-known Spanish chef with restaurants across the US and themes as varied as tapas to Mexican food to food trucks to high end molecular gastronomy. Finally, I found Patatas Bravas stateside that are as good as (well, almost as good as) the Bravas Mags and I indulged in when we were in Barcelona a couple years ago: perfectly crispy fried, sweet hot and spicy with paprika, and covered in sultry rich garlic alioli.

Ensalada rusa: The ultimate Spanish tapa, a salad of potatoes imported conserved tuna and mayonnaise

Ensalada de remolacha con cítricos y queso Valdeón: Red beet salad with Valdeón cheese and citrus

Patatas Bravas: A Jaleo favorite with spicy tomato sauce and alioli

Salmón con pisto manchego: Seared salmon over traditional sautéed vegetables

Flan al estilo tradicional de mamá Marisa con espuma de crema Catalana: A classic Spanish custard with 'espuma' of Catalan cream and oranges

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Flag Day!

Today was the day.

Flag Day.

Those two words can inspire both jubilation and horror. They can mean getting your dream post in Rio de Janiero, or putting on a happy face when you find out your husband is going to Dirka-dirka-stan for two years and he's taking you with him (for the record, Rio is only one of about 25 current dream posts, and I would absolutely LOVE to go to The Stan Any Stan with hubby).

Or at least that's what everyone told us.

Every single one of our posts on our list was an exciting possibility, some were amazing places that we would willingly pay money vacation in, and none of them would have induced tears, by a long shot. To illustrate the difficulty of deciding just how to rank our list: our number one pick was Ukraine, and number two was Nepal. Yeah, quite the choices.

The ceremony was scheduled for the afternoon. While Johnny was chewing his pen, tapping his toes, and bouncing in his chair along with his other highly unfocused classmates, I spent the morning on the National Mall with his mom, her friend, his sister, and her fiance and his son, looking at fossils and creative taxidermy for a few hours. The gorgeous sunny day and a little family time took my mind off the afternoon's impending events quite nicely. 

After the museum I Metroed it back to the apartment where I met up with another wife and we headed over to the auditorium to meet up with the fam again.

For the roughly 60 new hires in John's class there were about 75 guests there to cheer them on and the anticipation in the room was palpable  --  not a dry palm to be found.

The three speakers praised the quality and the caliber of the class, told a couple poignant stories, and made a few jokes about receiving our sentences, and then almost faster than we were ready for, the first flag was projected up on the screen, the first name was read and everyone was clapping.

As my memory recalls, John was like the 10th person to get called and only the second OMS in his group of 10 to get called, so we really didn't have any guessing or mental tracking to do. Boom. There was his flag and that was definitely his name. And then I found myself cheering and fist pumping fumbling with my camera while his sister was expertly snapping away photos beside me and I was watching his face to try to see if he was genuinely stoked or just pretending to be genuinely stoked. It took me about a second to tell he was for real, and then I felt this huge flood of relief and joy to be going to.....

Guatemala City, Guatemala!!!

That's right folks! Central America!

Which also means we'll be in DC all summer learning Spanish.

We'll be in an amazing country with culture, mountains, beaches, cheap food, awesome weather, wonderful people, and we're at a spot that's both close to the US, and could be a good hub for flights to Central and South America. And they speak Spanish there which means I'll be fluent very very soon after working at it my whole life.

After the ceremony we all headed down to Cafe Asia for some happy hour drinks and snacks so we could high five and chatter about how excited we were to finally have our fates decided.

While there weren't any tears, there were definitely one or two shocked specialists who needed some pep talks, luckily one of the perks of being in this particular crowd was that there were one or two people who had already lived at those hardship posts and had plenty of great things to say about them.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Breath of Fresh Air

I didn't even realize I was feeling drained by living in the city until I spent the day in the country. While it's been fun to dress up, to eat out, and to get some quality culture in, I really am a country mouse.

Today I joined a new friend whom John and I met 2 weeks ago when we rented one of her rooms through AirBnB on our first night in Virginia. She's a really neat lady, a local psychologist with 5 dogs and 4 horses. She runs her own practice and teaches at a university during the week, and on the weekends she drives an hour outside of town to visit her horses. I offered to go along with her if she ever wanted a riding buddy and she brought me along this weekend. I was thrilled to hop in the car and see a few ranches (equestrian properties?), farms, trees, quaint pre-revolution towns, and rich-people-mansions with amazing views.

On the way to the barn we stopped at a small-scale chicken house and bought a few dozen free range eggs of various colors and sizes. We also stopped at an adorable farm market / coffee house bakery and I picked out a few locally grown baby potatoes and semi-local jersey cow yogurt.

Her horses: Jokster, Nutmeg, Bird and Huck.

Her two grown kids and little granddaughter were there too so we each got a horse to groom, feed carrots too, scratch, love, and ride. There were even a few old red hens roaming around, all named Francis. One of the feathered cuties ran right up to me, didn't object to being picked up, and snuggled down into my arms clucking contentedly for a few minutes. (Johnny promised me I could get chickens at post, and I can't wait! We'll see how that works out...)

The sun was out and a frosty wind was blowing, thankfully I had pulled on my long underwear before leaving the apartment. (huh, I just realized this is the first apartment I've ever lived in, about time). The pastures were all still frozen when we got there, allowing for easier walking than in ankle-deep mud if the day had been warmer. The horses evidently had no problem finding some mud to roll in though as they were crusty and caked with it.

After lots of scrubbing, brushing and picking they were looking much better and were ready to stretch their legs on a mellow hour-long walk in the adjacent empty pastures surrounding the barn they're boarded at.

It was great. I think the last time I spent the day with a horse was in Nicaragua on a jungle ride, about 7 years ago. But Huck was a really sweet little Arabian with a nice walk, good manners, and a lovely trot. After an hour I felt my rhythm come back and think I was able to figure out Huck's style, at least he didn't seem too annoyed with me.

The dogs found some good horse poo to roll in and holes to sniff around. A big flock of honking geese flew overhead and a hawk swooped down into the meadow to grab a furry snack. Once the horses were de-saddled and put away, I looked down and realized my fingernails were dirty, my boots were caked with mud, I was covered in dust and smelled like hay and horses. Heaven. I haven't gotten dirty in quite a while and I look forward to blowing my nose tonight.

On the way home in the car with a warm little pooch snoozing on my lap I felt absolutely recharged. I felt grounded, I felt like myself again. What a difference a little time in the sticks makes.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Oh China...

I have a secret confession to make: I really want to go to China.

For a few years I avoided buying anything that was made in China because of their horrible human rights violations and because I hated the idea of supporting the country that will in all likelihood start World War III.

But I am so fascinated by China! I want to go to their temples, I want to do a long distance trek on the Great Wall, I want to see adorable children eating chicken feet soup and bugs on a stick. I love to hate them, I love to love them, I love it when their corrupt government officials say crazy things and assume that the rest of the world will gobble up their propaganda just like their own beaten-down people do. And I love it when the government has a tizzy fit when anyone dares to question them. Of course this is a serious matter and is nothing to joke about, but sometimes when things are that awful, it makes sense to laugh just a little.

Change will come, sooner or later, for better or worse. And like wanting to see the old Cuba, I really want to see China in all its glory and polluted horribleness before it changes so I can  help it move along and truly celebrate it when it happens.

Last week I visited the "Ai Weiwei: According To What?" exhibition at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum of Contemporary Art. It was incredible. And it made me even more intrigued.

Oh Ai Weiwei... so lovable! Why must China be so mean to him?

Ai Weiwei is the Chinese artist/visionary/prankster/dissident who went from the "darling" who helped design and build their Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium to a "person of suspicious intent" who finally did enough to piss off the government and earned himself a place on the "Not Allowed To Leave China" list. He gets hassled all the time, is under constant surveillance, and still continues to produce amazing pieces. His work is fascinating and seems to make the communists VERY uncomfortable. My favorite recent stunt he pulled was to voluntarily put up a camera in his own house to broadcast himself on the internet to protest the Chinese government's 24-hour surveillance of  his activites. Oh they hated that so much! Nice work Ai Weiwei.

He loves to take ordinary items and turn them into art, he questions the preciousness and value of ancient artifacts and newer consumer-driven pop culture, and he's constantly playing with the boundaries of art and activism.

Without further adieu, here are a few of my favorites from the exhibition:

Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, installed outside 

Beijing's 2008 Olympic Stadium in photos plastered all over floor, ceiling and walls 

 Ancient wooden stools turned into a sculpture called, "Grapes"

 Teahouses made out of compressed tea leaves (it smelled amazing!)

 Huge wooden boxes made out of chests and lined up to represent the phases of the moon when you peer through the holes in the center

 Dropping an ancient vase

 River Crabs description

 River Crabs sculpture

 Rebar salvaged from the Sichuan earthquake rubble, straightened and arranged as a reminder of the corruption that allowed shoddy construction to go forward and ultimately cost thousands of people their lives when the buildings collapsed. The 2008 earthquake happened in the Sichuan province of China, and killed an estimated 68,000 people.

 Serpent on the ceiling made from kids' backpacks, dedicated to the 5,000 school kids that died in the earthquake

Light Cube - a huge box made with strings of amber crystals lit from behind

The Hirshhorn Museum itself was super cool too and had some other neat exhibitions and installations.

Eastern Market Blue Bucks And How To Avoid Nuclear War

Have we been here for two weeks already?!
Everything still feels so new and I've barely even scratched the surface of the Smithsonian! And now this Tuesday we get our post assignment and depending on where it is and what the start date is, my comfy little "do anything I want" routine is about to change. You see, right now there is really nothing I can do to prepare or research where we'll be moving, I can't attend any workshops until we get our assignment, I can't start learning any languages or writting to people at post or looking for a job at post until we get that assignment. Which is a blessing right now because it leaves me free to be a professional tourist and social secretary for John!

Last weekend I drug a reluctant John over to DC to see the sights finally. He was so busy with class and homework last week he had no free time and barely enough time to even sleep.
So we went with a friend from his class and took the Metro over to Eastern Market for some farmers market fun and blueberry buckwheat pancakes (Blue Bucks) for breakfast. Those other goodies on my tray? Green chile cheese grits and fried green tomatoes. We ate our breakfast at a long communal table and discussed the amazing deliciousness of real maple syrup with our neighbors.

Most of the market was inside, which was good for the produce stands since outside temps were below freezing. There was a really good jazz band playing. We also perused the other vendor tables including a few flea market sellers, artisan crafts, soap, clothes, jewelry, paintings, photographs, handmade wooden toys and other cool stuff.

After breakfast our friend lugged 20 pounds of produce back to the Oakwood and John and I froze our butts off in line for the National Archives Cuban Missile Crisis exhibition. It was a super interesting collection of newly declassified recordings, video footage and documents from the 10 day period when Kennedy (who was looking to avoid war at all cost) and his team of advisers (who all wanted to bomb Cuba and piss off Russia) narrowly avoided a nuclear war. I had known a little bit about it before but learning about all the detailed letters and discussions going on behind closed doors showed that the stand off very easily could have turned into an all-out nuclear war with the communists.