Great American Western Road Trip: Summer 2018

4 weeks, 3 kids, 1 van, 16 different lodgings, 5400+ miles, 12+ National or State Parks and Monuments adds up to 1 Epic Adventure.

American Southwest Family Vacation 2017

We followed historic Route 66 on our way to see the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert, plus much more in New Mexico and Arizona.

End of Tour Summary: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Here are our stories from two and a half years of living in Saudi Arabia while exploring the region.

Excursions to Oman

On two different trips, we strolled Muscat, hiked Wadi Shab, and sailed a dhow through the fjords of Musandam.

Our Expedition to Jordan

Highlights included tracing the steps of Indiana Jones into Petra, following Lawrence of Arabia into Wadi Rum, and floating in the Dead Sea.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Places, 2013

So, these are the countries that I visited for the first time in 2013:
Bringing me up to: ?? countries. Not that I'm counting...I probably should though.

And here's the Frequent Flier status I earned this year, which I mention only for kicks (because frequent flyer status doesn't really get you much these days):
OneWorld Status: Ruby
Star Alliance Status: Silver
Sky Team Status: Elite

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Zoo Lights at the National Zoo

During Christmas time at the National Zoo, the whole place is lit up with all sorts of lights. And it's free! I had wondered if the noctural animals have any issues, but we actually didn't see any animals outside (other than the three two-legged ones we were herding). But you know what we did see? Lego Ginger bread men!


A United States Botanical Gardens Christmas

I'm expecting to see more than Christmas trees during our tour of the United States Botanical Gardens. But to start things off right, we had lunch at the Mitsitam Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian (a sampler platter of buffalo, salmon, and Brussels sprouts). Yum.

The USBG has an exhibit with trains & World's Fair structures crafted out of organic material that you have to see to believe.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mount Vernon Night Tour

As a seasonal event, George Washington's Mount Vernon does a "Mount Vernon by Candlelight" program. Of course, candlelight is not good for picture taking, but here are my attempts.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Touring DC - White House & Pentagon

We got up really early to drive into downtown DC. Which most people don't do unless they live there because there's almost no parking. So we used the app from that was close and cheap (enough, at least by local standards). The tour starts at 0730, and we had to be there 15 minutes early, but the garages around here open at 7am. The White House tour website said not to bring anything except wallets, phones (which you can't use), keys, and umbrellas. Well, we got there and it's decorated for Christmas, and they let us take pics. But since we obeyed the website and only had smartphone cameras, the quality of the pictures in the rooms with multiple light sources are okay but could have been better. Also, wrangling two kids made it difficult to pause long enough to get something that wasn't slightly blurred. Kacey saw Sammy the dog on the lawn, but she was carrying our little one, so she didn't get a picture. To finish the tour, there was even a choir singing at the exit!


Saturday, December 14, 2013

48 Hours in NYC - The Second Day

The primary reason we came to NYC this weekend was for our 4-yr-old to see the Broadway production of Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella. I wish that we were allowed to take video inside the theatre so that I could have captured her response to the pumpkin transformation. She was on the edge of her booster seat, leaning on the handrail in front of her, completely mesmerized by the action on the stage. Then the pumpkin transformed into a carriage like a flower bursting into bloom, and Cori was blown back in surprise like she'd been hit by a fairytale shockwave. That in itself was worth the trip. After the show, she said "That was much better than the movie" which is saying something...Cinderella is her favorite movie.

After the show, we went back to the hotel to change and get the little one. We then suited up for more snow and headed down to 34th street to see Macy's window displays. The kids were totally enamored by them. Oh, and in case you were wondering: You can get a black Santa by request.

Notice our snow-encrusted POD stroller dominating the weather


Friday, December 13, 2013

48 Hours in NYC - The First Day

We Drove up from DC on friday. Traffic wasn't bad, but there were a lot of tolls. In some cases, it seemed like you paid a toll after crossing a bridge only to pay to go thru a tunnel before the next exit. Still not as bad as tolls to drive across France or that $600 parking ticket in Amsterdam. That said, it took an hour between entering the line for the Holland tunnel to the hotel in midtown because we hit it right as rush hour was begining.

After checking in to the hotel, we strolled down to Times Square, past Radio City Music Hall, then on to Rockefeller Center.
Not impressed. Golf clap.

RRR at Times Square

You should have seen the tree they fell off of...

RRR outside Radio City Music Hall

Ice Skaters at Rock Center
Dinner at TGIF was over-priced, but I ended up getting a margarita and the sampler platter. I split the drink with the wife and the meal with the kids. Not because I'm cheap, just because there really isn't anything that good on the menu. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in to a Tim Horton's that was staffed by one person who was also working the entire Nathan's hot dog counter. Not ideal.

Went back to the hotel and crashed for the night. Woke up for pancakes and discovered that it was also snowing. That works perfectly for us to see Central Park as a winter wonderland.
"Coat Sledding" down some snow-covered rocks

It's Little Red Riding Hood!
Alice in Wonderland Statue

We had to hustle a bit on the way back to the hotel to get the little one settled down for her nap and to be there when the sitter arrived. Thanks to Facebook, we were able to find a friend of mine in town with a caregiver they weren't using that day. If it weren't for her, the primary reason we made the trip would have been compromised.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Another long flight home

Woke ~6am for breakfast, ran into my host (who I said goodbye to last night at the KFC dinner), had breakfast with him. Said goodbye, again. Ended up sharing the elevator with him. Said goodbye, again? Went to room to get bags, checked out and ran into him yet again leaving the hotel... where I said goodbye a fourth and final time (he's not going to the airport that I know of).

I arrived at the airport around 0720, and made it through two security checkpoints, picked up my boarding pass between them, and was at the gate 7 minutes later. The metal detector right at the street door made it very crowded, but the one before gate wasn't really. There are only two gates, A and B, on either side of the check-in counters. Small airport. But, while walking out to the plane, I could just make out the snow-capped Taurus mountains looming in the distance. They are bigger and closer than I thought, but it's odd that I hadn't noticed them until just now.

The flight itself was easy, staying awake proved more challenging, as I was up until 2 am local attempting to prime my body clock for the 7-hr time change. I probably fell asleep a few times, waking only as the beverage/snack cart came by. I always seem to regain consciousness just as the flight attendant is finished serving the row before mine. While I was still a little sleepy as we disembarked, I couldn't help but feel folks around me were being unnecessarily pushy.

I had to walk the length of the Istanbul international departures area as domestic transfers come from one side (the right, if you're facing passport control) and my "not-codeshared-with-Turkish-Airways" check-in counter is all the way on the other (left) side. After passing through security, I grabbed lunch in the food court, a döner durum, but it wasn't as good as others I've had (or for that matter, the inflated airport price either).  While walking around the terminal, I passed a yellow TravelersBox kiosk that would convert my money (from Turkish lira) and deposit into my PayPal acct (in USD). I'm interested in trying it, just wanted to understand their fee structure first. I went so far as to give them my email address, then got an email from their customer service team asking me why I didn't actually use the service.

During the flight from IST to LHR, the pilot came on to say "we'd like to apologize for the length of the flight, but we are flying into a rather strong headwind. It's a 180 mph headwind, so we are effectively going 180 miles per hour slower, every hour." So, yeah, there goes any free time at LHR.
We landed at 4, and the gates for my DC flight are closing at 4:45. I used the fast pass lanes, ran into a coworker returning from Helsinki (I think) after our Copenhagen meeting earlier in the week. Made it to the gate two train stops away with only minutes to spare, but along the way, I did see a cool mirrored art installation in Terminal 5 outside the lounges...which I found only after missing my turn for the train. On the plane, I settled in to my seat to watch Simon Pegg's The World's End, which was pretty hilarious. OK, so the epilogue was a bit flat and , but I guess the movie needed it. Excepting that one bit, I don't know that he's made a movie that's less than hilarious. 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Dusting things up in Turkey

Walked around site, perhaps my first while people were actively doing "real" construction as opposed to finish work. watched them pour some concrete, nearly run over a worker crouching out of view of the driver, attempting to dig a hole without shoring (to prevent cave-in). It seems like obvious stuff, but it's mostly just keeping folks from cutting corners.Or getting run over by dump trucks. You know, the usual.

We ordered lunch through the post staff, and ate in the dining room. Somebody told me that it wasn't real Turkish food because there were "no flies," which was kind of awkward. A few emails and more face-to-face chats to get a better picture of things than I can sitting in DC, followed by a cab ride to the mall.
Do you want to take the car or the horse to the mall?
We had dinner at "Kenturkeyfried chicken." It's really a KFC, but I thought that nickname was funny. There seem to be around two to three dozen restaurants in the food court, but our contractors apparently only eat a select few and those are predominantly American chains. Normally, I'd eschew these places in favor of something more local, but one of the guys in our group ate at KFC so much that the staff treated him like was Col Sanders and shook his hand. And I wanted to see that. Apparently, and even funnier, when he didn't eat there (like the days he cheated on them in plain view at McDonald's), they sent a coffee over to him. Oh, and there were flies on the KFC. Go figure.

After dinner, I bought Turkish delights at another store in the mall and spent the next two hours in the executive lounge at the hotel drinking wine, talking business, and telling life stories. Overall, not too bad a day.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Denmark to Turkey

Boarded the Turkish airlines flight to Istanbul. The flight attendants were handing out Turkish delights before take off. Sweet. Literally. Before i left dc, My 4 yr old demanded that i bring TDs back with me. Hopefully, she's learning geography along with gastronomy. The inflight meal included Turkish wine...very dry white. And the inflight movie, for the whole ac was Elysium...again. but this version censored some of the most graphic scenes, which kind of muddled the vignettes. But I was kind of glad they didn't play the scenes where they cut into matt Damon to install the exosuit while I was eating my stay chicken. I'd still recommend the unedited version (for age appropriate viewing, of course). 

Landed in Istanbul without incident. Made my way to the visa line, which was empty. Last time I went through (link), the entire serpentine was full. This time, I walked straight up to the counter. After getting the visa, I doubled back to the ATM across from customs, but it was out of order. Since I remembered the immigration line for  Diplomatic/Crew was all the way to the right (counter number 31 I think), I blew through customs and found a whole bank of bank ATMs between the international and domestic terminal. So, with cash in hand for the taxi at the other end of my next leg, I could relax for about an hour before we board. Overall, this transfer through IST has been orders of magnitude easier than the (link) last time. I'll grant that some of it was due to prior knowledge, but mostly it's because I don't feel herded by an over-anxious colleague. 

Dinner was airport "gourmet " pizza and Cappy karışık (mixed fruit) drink around the corner from my gate (which is adjacent to a Starbucks). Irony: a world famous coffee shop sells watered down / highly sweetened coffee in a place renown for strong Turkish coffee. Less ironic, but more than a little sad: the toy store in the terminal has a pink "girls" aisle chock full of blond haired, fair skinned Barbie's but only one doll that looks like most of the girls and women around here who have dark hair and olive complexions. And that doll is a fairy.

These don't really look like the Turkish girls that they're being marketed to.


Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Copenhagen in December

It started with a traditional Danish breakfast - strawberry yogurt/bacon/sausage/egg/danishes and lots of coffee. I spent the morning in an orientation meeting for one project that included guided tours of the mechanical rooms, so I was squeezing by/between actively spinning machinery while simultaneously imagining that my surroundings would make a good movie setting (claustrophobic, utilitarian, industrial). You know, where the bad guys ultimately meet their demise. 

After the "tour", we went to Halifax burger for lunch. It was a good meal before getting down discussing bonds. Contractual bonds. That sounded more 007 in my head that it probably did to you. Specifically, I got to learn a good deal about performance and payment bonds. What are those? Well, in short, a company gets these bonds from a bank to guarantee to us that--should the contractor fail to deliver on their end of the contract--the costs we incur are covered (to an extent). Anyways, we ran into problems with a Danish contractor and were forced to demand the bond payment. Normally, that's not that complicated. However, we had a contract governed by American contract law (for work in Denmark) with a Danish contractor who employed subcontractors according to Danish law. We had two contractual bond requirements, one of them covers us from the bankruptcy of the prime contractor and the other covers the subcontractors so that they get paid for the work they did. Anyways, the meeting lasted until almost 6pm. 

So, on the way back to the hotel, we unwound at Bistro Boheme with a glass or two of Riesling. Nice. After a quick stop at the hotel to drop my work stuff and pick up my camera, I headed down to the Strøget walkplatz. It's all decorated for Christmas:
A curtain of light

Massive ornaments

Funny how Christmas decorations can make a street look like the Red Light District.

So many naughty puns for this picture...

RRR at the Christmas Market

Holiday hearts

Christmas, merry you should have.

The following morning I slept in, followed by a large breakfast. Finally left hotel at 1015. Walked to metro, only to realize that it takes coins and chipped cards only. One day, Denmark, I will have the right combination of financial tools to buy a metro ticket from your kiosks! But not today. I changed a bill at the magasin convenience store to get a ticket to the airport. Arrived at 1045 and did the auto check in. Interestingly, 1) the kiosk said my flight was at 1130, but boarding pass said correct time of 1230. Unnecessary stress. 2) couldn't select exit rows at kiosk, but was able to switch at gate. Stress relieved.

Also, when the little mermaid travels, she apparently takes rocks as carry-on. Presumably, they are over the weight limit for checked baggage.
The Little Mermaid at Copenhagen Airport


Monday, December 02, 2013

More time at LHR

So, like much of America, I took some time off for Thanksgiving with family. Unfortunately, the demands of my job had me flying out of DC on the Sunday night after Turkey Day...meaning that our 14+ hour drive back from Florida would be increased due to all the other holiday traffic. Originally planning to leave Florida on Friday and get home on Saturday, our little one had a bad night and we stayed in town another day to let her bug pass while making sure we weren't going to be on a road trip with a vomiting kid in a car seat. But that basically meant that I'd be getting home, changing clothes and hoping in a cab to the airport. The only thing that made it possible was that I'd pre-packed before leaving for the holidays.

My flight out was one of the latest ones I could schedule, just in case we needed more time due to traffic on the drive home. Seriously, DO NOT DRIVE I-95 THE WEEKEND AFTER THANKSGIVING. There were like 5 accidents between Richmond and DC. So we took US-1 and avoided much of the delay. After executing my turn-and-burn plan, the cabbie picked me up and it was actually a quick ride to Dulles while discussing the politics of Ghana (his homeland) with him. The check-in line was ridiculously long and immobile. I got there 2.5-3 hours before my flight, and while standing in the line to check in, found it easy to download the app, only discover that code-share flights are a pain to check in on a phone. And the line still hadn't moved. But having now checked in, I just walked up to the priority desk (thanks to my recent Oneworld status upgrade) and asked them to print my boarding passes for me. And, since it's a code share flight operated by a foreign carrier, I couldn't use the TSA-PreCheck to get through security. But still, after all that potential for delay, I made it to the gate in about an hour. A little while later, I heard folks talking that it was taking ~15 minutes per person on the On-line check-in queue. So much for fast and convenient.

One of the first things I do when I'm booking a flight is check to see whether or not I can get a see with a power outlet (many seats on international flight have one). And, lo and behold, this British Airways jet does have a power outlet under my seat. For a British plug. Seriously? What good is that to anyone? Especially someone like me that didn't find it necessary to bring the bulkiest adapter ever along with the slimmer two-prong Euro plugs?
On the left: What the outlet wanted me to plug in.
On the right: What I had to plug in.
So discouraging was this discovery, I put my charger back in my jacket pocket and stored it in the overhead. Only to realize after take off that there was also a USB port in the back of the seat in front of me (just below the LCD screen) that my adapter would connect to. But by then, it was too late to get out the charger and I'd already gotten hooked by the movie I'd started watching --Elysium. However, this flight over was the first in recent memory that I was able to fall asleep after watching a movie and a few episodes of Modern Family. Don't get me wrong, it was a pretty good movie, and it kept my interest throughout as I wasn't sure what was going to happen. But I do think that the space station reboot should have also interrupted whatever atmospheric retention system there was (but the design engineers probably had included back-up generators for just such a contingency)...

Anyways, my slumber was likely induced by the double-whiskey I'd had to try and kill whatever cold or flu seems to be gaining ground in my throat. I also tried to burn it out with the curry chicken dinner on the plane and the firecracker chicken at Wagamama in Heathrow's Terminal 5. Both were good, but I'm actually looking forward to my return connection through LHR on the way home to try some more dishes at Wagamama.

Nothing really eventful from LHR to CPH, but my hotel room is ridiculously drafty. It was an "upgrade" with floor-to-ceiling glass doors looking out on the harbour, but the Scandinavian winter is clever about getting through the floor-to-ceiling door hinges. Brrrr.

What is this, a greenhouseboat?


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

One of those days...

I took advantage of the "comp time for travel" policy that exists for folks like me who have to lose a weekend to be in place for a monday morning meeting and made a 5-day weekend out of Veteran's Day weekend. So, Wednesday was my first day back in the office. I thought I'd get ahead of the back-in-office tasks by getting in a little early. I thought wrong.

Things started to unravel just before I left the house, when a button on my suit jacket fell off when I looked at it. Easy fix, but still, kind of a bummer. I left the house early enough to have a few minutes to wait for the bus in the 34F weather. Long enough to appreciate the fact that my bus stop has a weather shelter and isn't just a pole with a sign mounted to it that tells the bus "stop here." The bus came on time, then got stuck in traffic. I mean "La Brea tar pits" stuck in DC traffic that would make purgatory seem like a good day at the DMV. I'm not sure where I was going with that, because I'm not sure which is worse, but you get the drift. So, after 60 minutes sitting on the bus to go less than 2 miles, we made it to the metro station.

As I stood up to exit the bus, a button on my peacoat popped off. Now, this particular button has been hanging on for months, but I respect its finely honed sense of comic timing to choose today of all days to finally release its tenuous grip on my jacket. Scooping up its mortal remains and unceremoniously dumping them into a pocket with the other button to get resewn at a later time, I stepped out of the bus door. Bus doors, which--in moment of undoubtedly divine intervention--decided to close on me. Hard. Fortunately, the remaining buttons on the coat held it together as I muscled my way through and made my way up to the metro platform.

And, as luck would have it, my train was just pulling into the station and I boarded without incident.
The moral, if there is one, is that it's better to be sitting on a bus that's stuck in traffic than to be waiting for one in the cold. Also, proper button maintenance is important.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Marine Corps Marathon - 10K

Ok, so today's plan was to ride my bike to the metro so that I can run the Marine Corps 10k that finishes near my office, where I'll change then catch the metro to another stop near the interstate where Kacey will pick me up and we drive to Maryland for dim sum with friends at 11. What's complicated about that?

First change of plans was that I wasn't able to sneak out of the house at 0530 as the kids were all up then, so we just loaded into the car to drop me off at the metro. I have never seen the metro that crowded that early on a sunday morning (but I don't usually ride it that early, either). Standing room only until the Pentagon station. Which was packed. The 10K starts at the Smithsonian/Natural history museum, so anyone who didn't get off at pentagon was headed there with me.

Considering how complicated my original plan was, it's probably not surprising that I would forget actually training for the 6.25-mile run. I'd originally signed up to motivate myself to train for it. That kinda back-fired and I'm running it because I paid the admission fee. It was kind of chilly, waiting around in the clear, dark, 40+ F air but I'd previously run in similar conditions so I was dressed for it.

Unfortunately, I think I strained a muscle during my warm-ups, as if I needed another excuse to take it easy
Of course, the whole "no one left behind" plus Marines cheering you on means that you have to be very strategic about where you take your breaks. My strategy was to run 3 x 2-mile sections, and every mile I would pop one of those gatorade jelly cubes to keep my mind occupied.

So yeah, I got passed by an amputee running with his guide dog about a mile to go, then in the last quarter-mile, the first two wheelchair competitors from the full marathon passed me. I'm not taking anything away from those guys, but I should probably train a little more for the next one.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

London Layover

I arrived in London around 1 pm and got the discount day ticket £8.90 for the Underground. Sooo much cheaper than a cab, and provides flexibility and convenience. I later realized that my flight out requires me to be on one of the first trains, as the trains start running later on Sundays. But I still might get to eat the included hotel breakfast and still get there with plenty of time. So, interestingly, if you have a layover longer than 12 hours in LHR, you have to claim your bags. Which totally makes sense, but I'd packed what I needed in my backpack, just in case I could leave it there.

After checking into the hotel, I made contact with an old friend and subsequent dinner plans with her, her new husband, and a family friend of hers.  In the meantime,  I went to Harrods, looking for some Galler chocolate. A few other Belgian brands, but no Galler. Followed that up with a walk around Green Park until dinner. Saw the Canadian WWII monument and the British airmen memorials.
Canadian WWII monument in Green Park, London

British Airmen Memorial, Green Park, London 

Fighters vs. Bombers
When our dinner party had assembled, we walked thru Picadilly Circus, grabbing a pint at what appeared to be a metal bar, then on our way to the Imli Street restaurant for some Indian food served tapas style. Which worked really well, lots of good stuff but not too much of anything. Try it if you're in town. Followed that up with some gelato at Snowflake Gelato? Also good. Walked back to hotel after a good night of catching up.

Finally slept somewhat well. Made it to breakfast around 0635. Grabbed a table by the window, only to notice that two iconic British cars (a Mini and black cab) were parked across the street. English breakfast, of course. Checked out of hotel and walked to the underground. The off-peak fare to the airport from downtown is ~£5.50, and it appears that I might have missed the first train to Heathrow, but the next one follows about 15 minutes behind this time of day. Otherwise, pretty much uneventful travels home.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival

When you hear the phrase "Mullet Festival", what image comes to mind? I went Saturday night, because "Sunday is Family Day (that means no beer)." Admission was only $5, but "Unmarried children under 12 still get in free." Ok, that's all true, but the event is actually to celebrate the mullet, even though I think we all know that it was really for mullets.

Reliving Vienna

Oh, hey, would you look at that...The federal government is open. So my meeting in Vienna is on! However, due to funding constraints, the meeting was delayed by a day so the team did some more preparation and met with interested parties.

After the prep meeting, I went back to the hotel to change and then I walked over to Cafe Sacher for a Weiner melange and Sacher Torte. Along the way to the cafe, I heard (but didn't see) a drum group performance, followed shortly afterwards by what I'd swear was an opera singer letting loose while traffic buzzed around her. Her voice echoed from somewhere I couldn't identify, like she was around the corner of one of the majestic buildings that seem to be commonplace here.  

Anyways, I'd picked Thursday instead of Friday for the torte because I thought the line would be shorter. And it wasn't so bad. Since I was alone, they seated me fairly quickly at the bar. For some reason, I'd remembered the torte as really dense and almost nonporous. This time around, it seemed a little dry. But that was just the cake part. The chocolate icing was probably what i'd remembered, and it was still as rich as i'd expected it to be. Here's a recipe for Sacher Torte.

And while i'm making a conscious effort to slow down and "just be in the moment", the best I can manage is to eat a forkful of torte, then type a sentence of this update into the notes app on my phone that I dare not let connect to the internet while in international data roaming mode. Then I take a sip of coffee. And repeat. Yeah, that counted as a sentence just so I could have another bite sooner. Pausing to collect my thoughts, I'm tuning in on the music. I realize it's U2's Running to Stand Still somewhere between the lyrics "Talk without speaking / scream without raising your voice" and "she is raging / she is raging / the storm blows up in her eyes." That song was followed by some hip loungy stuff that I'd never be able to pick out of a playlist.

On the wandering up Kärntner Straße towards the St. Stephen's Cathedral, I heard an accordionist playing hava nagila. Check it out:

Followed shortly after by a TARDIS sighting here:

It's much bigger on the inside than it looks.
Made my way up to the cathedral and then headed back to my hotel. Along the way, I grabbed a bratwurst in a baguette and an Orange Fanta. They just taste better in Europe. Then I also picked up some "erdbeer and himbeer gelles" along with some Mezzo Mix and a big, yet cheap (0.99 euro) bag of Haribo gummi bears. I'm totally reliving my previous time in Europe with all this food. 

So, I figured that I might as well hit Schnitzelwirt (Neubaugasse 52) for my last dinner in town. The last time I was there, on my solo trip to Vienna back in 2002, they were advertising Schnitzel the size of UFOs. And they are still big. Along my walk, I'd stopped into about three bike shops to see if any of them carried this new-fangled smartphone mount for bicycle handlebars, called the Finn bike mount, even though it's made in Austria (not Finland). No luck, and apparently at this time you can only order it if you have a European delivery address. Boo.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Even though the Federal Government is shutdown, the State Dept is still able to use previous funding to support some of its missions (which highlights the understandably frustrating inconsistency in the federal government as to what activities are essential). Lucky for me, at least two of my projects fall into a/the "supportable" category, so I was authorized to travel (even though it's entirely possible that I get furloughed while TDY, and then who knows how that would all work out).

My first stop is Vilnius, Lithuania. But to get there, I had to leave on Sunday, meaning that I would actually be working on Columbus Day, a Federal holiday, during a time when the federal government is partially shut down. Situations about government ridiculousness like this is probably why Parks and Recreation is the first thing I look for on the in-flight entertainment. If there's more than one episode, it will be a good flight. And this flight had 3 episodes.

As it turns out, I can't drink coffee while watching Louis C.K. For example, this "compressed area of bad thought" in "Oh My God"I had just sipped some coffee out of one of those little Styrofoam cups as he launched into it. I know it's so wrong on so many levels, but I couldn't swallow because i was smiling, and I couldn't stop smiling because i was trying not to laugh, and I was trying not to laugh at how ridiculous it was that i was in this situation because i was listening to a guy describing such an awful turn in logic.

Arriving in Vilnius, I finally got out into the city just before sundown. I walked down Gedimino Prospecktas, which was lined with trees at the height of fall colors, the golden leaves shining like stars beside the streetlamps. 

It seemed almost like a movie scene: a clean boulevard that was just busy enough to not be distracting as the camera follows some romantic comedy couple. 

Dinner was at Kompanija (Gedimino Pr 31). A pancake with ham served with butter and creme, a delicious lamb stew, 0.5l of Pilsner Urquell, and some sort of fried ice cream balls with berry compote.

Also, the old white buildings blend in to the overcast sky, so that gold plating really gleamed. Vilnius feels very much like what I think many Americans imagine a European city to be. The streets were mostly paved with bricks, the old buildings ranged from modern to soviet-era and much much earlier.

Everywhere you look, there were slender people in dark clothes that look like extras on their way to film a elf scene in Lord of the Rings. 

One of the folks I met with told me that Lithuania translates to "land of rain", which would be apt as there was some form of precipitation(fog, rain, drizzle, mist) almost the entire time. But i like that kind of weather.There were also lots of electric trolleybuses that I think look like they could be left over from Soviet times, kind of neat. I didn't ride on any, but maybe next time. Actually, considering it was overcast and gloomy most of the time, I'd have to imagine that living here before independence would have been a bit depressing.

Anyways, the next day's lunch was at the Ukrainian Borsch restaurant.  Soup, chicken, potato, and bread. Super fast with the set menu. Had some "Kbac" pronounced "Kvass", tasted a bit like apple beer. Apparently, kvass can be made from anything fermentable.

I got to the airport over two hours early, even though our car had to pass a minor accident between a large truck & a small car on overpass. Since the policy here is you don't move anything until the police arrive, it blocked one lane of an already constricted road. 

Since I had some litas left over and I doubt that very many money exchanges outside of Lithuania probably want them, I bought a little amber cat (35 litas) for my trinket collection then changed my remaining litas into euros. I got back some change in litas that didn't quite add up to a Euro bill, so I pulled out the representative denominations of the coins and used the left over change to buy a Fanta limonade that tastes like bitter bubble gum, and a bag of skittles. 

So, yeah, my overall experience here gets Lithuania added to my "places i'd like to go back to" list...that I don't really have. Not sure if I should start one of might get overwhelmingly long.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Dining in DC: Zengo

While it's rare that Kacey and I get to go out to nice places to eat (because two over-tired children kinda ruins the atmosphere), last night we were able to eat at ZENGO, a Latin-Asian "test kitchen" near the Chinatown metro stop. Actually, it was right next door to the Chinatown gate, so it's pretty easy to find (but we walked right past it the first time because we were looking across the street.
When we went, the theme was Peru-Malaysia. It was also Mojito Monday. The interior is decorated with warm woods like you'd find in South America, but with the clean lines that hint as the Asian inspiration. I don't take pictures of food, but these descriptions should make your mouth water. Here's what we had, and it was all delicious:

Passion Fruit Mojito; Pineapple Mojito; and a fantastic "Shiso-jito", which is made with Peruvian Rum / Fresh Shiso / Fuji Apple / Fresh lime.

Duck Confit - Daikon Tacos with curried apple and orange coriander sauce. The taco shell was a paper-thin, three-inch diameter slice of daikon radish and you assemble the meat, veggies and salsa yourself. 

Tagalog-style Churrasco Steak with a calamansi citrus-soy marinade / grilled onion lemongrass mojo / green herb chimichurri sweet potato tostones. Get this for the tostones, and enjoy the steak too!
Zengo Fried Rice, with shrimp, duck, pork, egg, snow peas, carrot, bean sprout, and cilantro. 

Asian Pear Empanadas, with warm cajeta / dulche de leche ice cream / sesame. It was like hot caramel apple pie!
Mexican Chocolate Tart, with cocoa nibs / cinnamon whip / chili ancho anglaise.

Mexican coffee, made from Grand Marnier / Kahlua / coffee / with a caramelized sugar rim.

I'm definitely keeping it on my list, here's the Yelp listing: Zengo-Washington

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

How Apropos...priated.

So, Fiscal Year 2014 (FY14) looks to be getting off to a rocky start.

It's particularly poignant for me, as Oct 1, 2013 marks the one-year anniversary of my separation from the U.S. Air Force. So, how should I celebrate? Just showing up at my new job seems a bit understated, but considering all the political (in)action over the FY14 budget, I'm just glad I got this in my State Dept email on Sept 30th:
"Employees and contractors should report for work on Tuesday, October 1, 2013, as usual, and continue reporting to work until instructed otherwise by my office.  These Department employees will be paid for their work on the regular schedule." 
How'd I get so "lucky" when other federal workers are getting furloughed? It's due to the fortunate fact that most State Department construction funds are considered to be "no-year" or "zero-year" they don't really expire like "FY13 dollars". Compare that to some of my friends in the park service, who have to close up shop because they can't use FY13 money (because it's now FY14) and don't have FY14 money to spend (because it hasn't been appropriated).

But all this fiscal talk isn't new to me. My last job in the USAF involved a 5-year plan (ie, FY13-FY17 dollars), and we ended up moving some projects around so that construction would be completed before the funds expired. When I left the military, I knew there was no way I would ever go back to the DoD voluntarily as a civilian or a contractor because their funding gets cut in order to pay the folks in uniform (or for the latest "toy"). I mean, that sort of prioritization is great when you're in uniform, but not so much when the tables are turned.

Wanna get really wonky about Title 22 construction funds? Check out this link to 22 USC § 4852 - Diplomatic Construction Program.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A New Commute

Today was my first day of my new commute route. Well, sort of. We recently bought a place about two miles from the place we'd been renting for the last year, so my metro station didn't change...but now I also have to catch a bus to get there. Both routes included less than a quarter-mile of walking to the first place where I swipe my SmarTrip card.

Now, the buses to the metro normally run once every ~15 min or so, but today there was one sitting at the bus stop just as I rounded the corner (some 40 yards away). So I hustled up and the driver waited for me. Apparently he was a little behind schedule, otherwise I'd have missed it entirely. The bus wasn't crowded when I got on, but it collected several more people along the way. I recognized many of them from the last year I've spent waiting on the metro platform.

The bus pulled into the metro station, but there were no inbound trains listed. I walked up the escalator, only to find my train sitting there with its doors open. Seizing the opportunity, I hopped in and then walked forward...had I done it the other way around, the train could have left while I was walking on the platform.
You almost never see the Metro this empty.
Otherwise, it was a pretty uneventful commute. But it did give me the bare minimum time that I need to factor in for the commute. The nice thing is that I should be able to check my exact travel times on And just for fun, I think I'll record this month's commuting data in an excel file to analyze and fine-tune everything.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Steppin' Up!

So, as it turns out, the automated HR system works. I just received this email:

"A personnel action has been processed for Pay Rate Change, effective 9/8/2013."

Since I've been at State for a year now, I am getting an administrative pay increase. I went into more detail in an earlier post about how the step and grade system works, but suffice it to say that more money is a good thing.
Now, about that DC housing...

Thursday, September 05, 2013


So today was my first planned telework day. I'd used the telework capabilities before to remotely log in while travelling or to keep from having to go in to the office on the weekends, but this was the first time I'd actually planned to work from home. And I have to say, I was pretty productive. Compare these two environments:

Work: My cubicle is frequently visited by various people asking various questions about various projects, and I figure that if they took the time to find me, I should take the time to answer them. But these visits frequently get interrupted by phone calls, at which time the visitor leaves and I start talking on the phone while reading over my continuous stream of email. By the time I hang up, I usually have three new emails. But by the time I'm mid-way through the first reply email, I get another visitor and the cycle repeats itself. If you noticed, that means my work load is growing faster than I can address it.

Home: Even though I was supervising two 4-yr-olds on a play date and a pre-walking toddler, I was somehow able to focus enough attention to knock out the evaluations of three 80-page project submissions, follow-up with a teleconference to come to a consensus, write a detailed project status updates for several projects, sorted and filed away my emails, and organized my digital files instead of just throwing every download into a "sort me later" bin. I never get that much time to focus on pure task accomplishment at the office. I now feel like I'm finally at the leading edge of the wave instead of tumbling around in the pipeline.

But of course, the one downside is that I can't sit on someone's desk until I get the results I I guess I'm headed back to the office tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

DC is unpleasant w/o A/C

Ok, so our townhouse has two air conditioning units and one of them up and died last week. Sadly, even though I'm technically a licensed professional engineer that specialized in HVAC, I'm still not a technician. The best I could do was check the circuits, change the filters, test the thermostat, and identify where the problem was. One of the copper lines had frosted over, so the coolant wasn't flowing and it was likely that a pump had failed. This was confirmed by the technician.

So anyways, it's now something like Day 4 without A/C on the top two floors (where the bedrooms are) and DC is still unpleasantly hot. Yes, I know, I've been in hotter places without A/C but to be able to walk through a thermocline inside your house is a little ridiculous. We're talking around a 15-20 F degree difference. We've been lucky to have rainstorms to cool down the air fast enough in the evenings, but we've still got several fans going to force air circulation through the upper floors.

Ok, this was actually in Germany during the summer, but the sentiment is the same.
What's amusing to me about this whole thing is that it's almost the exact opposite of what happened to us in Germany when we accidentally forgot to remind our landlord to refill the fuel oil tank and we had no heat during a cold snap in the German winter. This time, we've lost our cool in the summer heat of the muggy swamp known as greater D.C. But chances are, if we were overseas and something like this happened, we'd probably be more tolerant of the situation because in the greater scheme of things, there really are worse things than having to sleep on top of the sheets with a fan blowing on you.

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