American Southwest Family Vacation

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.

Our Adventures in Sri Lanka

Safaris to spot leopards and elephants, swimming in the Indian Ocean, sipping tea in the mountains, and several more!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Downsize and Safeguard Your Digital Documents

I've been putting off this post about digitally backing up (or replacing) your files for a while, but there's no time like the present to get organized. And I realize that we all have our own organizational methods and preferences, so I'll try to keep the focus more on the "what" and "why" with less emphasis on the "how". When I say files I mean any document or photo that is either physical or digital.

Why back up your important and irreplaceable files? The answer's in the question: they're important and irreplaceable. You see it in the news every week: houses & lives destroyed by natural disasters, accidents, and other events outside of our control. Being in the Foreign Service, we not only have to contend with possible evacuations as well as being under a maximum weight for shipping our household effects halfway around the world every couple of years.

"On the plus side, now there are no files left to back up."
Philip and Karen Smith/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images
So, there are a couple of things to consider in your back-up plan. I try to approach every plan using the P-A-C-E planning method:
  • Primary: These are your original documents. Keep them in a fireproof safe and/or on your computer. 
  • Alternate: These are copies of the originals that you don't keep next to your originals (because that's like keeping all your eggs in one basket). Consider keeping a copy of really important papers (Birth Certificates/IDs/etc) at a relative's house and photos on a removable harddrive or spouse's computer in case you drop your laptop.
  • Contingency: Let's say you kept both your primary and alternate files are in your house and it caught fire or flooded. I keep electronic copies (scanned if they were originally hardcopy) in the cloud (Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, DropBox, etc.) Compare the best cloud services here. There are also several photo storage options on the cloud, but know what their download/recovery policy is. For example: You have to pay Shutterfly to get them back (but it's totally worth it if they have your only remaining copy of the photos). 
  • Emergency: This is less about having a filing system and more about having access to your info if all else fails. What if your Apple account gets hacked? I recommend using an independent, alternate cloud system (ie, if you use Apple as a primary, use DropBox but don't use your AppleID email as your log in...because you would no longer have access to your Apple account). Also, I've found that emailing myself the scanned copy of files allows me to keep one record in the email as well as wherever I downloaded it...this has come in handy a number of times when the only access I have is to my email and the information was needed ASAP.
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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Year in Review: 2014

So, to say that 2014 was rather busy might be understating it a bit. Here are the highlights in case you missed them. You could also consider this the digital version of our Christmas letter if we didn't have your address. Oh, and our address has changed yet again...so friends, let us know if you want our new one.
We're never going to be one of those perfect family photo families.
Key Moments of 2014:
  • Went to a Maple Leafs v. Washington Capitals hockey game
  • Successfully treated our cat for hyperthyroidism, then picked him up in Asheville, NC
  • Took a family trip to Boston for Greg to attend his fraternity's annual reunion
  • Went to Douthout State Park with Kacey's brother's in-laws.
  • Spent Easter in Pensacola with family
  • Kacey and Greg got to drive fast, commandeer vehicles, shoot guns, use tourniquets, and generally hone their responses when thing go sideways at the "Crash Bang" class.
  • We took a day trip to the DuPont's Winterthur estate to see a Downton Abbey exhibit.
  • All sorts of Halloween & Thanksgivings Day activity.
Anna, Elsa, and Olaf...Sven took the picture.
  • Kacey became a Georgetown-certified instructor of English as a Foreign Language
  • We executed perhaps the most complicated move I've ever done...the only thing that could make it more complicated would have been shipping a car. I mean, really, it's an international move (with stuff going by air, by sea, and to storage) with two small children and two pets punctuated by the Christmas holiday season. Read the full story here.
Other Trips:
Misc:
  • Finally added photos to the posts from Greg's Great American Road Trip (2002)
  • Uploaded Kacey's journal from her SEA Semester experience (1996), we hope to upload the photos in the next couple of months.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Moving Day - Pack Out Day

One of the easiest ways to reduce stress during a move is to start your preparations early enough. One of worst ways? Pulling an all-nighter to get your house in order while simultaneously trying to pack for being on the road for three weeks between two different climates with two kids and pets in tow. Yeah, we took the second option.

But the hard work and lack of sleep paid off. All we had to do was point and say "This room is UnAccompanied Baggage (UAB), that side of the room is going with us, and that side is going to storage."
Our UAB pile
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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Moving Day - Tips &Tricks for Pre-move Preparation

The most hectic part about Foreign Service life has to be transition phase between assignments, also referred to as Permanent Change of Station (PCS). More than just a move across town, international moves are a multi-day event that require some preparation before the movers show up if you want things to run smoothly. This post is focused on what to do in the day or two before the movers show up. If moving day is still a few weeks or months out for you, I've also got another post with tips and tricks to downsize before a move in the weeks running up to moving day.

Probably the most important thing to remember about moving day is that the movers will pack everything they can when you're not looking. Trash left in garbage cans is a good example. There are somethings they won't pack, like batteries, candles, and other things that can start a fire or explode (like lightbulbs). The best thing you can do is make sure that the stuff you don't want packed isn't even in the house...put it in your car if you can. If you can't get it out of the house, put it in a room or closet that you can lock or put tape across the door saying something to the effect of "DO NOT PACK THIS ROOM!"

That said, make sure that there is nothing in the Do Not Pack room that you actually want packed. We used our master bathroom, but realized after the fact that we forgot to pull the bathmats out...so we had to pack them in our carry-on luggage.

There are some important things to keep out of the movers' hands:

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

Mrs. Spearman: A Remembrance and Commitment

At first I struggled to remember exactly what her class was like. When Dr. Cunningham died I had a flood of vivid and exact memories wash over me. With Mrs. Spearman I had to think… was that the year we read Things Fall Apart and The Bride Price? Or was it Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? Didn’t we read Langston Hughes poems? I remembered the room at the far west end of the first floor hall, some of the other students in the class and vaguely some presentations we made. But then, I remembered-- one of the strongest memories in all my high school years. It came back.


“Kacey, why do you want to be a doctor when you can write so well?”
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Thursday, November 27, 2014

We're still hiring Foreign Service Construction Engineers!

If you are interested in international travel, building things, and solid benefits from one of the best departments to work for in the Federal Government, then I have good news for you: The US Department of State is now hiring Foreign Service Construction Engineers to work in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations! Trust me, it's a pretty awesome job. Check out the video below, my projects start showing up at the 4:10 mark.


The current FSCE vacancy announcement window closes on Dec 29, 2014. This advertisement is particularly relevant for any of my Air Force Civil Engineer friends who were recently affected by the 2014 RIF (Reduction In Force) or are concerned about a RIF in 2015 or beyond. Bonus? You can get credit for all of your military/federal service time to get more leave right off the bat and also buy back the years towards retirement at a reasonable rate to retire by age 50 with 20 years of service (if you choose to leave that soon). If you want to learn more about Entering the Foreign Service you can read about my experience here (including a hiring timeline).
And you get to wear one of these!

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Sunday, November 09, 2014

How to Declutter Before Moving (aka PCS)

If it hasn't come up before, one of my favorite leisure activities is combining mindfulness and productivity to improve a process. While I've had all sorts of classes on what makes a good leader, manager, etc, that's all in the work environment. Theoretically, I only spend around 8 hours a day at work...the rest of the time is at home. A home that, due to my job in the Foreign Service, relocates frequently.

While moving every two years might be seen by some (or many) as an unwelcome chore, I see it as another opportunity to pare down the stuff that I no longer need that would continue to inhabit some back corner of a drawer somewhere if I wasn't required to clean it out. Don't get me wrong, moving can be stressful, difficult, and not entirely pleasant...especially when you're trying to find all 40 pieces to your kid's toy set that is useless without all 40 parts. Seriously folks, it's kind of mean to get gifts for kids that run on batteries or have a gazillion loose pieces (unless they are Lego, in which case all is forgiven), but I digress.

If you want to effectively prepare for a move, you have to take an objective view of your stuff. George Carlin's classic routine on stuff sums it up nicely, but yeah, you are going to have too much stuff to move. I'm not saying that you need to become a minimalist, because that doesn't really work for everyone. But do you really need two bathroom scales?

The Foreign Service adds another wrinkle to moving, since It's your Move reminds you that you're only allowed to move 7,200 pounds of stuff, even though they will store the remainder of up to a total 18,000 pounds of stuff. That's because most post housing is furnished, but still...that's almost 11,000 pounds going into storage. That's an insane amount of stuff to keep track of. Similarly, the military sets a weight limit for shipping (and only occasionally allows storage), so this scenario plays out for any PCS  but the amounts might be different. So how do you decide what stuff to take, store, or get rid of? I suggest using a modified Eisenhower Decision Matrix...
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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The FSCE Assignment Process

Our assignment process differs from most other Foreign Service officers and specialists because Foreign Service Construction Engineers usually go somewhere to support a new project instead of filling a position that already exists. This means that places that don't currently have projects will have to actually create a position for us to fill and subsequently vacate and eliminate when the project ends. But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's go back to the beginning...
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Saturday, October 18, 2014

How I organize my digital photos for multiple photo streams

Remember when organizing your digital photos was easy? You had one camera that you connected to one computer and no one else really wanted to look at them. These days, it's not uncommon to have photo streams coming in from your phone, your camera, your significant other's phone, their camera, your family's pictures, and Facebook or other social media. Then you have the organizing aspect of all those photos, to include backing up across multiple computers and in the cloud, which lends itself to the ultimate reason we take pictures: sharing. 

So, what's my system? I'm coming around to Picasa, having previously used Windows Live Gallery until I upgraded to Windows 8.1. To ensure proper cross-platform backups within my Photos directory, I have several folders with a consistent naming system on Kacey and my computers, as well as an external hard drive.  
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Sunday, October 05, 2014

Downton Abbey at Winterthur

This past weekend, we drove up to Delaware to visit Winterthur to see their "Costumes of Downton Abbey" exhibit. More than just an exhibit, the sprawling estate was like an American version of Downton in no small part because it once served as the home of the unimaginably wealthy du Pont family. The exhibit even compared the many similarities between Downton (fiction) and Winterthur (fact) that served to make both seem that much more alive and real. Winterthur also had two great areas for the kids: the Enchanted Woods and the Touch-It Room.



Even the entrance to the estate set the mood for the experience. We drove in through the gates at the edge of the property, then followed the winding road around rolling hills of a well manicured lawn. My first thought was that it was a lot of grass to mow. From where we parked, it was a short walk down hill to the visitor's center.


Parent note: If you're deciding whether to bring/use a stroller, yes. The grounds are pretty conducive to using a stroller (there's even a marked-out, stroller-friendly path), and if your kids are like ours, there are plenty of walking opportunities to wear them out. Also, there are stroller-friendly trams that stop at the Enchanted Woods, so they've really thought things through for the little ones.
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Friday, September 26, 2014

Crash Bang!

Kacey and I spent the last week at Foreign Affairs Counter Threat training, more commonly known to Foreign Service folks as "Crash Bang." It's geared towards (and required for) folks headed to high threat posts, like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan along with several other locations. The first part of this CBS segment gives a quick overview of what we're learning:



Some of the most fun we had was at BSR's track, learning and practicing several driving skills that everyone should learn (but not in your own vehicle). Picture a perfectly beautiful fall day, with white clouds hung in the crisp blue sky, golden leaves falling down onto the sun-drenched grass, with a stillness that's punctuated by wheels screaming around corners while belching acrid white smoke that reeks of awesomeness. So. much. fun. Well, except for those two folks who were sitting it out because they succumbed to motion sickness.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Productivity Tactics: Applying the Eisenhower Method on your Desktop

As you may already be aware, the Eisenhower box is a productivity tool/method that breaks tasks into four categories:

UrgentNot Urgent
ImportantURGENT & IMPORTANTIMPORTANT, but
NOT URGENT
Not ImportantURGENT, but
NOT IMPORTANT
NEITHER IMPORTANT NOR URGENT

Which is all well and good, so why not apply it to a computer desktop and use it at work? My first thought was to do a literal variation of the four boxes, but it wasn't aesthetically pleasing. So, I looked online until I found an awesome background that would work on either a 1280x1024 screen or a widescreen.
Source: http://www.peak15.org/misc/spectrum.jpg
Granted, you have to have a widescreen monitor to make full use of all six panels, but if you have a standard monitor the four orange through blue panels are still there. Bonus: the photos are more attractive than a solid color yet not really distracting.

Here's how I set it up:
RED: Today's tasks, files, and shortcuts. Only a few.
ORANGE: Urgent & Important files and shortcuts. Hot projects and high priority tasks might make their way into this panel.
YELLOW: Urgent, but Not Important (to me). This is where I keep links to files and tasks that matter to my co-workers or office deadlines.
GREEN: Important, but Not Urgent. This is where I keep my links to most active project folders.
BLUE: Not Important or Urgent. These are links to most references and frequently used shortcuts.
PURPLE: All the computer system shortcuts (Chrome, Excel, Outlook, etc) and all of those shortcuts on my government desktop that I can't delete without admin rights.

If you look closely, you'll see this also has an area below the panels that looks like a reflection, I use this space for non-work related stuff that I need to remember to do, with the same prioritization system.

Obviously, everyone has a (or at least should have) a method to be productive and it's a matter of discovering your own personal preference. This works for me, so I hope it adds another option to the internet that might be of use to you!
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Friday, September 12, 2014

Staying Connected: International Phones (GSM, 4G-LTE, etc)

From an international traveller's perspective, it doesn't matter how awesome your smartphone is at home if it can't connect to a local network abroad, specifically 4G-LTE. There are hundreds of other sites (like this tool from Android) that have great reviews on the various operating systems, build quality, cameras, processors, etc., but they all tend to gloss over the fundamental connectivity & compatibility issues. In this post, I'm going to explain how to find the right phone for your international travels so that you don't end up with the prettiest "brick on the block". If you already know the basics about GSM vs CDMA and want to skip straight to the 4G-LTE section below, Click Here. And if you don't care about all that and just want to see which 4G LTE bands are used by the iPhone 6, 6 Plus, iPhone 5c, iPhone 5s, Samsung S4, Samsung S5, Google Nexus 6 and Nexus 5, Click here for the chart. (Updated 31 Mar 2015 for Samsung Galaxy S6 in the Spring 2015 update.


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One of the most complicated aspects of an international move is trying to determine what phone & telecom provider to use at your new location. Understanding terms like GSM, CDMA, quad-mode, and 4G-LTE frequencies as it applies to handsets, service providers, and countries will equip you with the knowledge you need to find a phone that works in the two (or more) countries you need it to. Will your current phone work in the new country, or would a new phone work in both a new country and the place you call home but now visit only on vacation?


A lot of these lessons I learned first-person and I hope to save you some of the same trouble. When I was in South Korea, I had a pay-as-you go phone that I bought off the guy I replaced there. In Germany, I had a T-Mobile GSM phone that I was able to take back to the United States and use simply by switching out my German SIM card for an American pre-paid SIM card. Now we're headed over to Saudi Arabia and smartphones & data are additional considerations. So, I've scoured the internet to identify nearly everything you need to know about how to select the right international smartphone for you (or at least I've found the links for the places that do). So here are the considerations and how to determine what applies to you, your phone, and the countries you want it to work in:
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Monday, September 08, 2014

For Former Military Members Looking to Join the Foreign Service

According to the USAF Force Management website, a Reduction in Force (RIF) means that a lot of officers should consider the possibility of a new career after separating from the military. If that's you, let me suggest joining the US Foreign Service. Most likely, you know very little about what we do or where you would fit in, but it's a pretty good deal (some might say it's even better than active duty!), so let me help explain it for you.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Kid-Friendly Baltimore

We spent part of Labor Day weekend touring Baltimore, primarily around the Inner Harbor area visiting the National Aquarium, Fort McHenry, Port Discovery Children's Museum, and the USS Constellation. While the places we visited were really quite worth the trip, I stand by my initial impression of Baltimore.

National Aquarium
Yes, fish in tanks. But the way Baltimore's National Aquarium is laid out is very interesting. In one area, you end up crisscrossing over one of the larger tanks, and you can still see massive sea turtles from above at the higher levels.


There is also a rain forest area in another section of the building with spitting fish. They spit water at crickets to knock them off branches and then eat them.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Study Abroad and Internship Programs

There are several opportunities for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students to work or study overseas with the U.S. Department of State. There's even a "Which student internship is right for you?" info page that goes into detail about the opportunities that are out there. While it's not guaranteed to get you into the Foreign Service, I doubt it would hurt your chances.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Officially Listed as a Foreign Service Blog

All it took was a couple of emails and some (subjectively) awesome content, but The Passport Stamp Collector is officially listed on the American Foreign Service Association's Foreign Service Blogs page. You have to scroll down a bit to the "Both Spouses" category, but we're on there!
While I'm at it, I'll recommend checking out our About Us page and some curated posts listed under the "Summary" label. 

So my next challenge is how to get more traffic to my site. I'm still in the early stages of what might be called "marketing and branding." It's surprisingly hard to come up with clever, coherent, and memorable social media accounts...but I've settled on these two: Instagram's @WorldTravelRRR and the #TravelRRR hashtag.

Other than that, I've started reading through digital marketing blogs like Nomvo.com to learn about other aspects of digital presence.
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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia Reception

I spent this past Friday evening at an event organized by the International Club of D.C. at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. The evening was organized this way: Non-alcoholic cocktail quarter-hour, Video Presentation, Q&A, Fashion Show and Dinner. I arrived a little late, so I had to grab my unspiked orange juice and head directly into the FDR/Abdulaziz Room. This small auditorium is dedicated to the meeting between Ibn Saud (Abdulaziz)--the first King of modern Saudi Arabia--and Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 14, 1945 aboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal.
Photo of Meeting between FDR and King Abdulaziz Feb. 14, 1945
It's fitting since this was the beginning of official diplomatic relations between the two countries. The video presentation had a bit of a propagandist feel to it, but wasn't worse than anything I've seen the U.S. produce. It covered a brief history of the Arabian Peninsula, Islam, culture, economy (including recent diversification) and modernization of the country. The city we are headed to, Jeddah, is very close to Mecca and the road between the two cities used to be one of the only paved highways in Saudi Arabia. (Jeddah is on the coast and a port city for the annual Hajj). Anyway, it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling about moving the KSA.

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Sunday, August 03, 2014

Monuments Men Day Trip to Bruges and Ghent

If you have an extra day in Brussels, Belgium and want to see some famous works of art, might I interest you in what I call "The Momuments Men" day trip option to Bruges (aka Brugge) and Ghent (aka Gent)? If you're not familiar with The Monuments Men movie, it's loosely based on a WWII mission to protect the treasures of the Western world from the Nazis. It also happens that both cities are within an hour's train ride from Gare du Nord on the same train route from Brussels. 
The Lamb of God: Van Eyck's Ghent Altar Piece
My plane landed in Brussels around 7am. I took the airport train into the city and dropped my bags at the hotel (and printed a map), and was leaving Brussels Gare du Nord (North Station) on my way to Brugge by 8:47. The train was nearly empty when I boarded but was totally full leaving Brussels Zuid (South Station). Not much compares to
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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Traveling with Kids: Child Carriers

We travel with our kids almost everywhere we go, but there are times that child carriers are better suited to the activity than strollers. It seems like there are so many kinds of carriers out there, which one do you choose? Well, here are the ones we've been pleased with the "field test results" over the last 5 years on our international travels and family vacations.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Salmon Fishing on Lake Huron

Did you know that you can catch Chinook Salmon on Lake Huron? Moe at Screamin' Reels was referred to us as being a guy who could find fish, and that's just the kind of guy we were looking for. He did such a great job that we'll probably look him up again the next time we go to the Manitoulin Island.


You need a license to fish in Ontario, but we acquired our one-day fishing licenses the day before our fishing trip without incident. Well, that's not entirely true. The cashier at the outdoor store was having serious issues with her computer trying to reissue an Outdoor Card to a guy who had lost his. I'm not a fisherman, but there are all sorts of limits and restrictions out there to be aware of. Fortunately, we had Moe with us when we departed the docks around 4pm.
Headed out!
The boat was pretty decked out with an array that included 4 boards to take the lines wide and three or four down-riggers...but today we only caught the big fish below 200'.
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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bridal Veil Falls and the Cup and Saucer Trail

Bridal Veil Falls
The Manitoulin Island has many natural playgrounds, but everytime we come up here we visit Bridal Veil Falls. Apparently, Atlantic salmon spawn in the pools below the falls. At least they avoid the poison ivy hiding on the trail. The falls are accessible by trail as well as from above. We almost always start at the falls and hike into town, as it's easier that way.


Cup and Saucer Trail
Several of us drove further out to the Cup and Saucer trail. Somewhere along the way, we took a wrong trail. Looking at the map below, I'm not sure we were ever actually on a trail until after we found ourselves looking up at the face of escarpment. If you didn't know, you're supposed to be looking out over it, like these photos show:
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Monday, July 14, 2014

Meldrum Bay and Little Current

Meldrum Bay can be found on the Western end of the Manitoulin Island, and feels like standing at the end of the earth.

Our older daughter's favorite word at Meldrum Bay was "erosion".






We followed up our trip to the shoreline in Little Current doing a little rainy day shopping. Little Current is the first town you'll enter on the Manitoulin if you don't take the Chi-Chi-maun (Big Canoe) ferry. I wonder what they sell at these two places:


I picked up a loon at Turner's (the gift shop of choice on the island) to add to my trinket collection.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Cottaging on Manitoulin Island

Our extended family spent a week cottaging on the Manitoulin Island. We've stayed at various places around the island over the years, but this one was pretty good for location, quality, and price. I'm hesitant to publicly disclose which one we stayed at (because I don't want it to be booked up when we want to go back), but rest assured that there are lots of places on the island to find a cottage.
This scene seems like it belongs in a Wes Anderson Film...
The first night we got in, the clouds were kind of gloomy and the boathouse was on a long spit of land that reminded me of something out of a Wes Anderson film. I have a weirdly accurate visual memory sometimes. Seriously, here's the exact scene that I was thinking of:
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Friday, July 04, 2014

4th of July on the National Mall

For this year's Fourth of July, we decided to go into Washington, D.C. to watch the parade and then stay for the fireworks. How we filled up all the time in between those two events was what really made the difference.
View of the fireworks from the National Mall
What made it so successful is that we had a plan and executed it. Knowing that the parade started at 11:45 and ran from 7th to 14th, we decided that I'd take the kids to the Archives metro stop around 11 am, then we'd walk a couple of blocks to the parade route. It was there that I spent 45 minutes watching the police officers trying in vain to keep the unceasing waves of new spectators from pouring out into the street. The rule of thumb is that if you're on the curb, you're good to go. Since the parade starts at 7th, we thought it best to stay on the north side of the street for an easy escape & rendezvous, as another part of our plan involved Kacey and her dad staying on the metro for a few more stops so that they could stop by a friend's house to drop off our cooler and keep our picnic dinner refrigerated, after which they'd join up with us before the parade ended.
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Monday, June 30, 2014

Traveling with Kids: Headphones

We were in the market for some headphones for our 5-yr-old daughter to use for school and travel. Cost was a factor, as was durability and performance. We stayed with the wired variety because, while wireless headphones seem pretty cool, they tend to be heavier (battery weight) and there's a greater potential for them to stop working on long trips. We also focused on the over-the-ear style as they minimize outside noise (like engine noise or fireworks) better than the on-ear ones.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

A Day in Oslo

As luck would have it, I got to visit Oslo for some on-the-job training and enjoy some free-time to walk around the city, too. Since my time was limited,  decided to traverse the city from west to east (for the most part).

Akershus Castle
My trip actually began in Vienna, and I landed n Oslo just before midnight on Wednesday, and the Flybussen dropped me off very near my hotel about 40 minutes later. The bus is very convenient, especially since you can get a return ticket and not have to worry about getting back to the airport (it's a very expensive cab ride, so I hear).
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Saturday, June 07, 2014

Rocking Out in Baltimore

A high-school friend of mine was playing a gig on Saturday night with his band Demon Eye at the Sidebar Tavern in Baltimore. Now, I'm not really into the metal scene, or really anything that can be categorized as "a scene," so I'm venturing outside my comfort zone so that I can support my friend. I believe you need to do something outside of your comfort zone every day, otherwise you're not expanding your comfort zone. So, I drove over to Baltimore in the afternoon, getting into the hotel just early enough to avoid the traffic for the baseball game. I caught the hotel shuttle over to the Inner Harbor for dinner and a stroll before the doors to the show opened up. After several hours of observing folks, I get the sense that Baltimore is kind of like Randy Quaid's Cousin Eddie in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation to Washington, D.C.'s Clark Griswald. But the aquarium looked great, and we'll probably come back later this summer.

I got to the venue right around 9 pm, just as my friend's band was unloading the trailer. So I helped them carry stuff in and didn't have to pay a cover and got comped two glasses of the local brew: National Bohemian. Can't say I'm a big fan, but free made it taste better. The first band, Witch Hazel, went on and did a decent job. Best part of the set for me was when the lead singer pulled out a cow bell for his solo.

More Cowbell!
Then my friend's band, Demon Eye, got up and delivered a solid performance of kick-ass metal. The previous link doesn't do justice to how heavy the live version is...my beer was actually vibrating so much that I had to keep changing hands because they were getting worn out holding it. Maybe I shouldn't have been so close to the speakers, but whatever. At one point, my friend stepped off-stage and kept playing while the audience surrounded him...rock 'n roll! Here's a pic of the band (the bassist is just off to the right of the frame, but this was the best angle I could get). 
Rock on.
Another band followed them to close out the night, but I couldn't really get into their sound so my friend and I sat in the back of the place and caught up on life since the last time we saw each other nearly two decades ago. We've been friends on Facebook, but that's not the same as being there in person. After the third band finished up, I helped pack out the gear to the trailer and headed back to my hotel. So, I guess I can cross "Be a roadie for a metal band" off my bucket list now, right? I think I got in to the hotel some time after 2 am, which is the latest that I can remember ever being out on purpose.

When they said the restroom was "pretty metal",
I was picturing something in brushed nickel.
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Friday, May 30, 2014

Assignment: Jeddah

I just found out where my next post will be: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This will actually be my second assignment (DC was my first assignment), but it's my first overseas posting with the Department of State. So, I guess that technically that makes this my true "Flag Day."

The Flag of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
So, naturally, one of my first questions (after all the obvious ones) was "What does the writing on the flag actually say?" It turns out that Wikipedia knows that too: It's the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith.
"There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God"
Now to hit the interwebs and find more about expat life in the KSA. One of the better blogs I've found so far is Jeddah-blog.com, not to mention all of the State Department resources and these ex-pat blogs.

For those following along, our FSCE bid season opened on 11 March and I submitted my bids ranked 1-10 (accounting for factors like job scope, school facilities, and general lifestyle) by 21 March, even though I only needed to submit 6 preferences. Just over two months later, I was approached by the office director to ask me if I'd take an assignment to Jeddah (which wasn't even on my ranked list). As it turns out, many of the projects I bid on fell apart in any number of the following ways: lack of funding, lack of host country approvals/permits; design issues; contractor issues. You name it, it can kill a project. So, I'm happy I've been assigned to one that's actually going to happen, and will now begin the process of preparing to head overseas yet again. And that includes starting the self-taught Saudi Arabic language lessons through FSI, as engineers rarely get formal language training.
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Friday, May 23, 2014

Anticipating Memorial Day Weekend in Washington D.C.

The office is somewhat quiet as it's the Friday before Memorial Day. If you didn't know, there are lots of Memorial Day events in Washington, D.C. and most locals try to get out of town before the tourist traffic pours in. Seriously, folks, if you're coming into town, use the metro and don't even think driving because you won't find parking...assuming you can navigate the road closures.

A screenshot of DC traffic before noon the Friday before Memorial Day.
  Click here for real time updates.
Since the office is quiet, I thought I'd share some humor. This one is about riding on the metro.

This sketch can apply to just about any office with a technical staff and a non-technical staff. I frequently find myself in the role of "the expert," but fortunately my coworkers don't (usually) fall into the other categories.


Have great weekend!
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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Civil War Reenactment at New Market

Based on a tip from my mother-in-law's former students, we went to see the 150th Reenactment of the Battle of New Market. I'm not a historian, or really even a fan of Civil War era in general, but these folks put on a good show with a remarkable attention to detail.
As we rolled along the battleground, the cannons were booming and the forces were moving towards each other while spectators watched...kind of like they did in the first battle of Manassas.


Since we'd arrived fairly close to the end of the day, we weren't charged for admission. Using some of that saved cash, we bought some kettle corn and handmade lemonade as we strolled among the white canvas tents where merchants in period costumes sold civil war memorabilia. Lots of little boys with guns and guys with VMI gear, because VMI cadets fought in the battle of New Market.




If it's possible to check off something that's not on your bucket list, we just did that. On the way home, we stopped into Front Royal and had lunch the Main Street Mill Restaurant. I had a tasty burger followed by funnel cake fries for dessert. So, yeah, a pretty good day.
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Shenandoah National Park

Our extended family went on a camping trip to Shenandoah National Park, which is a manageable 2-hour drive from D.C. if you avoid the Friday afternoon traffic jams on I-66. One of the more scenic ways though the park is along Skyline Drive, which is $15 per car if you don't have a National Park pass.
Just one of many scenic vistas

After being roadblocked blocked by defiant deer, we reached our campsite in the middle the park after roughly 30 minutes of driving on the tortuous mountain road. At various times during our weekend stay, we saw several groups of deer, bears, and at least one groundhog.

Clearly, there is one smart deer in the group (on the left).
My dog didn't like the deer as much as we did. 

We were able to reserve two adjacent slots in the aptly named Big Meadow campground. I actually didn't get any pictures of the meadow, but you can Google it. The campsite had all the conveniences: enough shrubbery for some privacy, fire pit & picnic table (and they allow pets). The bathrooms were close enough to see from our campsite, so we were comfortable letter our 4.5-yr-old go there by herself (in daylight). There were reportedly quarter-operated showers, too, but no one in our group felt like braving the low 40F weather to find out.

The information center has some great info about the history of Shenandoah and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that made it was what it is today. There's even a section about segregation during that time, which seems obvious now but I don't think I ever learned about in school.

Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast with some of my mother-in-law's former IB students who also happened to be in the park, the family decided to go for a hike and then see if we could catch a Civil War reenactment at New Market.
This is how you photobomb.
Just another peaceful vista on our way out of the park.
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End Of Tour Summary: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

We spent two and a half years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on our second tour in the Foreign Service with the US Department of State. As you migh...

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