The hubby and I don’t get out for date nights nearly as often as we should. On Saturday night A’s school had a fun drop-off event for the younger kids as a fundraiser for the older ones. For 3,500 ISK (about $35), some students from the higher grades watched the kids for four hours, let them play and watch a movie, and fed them something my son described as noodles and ketchup. I assume it was pasta and red sauce, but with teenagers in charge, anything is possible. 😉

By a lovely coincidence, the choir at Hallgrimskirkja was giving their Christmas performance at the same time. So we were thrilled to drop A off at the school and cruise over to the church for an evening of Icelandic Christmas music.

The choir at Hallgrimskirkja (photo from the Mótettukór Hallgrímskirkju FB page).

Afterward we braved the cold streets of Reykjavik and did a bit of pub hopping. We were going to grab a bite at ROK, a cute little restaurant with a turf roof across from the church, but they were booked for the next two hours. So we ventured off the main drag onto a side street looking for a quieter venue.

We eventually came across a cozy-looking place called Smakkbarinn on Klapparstígur that was warm and inviting and had some appealing winter holiday decor. And it was a perfect choice. The customer service was fantastic, very attentive and friendly. We had a couple of Viking Christmas beers and ordered six tapas to share.

Sharing some tapas…pictured are fish fritters, duck breast and pork belly with Viking Christmas beer. Yum!

We still had some time to kill before pick up, so we strolled along and popped into the Chuck Norris Grill on Laugavegur, because they also had Christmas beers on tap, and it’s fun to read the sayings on the wall. Like: CHUCK NORRIS HAS A BEAR SKIN RUG IN HIS LIVING ROOM. THE BEAR ISN’T DEAD, IT’S AFRAID TO MOVE.

After that we finished up our date night with a floodlit stroll through the public sculpture garden behind the Einar Jonsson museum. The air was frosty, but the stars were out, there was no wind, and the company was excellent. So it was an absolutely wonderful way to spend a gorgeous evening.

“Skuld” (Fate) by Einar Jónsson in the public sculpture garden behind his museum.

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Bruges, Belgium.

We have another two months before we even get an official handshake, and some do say in the FS that no post is truly certain until you’re on the plane. So I acknowledge that things can still change between now and this summer. But I did have to submit A’s school admissions application this month to secure a place for him next year, and that has made the whole Brussels thing a lot more real.

And what an amazing school it is too! In Belize we had a super sweet nanny who came to our house, adored A, and was fantastic with him. In London, we picked a nursery that was as close as we could come to affordable and near the embassy. So it was small and worn, but it served its purpose. Here in Iceland, we followed the crowd to whichever of the two international schools the rest of the embassy folks were going to, and we’ve enjoyed it. It’s cute and quirky and has around 200 kids in it.

But Brussels…OMG Brussels. We queried half a dozen schools there and were only approved for the one that could offer him the 1:1 ADHD support that MED is requiring for us. But what a school it is. It is five times bigger than his current school with over 1,000 children on a 15-acre campus. It’s practically a university! It has its own swimming pool, gymnastics arena, dance studio, fitness room and sports hall. To say I am impressed with the facilities is an understatement. We’re making a special trip out to Brussels in the spring to meet the staff, tour the school and discuss any special education requirements they would like to put in place for A next year.

I’m also excited about Brussels in general. At one point, I was convinced that we were going to be posted to Paris, and I was thrilled that I’d just passed the language test and was going to get to use some French. So when we didn’t get Paris, I was pretty disappointed.

But I will still get to use some French and think Brussels will be even better for the following reasons:

  • I lived in France in my 20s and have never been to Belgium, so it’s somewhere new and exciting for both of us.
  • Belgium also has other awesome towns to visit like Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges. So we’ll have all kinds of fun Flemish and French culture and history to explore.
  • It’s in a great location in Europe…only 2 hours from London on the Eurostar (we couldn’t have picked a closer post), three hours from Paris, and shares a border with France, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg.
  • It’s smaller and more manageable. The metro area has a population of only 2 million, which is 1/6 the size either Paris or London.
  • The housing is better. (Apparently most folks in Paris are housed in tiny old characterless US military barracks from the 1960s, which are fairly unappealing.)
  • As stated above, the school is amazing!!

Keeping our fingers crossed that everything stays on track!

One of the fun things about being in the Foreign Service is, of course, buying cool local items and souvenirs. My nick-knack cabinet is getting a little full, so I’ve actually tried to cut back on the bric-a-brac, but have recently discovered an entire series of items that I might have to start collecting: local nativity sets.

Until today, I’ve never actually owned a nativity set. Without getting all religious on you, I grew up believing that the nativity is at the center of Christmas beliefs and traditions, and after 20 years of kind of doing my own thing, I am circling back around to a firmer commitment to those beliefs. So it is a lot more meaningful to me this year than it has been in decades past.

Also this year, I saw an FB post by a bunch of Foreign Service folks about the nativity sets that they’ve collected all around the world. Some of them were fairly standard for what you’d see in the States. Others were amazing arrays of local craftsmanship and materials from every possible continent. So I felt that this would be a good time to buy my first local nativity set.

So here they are, both of them, because I couldn’t decide on which one to get. The first one is a local set handmade out of Icelandic wool that was exactly what I was looking for.

Icelandic wool nativity set. (Photo found on Pinterest)

And here is the other one…probably imported from the States and made in China from cheap resin. But it made me smile, and is a perfect reminder of my time spent in Alaska and my love of all things polar. 🙂

At the moment, they’re both still in a bag in bubble wrap, so I’m posting identical photos I found of them on the internet.

Arctic Nativity. (Photo found on Pinterest.)

Our new ornaments from London. A picked out the gold bird, and, yes, I chose the shiny white fox that reminded me of our dog.

The first weekend in December has come and gone, and we have managed to put up our Xmas tree in a fairly timely manner. We’d picked up a few new ornaments for the tree while we were in London, so it was fun to put those on.

I’ve never been a fan of the big painted Italian glass ornaments…they’ve always reminded me of New York in the ‘60s for some reason. But my hubby likes them, and we’ve picked up a few cute ones over the years…mostly for our son. When we were putting the tree together this year, I noticed that we actually had quite a few, and they went very nicely with our new ones. So, while the last two years have been all earthy Scandinavian, this year our theme apparently is shiny, glittery, chunky ‘60s glass. Must’ve been all that Mad Men I watched on Amazon video this year.

Our glass bear from Scotland; silver cross from Ireland; and a glittery gold reindeer that A picked out at the Icelandic Xmas store in Reykjavik.

I also wanted to switch out the lights. We’ve had bright white LEDs on the tree for the last four years, and it’s been pretty…but always a tiny bit too cold. So I picked up a few strings of colored lights at Hagkaup hoping they would string together nicely. Well, not only did they not string TOGETHER, but they weren’t even an independent string…they were in a loop. So that made things a little more challenging for the hubster. But he persevered, and the tree is warm and soft and shiny and beautiful, and it makes me feel equally warm and fuzzy. A made the star in school out of an egg carton. 🙂

Our chunky warm tree. 🙂

In other Xmas-related news, the City of Reykjavik also put up its annual tree from Oslo in Austurvöllur square. And A and I popped over to his school Xmas bazaar to donate a few things to the raffle and support their pop-up “café” by partaking of some donated juices and baked goods. The school cafeteria had been decorated with paper chains and Xmas-themed art made by the kids. A proudly showed me his personal 2nd-grade drawing (with anatomically correct Mrs. Claus) prominently displayed near the drinks table.

I hadn’t made it to his school’s Xmas bazaar the last two years, so I was happy to finally get there this year. And there are a few other Icelandic holiday things that I keep meaning to do but end up too lazy comfy to leave the house on the day…like seeing the Xmas village in Hafnarfjörður and checking out the kitschy Xmas buffet at the Viking restaurant. Hopefully I will get around to them this year, as it’s now or never!

A’s awesome 2nd-grade holiday drawing.

We stayed in a vacation rental just off of Marylebone High Street.

Tomorrow is December 1, so I think I can say, “Happy Holidays!” and not be too late for Thanksgiving or too early for Christmas. I hope you all had a lovely Turkey Day. We took advantage of our federal holiday and some ridiculously low airfares on EasyJet (£75 each roundtrip!), added a few leave days and went to London for the week!

And what a fabulous trip it was too…for A and I anyway. My hubby is dealing with some medical issues that he’s not thrilled about, so he was a bit stressed and spent several hours in doctors’ offices having tests. But we still managed to round up some great stuff to do between doctor visits and enjoyed being in London.

Here were my personal highlights:

  • Spending time with special friends, some that lived in the city and some that made the trip all the way down from Lancashire!
  • Catching a movie with one of the above girlfriends at a luxury cinema that served food and wine.
  • Enjoying the vast array of things on offer in grocery stores, book stores and patisseries.
  • Visiting pubs for bangers and mash, brunch at the Ivy Cafe, dinner at Burger & Lobster, and mulled wine ice cream at Fortnum & Mason.
  • A low-stress Chinese-takeout Thanksgiving with good friends!
  • Enjoying the Christmas lights and decorations throughout the city.
  • Seeing some great London sites like the British Museum, the Leighton House Museum, the Science Museum, and the Brompton Victorian cemetery.
  • Having a science-themed afternoon tea!
  • Enjoying a crowd-free wander through Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland.
  • And I can’t articulate enough how much I enjoyed hanging out with the ladies, so I will mention that again here!!

I also had my annual checkup and blood tests, and it should come as no surprise that with all that fun they want me to cut back on the tasty food and wine. I’ve promised A that I’m going to live to be 100, God willing. So I guess I should make some kind of an effort to stay healthy, but this was definitely a special occasion.

To wrap things up, here’re a few fun pics from our trip. 🙂

Brunch at the Ivy Cafe.

N and A checking out the Egyptian collection at the British Museum.

Mulled Wine Ice Cream with Cranberries and Poached Pears at Fortnum & Mason.

Girls’ Lunch at the Hollywood Arms pub in Chelsea.

The super cool science-themed afternoon tea!

In true Foreign Service fashion, fate hasn’t quite finished with us this bidding season. We had pretty much figured we’d be heading to Washington and had verbally agreed on a position there. But since this particular job is at a different grade than I actually am, I am considered a “stretch bidder.” This means they weren’t able to officially offer me a written contract or “handshake” until stretch season in February. So we’re all pretty much just hanging around wading through the bureaucracy.

Since all of bidding is akin to moving a bunch of chess pieces around, it should come as no surprise that one of the top two posts we were bidding on in Europe contacted me a couple days ago, almost a full month after bidding has ended, to let me know that their #1 candidate had fallen through and asked if I wanted the job.

So this is where things got awkward. I had already verbally agreed to the job in DC, but my current supervisor, and the half dozen officers and fellow OMSs whose advice I asked, all told me that without a written handshake, I am under no obligation to follow through with the position.

Also, people curtail all the time, which means they not only accept a handshake, but they actually get all the way to post before they change their mind. So turning down a verbal is not necessarily a huge deal. Better for them to know ahead of time when they can still plan.

But I can’t help feeling extremely guilty, like I’m breaking up with a really nice guy to go out with someone else. Funny how much emotion we can attritube to this process. Plus I feel like this re-introduces an element of uncertainty. Who knows what else could happen between now and February if we start changing things around.

But hey, I try to remind myself that the whole reason we joined the FOREIGN Services is to go to foreign places, which DC is not. It’s a beautiful and exciting city; it’s in a section that I enjoy working; it will save us at least 50K in rent; I will get to use a bit of French; and our son is pretty much guaranteed to get better support at one of the few international schools that had actually accepted him. Plus they have awesome beer and chocolate. 😉

So as of today, our next post is…

Compared to the summer months before bidding that dragged on ever so slowly, the last few months have flown by. We’ve attended two Halloween parties (school and embassy) and had four birthdays…hubby, child, cat and dog. And, yes, we do try to celebrate all of them, with or without additional guests. 🙂

We had our September visitors. And then in October we had another visit from my lifelong friend AF from California who has been awesome and visited us at every post so far! We were more interested in spending time together and catching up than doing a ton of site seeing, but we still managed to get in a trip around the Golden Circle, a visit to the National Museum, the Blue Lagoon, the opening performance of Tosca at the Harpa, some Northern Lights, and a visit to the Einar Jónsson sculpture museum, which was very insightful.

My hubby dressed as a dinosaur on Halloween.

AF checking out the program for “Tosca” at Harpa.

I say insightful because many years ago, my great uncle had done a tour in the Navy here in Iceland. I had inherited his coin collection when he passed away that had some really neat coins from all over the world, minted mostly in the 20s and 30s. One particular coin was my favorite and reminded me of something out of The Lord of the Rings. Sadly it’s no longer with the collection I have, I’m hoping it’s in storage somewhere, so I could barely remember what it looked like.

Imagine my surprise when AF and I wandered through the sculpture museum, and I saw an incredibly familiar image on the wall. It was the original over-sized design of my uncle’s coin called “The King of Thule”. So now that I knew it was a coin designed by Einar Jonsson, I quickly discovered that this wasn’t just any coin…it was a commemorative coin minted in 1930 for the 1,000 years anniversary of the Althing. You can bet I want to find that coin!

Einar Jonsson relief titled “The King of Thule.”

The Icelandic 1,000 Year Althing coin, 1930.

And last but not least, winter has finally arrived!! The days are getting much shorter with the sun rising at 10am and setting around 4:30. And we’ve had our first decent snowfall.

I’ve been wanting to stop into the botanic garden downtown to see it’s pretty white bridges in the snow. I got the chance last weekend and was not disappointed. Although I will say that the park across the street from our house definitely gives it a run for its money!

Late morning sunrise in the park after the first good snow of the season.

Grasagarðurinn, the botanic garden in Reykjavik.

Daddy woke A up to show him the lights.

Last night we had some of the best auroras I’ve ever seen. After spending years in Alaska, Antarctica and two years here already, that’s saying something! Most of the time, you’ll see faint to moderate green auroras. Sometimes they are obvious and move across the sky; sometimes you’re not sure if it’s just a cloud. And in my experience, they come out brighter on film than they actually were to the naked eye.

Here’s a nice explanation of the colors from WebExhibits.org: “The sun radiates all visible colors, which is why sunlight appears white. The spectrum of visible light associated with the aurora is much more restricted. The aurora is caused by charged particles in the solar wind colliding with atmospheric atoms and ions. The collisions cause the electrons of the atmospheric atoms to become excited. As the electrons return to their original energy levels, these atoms emit visible light of distinct wavelengths, to create the colors of the display we see.

“The color of the aurora depends on the wavelength of the light emitted. This is determined by the specific atmospheric gas and its electrical state, and the energy of the particle that hits the atmospheric gas. The atmosphere consists mainly of nitrogen and oxygen, which emit the characteristic colors of their respective line spectra. Atomic oxygen is responsible for the two main colors of green (wavelength of 557.7 nm) and red (630.0 nm). Nitrogen causes blue and deep red hues.”

Image courtesy of WebExhibits.org.

Only once or twice have I ever seen the red or purplish hues that come from charged particles colliding with nitrogen atoms instead of oxygen. But last night was off the charts. Not only were they amazingly green and bright white, but there were also rippling curtains of pink and purple that spiked and danced across the sky in massive sheets.

That will be one of the things that I miss when we leave Iceland. There’s nothing quite like seeing phenomenal auroras from the comfort of your backyard.

 

That’s right, people! After seven years overseas, we’re going home!

Well, sort of…I would hardly call DC our home since we’re both from the West Coast. And I’m not looking forward to the hot humid disgusting summers or the ridiculous cost of housing. But maybe we’ll get lucky and be there for another Snowmageddon. 🙂

And once we just accept the fact that we’re going to drop 50K on rent in the next two years, and that the HOURS AND HOURS of my life that I spent vetting overseas schools were a total waste of time, we can take a moment to consider the things we are looking forward to. And there are quite a few of them!

  • Being closer to family and friends.
  • Doing fun things in around DC – like wine tastings at nearby vineyards and DC Restaurant Week.
  • American-style holidays – such as a good-old fashioned Fourth of July, pumpkin patches and neighborhood trick-or-treating on Halloween, amazing East Coast autumn leaves, Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, and hot summers by the pool.
  • Potential American East Coast road trips – like attending the Maine Lobster Festival, visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina, watching the Chincoteague ponies swim from Assateague Island, scoping out New York City for superheroes, and going to Disney World and Universal Studios Florida in the off season. We could even pop up to Canada and go to Montreal or Quebec…or do an Anne of Green Gables Tour on Prince Edward Island! Better start saving now.

Other more mundane things we’re looking forward to…

  • Getting mail in less than six weeks.
  • Having a fridge with an icemaker (hopefully).
  • Being able to walk into a shoe or clothing store and afford it…or any store! Having direct access to Target or Home Depot!
  • Canned soup! – I know this might sound strange, but I love to bring canned soup to work for lunch in the winter. London had a ton of great canned soups, but Iceland basically has three, and they’re a bit heavy on the garlic.
  • Not having to fill out government forms in triplicate if I want a bottle of wine.
  • Getting all of our stuff out of storage after seven years (and probably getting rid of half of it). I believe “eclectic mess” will be our decorating theme.

Our son is looking forward to finding a comic book store and being in an American school for the first time where everyone “speaks American”…(and they can’t refuse him admission because he has ADHD!!).  And I’m sure my hubby will be thrilled to drive his Jeep again.

And last, but not least…

I’m really looking forward to the job! I won’t be in the rabbit warren that is Main State in downtown DC; I’ll be at the Foreign Service Institute, which is a lovely training facility in Arlington similar to a university campus. If I hadn’t joined State, the other career field I was interested in pursuing was university administration. So this will be a lovely combination of both worlds. And it’ll be nice to get away from embassy politics for a while. 😉

So the fourth week out of a five-week bidding season draws to a close today. Even though there’s still one more week where you can officially register a bid on a post, many bureaus (offices that cover entire geographic regions) want their short list of recommendations from posts today.

In theory, the process is very straight forward. You email the person you want to replace and get an idea about the job. You officially apply for the job in the online bidding system. You email the hiring person with your resume and tell them why you want the job. If they like you, they interview you. If they still like you, they put you on their short list and send it to the bureaus. The bureau then decides who they want.

The reality is much more organic. What you expect to happen rarely does. We have to bid on a minimum of five posts and no more than 10. When bidding first started, I registered my five bids (that had also been approved for our son by MED) and continued on my way. Within the first week, two of those five positions dropped off the list. One person decided to extend, and the other one decided to retire early. I had a small panic attack, because getting MED to approve posts has been fairly difficult.

So I started applying for any job available at any of the posts that had already been approved, plus a couple of others I hadn’t previously considered, and managed to get it up to eight bids. Technically there are still two posts that have not been MED approved yet, but I don’t expect any problems.

Over the last four weeks, I’ve interviewed for five of the eight jobs and didn’t hear a peep out of the other three. One of which surprised me as I actually knew someone there on the hiring team, which I thought would at least get me an interview. One post I interviewed with has already told me they’re going to stick with at-grade bidders, and I’m one above. So we can scratch that one off.

I know some hiring managers that went on leave during bidding season, so if you didn’t interview with them during the first week, you probably weren’t going to make the short list. One post on my list popped up during the third week of bidding, so you wouldn’t even have known it was there if you weren’t continually downloading the list for any changes, which I did.

At the moment I’m on two short lists and considered a “strong candidate” for another. And I’ve noticed that one post we were interested in still has no bidders. Unfortunately, MED won’t approve it. But if nothing else works out, I suppose we can always appeal the decision and go for it. We shall see what happens!!

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