Posted in WashingtonDC

Geneva Update #2

Despite all the craziness in the world, things are continuing to progress toward our August move. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, international Foreign Service moves are currently frozen through the end of June, and then they’re going to possibly start opening up again on a post-by-post basis.

Some countries are obviously in better shape than others at the moment. Happily, Switzerland seems to be recovering and is starting to ease their border restrictions. Unlike the UK, they aren’t currently requiring a two-week home quarantine. So I’m hoping that by August, we will have a green light to go.

Assuming that we will be leaving on time, I’ve continued running down my pre-departure checklist. Over the last two weeks I’ve exchanged a dozen emails with my future desk officer, HR at post, the visa folks at State, and the Swiss Embassy trying to figure out how to get a Swiss long-stay visa while everything is closed. To my pleasant surprise, everyone was super helpful and responsive, and this afternoon I popped our application materials into a FedEx envelope and sent them on their way.

Applying for visas always stresses me out. I envision forgetting to check one little box and the whole thing getting derailed. And I did get a bit of confusing information along the way, so it’s always good to triple check!

One of the things that freaked me out was the requirement that my passport be good through the duration of our three-year stay. Dip passports are only good for five years at a time, so the odds of these two things coinciding is slim. I panicked a bit thinking that I was going to have to renew my dip passport before applying for a visa…even though it’s still good for another year. But I was assured that I could renew it once I got to Switzerland, I would just have to re-apply for a visa and redo all the other local paperwork. I am quite okay with that.

I tried reserving our plane tickets through the State travel agency, and they too replied quickly. I figured they’d be slammed when things start moving again, so I thought it best to get it out of the way. I had a reservation for a few weeks until United (the gov’t contracted carrier) dropped the DC-to-Geneva route and cancelled my res. The travel agency suggested I touch base with them in June to see how things are going with air travel, so that’s my plan.

Apparently my dog is also too big to fly on United, so the pet shipper that I contacted recommended Lufthansa. That will set me back a whopping $3,000 when it’s time to go. Good thing we don’t do this every year! The cat will be flying as accompanied baggage. And you can bet that I’m going to try to find a way to avoid bringing them back to the States for home leave if we get posted to another European country in 2023.

I also sent in the necessary info to initiate the eventual packing up of our household effects, UAB, and POV (car) in July. Although I think I might have put the wrong engine number on the form. So I’ll have to fix that on Monday. AND I’ve done some shopping on Wayfair to make my shipment heavier and our all-white future apartment more colorful.

I’ve picked up some new dining chairs and a couple of rugs since our new place is going to be all tile. I bought a cheap sideboard to put in the hallway. I still need to buy a new couch, but I wanted to see how Wayfair delivered first. If they dropped everything in the lobby, and I had to drag it to the fifth floor, that could’ve been a problem. But they delivered it right to the door every time!

So I feel good! I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot of the really important things. If we do leave on time, WE ONLY HAVE TWO MONTHS LEFT IN THE US!! The last three have been kind of a bust, but at least I’m no longer bummed about the fact that we don’t get home leave before we head overseas. All of my son’s summer camps were cancelled, so by the time we leave, I will have been working from home for five months and will be ready to get the heck out of Dodge!!

Posted in WashingtonDC

The Great Outdoors: Purse State Park (& Fossilized Shark Teeth!)

The beach at Purse State Park.

For our second adventure, we went to Purse State Park in Maryland. Although, technically it is no longer a state park. It is now part of the Nanjemoy Wildlife Management Area. I seem to like things that are in spitting distance of the DC area, so this too is only about an hour away.

As you can see on the map, the beach is actually on the shores of the Potomac River and nowhere near the open ocean. But the water views were still quite expansive, it was lovely and warm, and the shallows extend for a good distance, so it’s great for kids.

Map of area around Purse State Park.
Winding our way along the trail to the beach.

The GPS coordinates tagged the entrance to the trail head nicely. And even though we couldn’t see the trail as we drove by (because someone parked in front of it), we would’ve known it from the 30 cars lined up randomly on the side of the road. The trail to the beach starts at a yellow gate and extends about ¼ mile under big leafy trees.

The beach itself is long but narrow, so it’s best to check the tide charts before going and to go at low tide…otherwise there’s no beach at all. But the BEST part about the beach is that you can hunt for fossils!

The most common fossils found are shells and shark’s teeth. This is thanks to a geological feature called the Aquia Formation. My favorite source, Wikipedia, says that the Aquia Formation “is a geologic sandstone formation that extends from the upper Chesapeake Bay to the James River near Hopewell, Virginia.

“It consists of clayey, silty, very shelly, glauconitic sand. Fossil records indicate that this stratigraphic unit was created during the Paleocene. The Aquia formation was named for Aquia Creek where it is exposed in cliff faces along the banks.”

We parked our towels on the beach under the shade of some overhanging trees. The cool thing was that you could clearly see the clay layer with all the shells in it where the bank had eroded beneath the trees. A fun DC mom blog, Kid Friendly DC, mentioned that the best finds are usually along the water line.

Sandy layer of Aquia Formation with shells visible.

I brought a colander, and we sifted through the sand and rocks and shells. But we didn’t find anything…until we stopped looking. My friend AF and my son found four shark’s teeth just sitting in the sand next to their towels. They were super tiny…barely a centimeter long…but still amazing!! A key on Fossil Wiki helped me identify them as 55 to 60-million-year-old sand shark teeth. And I found a neat green fossilized shell that I was very happy with.

My son quickly lost interest in hunting for teeth and spent the rest of the time splashing around in the water. And I must say, I was quite impressed by how far out he went. Usually he doesn’t like to stray too far away from me, but he reached a point where I was almost uncomfortable. I guess he’s getting to the age where I’d better start getting used to it!

My son about half way out in the shallows.
Our fossil treasures from the day.
Posted in WashingtonDC

The Great Outdoors: Sky Meadows State Park

View toward the farmhouse in Sky Meadows State Park.

Wow! I can hardly believe that it’s been two months since my last post. As you can imagine, not a whole lot has happened. We’ve continued teleworking and online schooling from home, and things seem to have slowly calmed down.

Last week I was actually able to get a normal grocery delivery from Safeway…with no delay…AND they had toilet paper in stock. I still like the idea of ordering takeout as “supporting your local restaurants,” so I might have to continue to do that indefinitely since I loathe cooking.

And we have been able to get out and about a bit. The Virginia State Parks have been open throughout the pandemic, and a couple weeks ago I was inspired by a friend’s FB post and decided to venture out. I felt mildly guilty about leaving the house for recreational purposes, but the official position is that exercise and nature are sufficient reasons. So that was good enough for me.

Our first adventure led us to Sky Meadows about an hour from DC in Delaplane. The park had solid social distancing rules in place. They allowed groups of no more than 10 people, and they closed the parking lots once they were full.

Still I was a bit surprised when we arrived around noon to find about 20 cars in front of us waiting to pay the $10 entrance fee. Once inside the park, everyone fanned out. The buildings were closed, but there were a couple of porta potties available.

Only a couple more cars in front of us!
The colonial farmhouse.

According to the park’s website, “This 1,860-acre park has scenic views, woodlands and the rolling pastures of a historic farm that captures the colonial through modern life of the Crooked Run Valley,” and “the park has 10.5 miles of bridle trails, 22 miles of hiking trails, 9 miles of bike trails and Appalachian Trail access.”

It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and we spent about two hours wandering around the area. It was so good to get out in nature, get some fresh air, and get a change of scenery. Then we jumped back in the car and headed home past all the wineries. Probably a good thing they were closed. 😉

Posted in WashingtonDC

Pandemic Post

Well, it’s been less than two weeks since my last post, and things have kind of hit the fan. Coronavirus cases have exploded exponentially in the US and across the globe. Here’s a current screenshot of the case tracker map from Johns Hopkins. And a friend shared on FB a comparative map from the CDC of US cases over a three-week period starting on March 1.

Johns Hopkins world map.
CDC map of the US.

Individual US states as well as entire countries abroad are locking down externally by closing their international borders and internally by shuttering schools, as well as nonessential businesses, and imposing curfews, all hoping to slow the spread of the disease. News coverage has been completely taken over, and everyone is being personally affected on some level…unless you’re lucky enough to be wintering in Antarctica. : )

On Friday, March 13, the schools in our area announced that they would be suspending classroom learning and switching to online. We were supposed to start alternating telework days for social distancing on campus the following Monday. But that lasted about half a day, and they sent everyone home, so those two things lined up nicely. A few days later the schools told everyone they would not be reopening for the duration of the school year. So I guess I’ll be teleworking through June regardless.

On day three of online learning, my son’s six-year-old iPad finally gave up the ghost, so I had to go online and order him another one. My ex was the tech guru in our family and used to just give him his old iPad every few years when he bought a replacement. I am nowhere near that savvy, so I just got the cheapest and newest one I could find at Best Buy. It arrived this morning, so we should be back online soon.

Working from home has been an exercise in frustration. We’ve always used 20 different platforms to do different things from time and attendance to flight reservations to performance evaluations. And now we had to figure out a half a dozen new ones just to be able to organize video conferences and share documents that all seem to lose their formatting the minute you send them. (I seriously cannot wait to get back to an actual desk someday.) But I’m sure I have a much lighter workload compared to some people…like all of our instructors that had to figure out how to suddenly transfer their classes to an online platform.

I used to order my groceries online from Safeway and have them delivered every couple of weeks, so I didn’t have to schlep them up to the fifth floor of our apartment building (even though we have an elevator). Now when I go online there are no delivery dates available. I tried to shop through Instacart instead, which has higher fees, and could still only get a delivery a week away. The last delivery I did get from Safeway had a full page of items that they were out of in the inventory. Happily, the little shop in our apartment complex is still open and has yet to run out of toilet paper, bread, milk, or eggs.

Sadly, I’ve only been able to drive my new car a few times since we went to teleworking almost immediately after it arrived. And Carvana did text me to let me know that they wouldn’t be able to process my vehicle registration transfer as soon as hoped as the VA DMV was now closed. But I did pop out one morning for a pneumonia shot from my doctor. We took a drive on Saturday to see the cherry blossoms in Kenwood, MD, since the DC Cherry Blossom Festival had been cancelled, and we weren’t on lockdown yet. Every now and then we pop out and go through the drive through at Taco Bell. I guess even those outings will be curtailed now.

I have no idea how this is going to affect our move to Geneva this summer. August is late summer, but still…Switzerland currently has over 10,000 cases and has locked down the border. There’s no official word out yet on the summer transfer season, but I asked my supervisors what they thought, and they recommended that I extend my lease. So that’s a bummer, but the last couple years have taught me not to be emotionally attached to your future plans.

On the bright side, I would’ve been spending just as much as rent in DC on childcare in Switzerland. And I actually am saving quite a bit of money at the moment on things that have been suspended or cancelled. If this craziness does last through summer, I’ll save thousands in summer camp fees. Here’s a short list of what I’ll be saving so far:

Taekwondo                                            $210/month
Before/after school care               $400/month
Spring break camp                            $360
Trip to DisneyWorld                        $800-1,000
Cafeteria Lunch (work)                  $50-150/month
Gasoline                                                  $80/month

Anyway, I could not write any of this without acknowledging how lucky we are that we are safe and well at home here in the US. Our situation is merely a string of inconveniences compared to the true fear and horror that some countries are experiencing.

Wishing you and your loved ones all good health.

 

Posted in WashingtonDC

And the Winner Gets…A New Car(vana)! 

Our Carvana delivery!

If you’ve been reading my blog recently, you’ve probably heard me mention that my current car is a bit too old to take with us to Switzerland. Technically, it’s a combination of the age and the condition of the vehicle. My sweet girl (no I never named her) will be 10 years old when we PCS.

And, even though she runs great and has really low mileage (only 65K), she is getting up there. She has lots of scratches and dings and a few chips in the windshield. Swiss vehicle inspectors are extremely strict, especially on cars older than eight years. SO, rather than get over there and have her suddenly fail inspection…at which point I would be stuck with a car that I couldn’t drive but had to pay to store…it was probably best to trade her in for a newer model while we were still in the States.

When I bought her back in 2010, I was pregnant and wanted something safer than the little commuter car that I was driving. I wanted something that had lots of room for my new family, and could hold its own in the snow, but maneuvered like a car. I’m also a sucker for aesthetics and wanted a burgundy exterior, tan interior, and maybe a bit of faux-wood trim to make me feel fancy. All of which she had.

But I’ve come to realize that I’m quite emotionally attached to her! Not only did she bring my son safely home from the hospital on the day that he was born, but she drove us from Denver to DC when we joined the Foreign Service. She’s been to every overseas post with us. She’s carried our friends and family. She’s toted groceries, and suitcases, and a big wet dog on trips to the beach in Iceland. She’s been to restaurants and emergency rooms, jungles and fjords, Mayan temples and British country houses.

My son pointed out that she’s been waiting for him every time he’s left the house…almost every day of his life. Even when we took the bus most days in London, she was still parked on the side of the road. She even outlasted my marriage.

So I thought of replacing her with a newer Santa Fe to ease the feeling of separation. But apparently, Santa Fes now sell for $30K! No idea how that happened. When I found her at a dealership, she was only a year old, and the purchase price was $18,000.

It also occurred to me, now that I’m divorced, that we don’t need a vehicle quite that big. I still wanted some kind of SUV, just something a bit smaller and cheaper. Still a fan of the burgundy exterior and tan interior. Enter the Hyundai Tucson.

But I was dreading going to a car dealership. I did lots of research, and many people said that you shouldn’t tell the dealer up front that you wanted to trade in a vehicle…or pay cash…or that you were female…because they would jack up the price. All of which would be fairly obvious at some point. Plus the process drags on for hours in person.

I had recently spoken to a colleague who had purchased a car from Carvana completely online. He’d said that he’d had a great experience, and the main reason that he went through them was because they offered him such a high value for his trade-in. So I checked it out.

For some reason, there were no 2018 Hyundai Tucsons listed for sale. And all the 2019 ones had black or grey interiors. But the 2017s had some lovely tan interiors and for a very reasonable price! I ran the specs of my Sante Fe through their trade-in value calculator…and they offered me almost $4,000! Almost 25% of which was an increase for DC market value.

They said it could take up to two months to get the new title, so I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time before we were supposed to ship it. But the purchase process was so easy! I picked out my preferred vehicle and uploaded a bunch of documents…copies of my driver’s license, social security card, current title, and a photo of the current odometer reading.

Because I wanted to transfer the registration, they asked for a copy of that. I opted not to get the Carvana Care (pseudo-extended warranty) because they confirmed that it doesn’t work overseas. I also had to add the new vehicle to my existing insurance, which took about 10 minutes online with USAA, and upload proof of that. If you have an out-of-state license, they’ll want proof of residency. Then I got to pick my delivery date and time.

The next day a customer service agent called to confirm my info and ask if I had any questions. He was very pleasant, and what questions he didn’t know the answer to at the time, he found the information later and emailed it to me.

The only thing that made me nervous was, because I was paying cash online, entering the user ID and password to my online bank account so I could get a PIN number from my bank for the cash transaction. But nothing’s disappeared out of my account, and I’ve made a mental note to change my password as soon as they collect the funds.

So last weekend we took our little Santa Fe on her last adventure to Alexandria where we had lunch and gelato. On Thursday she took her last ride with Thorfinn to doggy daycare. On Friday she did her last school run with my son. This morning she took him to taekwondo, we went through the drive through at Taco Bell, and I took her for a nice wash and interior cleaning.

Then we took the parking decals off the windshield, removed my son’s elementary school spirit magnet from the back corner by the license plate, and said good-bye.

The Carvana guys called a few minutes before they were scheduled to arrive to let me know they were running about half an hour late. But once they got here, the transfer process took a whopping 30 minutes.

Other than the fact that I clearly anthropomorphize waaaaaaaay too much, I think I’ve also had a hard time letting go of this little car because it’s kind of a symbol of the family life I thought we were going to have when we first got married. And things continue to change.

But I got through it, and we welcomed our shiny newish 2017 Hyundai Tucson to the family. She’s slightly more compact…about six inches shorter in length and about one inch lower, even though she still has decent ground (aka snow) clearance. She’s got a sweet back-up camera, has driven 17K miles, and is ready to pack up our redefined family and take us on our next adventure. My son has named her Flashie. 🙂

Posted in WashingtonDC

New Season, New Theme

I cannot remember the last time I changed the look of my blog…probably back in London over five years ago. Even though it was only 22 degrees this morning in DC, February is almost over, and you can feel that spring is just around the corner. By the middle of March last year we’d hit almost 80 degrees, so it won’t be long now before visible transitions are under way. We are also starting a metaphorical new season with our move to a new post this summer, so I felt that a corresponding and lovely new theme would be a nice way to say farewell to the old and usher in the new. 🙂

Posted in WashingtonDC

DS Training

For obvious reasons, we’re not really supposed to blog about anything security related, but I thought it was worth mentioning that I got to do some training at the Diplomatic Security Service’s new Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) in Blackstone last week.

Since I can’t talk about all the fun things I was able to do, I will direct you to this very informative open source article from NBC news titled, “U.S. Department of State opens new state-of-the-art training facility in Va.

What I can tell you is that it’s fairly difficult to find someone to watch your kid for a week while you wander off to training as a single parent. I am super thankful that my lifelong friend AF had recently joined the FS and happened to be at FSI for her own training…and that she agreed to watch my kiddo for a week in the midst of a massive career transition. Thank you so much, AF! I owe you big time!!

I can also tell you that I took advantage of six whole nights without said kiddo to watch lots of grown-up movies on TV such as the new Charlie’s Angels, Knives Out, and Maleficent 2.  I also consumed several weeks worth of red meat in the form of prime rib and cheese burgers.

I found a fantastic gastro pub chain called The Burger Bach that specializes in super yummy burgers made of imported New Zealand beef that they grind in-house. I highly recommend the “Wellington” burger, which comes with New Zealand triple cream blue cheese, hp sauce, brown gravy, caramelized onions, sautéed wild mushrooms, and garlic aioli. It was so good, I had it three nights in a row. And it came with salad instead of fries, so I could pretend it was healthy.

I also saw my first ever albino deer during the evening commute…on two separate occasions, so it wasn’t just my imagination. There was much ensuing discussion of Harry Potter and your personal Patronus charm. It seems quite fitting in retrospect since the Patronus is used for defense. 🙂 Between that and the security training, I should be in pretty good shape!