Posted in WashingtonDC

Thanksgiving in Wisconsin!

A snowy Thanksgiving.

Happy holidays, and I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving! We were very excited to spend our Turkey Day in Wisconsin with one of my cousins and his family. It was extra special because we hadn’t actually seen each other in 20 years! Where does the time go??

We both have kids who had never met, and I come from a fairly small family, so introducing them to each other made my heart happy.

We had also never been to the state of Wisconsin, so it was fun to check out a new place. It reminded me quite a bit of Alaska with thick forests and lots of wildlife. My cousin has a lovely creek running behind his house, and at one moment, we looked up and saw a doe and her fawn standing in the water between the snowy banks. It looked like a Christmas card! Not unlike this one…minus the guy with the antlers.

Wildlife painting from WallPaperFlare.com.

The first couple days were spent catching up on two decades of family history. We also popped out for a few meals at a local diner and a supper club. I had read about supper clubs in an Atlas Obscura article and was excited to visit one.

But we didn’t go to just any supper club, we went to the Little Bohemia Lodge. According to Wikipedia, “Little Bohemia Lodge is a rural vacation lodge and restaurant located off US Highway 51 in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. The lodge was built in 1929 by Emil Wanatka on land he acquired that same year. Little Bohemia gained fame and infamy as the setting of a botched raid by the FBI (then called the Division of Investigation) against the John Dillinger Gang.

“The historic rustic lodge remains as it was at the time of the federal raid and along with original bullet holes from the gun battle still in the walls and windows; Little Bohemia Lodge has a collection of memorabilia from the gun battle.”

Exterior of Little Bohemia Lodge.
One of the interior dining room all decorated for Xmas.
Super yummy pork schnitzel.

The lodge was also used as the filming location for the 2008 movie Public Enemies with Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger. And they had great food! I was really tempted to order the “broasted” chicken, which I had never heard of and consists of frying a chicken in a pressure cooker. But I couldn’t pass up the pork schnitzel with spaetzle (small German dumplings similar to gnocchi) and red cabbage. Mmm. We also had beer cheese soup with popcorn garnish, pasta salad, and shrimp cocktail on a little bed of lettuce.

After we got home from dinner on Tuesday, a massive snowstorm blew through overnight and dumped a foot of snow on the ground. It was absolutely gorgeous! Unfortunately, it also knocked out the power for 11 hours. But I kind of enjoyed it. The kids stayed off their electronics for the most part, and we played cards and board games, then set off for lunch at the Sayner Pub, a place in town that had electricity…and amazing pizza and Bloody Marys with lots of fixings on top.

Happily the power came back on just in time for Thanksgiving. And my cousin’s awesome wife put together an amazing dinner with sweet potatoes and marshmallows, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, turkey, cranberry sauce, and homemade apple pie. I was extremely helpful and…ahem…kept her company. I did mash some potatoes though!

Bloody Marys at the pub and a Thanksgiving turkey!

Our flight was scheduled to leave the next day, and when I went to check in online, I discovered that the departure time had been moved up by three hours, and it was the only flight out of town that day. So our visit was cut a bit shorter than we intended. But it was so lovely to spend time with family, and we’re hoping to see them again once we get settled in Switzerland!

Posted in WashingtonDC

Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Great Wolf Lodge

Josiah Chowning’s Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg.

Last Thursday I accompanied my son and the entire fourth grade at his elementary school on a field trip to Jamestown, VA. His school is so big that the children took up two commercial tour buses. The accompanying parents drove separately, so we got up at 5am to get him settled on the bus before our little motorcade embarked on the three-hour drive south a little after 6am.

Colonial Williamsburg has been on my VA bucket list since we arrived, but I have yet to muster the motivation for the six-hour round trip. So this seemed like the perfect opportunity to help out a bit as a parent and to check a few things off the list. I got permission from his teacher to keep him out of school the following day and booked us in for two nights at Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg.

We first stopped on Jamestown Island to see what was left of the fort, then we visited the Glasshouse and the reconstructed Jamestown Settlement. The kids didn’t seem particularly interested in the history, and there was much scuffing of small shoes in the dirt during teacher and guide lectures. But there were a few highlights…like the statue of Pocahontas, the musket demonstration, and the ships you can climb on. Other than that, I think the kids were just happy to be running around outside.

Fall colors at the entrance to the Jamestown Fort and the statue of Pocahontas.
Overlooking the James River.

Here’s a bit of quick Wikipedia history for you, if you’re unfamiliar with the area: “The Jamestown settlement in the Colony of Virginia was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas [and] served as the colonial capital from 1616 until 1699. […] In 1699, the colonial capital was moved to what is today Williamsburg, Virginia; Jamestown ceased to exist as a settlement, and remains today only as an archaeological site. […] The museum complex features a reconstruction of a Powhatan village, the James Fort as it was c. 1610–1614, and seagoing replicas of the three ships that brought the first settlers, Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery.”

I keep meaning to watch the Netflix series Jamestown, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Kids would probably enjoy the Disney movie Pocahontas, even if it is historically inaccurate. And I thought the cinematography was great in The New World when it came out in 2005. Will have to watch that again now that we’ve been there.

The Glassworks was pretty cool. They had bright fiery kilns, two artists that were actively sculpting glass, and an extremely expensive gift shop. The school purchased a glass paperweight for every student, which I thought was super sweet and said as much. My son’s teacher pointed out that the fact that the cost was included in the field trip fee. But I still thought it was a nice idea.

Inside the Glassworks.
The ships at the Jamestown Settlement.

The buses left around 3:00 to head back to Falls Church, so A and I cruised over to Great Wolf Lodge, which was by far his favorite part of the entire trip. I figured this was the only time we’d probably be staying here, so I booked a “Wolf Den” room with a queen bed and a bunk bed in a little alcove decorated like a wolf den. I figured there was a 50/50 chance of A actually wanting to sleep in it by himself, and he didn’t. So happily the room also came with a pull-out couch.

The whole place was amazing for kids, and apparently there are 18 of them scattered across the country. It was like a Disney-themed hotel with big fake trees and log cabins in the dining room, paw prints on the carpet, and a giant fire place decorated with stuffed wolves and bears. They also had a spa, gift shops with pick-and-mix candies, a Dunkin Donuts, a Build-a-Bear workshop, an arcade, an ice cream parlor, and separate pizza and burger kiosks.

Wolf Den room (internet photo).

The food was mediocre, but the main attractions were the giant indoor waterpark with half a dozen heated pools and slides and the MagiQuest scavenger hunt. We ended up only going in the pools one time, but A spent hours running up and down the halls and riding the elevators back and forth between the floors with his infrared wand collecting virtual gems and herbs and battling dragons. He LOVED it.

On Friday I managed to drag him out of the hotel for a few hours to check out Colonial Williamsburg. We parked at the Visitors Center and walked along the path through the Great Hopes Plantation, along a tiny section of the Colonial Parkway, and into the living-history museum. It’s free to wander around the town, but if you want to go in any of the buildings (other than the restaurants) you have to pay for a tour.

The one thing that I wanted to do was to eat at one of the colonial restaurants and “order a local craft beer and keep the traditional salted mug,” as advertised on their website. So we stopped for lunch at Josiah Chowning’s Tavern, which opened in 1766. I loved the architecture and the history, but our waitress was a bit surly, and the food wasn’t very good.

Walking along the Colonial Parkway.
The coveted tavern mug.

And the mug was disappointing! If you wanted to “keep” the mug, it was an extra $19 in addition to the cost of the beer. You might as well buy one in the gift shop. And there wasn’t a cool picture on it…just the name of the tavern. But the beer was great! They were out of the Spiced Ale, so I had the Weekend Lager. I usually find lagers boring, but it was a lovely color with great flavor and brewed locally by the Alewerks in Williamsburg. I’ll have to see if I can find some more of their stuff at home.

Outside of the living-history museum is the historic section of Williamsburg called Merchant’s Square. It looked really cute and reminded me a lot of downtown Alexandria. And this was definitely the right time of year to go. Not too crowded, the trees driving through Northern Virginia were absolutely amazing with their fall colors, and it was cool enough to walk around comfortably. So I’m happy that we went, but I’m not sure that I’d make the effort to go back.

Posted in Switzerland

Thoughts on Geneva

Geneva, photo by Samuel Borges Photography/Shutterstock.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I am really excited about being posted to Geneva. I’ve been there twice as a tourist, and it’s gorgeous! Here are some of the things that have been swirling around in my head since receiving the news.

We Used to Be Neighbors

Twenty-five years ago, I lived about a two-hour drive across the border in France for a year for study abroad. I remember doing a short weekend girls’ trip to Geneva with three fellow students that I’ve since lost touch with. But I remember the lake and strolling along the boulevard at night eating roasted chestnuts in the cool weather. I also visited again for a day while on a family vacation with my mom and step-dad in France in 2002.

Housing

Like many cities with Foreign Service housing, you have two options: apartments downtown or houses in the suburbs. It would be amazing to finally have a house again with a yard for the dog. But it increases the commute, which increases the need for child care. It’s also an unfurnished post, so I can take my current furniture, but I don’t love it and was hoping to get rid of most of it when we left DC. If we get a bigger house, I’ll also have to buy more stuff to cover the essentials…like beds in the guest room for visitors!

Child Care

…is exorbitantly expensive in Geneva. From what I’ve read, the going rate for a babysitter is about 20-30 USD per hour. Not that we have one, but they also have extremely strict regulations on importing nannies, and you have to pay for local health insurance, etc. So a live-in nanny costs about $2,500 a month, and a nanny that doesn’t live with you gets paid about $3,000, and there are long waiting lists.

Another option is to hire an au pair. Au pair’s live with you and are only allowed to work a maximum of 30 hours a week (compared to 45 in the US), while they take a language course…half of which you are required to pay for. They also need insurance and a salary, all of which comes out to over $2,000 per month. Depending on how much overtime I work, hiring someone to be home when A gets there after school might be a necessity. So I’d basically be trading DC rent for child care expenses, which is kind of a bummer. But if our lives cost the same in both places, at least the quality of living will be much improved in Geneva. 🙂

Schools

Housing and childcare might also depend on what school he gets into. There are four English-speaking international schools in Geneva, and one of them is right across the street from the mission. So A could essentially walk over when he’s done, sit somewhere quietly, and do his homework. Granted, that’s not really ideal (if even possible). But since they are all private, for-profit schools, they are not required by law to make any accommodations for kids that require any kind of learning support. Some of them do have programs though, so we’ll see what we can come up with.

Vehicles

They’re quite strict on vehicle inspections…especially on cars that are over eight years old. Mine would be 11 when we arrive. I’ve recently replaced the headlights (grrr), and the windshield has a few chips in it that may or may not pass inspection. If I am ever to buy a new car, it would be smart to do it while we’re in the US and I can trade in my vehicle, but it only has 60,000 miles and is still in pretty good shape mechanically. So that’s another big decision (and expense) I get to make.

French

I get to use my bad tourist French! I have a French degree from 1994, studied it on and off for seven years between high school and college, and spent a year in the country. It’s been so long that I’m still nervous to speak in the presence of others, but I am looking forward to using it again…and not actually being graded on it! I like to think it will be in pretty good form by the time we leave post though.

And of course there is the French food, and the snow in winter, and the mountains (Matterhorn!) and lakes, and Christmas markets, and castles. I never think of Switzerland when I think of castles, but they have some great ones! I’ve also come across a few fun things that I can’t wait to check out…like the HR Giger Museum in Gruyères, the Ice Palace in Fieschertal, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, and the Glacier Express train…and all the great travel opportunities to neighboring countries.

Sometimes it is hard to live in the moment when you know what’s coming, but I will try. 🙂

Posted in Switzerland

And Our Next Post Is…

…GENEVA, SWITZERLAND!! I am extremely excited about it and can’t wait to get there. Scroll down for 40 Fun Facts about Switzerland, and you’ll understand why. 🙂

40 Fun Facts about Switzerland from SeriousFacts.com:

1. Switzerland was originally called Helvetia.
2. The official name of Switzerland is Confoederatio Helvetica in Latin [hence Swiss webpages end in .ch].
3. Switzerland produces the most chocolate in the world.
4. The Swiss eat more chocolate compared to any other country.
5. The total area of Switzerland is 41,277 sq km. [15,937 sq mi.)
6. Switzerland is the only country that has a square flag.
7. Switzerland has more than 1,500 lakes.
8. Switzerland’s highest point is the Dufour Peak at 15,199 feet height.
9. Swiss chocolate makers Henri ‘Nestle’ and ‘Daniel Peter’ invented milk chocolate.
10. Teaching in Switzerland is one of the uppermost paid professions.
11. They have four official languages: French, Italian, Romansch, and German.
12. Jean-Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman and the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, received the very first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.
13. Switzerland is one of the world’s leading exporters of chocolate.
14. The capital of Switzerland is Bern.
15. Their largest city is Zurich.
16. Albert Hoffman, a Swiss chemist took the first acid trip in 1943.
17. Most of the world’s luxury watches are produced in Switzerland like Tissot, TAG Heuer, Rolex, and Patek Philippe.
18. Snowboarding, skiing, and mountaineering are popular sports in Switzerland.
19. Assisted suicide in Switzerland is legal.
20. Nescafe, the world’s first instant coffee, was invented in Switzerland.
21. Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web in Switzerland in 1989.
22. Switzerland’s Sonnenberg Tunnel is the largest nuclear shelter in the world.
23. Patek Philippe of Switzerland invented the wristwatch in 1868.
24. August 1st is Switzerland’s Independence Day.
25. 60% of the country’s electricity comes from a hydroelectric power source.
26. In Switzerland, bank tellers are secured by bulletproof glass.
27. Switzerland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
28. In case of a nuclear war, Switzerland has enough bunkers to house their entire population.
29. Switzerland’s lowest elevation is the town of Ascona at 643 feet.
30. Globi, a Swiss cartoon character, is one of the most popular characters in Switzerland.
31. Rivella is the most famous and favorite drink in Switzerland.
32. Rosti is one of Switzerland’s popular dishes.
33. The world’s smallest toolbox, the Swiss Army Knife, was invented by Karl Elsener.
34. Albert Einstein invented the famous equation E = mc2 while he was in Switzerland.
35. Most Indian films are shot in Switzerland. [I had to Google this one…but apparently it’s true!]
36. Charlie Chaplin spent the last 25 years of his life in Switzerland.
37. The first waterproof watch was invented by Rolex.
38. Switzerland is the only country to build an airplane that is powered by solar energy.
39. To apply for Swiss citizenship, you have to live in Switzerland for at least 12 years.
40. Switzerland accidentally invaded its neighbor Liechtenstein in 2007. 🙂

Posted in WashingtonDC

Maryland Renaissance Festival – Huzzah!

Entrance to the MD Ren Fest after most of the crowds had flowed through.

This event has been on my radar since we lived here in 2008, but we’ve never made it. It runs every weekend from the last week of August through the last week of October. This three-day weekend, I was feeling a bit stressed about bidding and life in general and figured it would be the perfect opportunity to get away for a while…but not have to worry about elaborate travel plans.

So I booked us into an average hotel off the highway in Annapolis for two nights and bought two tickets to Ren Fest. We weren’t in a hurry, so I took my son to his usual taekwondo class on Saturday morning, dropped the dog off at boarding, and took a leisurely drive up to Annapolis. So far, so good!

I picked the hotel because it was close to the festival location and because they had two separate beds in the room. For some reason, all the other hotels I found assumed everyone sharing a hotel room wants to also share a bed. I don’t sleep when kicked. So it was a little more than I was planning on spending, but I was even less thrilled when I saw the condition of the place.

It was really run down, with spider webs in the pool furniture and broken screens with glass shards on the exercise equipment in the gym. Apparently it’s usually a fairly cheap hotel, but they had literally tripled the price of our first night. I assume it was due to the fact that it was Columbus Day weekend; there was a Navy college football game going on downtown (they pounded Tulsa 45-17, by the way); and there was also a sailboat show. I wasn’t happy about paying so much, but the staff was nice, and they were very responsive when I called to complain about our loud partying neighbors at 11:30pm.

And the pool and the hot tub were functional, so A and I had a nice relaxing dip and then went to Macaroni Grill for dinner. I figured he would enjoy drawing on the paper table cloth, and he did! The food was pretty bad though…seriously overcooked shrimp scampi. I had worked at a Macaroni Grill for six long months back in my 20s and mentioned it to our waiter. He wasn’t particularly interested and didn’t even make eye contact until he brought me the bill at the end.

Anyway, another reason that we hadn’t been to Ren Fest yet was that I’d seen pictures of how insanely crowded it gets. I had been told to arrive as early as possible to avoid the crush of people, which is also why we came up the night before. The park opened at 10am, so we arrived a few minutes early, found a nice place to park, and waded into the sea of people ready to go in.

The place was pretty good sized, and it is really well done. It’s modeled after a 16th-century English village and covers over 27 acres. Each year, the festival has a theme. According to their website, this season’s theme was as follows:

Revel Grove, Oxfordshire, England

The year is 1532. King Henry VIII has separated from his wife, Queen Katherine, and is determined to secure a divorce and marry Lady Anne Boleyn.

The King, Anne Boleyn, members of the Boleyn and Howard family, as well as friends in the royal court visit the village of Revel Grove as part of their annual summer progress and the village’s Harvest Festival.  This year they are in a joyous mood, as they are making their way to Dover, to then sail to Calais where France’s King Francis I will meet Anne Boleyn.  This recognition by Francis will show support of the relationship, and prove to the world that Anne is worthy of being Queen.

The King and Anne are in high spirits, as they feel the future is bright and they will shortly be able to wed.

Mayor Richard Mondes, his wife the Baroness Marney, and all of the villagers of Revel Grove are on hand to welcome the King, court, and all of our gracious guests to a fabulous day of feasting and fun!

The crowds.
Enjoying the costumes.
Cheesecake on a stick…mmmm.
More food on sticks!
A brave attempt on the spinning bridge.
Scaling the castle walls and waiting for a glass-blowing demonstration.

There were lots of great costumes roaming around. And the experience of it was…okay. I think if I had been alone, I could’ve spent the whole day there wandering around, checking out the fun medieval artisans, eating turkey legs, and drinking mead. But it was still way too crowded for me. And I even had some cranky staff member get confrontational with me for taking a picture of the cool medieval bar she was working in. I must’ve missed the no photo policy on the website…oh, wait, there isn’t one!

My son had a good time though…he made a bee-line to the first shop selling dragon toys, then found the handmade wooden swords and axes. He then shocked me by diving into a life-sized maze by himself and scurrying up a 25-foot climbing wall. I did finally get a plastic cup full of mead though. 🙂

So, I’m glad we got a chance to do it. But I don’t think I’d make the effort to do it again. If you go, definitely try to go early. We left around 12:30pm, and there was a line of cars several miles long waiting to get into the parking area. Huzzah!!

Posted in WashingtonDC

Car Troubles

…aka “A Good Reminder that Things Aren’t Necessarily Easier in the US.”

Sometime last month, my car failed the VA state vehicle safety inspection. Apparently, two little orange marker lights weren’t turning on with my front running lights. They put a pink “FAILED” sticker on my windshield and told me I had two weeks to fix it.

I immediately made an appointment with my Hyundai dealer as they’d replaced a burned out headlight several months ago, so I was hoping they could fix it for free if it was something under warranty. On the day of my appointment, the car suddenly wouldn’t start. I called my free USAA roadside assistance for a tow to the shop since we were going there anyway.

But he didn’t show up…for four hours…and we missed our appointment. When he did show up, he got the battery working, so we no longer needed a tow…but he recommended we replace the battery immediately. There was a parts store down the road that did free battery testing and installing, so I went there, confirmed it was almost dead, and replaced the battery.

Another week passed, and I decided to skip the dealer and just have the small inspection shop fix the lights because it would probably be cheaper. They checked out my car and told me the wiring was all screwed up and that I should take it to the dealer.

Made another appointment with the dealer, and my son and I sat in the waiting room for an hour while they looked at the car and finally told me that I needed two new headlight assemblies. (A little backstory: my ex-husband had tried to replace a bulb in my blinkers while we were in Iceland by cutting into the back of the housing and wiring the light directly while watching YouTube videos. Apparently the wiring was now failing because my husband had cut off some connector.)

The dealership suggested that I order the parts myself online because it would cost $1,200 for two headlight assemblies through Hyundai. I eventually ordered the parts through Amazon for 1/4 of that price. One of them showed up a few days later…the other one disappeared in the mail…for two weeks. It arrived the day after I ordered a replacement.

[The supplier said no problem, just refuse the new package when it arrives, and we’ll refund your money when it returns to the warehouse. Except I couldn’t reject the package because UPS dropped it at the front of my door while I was out. I took it to the post office, but because it was a large box, they told me ground wasn’t an option…and that my only choice was 2-Day Priority Mail for $55. WTF??? I thought that’s exactly what ground mail service was for…but clearly things have changed since I’ve been away.]

Anyway, I took the car and the new lights BACK to the dealership. The guy I had been working with was out, so someone else installed them (though he didn’t do a very good job). Afterward he said that I didn’t need new headlights, I just needed the wiring fixed. WTF??

But, hey, they gave me a free state safety inspection, and I finally have that damn sticker.

Posted in WashingtonDC

Bidding Update

So bidding season has now reached the halfway point. Final bids are due on Oct 18, and handshakes go out on the 28th. Of the five bids that I submitted, I was only serious about my top three. The fourth and fifth bids were down stretches (salary grade), which are a pain to get since most places don’t want to pay you more to do a job with less responsibility…plus a ton of people bid on these two posts…so I was basically just using them to fill out my bid list. They’re all cold in the winter, of course. 🙂

Last week was literally a week of ups and downs for me. It looked like this:

  • Monday: Found out I was on the short list for my #1 post. Yay!
  • Tuesday: Was told that I didn’t even get an interview for my #2. Boo.
  • Wednesday: Received an email saying I was on the short list for my #3 post. Yay!
  • Thursday: Was informed that the school at my #1 post can’t take my son because they’re short-staffed. Boo!

So I’m really hoping things work out for my #3 post!! It’s a wonderful location, and I would be more than thrilled to live and work there. The only reason it was third on my list was because the first two would’ve been slightly easier to manage as a single mom, and #3 will take a little more…coordination.

For post #1, we would’ve been housed on a housing compound that was about a five-minute walk to work. The one school is about 30 minutes away, there’s a shuttle from the compound for the kids, and the job was very 8-5 with no overtime. So life would’ve been fairly simple. I could always be to work on time, and my kiddo’s commute would be one hour less in a day that I would have to worry about childcare.

BUT the host government is also being a bit stingy with visas at the moment, and there’s no guaranteeing that MED would clear my son for this particular post. Also if the school is short-staffed, the morale is probably low, and the existing teachers overworked. Plus we’d be in an apartment with the dog. So it’s probably for the best.

Post #2 was another manageable post with the embassy and international school being about 10 minutes away from each other and little to no overtime required. It’s a very safe place with good public transportation, so young children are quite independent. And the school was happy to take my son.

BUT we probably would’ve ended up downtown in an apartment, which wouldn’t have been ideal with the dog. But it would be better than having a house an hour away in the ‘burbs. After-school care isn’t really a thing, so if A is getting home from school before I get home from work, I don’t want home to be too far away.

So I am now clinging to post #3. It too has schools that are close to the mission (one is right across the street), and we might possibly be able to get a house with a fenced yard for the dog…depending on how long the commute is. The job itself requires a fair bit of overtime, but the school we’re looking at does have after-school care, so the question is…will it be late enough? If not, I will have to find an alternate solution. I am more than willing to do so…we just have to be assigned there first!!