Friday, September 13, 2019

Eating at a Michelin-Starred Restaurant: Worth It?

The first thing I did in Chicago as part of our epic two-week road trip for home leave was go to a Michelin-starred restaurant for the first time! Anyone who knows me knows I am a big foodie, so this type of experience had been on my bucket list for a while. M is not that into fancy meals, so he skipped out and had fast food while my friend S and I enjoyed a girl's night at Smyth.

So why did we pick Smyth? Well, there was something just too perfect about two ladies from Virginia meeting up all the way in Chicago to go to a fancy restaurant that was inspired by Virginia of all places! We figured it was destiny.

We arrived and the decor was very rustic with even an open kitchen. The whole restaurant's vibe was much cozier than I expected. For some reason, I imagined that all very fancy restaurants were Dubai-esque, hyper-modern establishments. I was pleasantly surprised. S and I sat down and immediately ordered lavender drinks. (The only thing better than lavender scents are lavender consumables.) We didn't get the menu (nine courses and a drink) in advance, so we knew we'd be getting whatever the chef had planned. The server confirmed my dietary restrictions (no coffee, tea, or alcohol since I'm Mormon/a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), which I appreciated. I know they really followed my request with care because they did remove kombucha from one of my later courses. Anyway, the menu was exactly the type of thing I had imagined. Just check it out:

Someone who is not into fancy food definitely would've laughed at some of the items on this menu. There were moments (like when they brought out the cucumber course with just a few very thin slices of cucumber) that I almost chuckled because it was so stereotypically luxurious. Each minuscule course was plated like a work of art and then presented to our table by staff who explained everything with words like "emulsion" that made me feel pretentious for even patronizing the place. But once I got over the spectacle of the experience and dug into the food - it was incredible. I've eaten great food around the world, but Smyth's was some of the best I've ever had.

My favorites included the pickled shima aji (a cold fish dish), but S and I agreed the biggest stars were the mushroom chocolate (pictured above) and the signature dessert egg (pictured below). Somehow, they combined shiitake mushrooms and chocolate so brilliantly that every bite was filled with both flavors and neither contradicted the other in any way. I am a true chocaholic, and that was an epic concoction I wish I could eat every night. The dessert egg was also a technical masterpiece, with a caramelized egg yolk sitting in a frozen yogurt egg white bed. It's been weeks and I'm still thinking about how stunning and scrumptious that food was.

So what's the verdict? Is it worth eating at a typical Michelin-starred restaurant? Honestly, I feel like it is probably not worth it for most. I do think it's worth it if all of the following conditions are met:

  1. all participating are foodies who appreciate haute cuisine,
  2. you value quality over quantity (even if there are a lot of courses, the portions are small),
  3. you're celebrating a special occasion or you're just loaded (because that price tag's no joke),
  4. and you're open-minded and not that picky (because you may be trying some weird stuff... see: mushroom chocolate above).

At the end of the day, I'm glad S and I got to share this really fun and unique experience. It was a delightful way to spend an evening and catch up, and I would absolutely do it again.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

What's Home Leave?

Our home leave just came to an end (you may have seen the blog post about the road trip we took)! Those of you who aren't in the Foreign Service might be asking: what's home leave? Is it just when you use your annual leave or vacation time to go home? Well, not exactly. It's more like a Congressionally-mandated special vacation.

Home leave is different from other types of leave in a few ways. First, it's mandatory, not optional, for those like us who are going from one overseas tour to another. Second, you have to spend the whole thing in the United States. You're not supposed to spend even one night in another country (including Canada or Mexico) during home leave. Third, even the duration range is set: we're required to take a minimum of 20 workdays. All of these regulations serve to give us adequate time to reacquaint ourselves with the United States, which is not only our home but also the nation we serve when we live overseas.

If you're interested in learning more, feel free to indulge yourself in the details of the relevant section of the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM): 3 FAM 3430. The FAM reiterates very explicitly what I mentioned above: "The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis." It makes sense to us, especially when some Foreign Service families may not serve a domestic tour for 10 or more years.

Members of the Foreign Service community seem to have very strong feelings--both positive and negative--on home leave. Many struggle with the financial costs of a month of vacation while managing the advance expenses of an international move and limited options for housing. Others struggle to see family scattered all across the country in only a month. You can read an article from 2003 (as it seems not much has changed) that sums up some of the emotions and accompanying suggestions here. After our first home leave, we can easily see how this unique requirement can be both a blessing and a challenge at the same time. Although we loved the extra time with loved ones and the break that home leave provided from work, we were glad to finally settle down in our apartment and get back into a routine.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Our First Tesla Road Trip

Yes, we bought a Tesla Model 3! This is our first-ever all-electric car, and we've wanted it for a long time. (Big thanks to our friends A and S for getting us a sweet referral code after they bought a Model 3, too!) So what better way to break in our shiny new car than with a home leave road trip?

We drove over 2,000 miles in two weeks from Virginia to Illinois (to visit my bestie S, who visited me in Kenya) and back. We typically charged our car for free at hotels and other places we visited. The total amount we spent on charging at superchargers when we needed to in order to cover that whole 2,445 miles was just $55. (Compare that to the $200 we probably would have spent on gas!)

We made a lot of stops, so I'll keep the recap of each one brief so this post doesn't get too long. The highlights are listed by city below:

Pittsburgh, PA

The Heinz History Center was hands-down our favorite part of Pittsburgh. It had displays on Heinz ketchup (which were very expected) and exhibits on random things like the history of the Vietnam War (way less expected). They even have a special collection for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, including the set and props from the show! It was so cool.

Cleveland, OH

Obviously, the main attraction in Cleveland was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We learned a lot, such as the fact that rock music is defined pretty broadly and you can only be inducted into the hall of fame 25 years after your first album is released. We also coincidentally happened to visit during the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, so they had a special exhibit where uptight folks like us could gain new insights into festival and hippie culture. I would recommend anyone plan to spend at least half a day there to appreciate more fully the vast collections celebrating legendary artists, classic and new. (I was particularly excited to see Lady Gaga's outfit from her "Bad Romance" music video on display.)

Detroit, MI

In Detroit, our main stop was the Motown Museum in the same building where Berry Gordy cultivated the Motown sound enjoyed around the world from the 1960s to today. We even got to see the recording studio where legends like Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Jackson 5*, and Stevie Wonder made magic happen. We also learned how Motown music became such a powerful force for social change and desegregation in the arts and ultimately general society. It was hard not to sing and dance along to the great soundtrack playing there the whole time!

Chicago, IL

We made it to Chicago and finally saw S! She and I enjoyed a super fancy ladies' night out at Smyth, which was my first time eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant. (Trust me, that experience is going to get its own blog post later.) M and I did some sightseeing the next day, and then we met up with S to see Hamilton. Y'all. Hamilton definitely lived up to the hype. It was expensive, but we thought it was worth every penny. It combined the best of musical theater, rap, hip-hop, and history. It was unforgettable.

M and I also spent a freakishly long time at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). We have been to a lot of museums all over the world, but MSI was truly a standout--one of the best we've ever experienced. The exhibits were very interactive and interesting for pretty much all ages. Just check out this Tesla coil in action, for example:

Cincinnati, OH

We spent our time in Cincinnati at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, an institution devoted to educating the public about slavery and fighting it in all its modern-day forms. The real stories in there were heartbreaking, but it gave us a lot of hope to hear about the incredible rescue efforts under way around the world to help victims break out of slavery and start a new life.

Louisville, KY

The main attractions in Louisville were definitely the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center. At the Kentucky Derby Museum, we enjoyed the exhibit of over-the-top hats people wear to the Derby and the tour, which included walking out to the racecourse and learning more about the amazing history of horse racing in the United States. At the Muhammad Ali Center, we learned more about the life, career, and activism of this extraordinary boxer and philanthropist (and I will admit I totally had a celebrity crush on him when I was younger).

Nashville, TN

Nashville was such a cool city! Of course, we had to spend some time at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which did a fantastic job of balancing history and present-day trends. Next to classical, country was probably the genre of music I most grew up with living on the rural edge of suburban Virginia, so it was a nice trip down memory lane. (Also, I saw that dress Taylor Swift wore in her "Love Story" music video! Wow!)

Greensboro/Chapel Hill, NC

We hung out with M's family and met up with B, one of my best friends from college! We didn't do much sightseeing in North Carolina, since we were just there to meet up with people, but we did drive through the breathtaking Great Smoky Mountains on the way over from Tennessee.

Charlottesville, VA

We spent most of our time in Charlottesville catching up with my first-ever boss and one of my favorite professors. (Definitely stay in touch with your favorite teachers and mentors later on in life, y'all! It's so fun and enriching for everyone involved.) We also visited some of the places I spent a lot of time in as an undergraduate at UVA, including Rev Soup (a soup-focused restaurant with some socialism-inspired flair that can even be enjoyed be capitalists like us) and the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar (a tea house with a hippie vibe). We also tried MarieBette, an adorable French cafe that definitely didn't exist when I was there. It's now right up there with Paradox Pastry on my list of favorite places in Charlottesville! We also strolled the Downtown Mall to see what had changed and what had stayed the same. I was surprised to see an alley with so many chalk messages of love and peace, and then I realized it was a beautiful memorial to Heather Heyer. I loved how the walls both mourned her loss and celebrated the values she stood for when she was murdered by a white supremacist two years ago. May she rest in peace.

Home Sweet Home, VA

So we had a whirlwind two weeks that was fun but exhausting. I'm so proud of myself for staying awake in the car the whole time we were driving between cities (a total travel time of 48 hours). I've never been able to pull that off on a road trip before. (Special shout out to the NPR Invisibilia podcast for helping with that!) Anyway, we can say that just a few weeks in we really felt like we've "broken in" the Tesla, and we're loving every minute of it. We both highly recommend the Model 3 (and two-week American road trips in general).

*Neither the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland nor the Motown Museum in Detroit seemed to even hint at child sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson, even though he was prominently celebrated in photos and exhibits and these accusations had already re-emerged as major news in 2019 as a result of the Leaving Neverland film.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Richmond Is For Lovers

We recently celebrated our anniversary in our beautiful state capital of Richmond, where we got engaged. (For those who are not fellow Virginians, the title of this post is a play on our home state's tourism slogan: "Virginia Is For Lovers"! It's a little strange.) Richmond is such a cool city with a great food scene and plenty of things to do, so I think I'd be happy living there - let alone visiting. Our first stop was the Virginia State Capitol. We stood on the steps right where we got engaged via video game (long story), and then we took a free guided tour inside. The building itself was very cool, with architectural flourishes like these black limestone floor tiles with real fossil imprints in them.

The Capitol tour was filled with interesting Virginia history, from Thomas Jefferson's designs to a beautiful original statue of George Washington. I will admit I was extremely disappointed that slavery was not represented in any of the many exhibits or paintings or statues throughout the Capitol. The slave trade was mentioned briefly in passing at only one point during the tour. When I asked the guide if the Capitol was built by slaves and if the historical operations once it opened were made possible through forced labor, he said yes and talked about it for a minute or two.

At one point, a woman in our tour group asked the guide if any visitors complained about Thomas Jefferson. He answered that they don't but some do object to the many Confederate figures who have paintings or busts or statues in the building (like the one pictured above of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee). She said something about people getting too offended nowadays and a man in the group said something about how everyone back then owned slaves anyway. Just as the slaveowners and Confederate leaders are part of our history, though, so too are enslaved people. The Capitol was working on memorials for prominent Virginia women and a Native American monument, and those efforts are laudable. However, there's no excuse for leaving out something as core to Virginia history, the Capitol, and our government as the dehumanizing institution and practice of slavery.

If you agree, then check out the free Capitol tour when you visit Richmond and add your voice to mine and others requesting that slavery not be ignored or glossed over in tours or exhibits. I hope that, with enough feedback, they can do better (as I understand Monticello did as a result of outside pressure). I also highly recommend swinging by the stunning, two-sided memorial just outside the Capitol building. It's dedicated to the Virginians and others who made the outcome in the famous 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (the one that desegregated American schools and declared "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal") possible. Isn't it beautiful?

We then took a history break and enjoyed some delicious waffles at Capitol Waffle Shop, which as the name would suggest is just a short walk from the Capitol. You build your own waffle there with whatever savory or sweet toppings you want. I went for a fruity waffle, while M went for a Nutella-marshmallow-caramel combo. Talk about a sugar rush!

Our next stop of the trip was Historic St. John's Church, where Paul Revere gave his famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech at the Second Virginia Convention in 1775. The tour guide we booked was worth every penny, as he gave us excellent historical context and did a passionate re-enactment of a selection of Paul Revere's literally revolutionary words. (You can read the speech in full here.)

Last, we drove through Hollywood Cemetery, where a number of famous figures have their final resting place. I was disturbed by the large number of fresh Confederate flags placed at the graves of those with ties to the Confederacy. (We have a long way to go, Virginia.) We even saw the monument over the grave of John Tyler, the only U.S. President whose death was not officially recognized in Washington, DC due to his Confederate allegiance. Confederate President Jefferson Davis still held a big memorial service for him, prominent Confederate flag over the coffin included. At least there was a nice view of the James River that didn't include a single Confederate symbol.

After our jam-packed day, we checked into Quirk Hotel, which lived up to its eccentric name. Everything was all very modern, artsy, and just a little bit pink. Best of all, they had Tesla destination chargers for us to use while staying there! (Yes, we bought a Tesla. More on that in a future post.)

So we had a wonderful time in Richmond, and we did all of that in just one day. We highly recommend you visit Richmond if you haven't before, or even if you just haven't been in a while. It'll be worth it. After all, Virginia really is for lovers (and/or history nerds and/or foodies)!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

We Should Read African Literature

Halfway through our time in Kenya, I joined a book club with other U.S. Embassy Nairobi women. We selected works of African literature to read together - one book per month. I'm ashamed to say I'd never read a book by an African (excluding African-American) author before. If there are readers of this blog who are similarly lacking, I thought I would offer mini-reviews of the works we read in book club. I hope this piques the interest of someone who would like to explore African literature but may not know where to start. Please see the full list below, in the order I read them:

  • A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o: This was the first book in our book club series, and I won't lie: it was intense. It focuses on Kenya during the lead-up to independence, following an array of characters through the struggles of Kenya, their village, and their own lives. I found certain parts especially difficult to read as a woman, as I found the book repeatedly reinforced female sexual weakness and objectification with only a few moments of sexual empowerment. The emotions of shame and selfishness are dominant themes throughout the work, with some (but not all) finding redemption (or at least making their ways toward it) in the end. I would recommend reading this book for the historical and cultural knowledge it yields on not-too-distant Kenyan history as well as the intense passion the author successfully evokes by writing so powerfully about the inner torment of the characters in situations that would otherwise appear mundane. I do, however, recommend reading only a little at a time.
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: After reading this one, I understood why it's hailed as the most widely read book in modern African literature. Achebe beautifully weaves in folk stories, local language, and culture into the plot of the book. Although there are still parts that I struggled as a woman to read (i.e., many passages from the protagonist's perspective on the inferiority of females or anything feminine), the most extreme views were tied to the specific character's own inflexibility and closed-mindedness. No culture is perfect in the book, and what I found most interesting was the delicate tracing of the African characters' issues either with their society, religion, or culture that Europeans were able to exploit for the benefit of Christianity and their empire. It was well-written and profound - a must-read in the genre.
  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This was probably my favorite book of the whole bunch, even though it wasn't quite as popular with my fellow book club members. Adichie is best known for her book Americanah, which I haven't yet read but plan on doing now, and her viral TED Talk (which I also highly recommend) titled "The danger of a single story". Purple Hibiscus is a powerful novel that hits themes of colonialism, religion, and community in the context of a very unhealthy and disturbing family dynamic that - in my view - resonates with the darkness and complexity of humanity across eras and cultures. The imagery of Nigeria is rendered beautifully so that I found myself drawn in (even if I didn't know specifics like how cashew trees smell).
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham: This book is vastly different from the others in several ways. First, it's a memoir instead of a novel. Second, it's written by a white British settler/colonialist. Even if she did consider Africa home, her perspective is inevitably wildly different from a native, black African's. Her poetically written stories are romantic but prejudiced. They're also thrilling but devoid of gossip, especially coming from a woman whom scandal and drama followed throughout her life. Markham was truly an extraordinary woman, aviator, and writer, but she and her book are clearly a product of their time.
  • Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela: I just have to be honest with this one... it's a "long walk" through this book. At over 900 pages, the nitty-gritty details from preferred childhood games to specifics about the many meetings leading up to the freedom struggle were too much for not only me but the other members of the book club. Despite many devoting multiple months to reading this one, I'm not sure a single one of us fully finished it in time. There are a number of great documentaries about Nelson Mandela and South African history available that are honestly easier for a layperson or outsider to digest.
  • The Return by Hisham Matar: Pretty much everyone in the book club liked this one, a Pulitzer Prize winner by a renowned Libyan author. The book provides snapshots of Libya's history while recounting the author's family's moving firsthand experience with the cruelty of oppression and authoritarianism. The pain of grief and loss is beautifully rendered, and touchstones of African and Arab cultural experiences are somehow made accessible even to the most ignorant reader. I highly recommend this book, but it definitely has a different flavor that might put it in better company with Arab literature than sub-Saharan African works.
  • Unbowed by Wangari Maathai: This autobiography of environmentalist, feminist, and human rights activist legend Wangari Maathai was another one of my favorites, although like Mandela's book it is on the longer side. (I acknowledge that I had more references for the events and sites in Maathai's book in Kenya, so if I'm ever lucky enough to spend a while in South Africa I could try Mandela's book again.) I was inspired by the author's resilience, courage, and hope for Kenya in the face of serious challenges across the board. This is a fantastic read for anyone who cares about women's rights, democratic freedom, the impact of colonialism, and/or the environment.

So I hope I've convinced at least one person to pick up a book by an African author they might not otherwise have considered. I've enjoyed the books above, but most importantly I learned a lot by reading them. Although I regret not exploring African literature earlier in life, it's never too late to broaden our reading material. Let me know in the comments below if you have any other recommendations for African literature. Happy reading!

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

When the Pieces Come Together

I previously wrote a post on the importance of a portable hobby. One of my hobbies that seems to ebb and flow depending on time and place and mood is creating art. Luckily for me, my dear friend J ran a mosaic art studio in Nairobi, which allowed me to refill my fairly depleted creative reserves. I spent about six months working on one project: a coffee tray. It may sound simple to make a mosaic coffee tray, but the process was quite involved: painting the glass, cutting pieces that were correctly sized and shaped, gluing them precisely, leaving enough space for the grout, and all of the steps required in finishing including grouting, painting the tray, and sealing the glass.

When it came to the design, I chose a graphic from Ingress, an augmented reality smart phone game (the one in which M proposed to me almost five years ago but that others may be more familiar with as the predecessor to Pokemon Go). To make it a surprise for him, I used a design from our team/side within the game: the Enlightened. Although the complex image and especially the small glass pieces were a major challenge, it was all worth it to see the final product (and to finish miraculously just before our departure).

There was something soothing about the repetitiveness of working on the mosaic for hours at a time and doing something with my hands after a long workweek of exercising my brain. I enjoyed the company of a number of other women inside and outside the Embassy who joined for the art class, as well. We all encouraged each other in our projects and benefited from the inspiration of each other's projects and creativity. I'm so happy with the final product and feel so lucky to have found this before I had to leave Kenya!

Saturday, August 3, 2019

24 Hours in Paris: The Most Romantic City in the World

On our way home to the United States from Kenya, we got to spend a little over 24 hours in Paris, France - the most romantic city in the world! It was fun to revisit some of my old Paris haunts from when I lived there for an internship over four years ago. It was M's first time in the city, and I was determined to make sure we took full advantage of our short time there. It was also a nice refresher for trying to get around with my high school French. My funniest can't-remember-French moment was probably when a woman at a bakery asked me if a wanted sparkling or still water, but I forgot how to say "still" and didn't hear the exact word she used so I just said "the one that's not sparkling" (or more literally, "the one without gas").

We decided to stay in an airport hotel, which we don't regret for a minute. We had four very heavy suitcases and three very heavy carry-on bags that it was nice to immediately drop off instead of trying to take them into town. We also had the best - and I mean the best - potatoes M or I had ever had in our lives in that overpriced breakfast buffet. They were perfectly roasted with olive oil, thyme, and garlic and had a thin crispy skin perfectly married to a creamy interior. It's one of those foods we'll really remember, and we kept going back for more!

Once we made it into town, we grabbed pastries at top boulangerie (bread bakery) and pâtisserie (pastry bakery) Pain Pain (literally translated to the extremely literal "bread bread"). I ordered their famous roulé pistache-chocolat (chocolate-pistachio roll) and M got a fancy pastry version of a Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolate treat. Both were delicious, and I enjoyed the authentic pastry dough I remembered from my time in Paris that has mostly disappointed me elsewhere: perfectly flaky, golden crust with a buttery, layered, soft interior. My mouth is watering just writing about it!

We also checked out Paris's two most famous church buildings: Sacré-Coeur* (translation: "Sacred Heart") and Notre Dame (translation: "Our Lady"). After a vigorous walk to the top of Montmartre ("Mount of the Martyr" named in large part for the decapitation of Paris's first Bishop, Saint Denis, that happened there), we were rewarded with a beautiful view of gleaming, white Sacré-Coeur. Then we headed over to the other side of town to see the even more famous, Gothic Notre Dame. Because Notre Dame is currently undergoing extensive reconstruction after sustaining fire damage earlier this year, we couldn't get very close to the building. It's still my favorite cathedral, anyway.

We then checked out the expat/bookworm hangout of Paris: Shakespeare & Company. When I lived in Paris, it was a bookstore only, but it has since added on a café with a healthy, environmentally conscious selection. The bookstore itself is the real star of the show, though, even for people like us who don't have many physical books. The layout is exactly what one would picture for a well-loved, traditional bookstore, and the spaces for sitting and reading are lovely. (They even have literary events if you're an artsy type.)

We also walked by some gardens and the Institut du Monde Arabe ("Arab World Institute), a beautiful building, but we decided to pass on the current exhibits. If you ever find yourself in Paris with more time than we had, I highly recommend it - I've been multiple times, and they also have a nice café with an Arabic flair. With all that walking we worked up quite an appetite and made our way to the Jewish quarter of the city just so I could order a particular sandwich I remember eating four years ago. Yes, it was that good.

The most well-known shops of the Jewish quarter are the dueling falafel joints - they invite you to try them all and decide which is truly king. Yet given our short timeframe and the fact that M isn't falafel's hugest fan, we settled on the sandwich shop from my memory instead: Miznon. The fast-casual restaurant is Israeli, but I had been taken there by a Palestinian back in the day - it really seemed to bring people together over objectively good food. So I did order the exact same sandwich I had four years ago (lamb-stuffed cabbage roll), and it was exactly as delicious as I remembered! The pita was soft, fresh, and warm; the meat was juicy and well-seasoned; and the vegetables all just worked together perfectly. I highly recommend it! (M's kebab sandwich wasn't bad, either.)

After our meal, we took a City of Lights evening walking tour to help us walk off all the YOLO food we'd eaten throughout the day. I've taken day tours in Paris, but it was different to take a tour as the sun was setting. My favorite informational stop on the tour was the Flamme de la Liberté ("Liberty Flame", an exact replica of the flame on the Statue of Liberty in New York gifted to the United States by France. The flame was given to Paris by the International Herald Tribune (seemed a little random) as a symbol of the friendship between the United States and France in 1987, but it became a monument to Princess Diana when she died in 1997 in a car crash under the bridge where the monument is placed. There were tributes to the "People's Princess" all around the flame.

Once the tour was over, we grabbed a snack (popcorn for me, Nutella crêpe for M) and grabbed a bench in the park to enjoy the view of the Eiffel Tower where we had conveniently ended. The orange-illuminated landmark against the dark-blue sky was stunning, and then became even more so as the clock struck 10p.m. and the whole tower glittered for five minutes. (It does this for five minutes every hour on the hour after dark.) I've been dreaming of sharing that exact moment with M for years, and it was just as wonderful as I'd imagined.

So I do believe Paris's reputation as a city of lights and as a city of love is well-deserved. Even after all these years, it still feels like the most romantic city on Earth!

*I intentionally did not combine the "oe" because in my desktop blog view it comes out as a very misshapen special character: œ.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

5 Things I'll Miss Most from Kenya

Two years went by in a flash, and it's time for us to say kwaheri (goodbye) to Kenya. I struggled a bit writing this post because I didn't know how I could pick just five things I'll miss from our time here, but I thought I could give readers at least a taste of what makes this beautiful country so unforgettable. So here's just a snapshot of the top five things I'll miss once we're gone:

  1. The People: Kenyan people are some of the warmest I've ever met. Far from being treated as an outsider because I was foreign and didn't speak the local language, I was often welcomed into people's homes and shared the intimate aspects of life here from weddings to funerals. If I'm being honest, it was easier in the beginning to make Kenyan friends than it was to make American friends! I know I've made some lifelong friends here.
  2. The Nature: I now know why Kenya's tourism slogan is #MagicalKenya. From the savannah sunsets to the wildlife to the white sand beaches to the forest hiking trails, the nature in this country is as stunning as it is diverse. There's truly something here for every taste and budget - whether you're a rugged backpacker looking for a place to pitch your tent and dig your latrine to a first-class experience seeker planning your luxury safari.
  3. The Weather: I did not miss real winter a single day while living in Nairobi. For readers back home, a Nairobi winter might drop as low as 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and it doesn't snow. Thanks to the altitude, Nairobi is also spared from the notoriously sweltering heat of much of the rest of Africa. The moderate temperatures were a delight.
  4. The Arts: Kenya is such a cultural powerhouse for the region, and it was such a treat to get a small taste of that over the past two years. My favorite Kenyan music artist is Nyashinski, I purchased some classic street art from the Maasai Market, I collected a number of beautiful traditional fabrics and clothes, and I was lucky enough to participate in a number of cultural events for work. Nobody can deny the richness of Kenyan culture after experiencing it firsthand.
  5. The Work: Doing Public Diplomacy in Kenya for my first tour has been truly special. I've met thousands of Kenyans and expats from all walks of life, grown so much personally and professionally, and had a lot of fun along the way. I can't imagine a better first tour, and so far the Foreign Service is everything I hoped it would be: challenging, rewarding, and always exciting. I have such deep respect for my colleagues - Kenyan and American - and I hope I have the opportunity to work with them again.

We haven't even gotten on the plane yet and I already can't wait to come back. I don't know how or when, but I'm determined that this won't be my last time in Kenya. Tutaonana tena, marafiki wangu!

Friday, July 19, 2019

EER Tips, Round Two

Last year when I did my first Employee Evaluation Report (EER), I wrote a blog post explaining what that is and how to write your first one. I just completed my second EER, and this year I had two additional benefits: the opportunity to serve on an EER panel and a reviewer who had just returned from a promotion panel in time for my EER. So in addition to what I wrote last time, I though I'd add a few more tips:

  • Have a positive attitude towards constructive criticism. Nobody likes trying to give feedback to someone who bristles at any criticism or is so attached to their writing that they refuse to make changes. After all, there's always room for improvement.
  • Volunteer for an EER Review Panel. All EERs are reviewed by a panel, which confirms the EER does not include inadmissible comments (i.e., things you're not allowed to reference in a performance document per the Foreign Affairs Manual here), checks for errors, and makes suggestions. This is a great way to read a large number of EERs and learn what makes a strong and weak one.
  • Take the time to correct typos - even in your rater's and reviewer's statements. It's worth it to make sure that simple mistakes like different numbers of spaces between sentences don't distract the reader. Some might even take errors as a sign of a lack of attention to detail.
  • Your statement really sets the tone. A fantastic rater and reviewer statement is not enough to carry the water for a weak rated employee statement - especially because yours is the first one the reader sees.
  • You can use the "Special Circumstances" box if there were actual special circumstances. This time, I wrote about the unique challenges of the security environment in the wake of the January 2019 Nairobi terror attack in the Special Circumstances section at the encouragement of my reviewer. It saved me a lot of precious space in my statement but still gave necessary context.
  • You don't have to overcome a monumental crisis to have a fabulous EER. I loved these words from my supervisor. Your EER is what you make of it, and you should be able to illustrate your accomplishments with interesting examples no matter what job you did or where you served.

I know it's not the main EER season right now, but I hope this helps some other off-cycle Entry-Level Officer with their evaluation. For now, I'm mostly relieved mine is done!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

6 Types of Fliers

I've learned through many travels that there are (at least) six consistent archetypes one might encounter on a plane. The chances of finding all of these on a major international flight are very high.

The Professional Flier (First Class Edition)

This person probably just stepped directly from the VIP lounge into their seat on the plane. They have platinum elite status on most airlines and don't even use the few where they don't. They are perfectly coiffed, fashionably dressed, and presentable when they step off the plane, no matter how long and harrowing the flight was for everyone else. It's been so long since they've flown coach that they've forgotten what it's like.

The Professional Flier (Economy Class Edition)

Everything this person needs fits in a rugged old backpack they've used for at least 100 couchsurfing trips already which happens to perfectly fit under the seat each time so they don't need to put anything in the overhead luggage bins. They always get an aisle seat and are the first to unbuckle and stand while the plane is still taxiing. Some of their travel gear probably came from Kickstarter.

The Scared One

Every flight is the flight of fear. No matter how many times someone has flown, something about the turbulence and the helplessness at altitude forces this person to have intrusive thoughts of every missing plane and horrifying crash they've ever heard of pretty much every time they travel. If your flight were a horror film, this person would be the last one left standing, just to keep the suspense alive.

The Guardians of Littles

They either have small children or pets with them, and by golly they are going to get them from Point A to Point B whether it's in one piece or not, come what may. They may feel apologetic or embarrassed when one of the littles has a meltdown, but really 99.9% of everyone around them either understands exactly what they're going through or is very, very grateful they don't.

The Cinephile

The Cinephile will intentionally seek out longer flights in total hours that are multiples of two or three to maximize movie watching time. They tend to favor quantity over quality, and so will begin before even takeoff frantically browsing through the movies trying to decide how many they can cram into one trip. They always have backup headphones in their carry-on bag. This is M.

The Hibernator

The Hibernator person takes the ever-increasing discomfort of airline seats as a minor challenge to be overcome in the quest for slumber. They can sleep through anything, including the meltdown of The Guardians' Littles. They also sometimes exhibit snoring, drooling, or other unattractive sleep-adjacent phenomena. This is me.

Did these resonate with your experience? I hope it at least gave you a good laugh. Are there any stereotypes I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

Friday, July 12, 2019

Hiking Kilimanjaro via Rongai with Zara Tours

My dad and I climbed Kilimanjaro! There are many tour companies, possible routes, and hike durations to get to the top of Africa's highest mountain. We did a lot of research before we settled on Zara Tours, and the 6-day Rongai route. Although Zara was the most affordable option we considered, they ended up providing such an awesome experience we're glad we chose them. As for our trip, I've broken it down day-by-day below.

Day One

After a short flight (1 hour from Nairobi) and a night at a hotel in town, we were ready to start our journey. The Rongai route we chose starts from the north side of the mountain, so we drove there and began our hike through the rainforest. One of the coolest parts about hiking Kilimanjaro are the multiple climate zones, as you'll see throughout this post. At the camp, there was a hut for rangers working in the park, but we slept in tents.

Day Two

On day two, we passed from the rainforest into moorland. What really makes hiking Kilimanjaro accessible is the impressive team of porters and guides. Here you can see the porters carrying up to 20kg each, mostly on their heads. Every day, the porters would wait until we left camp, pack everything up, pass us on the trail, and have everything set up at the next site by the time we arrived.

Day Three

On the third day, we crossed into the alpine desert and camped at the base of the second-highest peak, Mawenzi. We also caught great views of the summit where we were headed. In the afternoon, we took a short acclimatization hike to help our bodies adjust to the altitude. As an aside, I took altitude medication the whole trip and my dad didn't, but neither of us got altitude sickness.

Day Four

By the fourth day, we were really feeling the loss of comforts like seated toilets and running water. The first photo in this set shows the "toilets" we could use in the camps. I will say that we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of the food cooked by the chef who accompanied us. This was the shortest hiking day, as we made it to base camp and went to bed early in preparation for the summit hike the following day.

Day Five

The longest day started just before midnight with a quick meal before we began our hike that would take us all the way to the summit of Kibo, the highest peak. As it was pitch black, headlamps were required but we still couldn't see anything around us. While the whole trip was a slow climb, this day by far was the slowest. The zig-zag hike to reach the crater rim seemed like it would never end, but we got there before sunrise and turned around to see a string of lit headlamps trailing down the mountain behind us. The temperature was below freezing.

We passed through Gilman's Point (5,685m) and Stella Point (5,756m) on our way to Uhuru Peak (5,895m), the highest point of Kilimanjaro. By that time the sun was up and we had a nice vantage point above the clouds of the rest of the mountain, including its glaciers and the crater. In broad daylight we could finally see the rough terrain we had hiked up that morning, but thankfully much of our hike back was a matter of gliding straight down through the scree. It was honestly the most fun part of the trip. It took us 7 hours to get from base camp to the summit, but only 2.25 hours to cover the same distance coming back down. After a short rest at base camp and a quick bite to eat, we continued our descent for several more hours before pitching camp for the night.

Day Six

The last day was brutal. To our surprise, going down the mountain was much harder on our bodies than going up in the first place. My knees were aching from the impact of marching down such uneven ground for so many hours. When we finally saw the park exit gate, we were exhausted and ready to be done with our hike. We gratefully hopped into the tour company's trucks to head back to the hotel and get a proper night's sleep.

Now that it's over, both of us agree that this trip was absolutely worth it - especially since we both made it to the summit. We had heard some horror stories about altitude sickness and bad weather, but we were extremely lucky and suffered neither the whole trip. We also had an amazing guide, William, who was very experienced with and knowledgeable about Kilimanjaro. With the entire Zara team, we were well taken care of and couldn't have imagined a better Kilimanjaro trek.