Friday, December 27, 2019

For the Whole Week of Christmas, Korean Gave to Me: An Over-the-top "ISP"

We're almost at the end of "winter break"/"holiday break", which means I'm almost done with my ISP. What's an ISP? It's short for Independent Self-study Plan, my golden ticket to avoid taking any leave around the holidays. As a new federal employee, I don't accumulate very much vacation time and I enjoy saving it as much as possible for future trips or emergencies. Moreover, because I'm staying in Department of State-provided temporary housing, I technically need to pay for every single day of leave I take while I am here. (Training leave is, unfortunately, not included in the deal. Estimates I've heard from colleagues of cost per day of taking leave is anything from $150-250 for a one-bedroom apartment for two people. So we take that seriously.)

So that's where the ISP comes in to save the day. Our language classes took a break for the holidays, so the only way to dodge taking leave was to create an ISP and commit to studying full-time on non-holiday days. You could also choose to split the days with no class, so you only need to come up with a study plan for days that you're not taking leave. I decided to go all in and study every single day we didn't have a holiday off, so I especially appreciated the extra holiday the President signed for us on Christmas Eve.

They really do take the ISP seriously. One night, I got home late from seeing a show with my sister and I figured I would just submit that day's log the next morning. I was surprised to get an email that morning, though, calling me and a classmate out for missing the previous day's study log and prompting us to upload it right away. I guess not everyone is on leave for the holidays. (Even with their strictness in adhering to the policy, the title of this post is definitely unfair... I gave myself an over-the-top ISP, so I only have myself to blame.)

I learned later than approved ISPs could take a lot of shapes and forms. I thought we had to be very specific, but I later learned that others had more general guidelines and I wish I'd been more flexible in constructing mine. More than once, self-motivated studying 7-8 hours per day by myself was a complete slog. There were a few moments when I'm sure I looked just like the stock photo I used for this post! (On a related note, I've learned I am definitely not a work-from-home type of employee.) At the end of the day, though, I'm glad I did the ISP because not only did I save leave but I hope I will have lost a little less of the Korean in my brain by the time we roll back into class in January. We'll see if that effort actually paid off after all!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Language Skills Trial Run with WKWS

We've been in Korean class for over three months now, and we recently had a progress assessment to make sure we were on track to reach the proficiency we need by the end of the course. Even more challenging than our progress assessment, though, was the real-world practice we got the following week: an all-day immersion! The Washington Korean Women's Society (WKWS) was kind enough to host all the students and teachers for a day of sharing culture and practicing the language the most intensively we've done yet.

It was really exciting to participate in the special cultural portions of the program. After a few introductory speeches, we started the event off with a delicious Korean lunch that included mandu (dumplings), kimbap (seaweed rolls), bulgogi (marinated barbecue beef), kimchi (pickled spicy cabbage), dried anchovies, kongnamul (beansprouts), and so many other delicious foods. Then, the WKWS members provided hanbok (traditional Korean dress) for the female students to wear. For most of us, the clothes were a bit of a tight fit on our (statistically on average) broader American bodies, but we did our best to make it work. I can't wait to buy my own properly fitted hanbok in South Korea once we get there! I find the dresses so beautiful in their uniqueness and their traditional modesty.

We also enjoyed Korean folk music, including practicing singing the Korean anthem known as Arirang. (This song is absolutely breathtaking, and if you've never heard it before then I highly recommend you listen to this stunning rendition by Song So-hee here.) We also learned about the traditional 12-stringed instrument called the Gayageum (which I've actually mentioned on the blog before in a post about a Korean cultural event in Kenya). There were two of these instruments there, and somehow I got nominated to sit with the instrument on my lap as the instructor gave me a very detailed lesson explaining how to play it properly... exclusively in Korean! Her instructions included everything from appreciating the materials that made up the instrument to how I could adjust my hand placement and movements to improve the sound. I'll be honest: I only understood about 60% of what she said, but sometimes you've gotta fake it 'til you make it when it comes to a foreign language! I loved hearing her play most of all, though. It takes real skill to be able to play an instrument with so many strings, not to mention bridges that you can move along the strings.

To wrap up the day, we did a series of five 15-minute conversation sessions one-on-one with the WKWS members. I felt like this was a true trial run of our language skills because the women did not know exactly what vocabulary and grammar we had studied. As a result, they didn't simplify what they said to us the same way that our teachers would. We weren't allowed to use any English in these conversations unless we asked (in Korean) for the translation of one word only. I definitely had to cash in that exception when a woman explained that she was a professional acupuncturist, a vocabulary term I had certainly never learned before (and admittedly don't recall now). At the end, I gave a mini-speech of thanks on behalf of the students. I'd been very nervous leading up to the speech but my practice paid off and it went without a hitch. The whole day was a real indication of how far we've all come in our language learning to even be able to participate in such an event. I'm so grateful that our language training includes creative immersion activities like that - it makes learning so much more rewarding and fun.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays

After two years away from home for the holidays, it's wonderful to be back (even if it's a little too cold for my taste). We celebrated an epic Thanksgiving as always with M's family, and I can hardly wait for Christmas to come. (The day after Thanksgiving, I typically start blasting Christmas music right through the rest of December.) Unfortunately, our seasonal decorations including our Christmas tree and ornaments did not make the cut for our UAB (unaccompanied air baggage, that part of our worldly possessions that we get to use while we're in long-term training), so they were thrown in HHE (household effects, shipped to a warehouse in Europe to wait until our next move).

Thankfully, though, all was not lost as an activity came along that gave me the perfect excuse to inject a little holiday cheer into our home: a live wreath-making! We took live wintry tree branches, leaves, and more and attached them by hand to a wire frame to make wreaths. I brought along my wonderful friends K (from high school), T (former roommate), and M (colleague and mentor from Nairobi who's also currently doing language training), and it was a blast. I will admit, M and T finished way before K and I did. We are such perfectionists sometimes! At least there were tasty treats and good company to enjoy in the meantime. As you can see from the first photo of this post, we somehow made four very different wreaths even though we all drew from the same pool of materials and attached them to the same frame. Cool, isn't it?

They had decorated the church room we used in such a lovely way. K and I were thrilled to see some camel silhouettes on the wall and knew we had to take a picture as a tribute to an inside joke about camels we've had going since we took French class together in high school. Talk about a long-running gag (not to mention a long and beautiful friendship)!

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you've never tried making a live wreath before, I highly recommend it, but especially if you can do it with a bunch of friends! Feel free to let me know in the comments what you do to get in the holiday spirit at home or abroad.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

A Happy Birthday

I recently celebrated my birthday, and it was wonderful. I really missed being able to do the small things I love when I'm at home while I was overseas. First, I went to my mom's house to eat some delicious Korean food.

In Korean culture, you eat miyeok guk (slimy seaweed soup) on your birthday. There are a lot of superstitions about miyeok guk, including that you should eat it when you're pregnant but not when you take a test. Regardless, it's absolutely delicious. So I enjoyed the soup and a bunch of other delicious foods my mom made for me. As far as I'm concerned, nobody can cook quite like my mom.

We also lit a fire in the dining room, where my childhood bedroom used to be. It brought back a lot of memories of cozying up by the fire in the winter months with my sister and sometimes even making s'mores from our beds if our parents would let us. My mom even spoiled me with some new winter clothes since I had been in Kenya without winter for a few years! She's the best.

The next day, my Korean class gave me a birthday surprise with homemade cupcakes and mini cheesecakes. I even got to blow out candles for the first time in many years! They sang me "Happy Birthday" in Korean. (You can listen to how that goes here). It was just so kind and really warmed my heart. That same day, I reached my birthday fundraiser goal on Facebook to donate to Britepaths, a wonderful organization that helps people in need in Fairfax County, Virginia. I was impressed by the generosity of my friends.

Then, it was M's turn to treat me. We went to The Melting Pot, a fondue chain restaurant we've loved since even before we were married (and the location of the first photo of this post). After dinner, we rushed to the movie theatre and barely made it in time to see the newly-released Frozen 2. Y'all, I loved this movie! I really enjoy how it features relatable sister love as the focal point and a main character who isn't driven by romance. Also, Disney's music is always so great that I find myself playing the songs on repeat long after I've seen one of their films.

Later this weekend, we went to the Kennedy Center in DC to see a beautiful series of traditional Korean performance arts. We also went out to Lighthouse Tofu, a Korean restaurant recommended by a mutual friend and Koreaphile we met in Nairobi, and I caught up with a dear mentor and friend. The food was delicious and the portions were truly staggering! We ate until we hurt and still wound up taking leftovers home. I highly recommend this place.

Last, I enjoyed my favorite birthday tradition: sitting back and relaxing while M cooks all of the food I want for a day. He even incorporated my request for more fresh, healthy foods this year. I am definitely the cook in our marriage, so it's fun to take a break and have him pamper me with foods I typically wouldn't make myself anyway. Even though it takes him ages to make the food, it always tastes divine. This year, he made me a green lentil salad, ginger-carrot soup, roasted chicken thighs, and dark chocolate mousse. He's just amazing.

So now I'm looking forward to riding the high of a fabulous birthday right into one of my favorite American holidays, Thanksgiving! As much as I love traveling the world, it sure is good to be home - and especially this time of year. Who else loves the holiday season?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

What the Heck is Konglish?

The first time I heard the word "Konglish" the first thing that popped into my mind was "Congolese English?" But alas, Konglish (콩글리쉬) is the beloved merger of Korean and English, where loan words are attempted with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original meaning and then spread far and wide.

Here are a few examples:

  • Notebook (노트북): A laptop computer, not a notebook. What we call a "notebook" is kongchek (공책).
  • Dress (드레스): Not just any dress, but only fancy, formal dress. It may also apply to men. See next bullet for what we English-speakers would call a "dress".
  • One piece (원피스): A dress more generally, not a swimsuit. I still have no idea how to say swimsuit, and summer's a long way away so I'm not prioritizing it.
  • Eye shopping (아이쇼핑): Window shopping.
  • Hand phone (핸드폰): A cell phone.
  • Meeting (미팅): Usually a blind date, not a meeting. "Meeting" is hwoe-ui (회의). (It does not sound how the romanization standards make it look.)
  • Open car (오픈카): A convertible. I mean, it's not wrong. (To be completely fair, convertible [컨버터블] is also used.)
  • Manicure (매니큐어): General term for nail polish.
  • Fighting (파이팅 or 화이팅): This is the most famous Konglish word of all, and you'll see it in pretty much any modern Korean drama (K-drama). It does not have anything to do with actual fighting, but it's more an expression of encouragement like "You got this!" or "Go, team!"

Are these false cognates? I don't think they quite fit the definition because they don't have different etymologies. They all ostensibly come from the English language, but their meaning has changed somehow. I will also say that there are plenty of true loan words that have maintained their meaning (looking at you, ice cream [아이스크림]), but I found the different ones way more entertaining. Did I miss any in Korean? Do you know of words like this in other languages? Please feel free to share in the comments below!

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Learning a Language, 40 Hours a Week

What's it like to spend 40 hours a week learning a language? Well, it depends on whom you ask. (Though I recommend not asking M, who just doesn't enjoy studying foreign languages very much.) Each day, I'm in language class for five hours (at the Foreign Service Institute, also known as FSI) and I'm expected to study about three hours outside of class on my own. I usually squeeze in at least two hours between homework and vocabulary study, so I've stayed relatively on track so far. It helps that I'm ahead of the curriculum because I've studied Korean before, but I'm still learning an immense amount of vocabulary (about 100 words per week, and yes the first photo of this post is a typical sheet of my vocab notes from class).

At this stage, it feels pretty similar to me as some of the times I spent intensively studying Arabic abroad in Oman. There, I had about four hours of classes at most and then about two hours of homework each night. But on top of that, I also had to use the language more in "real life" to communicate with my Omani friends. Thankfully, I have my mom and others to help offer me free Korean practice--but my Korean still has a long way to go to get to that more complex conversational phase!

To be honest, I'm having a pretty good time in Korean class so far. The teachers are very knowledgeable and organized and the students have strong camaraderie. Moreover, the Korean department has incorporated a lot of cultural and linguistic immersion activities, like the Chuseok celebration I described in a previous post.

Probably the single biggest factor, though, is the fact that I simply love learning languages. I know not everyone does, so a lot of folks in language training are definitely not having as good of a time as I am. I find it to be a refreshing break from the typical grind and pace of work I've done in the office lately. I also enjoy challenging different parts of my brain that could use the exercise. I still struggle with mixing languages, and I deeply admire the polyglots who can flawlessly switch between many languages. (They are definitely my #goals.) For now, I'm accidentally dropping or thinking Korean words when I'm looking for French or Arabic, but hopefully with enough practice I can overcome that particular hurdle.

Two months in, I'm pretty impressed with my FSI language learning experience. My classmates are hard-working, the teachers are great, and the language training supervisor is good about setting clear expectations. To be honest, at first I was really disappointed that there wasn't space in the Korean department to create a more advanced course or to allow me to pursue a more in-depth self-study. (All the Korean classes at FSI start from 0 and go up to level 2, which is certainly not the case with other, larger language departments like French, Spanish, or even Chinese that can accommodate multiple levels simultaneously.) Now that we're past the alphabet (a grueling two full weeks) and the lowest-level basics, though, it's become much more interesting and fun. I'm looking forward to learning more and hopefully not burning out before I'm finished next year.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

First RV Camping Trip

M has definitely broadened my horizons in a number of ways by sharing the things he loves with me. He got me into cruises, after all. So I finally decided to try something he has enjoyed for a long time for the first time: RV camping (recreational vehicle camping)! I already really enjoy tent camping (on the condition that there is a toilet at the campsite, and even better if there is a shower), so I wasn't really sure how RV camping would compare.

We went camping with M's family in Bull Run Regional Park, which was surprisingly close and easy to reach. The park included a mix of locals and travelers, tents and RVs, families and couples and singles and friends. The park was preparing for the Festival of Lights, which looked like a fun holiday experience to try later in the season.

The RV was much more comfortable than I expected, to be honest! M and I slept on one of the couches that converted to a full bed, and all six of us on the trip could lounge comfortably by or in the RV. The campsite even came with a water hookup so we could use the bathroom inside instead of having to walk to the camp's shared bathroom, which was very convenient especially at night.

Although the weather was a little chilly that weekend, it was nice enough that we took a very leisurely hike together on one of the trails. We opted for a shorter route, but according to the trail map there are some loops that could take all day. Apparently, there are also nice bluebells to enjoy there during the spring, so we might have to come back for those next year.

The camp also had communal events planned where you could meet others who were staying at the park. We went to a bonfire where the camp staff provided cast iron griddles and we made grilled cheese sandwiches in the fire! It was so tasty, even if it didn't have much nutritional value. When we got back to our campsite, we also enjoyed a few rounds of s'mores. (Would it even be camping without s'mores?) M always toasts a perfect marshmallow, while I prepare the graham crackers and chocolate. We have our s'mores technique as a couple down at this point.

It was pouring rain the morning that we left, which is probably the single moment for which I was the most grateful to be in an RV instead of a tent. It did feel more like glamping than camping, though. All in all, I enjoyed my first time RV camping. It was different in a lot of ways from sleeping on the ground, but I would be happy to camp either way again. Feel free to share which type of camping is your favorite and why in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Falling in Love with New Hampshire

We spent a long weekend in New Hampshire celebrating the wedding of our dear friends L and D. I'd heard a lot about the beauty of New England in autumn, but this was my first time seeing it in person. Even a proud Virginian like me has to admit the views were stunning.

We drove up and back in our Tesla. It was a long drive (about 12 hours each way), but we enjoyed the vistas of the changing leaves on the sides of the highways and backroads alike.

The ceremony was held at the historic Castle in the Clouds. Photos don't do it justice: looking over the fall landscape, trees interrupted only by shimmering lakes, with clouds slowly rolling over the scene... It was breathtaking.

L and D had so many cool and unique touches at their wedding, from a Taco Bell-catered informal reception following their formal reception to a 3-d printed cake topper based on an exact scan of themselves. Because it was a gay wedding, they kept some traditions but skipped others. For example, they asked women in the wedding party to wear white and look as much like brides as possible.

Funnily enough, strangers kept coming up to me and congratulating me as we were leaving the ceremony venue. Turns out they thought I was the one who just got married! I can't blame them for thinking that based on how I was dressed, but we all had a good laugh over it. Personally, I was just excited to get to wear my wedding dress again. M and I even got a few couple photos together to make up for the fact that we didn't get enough at our own wedding years ago.

We also took advantage of the opportunity to explore a little of New Hampshire while we were up there. We did a maple sugar tour at Turkey Street Maples and sampled the different grades of maple syrup: golden, amber, dark, and very dark. They each had a really distinct color and flavor. They were seriously delicious!

We then participated in a mushroom farm tour at New Hampshire Mushroom Company, where we learned about different types of mushrooms and how a mushroom farm works. They also had a cool mushroom hike where you could forage for mushrooms in the forest yourself, but we didn't have time for it. We learned a lot but were super disappointed that they only took cash or check when it came time to buy mushrooms at the end. (We only have credit cards and digital payment methods.) I guess that says something about how we're not their typical clientele.

We're so honored to have been a part of L's and D's special day, and we also loved the chance to explore a part of the country we hadn't really seen before. So although we're exhausted, we came home with full hearts and plenty of wonderful memories made with friends.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

5 Things to Know about Long-Term Temp Housing

So M and I are now fully settled into our temporary housing, provided to us by the Department of State while we're in the DC area for mandatory training at the Foreign Service Institute (a.k.a. Diplomat School). This is our first time doing this, so we definitely experienced a learning curve and plenty of things we wished we had known in advance. Now don't get me wrong, we really appreciate the perk of a place to stay while we're assigned here. But for the benefit of other Foreign Service folks who may not have stayed in this type of housing before (or non-FS people who are just curious), here are the top five things we wish we had known beforehand.

(I will also clarify that these are pretty specific to the Department of State's HRPCS Lodging program with direct billing. You do have the option of finding your own place, reporting receipts, and being fully or partially reimbursed, but we decided to go with the convenience of State Department arrangements instead of apartment hunting ourselves. We can't really speak to the process of finding housing on your own and navigating the reimbursement system that way.)

  1. They're not joking about that short lead time for moving. We moved in on a holiday Monday and found out where we were going to live the Wednesday night before. Yep, that's two business days' notice. It's good to be flexible.
  2. You probably won't get a lot of information about accommodations in time to pack out of your house. We ended up wasting precious suitcase space on things we didn't really need, like bedding and towels. We expected a low-quality welcome kit but were provided with a nicer set-up than expected.
  3. Sometimes you get room service?! Our housing includes once per week room service! This was a really pleasant surprise, so now we at least don't have to worry about our linens.
  4. Properties can oversell their amenities. The property management company of our apartment had included electric car chargers as a selling point, which is the main reason they were our #1 choice. When we arrived, though, we learned the one electric charger didn't work and the property management company wasn't even aware! After M reported it, they finally fixed it. However, because they never put up any "electric vehicle-only" signage, all the spots that reach the charger are usually blocked by non-electric vehicles. They say they're working on it.
  5. The FSI shuttle is not all it's cracked up to be. The shuttle FSI arranges was sold as a strong perk, which makes sense since a lot of folks come without their cars. We drive most days, so we've only had to take the shuttle near our residence once so far. That one day I realized I did not want to ever take the shuttle again. In the time five shuttles should have come, only one did. They were supposed to run every few minutes, but we waited over 20 minutes and were late to class that day. Once we finally did get on the shuttle, it was insanely crowded so we had to stand squished together without great handhold options for the turns and brakes. We later learned that when the shuttles are too full, they simply start skipping stops (including ours), so that information would've been great up front. At least now we know and hopefully won't make that same mistake again.

I have a lot of thoughts specifically about language training, too, but I'll share that in a different blog post. I hope this was helpful and informative for some readers. And for those with their own relevant experience, please feel free to add your thoughts on long-term USG (U.S. government) temp housing in the comments below.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Happy Belated Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)!

I might do a separate post on what it's like to spend 40 hours a week learning a language, but for now I wanted to highlight a special day from our language class last week. The students and teachers celebrated Chuseok, also known as Korean Thanksgiving. This was our first-ever Chuseok celebration, and it was in Virginia!

The best part was the food, which we arranged as a potluck where everyone chipped in money and many brought things to share. We had some absolutely delicious food there, including bulgogi (a marinated beef dish and M's favorite), fried tofu, japchae (a glass noodle and vegetable stir fry), hobak jeon (zucchini fried in egg and my favorite), and sliced dduk/tteok (rice cakes). Of course, we also had songpyeon, a traditional half-moon rice cake dessert that is the signature food of Chuseok.

We also played a lot of fun games as a class. First, we made a traditional version of a hacky sack called jegichagi (pictured above on my foot). The goal is to keep kicking it without letting it touch the ground. I was by far the reigning champion, with 28 hits before it reached the ground. My 15 minutes of fame and glory were up, though, when we transitioned to the other games. I was a disaster at ddakji, where you folded squares of paper (like Korean origami, pictured below) and tried to knock other people's squares out of a designated area on the floor. The mechanics reminded us of marbles. My friend G built a super-reinforced square or something, because nobody else stood a chance against his once it was on the ground. Last, we played what M and I called Korean cornhole, where we tried to throw beanbags and arrows into a beautiful vase. The actual name of that one was tuho, and it was incredibly difficult (as you can tell from the first photo of this post)!

If you're interested in the Korean language at all, here are a few helpful vocabulary words and phrases for Chuseok:

  • Happy Chuseok!: 행복한 추석 되세요! / 추석 찰 보내세요!
  • Have a great weekend (since Chuseok is usually a long weekend)!: 주말 찰 보내세요!
  • Songpyeon, the rice cake traditionally eaten during Chuseok: 송편
  • Ddakji, the origami game: 딱지접기
  • Jegichagi, the hacky sack game: 제기차기
  • Tuho, the cornhole game: 투호

행복한 추석 되세요 to all the blog's readers! Next year, we'll celebrate Chuseok in South Korea! We're really looking forward to it.

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.