Saturday, December 26, 2015

Vienna, because we bought tickets before we got our assignment.

I know that's not a fair thing to say, as roughly half of the Embassy personnel were in Vienna or transiting through Vienna, but honestly if we'd known we were going to Frankfurt earlier we would have chosen somewhere else for our holiday. It's all good though, Vienna is a lovely city and we had a good time.

Hofburg at night.
Nicholas had a slightly less good time.  About 3 days in he came down with food poisoning. FYI: Watch out for the market bratwursts.  Or at least watch out for eating 4 of them in 3 days. The next day he stayed at the hotel and slept the hours he'd missed overnight and missed a few extra markets.

It was mostly a vacation of food and markets. I successfully avoided buying much of anything (remember, Frankfurt is next on the docket), and we hit the highlights of St. Stephens, Hofburg Palace, and Schonbrunn Palace, and all the markets in-between.

Kursalon, with the oldest.
Not Vienna related at all, but we also made time for the latest installment of the Star Wars saga.  Our first attempt resulted in tickets to an all-German showing. With much regret, we left and had new tickets for two nights later, and made the time for the exhibition Star Wars: Identities beforehand (in Vienna until April 16).  Well worth the cost, the interactive exhibit lets you design your own SW character as you progress through, learning about influences and decisions that affect how we grow into the people we are. I would put up photos, but since it's more fun to experience it without foreknowledge, let's not ruin it.

We stayed at the Marriott right across from the StadtPark, a nice location near the City-Airport train (16 minute ride from the airport, 19Euro round trip, can't be beat) and St. Stephen's Platz, our almost favorite market, second only to the Schonbrunn. If you're so inclined, the Kursalon in the StadtPark has a lovely show each evening, designed specifically for tourists and those who don't wish to sit through a full opera (the opera house is a couple blocks away) or symphony. It's a fun event with popular pieces, and if you go during the holidays they throw in a couple Christmas tunes at the end.

Schonbrunn frame.
Like our trip to Prague last year, we met up with some family friends.  It's always fun keeping 12 people together in a crowd, so sometimes we tried and other times we didn't bother, but on the whole we all saw the same stuff and wandered the city in a pack. One time Becca and I struck out on our own to the market in the Museum Quartier. On our first attempt it was closed (there were a lot of first attempts during this trip) which I kind of knew was going to happen as everything we read said 4 p.m. but the desk clerk said 11 a.m. and... whatever.  We went back because I'd read that it was a quirky and unique market with a place to try your hand at curling. Come to find out that it was purely a drinking market. Set in a courtyard surrounded by several museums, we would have had a better time seeing the museums.  Next time.

One other thing that didn't work out was doing an escape room.  We thought about it, but too late. Next time.

Christmas 2016 we'll stay home. In Frankfurt. Or maybe not, maybe we'll drive a couple hours to someplace lovely and new. However it works (because there are no R&Rs or home leaves in Germany) we won't be traveling far and wide like we have been this past year. All of Europe awaits and we never really thought we'd get to say that!

See you in 2016, and we can't wait to share our new adventures.

Eat your fluff!

Rathaus Market, do not go on a Saturday night.

Stadt Park.  A nice place to hang out with the masters.

The best gifts don't come under the tree.

Who doesn't love the Grinch once his heart grows 3 sizes?

For kids, it's often all about the presents and for adults it mostly about the people, and as I glance into the future I see the way our holidays will swing back and forth over the coming decade as we search for that perfect mix of presents, people, and memories.

This year the tree was very kind to our crew. I've heard from Katherine that her gifts were well-received, and our tree (though it appeared to be "sparser" than "normal" - seriously, I don't even want to think about how many packages, boxes, or bags were under there) held surprises for all.  There's always a favorite gift, though the term favorite is a bit harsh, and this year's was the PS4 for the boys. Rebecca's were a gift card to Sephora and a portable iPhone photo printer. Mine is a brand new camera. My little Canon started acting up while we were in Moscow and now I'm the proud owner of a Sony (never had a Sony before), Alpha a6000.  It has so many buttons!! So many instructions to read! But I'm hoping that by having a middle camera, better than my pocket Canon and way lighter than my Canon DSLR with its 40lb* telephoto lens (which I LOVE but simply cannot carry on a regular basis), I'll actually become a better photographer. I know it's all in the angles and lighting and such, but I'm so excited!

*estimated weight after carrying for more than 10 minutes

A very close second for me is the Norpro Pasta Machine, the Walking Dead inspired gift from Jonathon.  He kept saying "It's Walking Dead themed" and I couldn't for the life of me think of what it was.  The others suggested such helpful things as perhaps a severed head, but as soon as I saw it, I got it.It makes lasagna, tagliolini, and fettucini, so if you have a great pasta recipe, please pass it on. He's a great kid with a great sense of humor, shaggy hair and all.  

Yes, we're Walking Dead fans.  My boys have the idea they'd be part of the survivors.  I know for a fact I'd be one of the first zombiefied.  It's OK, I'm cool with that.

Thinking back to the summer, the other gift that really surprised me was seasons 1-3 of The Big Bang Theory from Ian.  Apparently there was a marathon of Big Bang Theory on BBCsomething when we were on R&R in the UK. Any time the TV went on, there it was.  I haven't watched a TV comedy in so many years, I can't actually recall the last one.  They just aren't funny.  But with nothing else on except cooking shows, we surprised ourselves laughing at BBT over and over again.  Ian ordered all the seasons from and they never made it to post, so reordered from amazon and now we have the first seasons.  Totally psyched for this, really!

There were lots of fuzzy gifts, especially from my parents.

It's actually funny how the kids look forward to socks and underwear and PJs and other necessities now.  Nicholas received a stack of tshirts, the one thing he gleefully commented on at the end of the unwrapping. Becca received a stack of warm jackets and pullovers and PJs and announced this year a Fuzzy Christmas. Jonathon opened a Lootcrate of some game with a Vault 111 theme (please don't ask me) and wore the hoodie jacket the rest of the day.

Don't have a tree skirt?  Use a Keffiyeh.

I think I enjoy Christmas more now with my kids older than I ever did when they were tiny. They appreciate things more now. They don't insist on staying up until midnight or waking up at the crack of dawn, but prefer to take their time and relish the days. We spent Christmas Eve watching Star Wars episode 2, playing 4-player Diablo III, building the gingerbread house sent by grandma and grandpa, then watching Amadeus - a fitting tribute to our time in Vienna. Christmas morning was crepe-making time for brunch. 

Nicholas's side

Ian added festive light sabers
Presents were opened one at a time, thanks said, oohs and aahs issued.  After presents, while the mess remained in the living room because we all know that once you clean up the holiday feels finished, Becca and I played LEGO Star Wars and watched "Elf" while the boys set up the PS4 and tried it out. A ribe eye steak dinner and a Buche de Noel (made entirely by Rebecca from my mom's handwritten recipe) completed our holiday food. Becca and I jumped into playing LEGO Lord of the Rings (what can I say, we really enjoy our ancient LEGO games).  Today we'll put together some LEGO Dimensions and give it a whirl.  Ian also bought the Dr. Who Expansion for LEGO Dimensions, so... if you're looking for me, you know where I'll be.

It's been a great holiday. My kids gave me the best gift they could over the past week and that was the gift of their time (not that they had too much choice in that while in Vienna) and their cooperation with each other and with us. Were there moments that one family member (sometimes me) wanted to strangle another family member? Absolutely.  But they weren't the norm and they weren't constant, and everyone put their best foot forward and made the choice to let (most of) the annoyances go. There are times when our kids make us downright angry, and we do the same for them, but this holiday, those moments didn't overshadow large swathes of time. There's no price tag for that. 

My family is a wonderful family. I'm blessed and I know it. Not just now when I'm happy and caffeinated and sitting quietly in the kitchen conveniently forgetful of all the times I want to run away screaming from the insanity that is a house with 3 teens and a husband with quirks of his own (who CRUNCHES that loud on everything??), but even when those times happen. When my kids stand up for themselves, even against me, I seethe and yell and eventually reach the conclusion that while I may hate it at the time, they are really interesting and strong individuals with minds of their own that will generally serve them well. It's a lovely thing to behold.

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Find your blessings and hold on to them tight.  They'll last far longer than anything wrapped with ribbons and bows, and are more valuable than the stars.

Hugs and love from all of us here in Jordan.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Holiday Party 2015

If you get invited to our house, it's a big deal and you are one of the lucky few.

Well, sounds a bit egotistical if I put it that way.  I guess I should say it more like: we hold one party a year only for as many people as can fit around our dining table, due to the fact that I don't know how to throw a party, we have 3 cats that make our home a hair and potentially allergy infested place, and hosting gives me hives.

This year actually went off well.  The kids made most of the food.  Jonathon did the deviled eggs and the buckeyes, Rebecca made apple crisp, pumpkin spice cake, and white chocolate covered Oreo truffles, Ian made the veggie appetizer (cucumber, turkey pepperoni, cream cheese, cherry tomato), and I did the bacon-wrapped dates.  Nicholas was the muscle, getting ice from the store and generally carrying things from Point A to Point B, like the meat and cheese platter from our awesome neighborhood store, the Marche'.

We locked the cats up, but nothing is going to eliminate the cat hair from this place. And the house actually looked pulled together, as though we did this hosting thing All The Time and it's really No Big Deal.

The bar. We don't know what 1/2 the alcohol is.

The lanterns. Do I need a third?

Complete with Brie and horse meat.

The table. Eventually covered in foods.

The tree. We have the best topper.
It's all fake, I promise, though we did a good spread with the mulled wine, Keurig coffee, and our new favorite kettle for tea, and I'm glad I splurged on an assortment of table coverings.  I know, I know, next year in Germany I can get all sorts of cool stuff, but I wanted something now, and it does make a difference and coverings don't weigh much.

Because you know that everything right now is about cutting back our belonging and watching our collective weight.

Back to the party.  We invited a handful of people for a holiday evening - a white elephant gift exchange - a game of chance and presents. I'd asked each invitee to bring two gifts (be very clear - it's per person), one should be an item they think is useful or fun or interesting or unusual. The other should be something that is unusual but not necessarily in a good way, something perhaps that could use a home but definitely not your home.  The first bit of fun comes from the rule that the items cannot be purchased for the party.  They are items already owned and occupying space in your home.

Wrap the gifts as lovely or as plainly as you like.

Once everyone is settled around the table (or around the living room, or comfortably in the yard, or...) and all the presents are piled in the middle, round 1 begins with the die rolling 1s and 5s allowing guests to pick any gift off the table and open it (some versions keep the paper on, but I think that detracts from round 2).  Depending on the number of folks, this usually takes less than an hour, and if the die is kind it allows everyone to open at least one gift.  But don't sweat if you don't get to open anything, that's when round 2 comes into play.

After a 10-15 minute break for coffee and desserts, round 2 gets underway with a timer running.  Pick a random amount of time and don't tell anyone how long it is, and don't watch the timer once it's set (I leave mine in the kitchen).  Start the die rolling again, only now that all the gifts are open certain people will have their eyes on certain items.  Roll a 1 and take a gift (that bottle of wine looks awesome, I'll relieve it from your pile). Roll a 3 and give a gift (oh, I think you could really use a 2014 calendar, yes, it's really brand new from 2014).  Roll a 5 and trade a gift (actually, I could really use a box of cat food, here, have this 110v pink heart alarm clock in return). You get the idea.

I know there are a hundred variations out there, but this one is simple and fun and lets people's colors show, if you like that sort of thing. Folks were great about sharing the love and watching out for dwindling piles (oh, you don't have anything left, you can have this collection of scented candles with a bonus Texas bottle opener!).

I think part of my anxiety with hosting a party is having to entertain people. Everyone wants their guests to have a good time at their home, and the game gives the evening purpose and structure.  I have to thank Katie Stowe for inviting us to her event two years ago as it's becoming a part of our holiday festivities, and we're encouraging our guests to bring it with them to their next posts.

The best part, of course is having friends to share the evening with. It takes us a good long while to settle into a post, 6 months to a year usually, and longer to feel comfortable with having folks in our home, but it's worth it, and if I haven't come out with anything else from our time in Jordan, I know I've come out with far more friends than I came into it with.

Happy Holidays.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A quick trip to London

Best part: The colors in the parks.

Beatles M&Ms at Leicester Square

An evening with Book of Mormon

The actual reason we were there.


Making a monster.

The Mire.

1/2 our hotel room.  So posh.
Ian and I did a quick trip to London this weekend.  As he puts it "She came to Moscow for me, so..." because it boiled down to a trip for a Dr. Who event and you really have to love someone to go all that distance for Dr. Who. I got the better end of the deal too, as I had a great time in Moscow.

Even cooler though, this lovely lady joined us in London.

My mom!
Wednesday we arrived in beautiful sunny London and joined our former DCM in Amman at her home for a dinner.  So great to see her and bring her a little piece of Amman in the form of a hanging lamp taken from our soon-to-be-demolished Oasis restaurant.  It's actually an ugly piece of art, but sentimental value goes a long way.

Since I hand-carried the lamp there, I had room in my bag. We're now the proud owners of one of these.  Every place we stay at in London has one of some sort, and we became rather attached to a colored-light-changing version in Northern Ireland.  This one lights up, but doesn't change color that we know of.  Honestly, we knew we were going to get one, basically forgot about it when we were on the ground, passed a grocery store and remembered, and bought the only one they had:

Sainsbury's Black Illuminating Kettle
Bring on the tea!
On Thursday we didn't have any plans, but at the dinner Wednesday night, another guest mentioned the British Library and how they have an original Magna Carta.  We were sold and it was an easy walk from the hotel (the British Museum was literally around the corner from our hotel but we never made it there).  What we didn't realize is they have a little of everything (not surprising to anyone but us apparently). A Tyndale Bible.  Hand-written Beatles lyrics on the back of an envelope. Original scores from Beethoven.

We learned it actually was a cry for help.  The handwriting change says it all.
Written music, before music was written. Mass-printed documents from hundreds of years before Gutenberg. A letter from Ann Boleyn with a post script by King Henry VIII asking someone or other to hurry up with Henry's divorce.  The British Library is a working library with exhibitions and was a highlight of our trip.

Since the weather was being Londony, we continued downtown and hopped a riverboat to Greenwich where we straddled 0* longitude.  Truly there wasn't enough time do the whole place in one afternoon as we skipped over the Maritime Museum entirely and mistakenly chose to see a planetarium show rather than stick with the longitude exhibition and see the observatory. As we put it, now we have a reason to go back.

East meets West.
That night Ian and I saw "The Book of Mormon."  Enough on that :)

Friday was Dr. Who day. Not a convention, but an indoor Festival at the Excel. It was a small event, with scheduled timings to see some of the actors, the writers, the assistant directors, the artists and special effects companies, with plenty of Daleks and Tardises for photos. There was no pushing, no real crowd, and plenty of opportunity to ask questions, especially of the special effects folks.

Dinner at "The Blue Door" meant eating at the hotel.  Though we didn't have a reservation, the restaurant was largely empty by 8 p.m. but the kitchen still busy and we discovered it was due to a Mathematics gathering in the meeting room downstairs.  I guess they were hungry mathematicians.

And then Paris happened.

And we came home.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Heartbreak and the emotional roller coaster of the past week.

Amman has been in the local, regional, and international news quite a bit this past week.  Our quiet little town has been rocked by terrible acts from nature and man.

We had another big dust storm which blanketed the city in a yellow cloud of grit that made you chew air and lasted for 2 days.

Followed by a 45-minute deluge of rain that turned streets into rushing rivers that killed four people and devastated businesses, homes, and property.

Followed by questionable deaths of 2 dual-citizen American-Jordanian sisters, friends of the queen, one who was a parent at ACS.

Followed by a shooting at a police training facility just on the edge of Amman which killed 2 Americans, a South African, a Jordanian, and wounded several others including 2 more Americans.

A week ago the Embassy was wrapping up a month's worth of planning for the First Lady to have a successful visit for her #LetGirlsLearn initiative. People were exhausted and worn from the daily ups and downs of plans that never seemed to get set in stone. Our Embassy is amazing in their ability to hop from one "must have" and "must do" to the next, pulling long hours and making things work even when they sometimes seem like impossible hurdles. Need to switch a program from day X to day Z even if day Z means bringing in hundreds of people on their day off from all over the city? Sure.  Want to switch arrival airports in an hour and ensure that everyone already at airport A is cleared and set at airport B? Fine. She might fly to point D, or drive to point D, but we don't know if she'll leave from point G or H yet? No problem. I'm in awe when these things go off right.

As it happened, it didn't go off at all. However much of your and my tax dollars were spent to prep for this event... however many man hours put into it... however many gray hairs sprouted and wrinkles gained, it doesn't matter anymore that the First Lady canceled her trip here. That feels like a year ago.

Instead we mourn our losses. Ian calls families 7 time zones away to tell them of theirs. And we try once again to make sense of the nonsensical, the frightening, and the heartbreak.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Moscow - the end, via Tel Aviv

So, our trip was awesome.  We can't thank the Donna Crew enough for their hospitality at home and willingness to traipse around the city. Visiting Moscow was a dream come true for Ian and I don't think it scared him off of bidding on it in the future.  We'll see.  You absolutely need Russian of some degree to function and he's not averse to learning, so there's that.  I think the constant observation would wear me down, but maybe you just get used to talking at light switches and fireplaces.

On the way home we transited back through Tel Aviv and made a pit stop in Jerusalem to see some very special someones...

Thanks for having us for a couple hours. We miss the Sabrina Crew a ton!  

Moscow - The Graveyard of Monuments

One of the last places we visited was the Monuments Graveyard, in the backyard of a huge art museum.  It's where a lot of sculptures came to rest, at one point in a giant pile of broken bits and severed heads, but now in a more artistic show.  The sculptures range in all forms from fairy tale stories (like the "wolf in sheep's clothing" below) to heads (see what I did there?) of state.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Moscow - Gorky Park Favorite

Gorky Park was such a treat.  Never mind that much of the trailway through the park was blocked off due to the yearly process of turning the walking paths into ice skating paths (how cool is THAT?), but the lake and fall leaves and crisp air and river walk were exactly the change we were looking for coming from Amman.

Right neat the playground we stopped at by the lake there was a vending machine of bird and squirrel snacks.  Bird snacks consisted of milled grains, of course.  Squirrel snack packs held chestnuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and the like.  We stuck to the birds (and the fish).

Clearly a highlight of Nicholas's trip.  Way better than any church.