Sunday, January 28, 2024

Our first weekender.

Ian had a trip to Ottawa for work and guess who tagged along?

We took the train, which was awesome.  Ian and I enjoy a good train ride, and part of the route to Ottawa goes along Lake Ontario.  As soon as we left Toronto the banks of snow showed up and stayed with us all the way to Ottawa.

Ottawa is pretty.  Our view included the Rideau Canal, the Arts Center, Parliament, some other government buildings, and the Fairmont hotel.  It's hard not to imagine being at Hogwarts with the view.

More later!

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Last Day Home

In January 2020 I started working (well I went to training and then started working in March 2020... we all know what happened next) in a Civil Service position in DC for Consular Affairs.  An important note - the section was created specifically for Eligible Family Members of Foreign Service Officers who were back in DC for a couple years. When we moved to Pennsylvania in 2022 I switched to full-time remote.  For the months back in the DC area in summer 2023 I went back to the office.  It was a great arrangement.  Unfortunately, when I was hired I knew that my job was a limited-term appointment.  I haven't figured out the purpose of limited-term appointments, but there you have it, it was a two-year limited-term appointment with the option to renew for a second two-year term.  I knew that come January 2024, I was out of a job.

One positive thing that came out of the pandemic was the transition to telework.  I know it's being reevaluated now, and for some good reasons.  However, the office I was hired into is, at its heart, a remote position.  The name literally had "Remote" in its name because it was an office in DC that worked on cases in other countries.  The pandemic made it work that much better as the State Department was forced to really amp up remote capabilities.  The expansion of DETO, telework, and remote work was awesome and allowed me to work in PA even easier than it had before. 

What didn't change was the four-year term limit.

Well, I should say that due to an awesome amount of work by our supervisors, it did change.  With the recognition of how important the Remote office was, particularly during the pandemic when we continued processing visas while missions were closed globally, the wheels turned and in the beginning of 2023, the Remote officer personnel were transitioned to real Civil Service positions with no term-limit.  This means they can keep their jobs as long as they want, while they are in DC but also bringing the job with them as they move to posts abroad or even just moving to other states to be closer to family.  

But it didn't apply to everyone.  

For some reason it only applied to employees with still valid NCE or Non-Competitive Employment status.  Eligible Family Members (EFMs) earn an NCE after working 52 weeks at a mission overseas.  It's good for three years, and the clock starts ticking the day you land in the U.S.  It gives EFMs a leg up in the hiring process.  Why did it only apply to those employees?  I never got a real answer for that, but suffice to say that my NCE kicked in the summer of 2019 and expired 2022.  By the time early 2023 rolled around my NCE had long expired and so even though I had been there the longest, folks who just started were now guaranteed a forever job if they wanted and I just watched the looming expiration date draw ever closer.  

On a side note, even though I had proven that I could do my job remotely for a year, the vacancies advertised in the same section were all in-person only, so I couldn't even apply for my own job.  Yeah....

I was a little bitter, but OK, because we were going to Haiti and I had already lined up a job there.  It was a decision between trying to apply for remote job from some CA office  or joining my new community and really being present.  I went with the latter.

Then we didn't go to Haiti.  So now I didn't have an onward job, and I'd run out of time trying to figure out a DC job that might allow me to jump right into remote work.  ARG.

Toronto is severely understaffed.  It's a problem in developed countries where the USG pays a certain salary amount, isn't flexible, and have you seen the cost of rent here??  Yeah, they can't hire people even with how understaffed they are.  However I can't work in the consular section because... Ian.  And I'm not really qualified to work anywhere else because consular work is very niche.  There's something that might work out in the future (I'll let you know), but in the meantime I'm going to branch out into a position where I'll learn a lot and hopefully feel good while doing it.  I'm nervous.  I'm anxious.  Yeah, I'm scared.

I've thoroughly enjoyed being home since we moved into this apartment on December 3, but this is the end of my quiet days watching the snow and enjoying all the homemaking.  I was doing Ian's laundry... yeah, that's gonna stop!  I crocheted a couple blankets.  I made cookies.  I organized shelves and cleared out junk, and watched some TV Ian doesn't like.  I started reading again and I restarted this blog.

We'll see what keeps happening and what amount of brain space I have left over at the end of the workday (knowing myself... for the first few weeks - NOT MUCH).  That's what I'm going to miss the most, and I know how lucky I am to have had this time so don't hate me because it's hard to give up.


Friday, January 19, 2024


Crazily it's been almost a year since we went to Houston for what was a once-in-a-lifetime experience at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

But let me back up.

I've mentioned already that we had a fantabulous year in Pennsylvania.  That was in no small part to the change in our work.  I worked from home that year for my job in DC.  Ian went to school.  He's happy in school - learning, teaching, mentoring.  It's a wonderful option in the Foreign Service that we truly encourage for everyone who has the opportunity.  Here's the thing though... don't do it in DC.  Sure, there can be benefits to doing the master's programs offered in the DC area (maybe you don't have to move again, maybe you have kids in school, maybe you just really like DC rent), but if you can and are open to moving to a different program - Do. It.  Disengage from DC.  Take a breath.  Explore a new U.S. city.  Find a new calm.  Carlisle, PA and the U.S. Army War College were just what he needed after a year in Baghdad and 2 years on the Iraq desk.  The halls of DC are supposedly great for visibility and promotion, but garbage for your mental health.  He needed a break.

When choosing the program, we knew we wanted to go to Carlisle, with the other programs far seconds (Alabama, Rhode Island, DC...).  We found a great apartment that could have been scooterable to the barracks if the roads were smooth.  Across the street from a grocery store with a Starbucks.  Walkable to the historic downtown.  An easy drive to everything else we needed.  It was quiet, it was calm.

When he was accepted into the program he had a choice as to which track he wanted, one of which was the Scholars program.  The Scholars program front-loaded the curriculum at hyper-speed with the second half of the year devoted to papers and projects.  A lot less class-time, a lot more home time, regular walks together for coffee in the morning, and lunch breaks.  I started early and ended my work days at 3:30pm.  

The one thing Ian didn't expect from his year at school was making friends.  But he did - some really good ones he still chats with almost a year later.  

Including one who invited us to Houston.  Actually, she invited the class and we were the only ones who took her up on it.  Seriously, who turns down a visit the Johnson Space Center? Who??  Not us.  Not with an invite from an astronaut.

The visit was overwhelming and inspiring.  We were given behind-the-scenes tours by her team from the ISS pool to the suit workshop.  At the pool, two astronauts suited up to enter the pool and rehearse a space walk at the ISS.  The pool is big enough for a submerged 1:1 duplicate of the ISS broken into several chunks.  It's stunning.

LOVE the brutalist design.

"Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor not a...."

The biggest pool.

If Adam Savage was there, you know it's awesome.

Missions 58 and 59.

One of the highlights, beyond sitting in on her presentation to the JSC leadership - including Vanessa Wyche and a dozen others - was meeting the Flight Operations Director and getting coined.  Just look at that giddiness!  

With Flight Director Chief, Norman Knight

More than all that, and we'd have loved to spend more time, we got to hang out with a friend and she is amazing beyond being an astronaut. 

Thank you Anne for a fantastic time in Houston on your home turf!

Tuesday, January 16, 2024


The Hockey Hall of Fame has been on our to do list for a while.  I remember a couple years back, way before the possibility of actually living in Toronto, we talked about taking a road trip up here to go to the church of all things hockey.  Yesterday on a U.S. holiday and when the temperature was a balmy 9ͦF we took the PATH and spent the afternoon gaping.

The museum is a bit of a maze and leans heavily on glass cases and info plaques, like any other museum. By the end I didn't really want to see another jersey or skate.  By far my favorite parts were how hockey has changed since it's inception - at least it's formal inception, they acknowledge that as long as iced lakes exist there have been people sliding around on them kicking a rock or ball past their friends.  The thought that goalies didn't have actual protective gear for decades is horrifying.  The realization that protecting their faces was the last part to be considered is baffling.

Representation matters.

These rings are enormous, while the earlier rings look 
like what Josten's creates for colleges.

"Hey, let's make a hockey league!"

I would never be a goalie.

The stuff of nightmares.  Why bother?

There are 2 Stanley Cups.  This is the permanent HHOF one.
The Presentation one periodically is at HHOF, and it leans a bit.

The Original cup.

On the whole, a worthwhile afternoon.  We'll go back with any kids who want to see it for themselves.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Entertainment all around

We were lucky enough to find an apartment in the Entertainment District of Toronto.  Within a few blocks we have the Rogers Center and Scotiabank Arena, Roy Thompson Hall (the Toronto Symphony), the TIFF Lightbox, Princess of Wales Theater, the Royal Alexandra Theater (we saw SIX! here), the CN Tower, Ripley's Aquarium, Roundhouse Park, The Four Seasons Center for the Performing arts (ballet and opera), and a movie theater.

Add a few more blocks and we have the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Hockey Hall of Fame, Meridian Hall, Massey Hall (we saw To Kill a Mockingbird here), The Second City Toronto, and tons more little spots here and there - museums (I think there's one at the CBC building), comedy, and theater venues, etc.  There are also a number of multipurpose areas like the Convention center, Stackt, The Well, and Harbourfront.

Go a little further and there's Kensington Market, the Distillery District, The Bentway, and the whole of the Waterfront.  Everything above is within a 5-45 minute walk.

When we were searching for a rental, we checked a number of neighborhoods, all of them urban.  Each area had its pros and cons - different grocery stores (one was near a Whole Foods!), different entertainment, different commutes - and I know we would have been happy in any one of them and adapted to what it had to offer.  We considered living along the lake for the awesome view, we checked out the area around a townhouse west of Spadina, we saw an apartment on the 70-something floor in Yorkville.  Each building had different amenities and each street had a different vibe (while Yorkville is quite posh with lots of shopping there's not much affordable).

During the week, and even most weekends, we don't drive anywhere.  There are trams, buses, and a subway system, but mostly we walk because this chunk of Toronto has pretty much everything we need  - grocery stores, Staples, Michaels, restaurants, malls, bodegas, drugstores, a French bakery, the PATH.  All that and we have a 9 minute walk to work.  

The commute was top of our list, and we can see a sliver of lake which was pretty high on our list, but if you ask us what really sealed this building for us is the car elevator.  This building has a car elevator.  A. Car. Elevator.  What sorcery is this?  Drive the car into elevator, press the button, drop down to correct parking level.  It's amazing and stress-free which I didn't expect living downtown.  And even though we rarely take out the car we know it's secure and out of the elements.  And there's a car elevator!

So far Toronto is proving to be a pretty good deal and I'm sure we'll keep discovering more fun things in the city and in Ontario as the months go on and the seasons change.  I hear there's a tennis Open in August split between Montreal and Toronto, and the World Juniors tournament is coming to Ottawa in December!

There's no doubt that whenever the kids visit there will be something fun to do.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

OK, one more hockey related post but with furniture.

When we arrived in Toronto the weather was delightful, reaching up to the 50s during the day and sunny.  We walked a lot figuring out our temporary neighborhood and didn't have to wear the coats we'd judiciously bought back in Virginia.  That didn't last long, the coats were necessary a few weeks later,  but in the meantime it was cool enough to require a sweatshirt.  Remember we were still living out of suitcases packed for a tropical island, so.... I wore the same sweatshirts a lot and my go-to was usually a bright red Washington Capitals sweatshirt even in the land of Maple Leafs.  

We moved into our permanent apartment the first weekend in December and the weather was mild.  Out came the sweatshirt.  We received our shipments and most of what we requested arrived, including our bed frame and mattress.  Woohoo!  What didn't make it... the hardware to put the bed together.  We bought the frame from IKEA at least a decade ago if not longer (I think it's longer, a lot longer), but did what made sense - went to IKEA for replacement parts.

The customer service area was packed and at a kiosk we requested a number to get in line, at least 45 minutes.  Ian went off to the restroom and I wandered around when a woman stopped me and offered a spot on a bench near her and her spouse.  I declined but then she asked if I was a Washington Capitals fan.  Yup, my sweatshirt.

It's been a while since the conversation so I don't remember details, but we had a long chat about the Capitals, the Bears, hockey in general, and the Indigenous games (the Arctic Winter Games?) in Alaska in 2024, because once they asked us where we were from because of our ACCENTS (ACCENTS??!), and why we're in Toronto, there was of course a visa question about traveling to Alaska for volunteering at the games.  (Speaking of accents, we had dinner out on Christmas Even and our server also asked us where we were from because of our accents.... I'd like to inform all Canadians that we don't have accents - they do.)

The highlight of our interaction was the fact that she is Connor McMichael's great-aunt and they spent time over the summer with Connor and the Calder Cup.  With pictures.  What were the chances?  No really... what??  It was yet another very cool and lucky connection to the hockey world.

We chatted until their number was called and took their seats for what looked like another hour of waiting.  Until she came back and whispered that they told the clerk that we were their friends and had a quick question and she whisked Ian up to the counter so he could ask for our missing parts.  A few minutes later they were done with their return and came by to say farewell.  The mysterious Canadian rescue we didn't know we needed and just like that they were gone.  

So, Shanna and spouse (sorry, I forgot your name!) thank you for being so kind and a joy to encounter.

We returned home with our IKEA loot and, bleh, the parts didn't fit try as we might, so we struck out on foot that afternoon and had no luck at three other hardware stores within a mile of our apartment.  The next day we drove to Home Depot and, success!  Back at home the four sides came together and then it was time for the stability bar in the middle, a simple "slide into metal brackets" before placing the slats and finishing up.  It was then we noticed that someone had removed the metal brackets.  They've never been taken off before, they lay practically flat against the wood except where the metal support slides in, why would anyone take them off?  Why??  They were probably with all the other missing hardware.  Frustration started to boil over.  Searching online showed that the missing plate is no longer available and other plates had screw holes in different places.  The bedframe was solid wood.  We don't have a drill.  

We looked at each other.  This bedframe had served us well for probably 20 years, and after ranting about the stupidity of packers who don't tape hardware to the relevant furniture or replace them in the holes once the sections have been taken apart (that is something we absolutely love), we agreed we were OK with moving on to a new bedframe.  So we walked over to the nearby Structube, ordered a bed for delivery (four days later we put together a new stylish frame that had all its parts - woohoo!  Do you know how hard it is roll off a mattress on the floor in the middle of the night when you're nearly 50?) 

The next day we deserved a treat and actual groceries and went to Costco.  Once again Ian disappeared (it's a big place, I think he got lost?) and a stocker came up to me and asked about my sweatshirt.  Yup, same sweatshirt.  I promise I wash it.  A young person who then jumped into everything he likes about the Capitals, even though he's from... Poland.  Ian joined and we chatted for a bit longer about the players and about cities in Poland we'd been to.

Hockey, and in particular the Capitals... bringing people together. LOL.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Yes, more about hockey.

When we were in PA, we decided we had the time and space to travel to regional arenas to watch the Caps play.  So not only did we see a heck of a lot of Bears games with our 1/2 season tickets, we also went to Boston for Caps/Bruins (Hi Jerry and Julie!), Columbus for Caps/Blue Jackets (Hi Nicholas and Taylor, and Taylor's parents!), New Jersey for Caps/Devils (Hi scary alleys!), Philadelphia for Caps/Flyers (Hi amazing entertainment complex!), and NYC for Rangers/someone (Hi Brian!).  We're not bold enough yet to enter Penguins territory.

Now that we're in Maple Leafs land and Ian has to travel for work to a shocking number of NHL team cities, there's nothing we can do but arrange the visits around Caps away games.  It just makes sense.

Our year with the Bears was a special one as I've mentioned before, not just for the Cup win at the end.  As silly as it sounds, it connected us to the Caps even more - which is good when the Caps are playing as badly as they are.  But the Bears are fun (and playing really really well) and if you didn't watch this year's Teddy Bear toss on January 8, go look for it.  It's spectacular.  They'll play the Toronto Marlies in a couple months so our hockey viewing continues to extend to the AHL, some ECHL (when we visited Becca and team in Atlanta we went to a Gladiators game) and perhaps the OHL (there are several OHL teams nearby, and the league includes the.... Erie Otters).  The ECHL has some of the best team names... the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Florida Everblades, Orlando Solar Bears. 

As the farm team for the Caps, we see a lot of familiar faces move between PA and DC.  This year the Caps signed Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre, and Aliaksei Protas, while periodically calling up Ivan Miroshnichenko, Dylan McIlrath, Hardy Haman Aktell, goalie Hunter Shepard, and others.  As season ticket holders last year, we were initiated into the fun world of AHL events.  


The purple jersey is a Hockey Fights Cancer auction jersey.  Julian Napravnik was a Bear from Bad Nauheim, Germany and knew all about the Frankfurt Löwen.  He wasn't played much, but we felt like we couldn't pass up that connection.  When the Bears had their annual signature night, all the players took up spots on the ice and signed whatever you put in front of them.  Ian got a good chunk of the team to sign his jersey, including McMichael and Lapierre.  Napravnik was released from his contract in Nov 2023 and returned to Europe.  It's a good thing and I hope he gets more ice time.

When we moved out of PA and had some time in northern Virginia we picked the Ballston area specifically because it's the location of the practice rink for the Caps.  Capitals practices are usually open to the public and players often go to the media area afterwards for signatures and pics.  You also have to be careful on the top level of the parking garage to not run over hockey players as they go to their cars.  You never know who you're going to meet or just see when you hang out in Ballston or Hershey.  Players families, former players turned coaching staff, televised game personalities. Over the years we've seen a number of folks including Joe Beninati (there's a photo somewhere), half of the Joe B and Locker play announcer team we love to listen while watching on TV.

Ian Oland - creator and writer at Russian Machine Never Breaks

Aliaksei Protas shared the Calder Cup with the fans
at the Giant Center in Hershey.

Our hotel in Ballston hosted the Caps Development Camp
kids from Hershey and elsewhere.

We were only a little stalkerish.

Really, just a little stalkerish. 
Alexander Suzdalev, Bogdan Trineyev, Ivan Miroshnichenko

Ryan Leonard is currently playing for Boston College.
He scored in the Jan 5 USA-Sweden final of the World Juniors for gold.
Todd Nelson is the Bears coach that led them to the 2023 Calder Cup.

Braden Holtby is one of the greats we met in the Ballston parking lot.
Nicholas has a photo with him at a Washington Nationals game as well.

So, yeah.  The Caps play all the Canadian teams and this year it looks like we'll see them in Toronto (the cost is... high) and in Vancouver and Calgary.  Ottawa is an easy trip, but the Caps played there early in the season, so the next two years -- Montreal, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg.  Should be fun!