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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Aleppo From A Different Time

Aleppo Citadel, 2004
I first visited Syria in 2001.  I was studying in Jordan that summer, and during a mid-program break, I traveled to Syria with some of my classmates.  Aleppo was my first real introduction to the country, as some of my classmates had spent time there previously and were eager to show everyone around.  This was a bit of a trek to undertake, particularly in the summer.  As I recall, we took taxis over the Jordanian-Syrian border and into Damascus, where we hired a minibus to take us to Aleppo.  The trip from Damascus to Aleppo took about 5 hours, which is a lot during the hottest part of the summer!

I loved Aleppo.  We went to a Turkish bath, ate lots of tasty food, explored the Citadel, and shopped in the souk in the old city.  Imagine being 21 years old and sitting at a cafe at the base of the Citadel at night with a bunch of friends.  I thought life couldn't get much cooler than that.

On the way back to Jordan, I visited one of the Crusader castles and Damascus.  That brief trip made me determined to return to Syria one day, and I did.  I studied in Damascus between 2004 and 2005.  I made a couple of visits to Aleppo during that time, including one with Scott.

For a long time, Aleppo meant adventure and fun for me.  It still does have those associations for me, but now they are mixed with the images I am seeing now of civilians evacuating the city and the stories I have been hearing about terrible violence and suffering.

I don't know what the answer was in Syria, or if there ever was an answer.  I do wish with all my heart that the international community--if we believe such a thing truly exists--had known what to do and had the will to prevent this tragedy.  I cannot imagine and hope I never experience the loneliness and hopelessness of being trapped in an area with regular bombings, a dwindling food supply, and little medical care.  Syria--and maybe Aleppo in particular--has received a good deal of news coverage, unlike many tragedies unfolding in the world.  I wonder sometimes how much the news coverage has helped the people there.

In a way, I feel very selfish bringing my own feelings into this situation because they don't matter.  My feelings one way or another won't do anything to change the situation or save any lives.  But I will say this:  Watching from afar as a beloved vacation spot becomes synonymous with death and destruction gives me the sobering reminder that no person or place is immune to tragedy.  Of course, I hope with all of my might that nobody ever has to experience such tragedies again.  But it will certainly happen.  I hope that if we can imagine this type of scenario happening to a place we know or people we love, then maybe we can keep our hearts open to the people currently trapped in terrible circumstances.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

More Heartwarming Common Ground Between The Species

"Water tastes way better from a human glass than from a cat bowl!"

I wrote recently about Laila's aversion to bedtime and compared her to young human children.  Well, it turns out that's not the only thing the two species share!  It turns out Laila is also a picky eater.

When we first brought Laila home, her appetite was generally pretty light.  We took her to the vet within the first week, and he was concerned about how skinny she was.  He wanted us to try to encourage her to eat more, and he recommended a high protein prescription cat food.  He said it was made of things like venison and potatoes.  As far as cat food goes, it sounded pretty tasty to me.

We bought three cans of this liquid gold at $4 apiece.  When I first served it to Laila, she ate it with apparent enthusiasm.  I set about trying to find it online for cheaper.  Ultimately, I found it for less, got the vet to fax the prescription to the company, and received a shipment of 24 cans.  I figured we'd be set for a while.

And, for a while, we were.  But then I started to notice Laila eating less and less of the canned food I offered her and eating more of the dry food I leave out as a supplement.  I wondered if she was starting to prefer dry food.  But then, one day, I fed her some of the canned Meow Mix that our vet told us was like cat junk food.  She ate every morsel of that.

I'm guessing that she may have just gotten tired of her prescription food.  I still have a number of cans of it left, though.  Right now, I'm alternating those with other types of food.  And, in order to try to trick her into eating some of her prescription food, I put Meow Mix--with its chunks of mystery meat and foul looking gravy--on top.  This must be the cat equivalent of crumbling a bunch of Cheez-Its on top of a lobster tail.

Interestingly, the other day, I fed her a new type of canned cat food.  It was a higher end brand and made of salmon and trout.  Much like her prescription food, it sounded relatively appetizing....

She wouldn't even try a bite.

We're very curious how she survived as a stray cat before she was brought to the animal shelter.  Since we'll never know, I just have to laugh and compare her to the small children I've known who adhere to diets of only white foods or eschew all veggies.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Holiday Fun

I see this great little tree on my way to and from work every day.  I love that someone took the time to decorate it!  A little extra cheer was particularly appreciated today, since the fire alarm in our building went off at about 3 AM, forcing me, Scott, and Laila to go outside in the cold to stand around.  The good news is that our building didn't actually burn down; the bad news is that those of us who don't have the luxury of taking catnaps all day long were very tired.  I was glad to be reminded of what a fun time of year it is.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Fast Gadgets

Scott and I are seldom early adopters of new technology.  We didn't get our first smart phones until 2013.  Those phones traveled with us to Kazakhstan and back and used four different SIM cards (with four different phone numbers) each.

When we returned from Kazakhstan in December 2015, we bought SIM cards for a prepaid AT&T plan for our phones.  AT&T worked reasonably well while we were in North Carolina, but didn't work very well most of the places we go in Maryland or DC.  I had been reading about Republic Wireless and its low rates, so we decided to take the plunge and try it (we're very happy with it, if anyone is curious!).  The one problem is that to use Republic Wireless, we had to purchase their phones.  We decided to go for it anyway.  We stood to save enough money on our monthly bills that the new phones would pay for themselves in relatively short order.  Besides, Scott's phone wasn't working so well anymore, so maybe it was really time for him to have a new phone.

My phone was still working well, so I thought I might try to sell it to Amazon.  I wasn't expecting to get much money for it, but maybe enough to buy a new book for my Kindle.  The model wasn't listed anywhere.  I tried looking elsewhere on the internet, and encountered a website that told me that they couldn't purchase it, but if I sent it to them, they would recycle it for me.

Bear in mind that this is a three-year-old smart phone that still works.  I remember it wasn't so long ago when smart phones were very expensive.  But the price of new ones has been dropping steadily, so there is little incentive to buy one that is three years old, even if it works well.

I've read a lot over the past couple of years about "fast fashion"--the clothes that may be cute but are shoddily made and often under terrible working conditions.  They often end up in landfills because they become ratty looking very quickly and people often don't want to buy them from domestic thrift shops.  Sometimes they end up in poorer countries, often to the detriment of local textile industries.  I think society is starting to have a problem with fast gadgets, too.  One the one hand, it's nice that they are becoming less expensive because it means greater accessibility.  On the other hand, the low price of new gadgets provides little incentive to keep old gadgets for longer.  Gadget-production has its share of awful working conditions, too.  The Washington Post recently ran excellent articles on the problems of mining cobalt and graphite, both of which are used in lithium-ion batteries.

I wonder how many "old" gadgets end up in landfills.  It seems that if we're going to upgrade our gadgets on such a regular basis, then recycling them should be more convenient.  We have taken old gadgets to Best Buy to recycle in the past, but I would vote for something even more convenient, like having gadget recycling bins near regular recycling bins in residential areas.

For my "old" phone, I did some looking online and found a charitable organization that takes unwanted phones.  If I understand correctly, this organization takes advantage of the emergency call capabilities that are on all cell phones, and distributes the old phones to people who are at high risk of needing to make emergency calls, but cannot afford their own phones/plans.  It turned out that the Whole Foods near me had a bin to collect old phones for this organization, so I managed to get it out of my apartment quickly and easily.  I hope it will be of use to someone and avoid the landfill for at least the next few years.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

I Thought Only Human Children Objected To The Concept Of Bedtime

Cute cats are way more fun than politics, especially these days.  Besides, Laila has a proud grandma (catma?) who requested more posts about her.

When we first brought Laila home, we didn't let her in our bedroom.  Scott is allergic to cats, so we wanted to maintain a relatively allergen-free area of the apartment.  Fortunately, though, Scott has not been having as many problems with allergies as we had feared.  Also, Laila had been meowing loudly at night, and we thought she might be calmer and quieter if we let her into the bedroom at night.  We tried this a couple nights last week.

The first night, she was very excited to explore.  She walked all around the room, sniffed everything, then got up on the bed and stomped around for a while.  Then she decided to leave only to sit outside the bedroom door and meow loudly.  We decided that she must have misunderstood the tacit agreement that bedroom access = no loud meowing.  We closed the door for the rest of the night.

We decided to try again the next night.  Big mistake.  The most restful part of the night for me was when Laila was crowding me on my side of the bed and hitting me with her tail.  The rest of the night was punctuated by loud meows at fairly close range.

As I stumbled around the next morning, a theory came to me:  Laila had spent the night hunting and wanted to let us know.  I found a catnip mouse from the living room on the floor of our bedroom, and one of Scott's socks from the laundry basket in our bedroom had somehow made its way to the living room.

Laila, of course, was feeling perfectly refreshed in the morning, and wanted to further refine her hunting skills by playing fetch with me.  When she got tired, she curled up by the living room window.  No time like early morning for a good nap!

She caught a catnip mouse!

Unfortunately, we have had to ban Laila from the bedroom at night once again.  We have also started using a white noise machine, which we purchased years ago to drown out noisy human neighbors.  We've also tried to be more conscious of her routine.  We try to make sure she gets exercise when we get home from work, somewhat like the parents of young children taking their kids to the park to wear them out before bed.  Later in the evening, before human bedtime, we make sure to have some quiet petting time with her.  We've also started leaving a light on in the living room so that our apartment looks less like a spooky hunting ground for cats.  This is sort of working...some of the time.  It's just too bad that most of us humans don't have so much freedom to nap during the day.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Where Do We Go From Here?

So...I guess my four sleepless years begin now.

I won't lie.  It's been a rough past couple of days for me.  I spent most of yesterday trying not to cry.  I am politically terrified in a way I have never been before.

This isn't just about party lines, either.  I am a lifelong Democrat because my beliefs generally align with the party's platform.  But while I wouldn't have relished the idea of any Republican president, I wouldn't feel as shocked or sad about one with actual political experience.  I voted enthusiastically for Obama in the past two presidential elections, but at the same time, I acknowledge that both John McCain and Mitt Romney would have brought valuable experience and insight to the table.

For those of us with misgivings about Trump--and I suspect that this group may even include some people who voted for him--the big question is where we go from here.  How do we respect the outcome of our democratic process while simultaneously working to protect what is important to us?

Inspired by my sister's good example, I decided to start off by making a couple of charitable donations.  What unnerves me the most about Trump is his willingness to fan the flames of ethnic and religious bigotry.  Accordingly, I made a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I also made a donation to the Karam Foundation which helps both Syrians inside Syria and refugees.  I studied in Syria between 2004 and 2005, and I sometimes like to say that the country is tattooed on my heart.  The situation there has been a source of heartbreak to me and many others since 2011.  From Trump's statements during the campaign, I doubt the US will take in any additional Syrian refugees over the course of the next four years.  To me, that made it particularly important to support an organization that is helping the people who are caught in this terrible conflict through no fault of their own.

Aside from charitable donations, though, I'm short on ideas.  If anyone has any thoughts on where to go from here, I would love to hear/read them.  As always, I will be hoping the best for our country.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Difficult Election Night Choices

Tuesdays are long days for me.  Thank heavens for early voting!  I won't get home until late tonight, at which point I will be faced with two choices:

1.  Stay up and watch election returns with the expectation that we will know who our next president will be sometime tonight.

2.  Go to sleep, with the expectation of waiting until election day is completely over and finding out who the next president will be tomorrow morning.

On the one hand, this election has made me incredibly tense.  I've been checking the news today, even with the knowledge that it was too early for any "real" news.  How can I possibly go to sleep without knowing the outcome?

On the other hand, I've had two bad nights of sleep in a row.  I'm exhausted.  And if this election turns out badly, I may not get any sleep for the next four years.

Sweet dreams to all, whatever you decide to do about watching election returns.  One thing I think everyone can agree on is how nice it will be to see the end of this particular campaign!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Beach Pebble Necklace

Toward the end of our vacation in England last July, we spent an afternoon in Aldeburgh, a pretty seaside town on the east coast.  It was a very pebbly beach, unlike any beach I had ever seen before. In the face of such found object bounty, it was hard to keep myself from lugging ten pounds of pebbles home.  I did come away with a few, though, including a beige pebble with a hole located conveniently near one edge.  It's what I would call "nature's bead."  The hole actually contained some tiny pebbles that were wedged in tightly, but Scott helped me to clear them out.

I knew I wanted to try making a necklace with this find, but had a few things to think about.  First of all, this stone is relatively heavy.  That made me think it would be best to put it on a short necklace.  If the necklace were long, the stone would swing back and forth and hit my chest while I wore it, which wouldn't be very comfortable.  Also, the stone was thick enough that wrapping wire around it would have been challenging,  I knew from experience that it would be hard to get a good fit that didn't look clunky using wire, so I used short lengths of chain both to join the stone to the two sides of the necklace and to add the two beads that dangle from the bottom of the stone.  The last thing to think about was what beads to put with the stone.  The stone's large size pointed to using fairly large beads.  I also though that beads that didn't look too uniform or shiny would be best here--no strands of pearls or Swarovski crystals for this "nature's bead!"  I found some beads in my stash that I was very happy with--four large brown ceramic beads to echo the color of the stone, and a bunch of green striped African trade beads to add some color.

I linked all the beads together with fairly thick wire, thinking again about the size of the stone and trying to keep the rest of the necklace in proportion.  I found a toggle clasp with a shape that sort of echoes the stone's shape.  People won't usually see the clasp, of course, but I like the have my clasps harmonize with the rest of the piece if possible.

Once I thought of a design and selected my beads, the necklace came together fairly quickly.  I've been enjoying having another piece that reminds me of a fun trip.  It's a good pick-me-up on days when the next vacation seems impossibly far away.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Whole Circle Of Life Thing Just Became Serious

There is no delicate way to put this:  We have a bit of a rodent problem in our apartment.

I actually think mice are moderately cute, at least in certain contexts.  And our problem with them hasn't been terrible.  We've been seeing the scuttle across the floor occasionally, which is startling, but not life-altering.  I hadn't found mouse droppings or any evidence that they had been getting into our food, but I was concerned that we were on the clock for those sorts of problems to start.  Not to mention the problem of mouse reproduction.  I was imagining an army of baby mice chewing holes in cracker boxes and bags of grains from the supermarket bulk bins.  Ugh.

We had been thinking about getting a cat as a pet for a long time for the companionship and entertainment they bring, but it occurred to us that a side benefit might be some natural rodent control.  When we brought Laila home, I wondered what would happen.  On the one hand, she had spent some time as a stray, and had presumably caught rodents and/or small birds to eat.  On the other hand, she is so small and wobbly.  Once she started regaining her strength and playing more, though, I became optimistic.  Seeing her brutalize her toys made me think she still had that feline drive to hunt and kill things.

Well, it turns out that killing her toy spider repeatedly was just practice for the real thing.  When I came home from work on Friday, something looked different in the living room.  I realized that she either somehow acquired a new toy mouse, or....there was a dead mouse elegantly juxtaposed with the small Persian rug I brought back from Syria.

Laila getting pets for a job well done.
She's a very tidy killer, it turns out.  There was no blood in sight.  While I bear mice no ill will, I don't care to sustain a colony of them in my home.  Nor do I care to set lots of traps or try to poison them.  I'm very proud of our furry natural exterminator.

Laila staying in fighting form by attacking her streamer toy.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Circle Of Life, From The Perspective Of A House Cat

When your human drags a toy spider along the floor for you to chase, it is very important to make sure it is truly dead after you catch it.  The whole apartment would be infested with toy spiders if not for my vigilance and hunting prowess.  You're meowcome.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Making Vintage Jewelry More Wearable

I haven't posted in a while about anything I've made.  I was dragging my feet on photographing pieces, but I finally went ahead and photographed several today.

I inherited some of my paternal grandmother's jewelry when she died several years ago.  Today's piece of jewelry began with a fabulous fly pin that belonged to her.

There is wonderful detailing on the fly's wings, which, frustratingly enough, the picture doesn't show very well.  It also has a purple body.  Purple is my favorite color, and it was my grandmother's favorite, too.  I thought it was an extremely cool pin.

The only problem is that I'm not really a pin person.  I think it may be a generational thing--I've seen lots of older women wear pins with a great deal of flair, but when I try it, it just doesn't feel like me.  Truthfully, I can only think of one woman around my age who I ever saw wearing pins on a regular basis.

So the pin sat unworn for a number of years.  I finally decided it was time to remedy that and make a necklace from it, since I wear necklaces very regularly.  I started by buying a bail to convert the pin into a pendant.  The bail is simply a piece of tube that goes over the pin back with a large loop on top.  You can get these bails with either a vertical or a horizontal tube, depending on the direction of your pin back.  My pin was thus turned into a pendant.

I thought just putting it on a plain chain would neither do the pin justice nor having pleasing proportions.  So the next question was how to design a necklace that would complement the pendant without overwhelming it.  Inspiration came in the form of a package of seed beads that came as a free gift with some other beads I had ordered.  The seed beads were a mix of soft purples and whites with a matte finish.  I thought the soft, matte beads would allow the pendant to really shine.  I also thought that using matte beads would bring the overall shine of the piece down a bit, and make it easier to wear for everyday occasions.

I also wanted to incorporate metal into the necklace, so I bought gold-filled chain, wire, cones and a clasp.  Gold-filled is a good affordable alternative to gold.  I shudder to think how much solid gold would have cost.  I made four strands of wire-wrapped seed bead links, and used cones to link them to the chain.  I then connected the clasp to the ends and slid the pendant on.

Since the loop on the pendant bail is so large, I can easily remove the pendant if I want to wear the necklace without it.

And, since I left the pin back intact, I could remove the pendant bail and wear it as a pin again if I ever wanted to.  I'm glad that in one form or another, the fly pin will get worn again.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Our New Furry Friend

Meet our new kitty, Laila.

We brought her home from our county's animal shelter on Saturday.  Shelter staff had named her Oreo, but we knew we wanted to rename her.  For one thing, it seems silly to name such a skinny cat after a type of junk food.  A cat-loving colleague suggested that we name her Laila, which means night in Arabic.  We decided that she was indeed a Laila, and the name stuck.

I hadn't visited an animal shelter in many years, and Scott had never visited one at all.  Even though we knew in general terms what kind of cat we wanted (friendly, older, short-haired), there were still many to choose from.  It was quite overwhelming.  One of the staff told me they had even more cats elsewhere in the building who were not being displayed for prospective pet adopters.

In spite of a large selection, we narrowed our choices down to two, Laila and one other kitty.  We met with each separately in a sort of meet-and-greet room.  The other kitty was primarily interested in exploring the room, but Laila came right over to be petted.

She was silent on the car ride home.  I had her in her carrier on my lap, and she just kept turning around and looking out all the different mesh windows.  When we got her home and I opened the carrier, I expected her to run under a piece of furniture and hide.  But she was interested in exploring right away.

The shelter staff think Laila is 10 years old.  She's had a rough life, at least in parts.  She was found and brought in as a stray with a puncture wound that suggested she had been bitten.  Because of the probable animal bite, she had to go into quarantine at a cat foster home for 4 months.  She's very skinny and has a slightly wobbly walk.

She warmed up to us very quickly.  Generally speaking, when we're home and she isn't eating, she wants to be where we are.  Her preference is that we drop everything and pet her, but barring that, she's happy to hang out and watch us.  She wasn't eating much when we first brought her home, but is starting to eat more.  She also seemed to have trouble jumping very high, but she seems to improving and/or becoming more confident.  After I cruelly pushed the chairs under our kitchen table--to deprive her of a midway point to jumping on said table--I watched her defiantly jump to the table from the floor.

Laila has brought a lot of joy to our home, and we hope we can give her good golden years.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Monster Mochi Mess

I've loved mochi since the first time I tried it, which was in high school.  I used to buy mochi filled with sweet bean paste at Asian grocery stores, and I enjoyed getting it for dessert at Japanese restaurants.  It's pretty mainstream now, and I can get it at Trader Joe's, filled with ice cream.

It never occurred to me that I could make mochi at home, though, so I was intrigued when the New York Times published a recipe for it.  It looked simple enough, and there weren't too many ingredients, although the key ingredients I wanted--glutinous rice flour and adzuki beans--were unlikely to be found in our local Safeway.  Essentially, I would need to combine the glutinous rice flour with water and sugar and then cook it fairly briefly on the stove.  If I wanted to fill the mochi with bean paste, I would need to make that separately.  Oh, and the process of forming the bean paste-filled cakes looked like it might be a little sticky, but surely nothing I couldn't keep at bay with a dusting of corn starch.

I gathered my courage and my ingredients.  I found adzuki beans at a local Thai market.  I looked for the glutinous rice flour, and ultimately ordered it from Amazon.

One weekend, I decided to give it a try.  I started by making the bean paste.  So far, so good.  I tasted a little of it, and it tasted as I had expected.

Then I started cooking the mochi itself.  I was supposed to stir and watch for it to become shiny and hold its shape.  That happened pretty quickly, and I poured the resulting product onto a cornstarch-dusted piece of parchment paper.  So far, so good....except that the mochi was too hot and too sticky to handle.  I decided to leave it for a while so it could cool down, and, with luck, become less sticky.

A while later, it had cooled down considerably, but had not gotten much less sticky.  I decided to try my luck anyway.  I sprinkled some more corn starch on the parchment paper, and put some on my hands.  I grabbed a piece of the mochi dough and tried to form it.  It stubbornly refused to be formed into anything.  I put it down and washed a thick layer of sticky residue from my hands.

Several attempts later, I was no closer to forming cute little mochi balls.  I suddenly got the idea that instead of making lots of little mochi balls, I could make one large mochi cake that I could cut into pieces.  I put half the mochi dough in a round cake pan, spread a layer of bean paste over it, and then spread the rest of the mochi dough on top.  I ended up with this,

which is a far cry from this:

I hoped it would be one of those things that looks gross, but tastes delicious.  No such luck.  The bean paste tasted fine, but the mochi never developed a chewy texture, and remained way too soft and sticky.  I'm not sure where this experiment failed, but failed it did.  I had to admit defeat and throw it away.

On top of the disappointment of a failed dessert, I had a truly impressive mess to clean up.  It seemed like everything that was uncontaminated with sticky residue had a fine coating of corn starch on it.  Aargh!

There is at least a partially happy ending, however.  Since I had leftover glutinous rice flour that I felt motivated to use, I looked for other mochi recipes.  I found one in which the mochi was baked in the oven for a longish time at a low temperature.  As a bonus, the recipe incorporated coconut milk, which I like.  I was too afraid of another messy failure to try to create mochi balls with my leftover bean paste, but the plain mochi from the second recipe I tried was delicious, with a delightful chewy texture.  Even though I didn't make exactly what I set out to make--and my first mochi attempt bore no resemblance to anything I wanted to eat--I ultimately learned how to make something new that I would probably make again.  I think I'll count it as a win.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Catoctin Mountain And Bring On The Fall

Last weekend, we went hiking at Catoctin Mountain with some friends.  It was in part a celebration of weather cool enough to allow us to even think of hiking.  This summer, with its record string of above 90 degree days, has hung on a little too long, if you ask me.

It was a great day!  The good weather really did hold up, we had a good time hanging out with our friends, the views were beautiful, and we all felt well-exercised in the end.  Unbeknownst to us, the park had started a new program in which each hiker was issued a gnat to fly back and forth in front of his or her eyes during challenging portions of the hike.  Fortunately, that was the only fly in the ointment (ha, ha).

In addition to the pleasant weather, we had some evidence of fall's impending arrival in the few red leaves on the trees.  Bring it on, I say!

We had some sections of rock scrambling.  I made extensive use of hopping off rocks from a sitting position and crab walking.  Since I didn't fall down the entire hike, I consider my strategies a success.

A crevasse to fall in!

After hiking, we ate dinner in Frederick's old town.  I had seen signs for Frederick's old town from the highway before, but had never been.  It was a fun place to walk around with a good variety of restaurants (we decided upon Cuban).  Even after living in Maryland for almost six years previously, we are still finding new places to go.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Having Allstate Insurance Is Like Writing A Best-Selling Novel Or Winning A Nobel Prize

Ever since we moved to the DC area in February, we have gotten by without a personal vehicle.  We are lucky to live near a Metro station, and I am also lucky to work near a Metro station.  We live within walking distance of three supermarkets.  We have used Zipcar when it has made sense to do so, but for the most part, we have walked or taken Metro to get around.  As someone who has never been comfortable driving, I have found living a mostly car-free existence to be tremendously satisfying.  I felt like I was sticking it to the man when I reflected on how much additional exercise I was getting walking everywhere and how much money I wasn't spending on parking, insurance, and gas.

However, thanks to Scott getting a new job (yay!) in a location not Metro-accessible (shouldn't everything be clustered around Metro stations??), we are now getting a car.  We picked one out on Saturday and plan to bring it home on Thursday.

A vehicle necessitates auto insurance, of course.  We thought it would be a fairly straightforward process.  We last had auto insurance through Allstate before we moved to Kazakhstan, and we currently have renter's insurance through them, so we figured we would just go back to them.

It was not to be.

Scott first tried getting a quote just by filling out one of their forms online.  The system was unable to give him a quote, so he emailed the local agent.  The local agent said he couldn't give us a quote either, and that Allstate couldn't insure us until we had a year of insurance coverage elsewhere.  The reason?  Because we had a gap in auto insurance coverage.  Why would we be so irresponsible as to have a gap in our auto insurance coverage, you may ask?  Because we sold our car before we moved to Kazakhstan.  Even if we had wanted to throw our money away on coverage we couldn't possibly use, we actually had nothing to insure, since we no longer had a car.

Clearly, having Allstate insurance had become an oddly exclusive club, so Scott consulted Consumer Reports and decided to call Amica, which was highly rated.  Amica at least was willing to provide us a the tune of $4,000 a year.  Um, no. I will say that trying to gouge us at least seems like a plausible business strategy, as opposed to Allstate's deciding not to cover us at any price.  The reason was the same, however:  our gap in coverage due to our period of time not owning a car.

In the end, we went with Esurance.  We're still paying more than we ever have for auto insurance, but at least it's less than $4,000.  I guess this is another one of those hidden costs of working abroad, or at least returning to the US after working abroad.  Come to think of it, this could also be a hidden cost to anyone who sells their car and uses mass transit in order to save money, and then decides to have a car again at some point.  I will be very happy if the US can ever move past the narrative of continuous car ownership being an integral part of adult life, but we are obviously not there yet.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

So You Want To Work Abroad: Tips On Dealing With All Your STUFF

I've been wanting to write this post for a long time, but I put if off because I wasn't sure how to make it useful to anyone.  After all, different people in different stages of life have different quantities and qualities of STUFF.  Someone moving overseas directly from a college dorm room will have fewer possessions to think about than a family with a house, kids, and pets.  Similarly, different overseas jobs have different policies for transporting your stuff.  Some employers expect to help their new employees transport a large amount of household goods; others expect you to carry anything you want in suitcases on the plane.

I'd say we fit somewhere in the middle.  We didn't have a house, kids, or pets, but we had been out of school long enough to have acquired a fair amount of stuff.  A lot of our furniture was either hand-me-downs or IKEA, but we had some pretty decent kitchen wares.  In terms of transporting stuff, our employer was willing to reimburse employees up to a certain sum for good transported within the first six months.  At first, they said that shipping boxes through USPS was the best option, but then after we had shipped quite a few boxes, they said it was best to just pack a lot of suitcases.

Anyway, this post will be about lessons we learned from transporting our stuff to our specific job in Kazakhstan.  It will include things we did right, as well as things I would do differently now.  With luck, anyone contemplating a move abroad who stumbles upon this will find something useful!

  • Decide what you need to take with you first.  Then decide what to do with the rest of your stuff.  What do you need while you're working overseas?  Think about clothing you will need, things you might need for your job, material for any hobbies you might have, etc.  Don't be too skimpy here (for instance, you might want more than one pair of pants in case you fall and tear a hole in the knee), but not too expansive (you probably don't need ten pairs of pants).  How much stuff did you end up with?  Is it possible to transport it given the parameters of your specific job?  If not, you may need to cut down.  If there is anything you have in large quantity--whether it's shoes, craft supplies, framed family photos, or anything else--you probably won't be able to conveniently take your whole collection with you.  From our experience I will also say that if you are an academic and need lots of books that aren't readily available in-country to conduct your research, you should seriously reconsider taking this job.
          We sort of thought of this issue in reverse.  We first decided what we were going to put in 
         storage (having decided early on that there were things we didn't want to part with that were not
          practical to take to Kazakhstan).  Then we started either discarding things or shipping them off
         to Kazakhstan.  The end results were that we had more stuff over there than could comfortably
         fit into our apartment, a lot of stuff was held at customs for weeks (we actually had to buy Scott
         a second winter coat over there because the box we shipped his coat in was held up at customs),
         and we had to pay hefty customs fees to get a lot of our stuff, some of which naturally broke in
  • Think creatively about transporting items.  Many jobs overseas offer plane tickets home as part of the compensation package.  Our job in Kazakhstan was generous in that it would pay for tickets twice a year.  One thing I wish we had done looking back was to think about what we needed from August to December, and pack/ship only those things initially, with the idea of picking up more of our stuff later on.  If you aren't planning on traveling back to your home country, are any friends or family planning to visit you?  Maybe they would be willing to to bring you an item (or even a suitcase of items).  If nobody is planning to visit you, you might be able to pay a cash-strapped teenager or young adult in your life to pack and ship boxes of things.  If you can't store those items with anybody, you could designate a small storage unit as being one with the "nice to have" items, or put them in clearly labeled boxes at the front of a larger storage unit.
  • On a similar note, don't rule out using storage units.  I originally hoped to get rid of everything we weren't taking with us to Kazakhstan because I didn't like the idea of paying to store stuff I wasn't using.  If you can do that, great!  It's probably easier that way.  But storage is a relatively small price to pay compared to replacing household goods.  Aside from a few small "what was I thinking" items that I attribute to mental fatigue, I was very grateful for all the things we kept in storage because they were all things I didn't have to buy again.  I recommend climate-controlled storage, even though it costs more.
  • Consider keeping a list of any immediately useful household goods you store.  This isn't the biggest deal in the grand scheme of things, but it would have been nice to know that the shower curtain rings were going to be in the last box I opened before I bought a new set at Target.
  • Declutter, declutter, declutter.  It's fine to pay to store things you like and things you can use when you return to your home country.  But if you have something like ratty old furniture that you've always wanted to replace, now would be an excellent time to sell it or donate it.  There is no point paying either to transport or to store things you don't really like.
  • You can get money from selling things, but donating things gets them out of your way faster.  Sometimes, you really just need to get some stuff out of your home quickly in order to better sort and pack.  Donation is great for that.  Selling can be great, too, but with these caveats:  (1) It will take time and effort that you may need for some other aspect of your international move, (2) Most secondhand items will not net very much money, and (3) You may not be able to get rid of things on the schedule you want if you sell.  I would suggest worrying more about selling big ticket items (your car, etc.), and not worry too much about finding a buyer for your used gym shoes.  That being said, some methods of selling smaller items work better than others.  I may write a future post about my experience with those.
          It also pays to think creatively here.  Scott's TA was aware of our situation, and expressed 
          interest in buying both our car and any household good we were interested in getting rid of.
          I'd like to think we came up with a win-win:  He got a lot of household goods for a low price.
          We got some money for our household goods, and we were able to continue using them right
          up until the end before we moved.  Would we have made more money selling these items
          individually?  Maybe.  But it would have taken considerably more work on our part, and 
          we had plenty of other things to deal with at the time.
  • If you're being reimbursed for transporting household goods, keep a good paper trail.  This may not be as big of an issue elsewhere.  Kazakhstan is a very paperwork-oriented place.  We were told to keep receipts from shipping/extra luggage fees, and to keep any customs forms.  It turned out once we got there that we also had to provide credit card statements with the same charges as were on the receipts.  So, use credit cards, rather than cash or check, to pay for any shipments.  If you are going with a spouse/significant other, and only one of you is being employed, it's probably a good idea to make sure to use the credit card that is in the name of the employee.
  • Buy a luggage scale.  I was too cheap to buy one initially.  I figured that with my lack of upper body strength, if I could lift a suitcase even moderately comfortably, it must be less than 50 pounds.  It turned out I was stronger than I thought, and I had to engage in a horrible suitcase shell game on the airport's dirty floor while wearing the pants I was going to wear for my entire trip.  Gross.
  • Try to look at this as an opportunity.  In spite of the aggravations, I now view the massive declutterings we had before moving to Kazakhstan and before moving back to the US as very positive because they showed me that I had too much stuff, and that I could get rid of a large portion of stuff without it adversely impacting my life.  You would think that I would have learned this through my many stateside moves, but it turns out that international moves are just aggravating enough to really drive the point home.
          I will probably never be a hardcore minimalist.  I like craft supplies too much, for one thing.  
          Also, when I see something pretty, I will probably want it, at least fleetingly.  This is 
          particularly true if I feel like I'm getting a good deal on the item in question.  But I've 
          started to approaching acquiring stuff a little differently, since I've decided that stuff can 
          be as much a liability as it is an asset.  I've decided that there are very few (if any) things 
          that we could always use extras of.  I've decided that "just in case" items are very often
          "just taking up space" items.  When I buy things, I've decided it's often better to spend a 
          certain amount of money on the one item that I really want or will really be useful, rather
          than spend the same amount of money to get multiple items that aren't quite what I want.

          By having less stuff overall, I can keep a better handle on what we have.  I know better what
          we might really need, and it's easier to keep our apartment clean-ish without having to store
          excess stuff everywhere.  I imagine some people learn these lessons without having to move
          across the world, but since that's what it took for me, I take that as a positive aspect of the

Happy moving to all, and don't let your STUFF keep you down!

Friday, September 2, 2016

East England And Back

The renewal of vows we traveled to England to attend was to take place near Ipswich.  We had decided to stay in Ipswich for that portion of the trip (along with some other friends we made in Kazakhstan!).  We had, in essence, a full day to explore Ipswich itself, most of the next day dedicated to the renewal of vows, and another day to explore pubs and the coast with our friends.  The day after that, we were to return to London to catch our flight back to the US.

One of the first things we did when we got to the hotel room was to contact two friends of our who were also staying at the hotel, a couple we had met in Kazakhstan who had traveled from the US for the occasion.  These were some friends I had really missed terribly, and it was wonderful to see them again!  I'm happy to have lived so many places, but one of the notable downsides is that you're always having to say goodbye to someone.  Anyway, they came over to our room and we talked there...then talked while strolling around Ipswich to get the lay of the land...and then talked more at a Bangladeshi restaurant.  Ipswich had so many south Asian restaurants, and this one, at least, was excellent and had some dishes none of us had heard of before.

The next day brought more exploring Ipswich (as well as more talking and eating).  In spite of some of the British people we spoke to at various points in our trip seeming less than enthusiastic about Ipswich, I thought it was charming.  Being from the US, I always love seeing the older architecture that other places have.  Ipswich also had large numbers of very vocal seagulls who sounded like they were laughing(!), and creatively painted pigs all over the downtown area!

Sailor Pig! 

Architectural detail
Street market against beautiful old buildings

We also visited Christchurch Mansion, the local tourist attraction, which contained an assortment of interesting art and the like.  I liked how they tried to cover up the renovations going on!

Christchurch Mansion

That afternoon, our British friends who were renewing their vows had arranged for a group tea, so we got to have yummy tea, scones, and cakes again.  Mmmm.

I didn't take nearly as many pictures at the renewal of vows as I should have, but we had a wonderful time in a beautiful venue.  All of the "Kazakhstan guests" were together at one table, and we had a good time hanging out.  Most of us probably won't get to see each other all that often at this point, now that many of us no longer work there.

The next day, our British friends--who would have been forgiven if they had just wanted to nap all day after pulling off a large event--arranged for a group of us (including them, some of their local friends, and some of the Kazakhstan crowd) to go to a local pub, and then to a pretty coastal town (Aldeburgh) for a walk on the beach and some fish and chips.  The pub was fun.  I'm not much of a drinker, but they had great lemonade.  I was impressed that they allowed dogs in.  They also had a relatively relaxed attitude toward human children:

Aldeburgh was a very pretty beach town with a pebble beach!  I was tempted to bring home bags full of pebbles, but restrained myself and just took a few.  I was delighted to find one with a hole already in it (nature's bead!).  Our friends knew of a great place for fish and chips.  It did a very brisk business, so we got very fresh fried fish.

Crowds waiting for fish and chips 
The next morning, we took a train from Ipswich back to London.  We had been debating how to get to Heathrow, dreading the prospect of paying for an expensive cab, but also not feeling like figuring out public transportation.  Luckily, a gentleman at the Ipswich station struck up conversation with us and explained exactly how to take the Tube to Heathrow.  He didn't even have to consult a map.  I was very impressed.

It is worth mentioning here that the gentleman in question was not some young hipster.  He was a conventionally dressed man in his fifties who told us he had voted in favor of Brexit.  His counterpart in the US would almost certainly not be able to give detailed, useful mass transit information, but he could.  I think many Americans look down on public transportation and infantilize adults who don't drive, so it was refreshing to remember that it doesn't have to be that way.

My only regret on this trip is that we didn't have more time to spend.  But I'll always be glad we made this short trip now, when we had a chance to see a number of friends.  Some day, maybe we'll get to go back and see other areas of the country, but whether we do or not, we had a wonderful short vacation this time around.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Hyde Park

Our second day in London was really just a partial day, since we needed to take our train to Ipswich in the afternoon.  I was glad that we spent our first day walking all around because we thought that for our second day, we would be better off picking one activity that was fairly close to our hotel so that we could leave our bags in the morning and then pick them up before catching the train.

We spent our time strolling around Serpentine Lake and enjoying the calm atmosphere, flowers, and especially the birds.  We enjoyed it so much that we forgot to visit the Speaker's Corner.  Something to do on our next trip, I guess!

Serpentine Lake

I'm no expert on birds, but I enjoy seeing them, and from my amateur perspective, the area around Serpentine Lake did not disappoint.  We saw ducks sitting on posts...

A kind of duck I had never seen before with a white patch on its head and a call that sounded like a bicycle horn...

Swans and geese following a boat...

And  parakeets!  I saw them mentioned on one of those nature guides that parks often post, and hoped we would see them.  When Scott said he saw a lime green bird out of the corner of his eye, I knew we were lucky.  Unfortunately, I was not nearly as lucky in my photos of them.

They were fun and unexpected to see.  Some people were encouraging them to land on their heads, which I, for one, was not brave enough to attempt.  I think what I read later was that the species is native to the Himalayas, and can thus withstand the cooler temperatures in England.

After Hyde Park, we ate lunch at a Lebanese restaurant and headed back to the hotel to grab our bags and catch a cab to the train station.  It was a pretty near thing that we made the train; traffic was horrible.  Our driver was friendly, though, and did his best to get us to the station on time.  He was curious about where we were going.  When we told him we were going to Ipswich, he thought that was an odd place for tourists to go.  Fortunately, I ended up being pleasantly surprised...

Thursday, August 11, 2016

What Would You Wear?

I just realized how long it had been since my last post.  Good heavens!  I had hoped by this time to have organized my photos from England and finished writing about the trip, but I've been alternately busy and sick for the past few weeks, a seemingly lethal combination for my ability to blog.

Anyway, this week, I have been seeing stories about the Egyptian and German women's volleyball teams at the Olympics.  Specifically, articles such as this one show the juxtaposition of an Egyptian volleyball player wearing long pants, long sleeves, and a hijab, while the German player is wearing a bikini.  It seems reactions to photos of these volleyball players have ranged from people citing them as evidence of a massive cultural divide to people citing them as proof of sports as a cultural bridge.

I have traveled and lived in several predominantly Muslim countries, and seeing these photos made me think of how many times over the years people have asked me what I wore while I was in those countries (or sometimes told me what I must have worn without actually asking).  For reasons I have never understood, the hijab provokes very strong feelings among some people.  To give everyone an idea, I have been asked far more questions about what I wore while in various Islamic countries than I have about learning the languages spoken there, living under systems of government very different from our own, or even interesting things to see in the various countries.

Anyway, with that in mind, these are my thoughts on the subject:

1.   In the Muslim-majority countries where I have spent time (Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan) I went around bareheaded except when I visited mosques, or in the case of Kazakhstan, when the bitter cold made a hat necessary.

2.  I have gotten to know many Muslim women over the years.  In my experience, if a woman is wearing hijab, it means....that she's wearing hijab.  That's all.  Women may cover their heads for a variety of reasons, and the presence or absence of hijab indicates nothing about her intelligence, education, or "independence".

3.  When I read the BBC article I linked to above, the thing that appalled me the most was that female volleyball players in the Olympics were required to wear bikinis until 2012.  This seems discriminatory against women who may want to wear more clothing for religious or cultural reasons, as well as women who may just want their butts to be fully covered if they are going to be on TV.

4.  My everyday attire falls somewhere between what the Egyptian and German volleyball players were wearing.  That being said, if I were to play volleyball in the Olympics (Ha!  How's that for an unlikely scenario?), and had to choose between one of the two uniforms, I would opt for the Egyptian one.  Long pants and long sleeved shirts leave far less room for wardrobe malfunctions than bikinis do, in my opinion.  

What would you wear if given the choice between those two uniforms?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

London Day 1

As I mentioned some time ago, we decided to make a quick trip to England this summer because two of our close friends we made in Kazakhstan were renewing their vows.  We enjoyed spending time with them, as well as other friends we made over there who also came for the occasion.  The renewal of vows was in Ipswich, but we flew into London and decided to spend our first two nights there since I had never been.

When choosing flights, we had two options that would allow us to use our frequent flyer miles:  leave DC early in the morning and arrive in London in the evening, or leave DC in the evening and arrive in London midmorning.  We decided the first option was the lesser of the evils, since it would allow us to go straight to the hotel and go to sleep, rather than having to stagger around the city bleary eyed and jet lagged.  This worked reasonably well, although getting up at 4 AM to go to Dulles and standing in line for 2 hours to go through passport control at Heathrow before being able to get to our hotel were perhaps the most challenging portions of the trip.

Since we had limited time, we decided to spend the first day (and our only full day) walking around the city, seeing the outside of a lot of the tourists sites, but not mostly not going inside.  We were lucky that the weather was very cooperative!

We headed to Buckingham Palace first.  We were there for the changing of the guards.  I don't think I've ever seen such large crowds of people at a site before.  Needless to say, I wasn't able to get too close to any of the action.

After that, we headed in the direction of some of the other sites we wanted to see, and on a whim, went inside Fortnum and Mason to see about having tea.  This was a splurge, but one that turned out well, both because it was something fun that we wouldn't ordinarily do and because the caffeine from the tea enabled us to stay up for the rest of the day.  Pro tip:  If you're going to be like me and drink a whole pot of tea at once since it is both the most delicious and the most expensive tea you have ever had, be sure you have 20 and 50 pence coins because those seem to be the usual denominations needed to use public bathrooms.  Or you could do what I actually did and just stroll into the lobby of a hotel as if you're staying there...

We saw a number of sites after that, including the parliament and Big Ben...

The London Eye...

Bridges, including London Bridge and Tower Bridge (I thought about that song London Bridge is Falling Down for the first time in perhaps 30 years)...

The Tower of London...

And some miscellaneous fun things...

We tried to walk back to our hotel after seeing the Tower of London, but only got part of the way before we decided we were way too tired and flagged down a cab.  We ended the day with dinner at an Indian restaurant near the hotel, and then with slices of cake left over from our Fortnum and Mason tea.  We would need to catch a train to Ipswich the next day, but not until the afternoon.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

My Grandma

My maternal grandmother died this past week.  It happened while Scott and I were in England.  For some reason, having someone pass away while I'm out of the country seems particularly surreal to me--I also felt that way when my paternal grandfather died while I was in Kazakhstan. 

In Grandma's case, she was 91 and had lung cancer and dementia.  Things were not going to get better for her, and her last few days were challenging.  Though I will miss her, I feel relieved that she will not have to suffer more.

As a small tribute, I decided to write a few of the many Grandma-related memories I have.

1.  We went to a family reunion in Montana, where Grandma was living at the time, when I was 11.  When we got to her house, Grandma took me outside and showed me a lawn chair she had placed under a weeping willow tree.  She told me I could go there any time I wanted to be by myself.  I was a very introverted kid (who unsurprisingly turned into an introverted adult), and since I had been an only child for the first ten years of my life, I was used to spending a lot of time alone.  I still think how thoughtful and insightful it was for her to provide me a place to get away when I wanted quiet time.

2.  When I was 13, my mom, sister, and I went to Montana to visit Grandma.  I stayed behind after my mom and sister went home.  Grandma let me make myself a root beer float every day.  She also let me watch soap operas that I would never have been allowed to watch at home.

3.  One time when Grandma called me to chat after Scott and I moved in together, she asked me if we ever fought.  Before I could answer, she said, "You're not normal if you don't!"

Rest in peace, Grandma.  We'll all miss you.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Come To Think Of It, I Did Hear That Life Is Unfair Once Or Twice

I had a filling come out of one of my teeth last night.

Usually, when I hear about people damaging their dental work, it turns out that they were eating something tasty and sticky, like a caramel apple.  I imagine that takes some of the pain away from the toothache and the subsequent trip to the dentist.

I lost my filling while I was flossing.

I may have the most pathetic dental work story ever.  Sigh.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Art From Trash

The weather was fairly reasonable for July today, so we went to the National Zoo.  The zoo is a great place for both animal and people watching, but today I was also interested in seeing an exhibit of sculptures made from trash that had been found in the ocean,

The sculptures were even better than I had hoped--huge sculptures of different marine animals.  The attention to detail was amazing, with the trash having been meticulously sorted by color, and then small pieces individually attached to the piece with screws and pieces of wire.  I work on a fairly small scale when I make jewelry, and I cannot imagine planning such large pieces.  When the medium is trash collected from the ocean, the process seems even more daunting.

Here are the pieces we saw.  Some of them have the additional design element of strangers' kids who were drawn to them.  I figured given the sizable crowds at the zoo, it was either that or no pictures at all for me.

It's easy to see some of the individual pieces of trash on this one.

This one might be the best example of trash-sorting by color.

I love the pieces of rubber as feathers!

It may be hard to see in the picture, but they used bottle caps for the suction cups on the octopus tentacles!