For me, one of the highlights of being in Tahoe, a place pretty stacked with highlights, is painting for a week in a plein air class with Phyllis Schaffer. I've taken the class three years in a row from Phyllis, a Sierra-based oil painter whose work manages to expresses the incredible-ness of the area. She's not only an amazing painter--I mean, really amazing-- she's also a talented teacher. Which I think is a rare combo. This year I felt really off. I couldn't get into the groove and did only one painting I was happy with, which I lost by driving away with the painting on the roof of the car. Advice from my 93-year-old mother: set things on the HOOD of car.
So, my paintings were crap, but the days spent at 10K feet, brush in hand, admiring the landscape, learning from a fabulous teacher, were not. The wildflowers were late, so Mt. Rose looked like this late into the summer.
More crappy work! That's my motto.
In spite of not painting anything I was happy with (that I got to keep) I will do the class again next summer, and forever, if I'm allowed. And you should too. The older I get, the more everyone sounds like Yoda, but week with Phyllis is a week with a painting-fu master. The class is through Sierra Nevada College, and is open to painting students at all levels. Phyllis has a solo exhibition at the Stremmel Gallery in Reno, November 3 to December 3. Don't miss it if you are in the area.
Imagine seeing something like this in real life. More of her work is here.
If you are thinking of a post in Kyiv, here are a few questions to ask yourself as you consider bidding on the nicest war-torn country you'd ever want to visit.
Do you like wearing suede and then fur, seeing more lilacs in the world in the botanical garden and then swimming in the sea? Kyiv has four seasons, but is a zone 2, so no matter where you are coming from you won't get the State Department clothing allowance. White Christmas, lily-of-the valley sold on the corners, barbeque chicken shishlik and the smell of apples in the air--you can celebrate all the seasons here.
Do you like breathing? Unless you're sitting in slow traffic behind a diesel bus, the air is clean. Kyiv is a green city with lots of parks and trees, and the city is surrounded by forests.
Do you like to save money without even trying? Fancy dinner at a French restaurant will run you $20 or less. You can see world-class ballet from the second row in an jewel-box of an opera house for $15. World-heritage-site museums cost 80 cents to visit.
Ancient monastery complex, worth seeing for less than a dollar.
Do you like being able to easily afford massages, a housekeeper, someone to walk the dog and cabernet sauvingon? And still have money to fly non-stop to Greece or Prague for a little get-away? Duh.
Do you like to be noticed? If you work at the Embassy, be prepared to be busy. Washington is watching this high-profile post. Vishvankas were featured in Vogue; Ukraine is trending.
Will you cry when you are all dressed up to go somewhere and can't get a taxi? Do you hate driving in aggressive traffic? Then get use to staying home.
Kyiv at its worst: winter gloom and potholes.
Cozy up in a cafe, all this for about four bucks.
Do you want a house with a yard in the suburbs by the Embassy or a city-chic apartment downtown? If you want to walk to get a coffee, visit a museum or shop, choose downtown. The suburbs consist of pockets of homes with yards hidden behind boulevards of storage units and tire stores. We chose an apartment, so of course we were assigned a house. Regardless of where you choose, a woodsy park will be nearby for strolling or running, and the furniture will be familiar.
I do like our apricot tree though.
Have you read Bloodlands? If you are thinking of coming to this part of the world, Time Magazine's 2011 Book of the Year, will put the current war and Ukraine's history in perspective.
Do you want a choice of three good schools, two with the IB? Here, everyone seems happy with their choice. We are the only people I know of whose kid changed schools, but it was probably him not you.
Do you love fast downloads? The internet speeds right along for Skype or streaming and will run you about $5 a month. This is the only post (hopefully the first of many?) where we walked into the house and the internet was up and running.
It's a country full of nice people still learning about customer service, but aren't we all? Movies are not always released in the original language, but if you hunt, you can find a theater where the latest releases are shown in English. No H&M, but there is a Zara. Long winters, but beautiful springs. Signage reminding you that you can take an exit to visit the site of a Jewish massacre, or towns in a war zone, but a beautiful, historically-rich city and country with lots to do that seem very far away from those realities.
Having strangers in my house, sleeping in my bed and eating porridge from my bowls on a regular basis took as much getting use to as the freezing water of Lake Tahoe itself.
Now, after two years of dealing with five bear break-ins when the house was unoccupied, receiving 44 five-star reviews (from people not bears) and achieving Airbnb's "Super Host" status--here are my "so you want to rent out your house on Airbnb" pro-tips.
1. Buy somewhere you love. California and more specifically, Lake Tahoe, made sense for us: most of our extended family lives in northern California. If you are going to buy a part-time house, make sure it's somewhere you love to hang out. I always want to be in Tahoe and don't feel like its a chore to have to come back to the same place every time we are in the U.S. And it ends up Tahoe is very popular with the rest of the world. If you love being somewhere, chances are, guests are going to want to be there too.
Not a chore.
2. Use good photos. Airbnb will send out a professional photographer to take gorgeous portraits of your house for you, for free. I'd already taken photos and uploaded them when I discovered this. Regardless of who takes the photos, highlight the personality and positive aspects of your home, in a online-dating, realistic-but-edited, kind of way.
3. The experience economy. People love lounging on our deck furniture, visiting the private homeowner's beach, playing board games, piano, guitar, the old-fashioned record player and cooking in a well-set-up kitchen. One of our favorite Airbnb stays was an apartment in Paris decorated with Johnny Walker bottles. Allowing guests to enjoy the same aspects of our home that we love is what they comment on the most. We have good pillows, updated lighting and a string lights welcoming you down the stairs into the house--it doesn't feel like just a rental.
4. Start out below the going rate until you get some reviews. I'd be leery of renting an unreviewed place, and I wasn't sure how to solve this problem at first. I did some research of other Airbnbers, and ended up underpricing the house for the first two months. Once we had five or so good reviews, I started charging the going rate.
5. Airbnb offers protection for both guests and hosts. Some strange Goldilocks will break the overhead light in the bathroom, a glass wall hanging and the lid to the toilet tank. You won't know how, but you do have recourse. I was worried about this sort of thing, but Airbnb support has been nothing but helpful in finding a resolution.
6. Airbnb says the most important thing for guests is that the place be clean. Airbnb tells us that a bottle of wine won't make up for chairs with stains. Last year after killing myself cleaning the entire house for the next guests, I let my son back into the house for two seconds. In those two seconds he cleaned a hairbrush. A lake view won't make up for a hairy house.
7. So. Find a housekeeping service you can rely on. A random individual housekeeper would probably be cheaper, but since I'm so far away most of the time, I need the peace of mind I can only get from a bonded housekeeping service. They send me pictures of carpenter ants, trash not properly disposed of and they are the ones who let me know about the broken toilet tank lid. Guests pay for the housekeeping service as part of their fees. There are quite a few housekeeping services that cater to Airbnb owners now. I found ours on Yelp.
8. What's ours is mostly ours. We leave most of our personal items out for use in the house, rugs we've collected, a set of Blue Willow dishes and the Chemex coffee pot. We use Ikea under-the-bed zipper storage boxes to stash clothes and toiletries so the dressers and bathroom cabinets are free for guests. Mostly people are very conscientious, letting us know if they felt like they disturbed something. The only things actually missing after two years are some hand-blown glass salt dishes and a painting I'd done myself. I consider the painting-stealing a compliment.
9. More information is better. My Airbnb listing description is extensive, and one week before check-in I email a four-page PDF that includes information about checking in, how to deal with the thermostat, trash and electrified bear-mat. I include two pages of area highlights, ski resort details and maps of how to walk to the beach and hiking trails. I started out with a one-pager, but it has grown since I've found renters comment on the usefulness of the information. My biggest problem is people not understanding how important it is to put the trash in the metal bear box--I'm thinking of having this check-in information translated, because this is usually a language problem with international guests who don't understand that really, bears break into the house.
10. Be prepared for some surprises. The first fire of the year might cause sparks to fly out of the chimney, inspiring the guests to call the fire department who will then arrive with three fire trucks. No matter how many cheese graters you have, guests will tell you they couldn't find the cheese grater. The next-door-neighbor will tell you about a crowd of young people who played beer pong raucously and then turned out all the lights and went to bed at 10 pm. A recent group renting the place for a "women's retreat" spent most of the weekend smoking cigars on the deck topless.
Sometimes our guest leave feedback like, "There are a lot of knives in the house, but none of them are sharp." (Um, knife sharpener in the same drawer as the knives.) I was accused of removing an advertised hot tub. (We've never had a hot tub, and certainly didn't have one removed.) But mostly we get positive feedback from world travelers who celebrated a birthday with their daughter who now works at Facebook, or they tell us that they roasted their first American turkey or enjoyed feeding peanuts to the Stellar Jays. People send photos of their son's wedding and their own magnificent house they rent out on Airbnb in the Cotswolds.
Is it worth it? A group of New Yorkers in town for the muddy Spartan Games at Squaw Valley, Russians who stayed during a dismal snow season who ended up fishing instead of skiing, and occasional drunken bachelorettes pay the mortgage, taxes and insurance most of the time we aren't in the house. Fancy salt dishes are only $20.
Airbnb hosting has been as interesting and worthwhile as some of our own travels in this wide forest of a world. As long as you don't mind the occasional middle-of-the-night email (Tahoe has an 11-hour time difference from Kyiv) asking Where is the cheese grater? having strangers stay in our house, discovering what they love about an area we love, has itself been a rewarding adventure.
Our listing is here.
From the collection at the de Young, American Impressionist J.W. Twachman, 1893
San Fransisco Board of Supervisors just approved a measure to make the city the first in the country to have fully paid leave for both parents for six weeks.
A few years too late for us, now that our kids are teen-agers. I don't suppose the pay is retroactive?
One of my Ukrainian colleagues just had a baby. She has her out of office message set for longer than than six weeks though. In Ukraine, maternity leave means a years' pay, spread out over up to three years. You get however long you want to spend with your child until they start preschool.
Shortly after I had Camille my mom asked me when I was going to go back to work. I was on maternity leave from a job I loved at the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums design department. I had patched together vacation, sick leave and the standard six-weeks disability (which at the time was a unique situation in California and I was supposed to feel really fortunate) and had four months off, which was really sort of amazing and generous by U.S. standards.
As Rebecca Ruiz reports for Mashable: (italics mine)
When the former Democratic congresswoman (Patricia Schroeder) gave birth to her son and daughter, in 1966 and 1970, her employer didn’t offer any maternity leave at all. One day she was pregnant and employed, and the next she had a baby but no job. “It was just assumed you were going to quit,” she said. “They kind of counted you out at that point.”
That experience, in part, motivated her to sponsor the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in the House of Representatives. She began with ambitious plans. After consulting T. Berry Brazelton, the pediatrician and child development expert, Schroeder felt six months was optimal for exclusive breastfeeding and parent-child bonding.
Her original bill proposed six months for mothers and time off for fathers as well as a pilot for paid leave. But the legislation stalled and that number quickly seemed out of reach under President Ronald Reagan and with a Republican-controlled Senate. To attract co-sponsors and votes, Schroeder reintroduced the bill with four months of job-protected leave. It fell far short of the generous paid leave offered in European countries, but was revolutionary for American policy-making. The whittling, however, had just begun.
The Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbies opposed the legislation, and some politicians claimed it would destroy American companies. By the time the bill passed nine years later — after two vetoes by President George H.W. Bush — the bill applied only to companies with 50 employees or more and Congress had reduced the number to 12 unpaid weeks.
During that time, Zero to Three, a nonprofit child development organization founded by Brazelton and other leading experts, recommended a minimum of six months, if not a year.
After my mom asked me when I as going back to work, I ran into the bathroom and cried into a towel because I couldn't imagine leaving my newborn and going back to work, even though I loved my job.
Not only was the job interesting, but my four days a week was treated as full-time. The union was so strong, and my insurance plan was so good that after a $35 co-pay at my first OB visit, absolutely everything was covered and we never paid another cent to have Camille at a gorgeous, first-rate hospital. Still, in the hormonal soup I was living in, my fabulous union didn't change the fact that Camille would have to stay with someone else all day when she was 4 months and one day old.
As you may know, working in the museum world has never been a get-rich scheme and daycare would cost nearly as much as my after-tax paycheck. And I hadn't signed up for daycare before I'd gotten pregnant and therefore would have a hard time finding anyone in the city who would take a baby "on such short notice." I couldn't imagine Camille in a row of babies, one of many to be taken care of. She was such an easy baby, I knew she would be the one to never get picked up or talked to because she has never been a demanding person. (Until she had to go to boarding school and had to have the red shoes from Zara for prom, but that wasn't when she was twelve weeks old.)
My friend Mike had recently started his design business. He gave me a pep talk and told me he would toss projects my way. So with the support of Peter who has always let me do whatever I wanted, I quit one of the best jobs I ever had.
I handed over my ID badge. I said good-bye to my colleagues and Sargent's Mrs Vicker at the Dining Table. I stood in front of the Bierstat in an empty gallery one more time, once more let myself be vaguely creeped out by the crazy shadows of the African sculptures on the walls after the bright lights were off and the museum was closed. I said so long to exhibit-opening parties with movie stars, seeing Audubon paintings unframed before they were hung and designing invitations using Picasso's artwork owned by the museum. But Camille was an even more incredible creation to me, kissing the inside of her star-shaped hands a more interesting project.
"You're quitting? Are you crazy?" one of my colleagues at the museum said,"This is a union job!"
After a few months, my neighbor, who had a baby a couple weeks older than Camille, went back to work at her technical writing job. I started to do some freelance work, and within the first year made as much working a few days a week as I had full-time, but of course, with no benefits.
America is in a very select group: three countries in the world provide new parents with no Social Security-like benefit or mandate that businesses pay their employees even a portion of their normal salaries (except in San Francisco! For six weeks! Go us!) The U.S. is in this special group with Suriname and Papua New Guinea. We are the only developed country in this category.
The night after my colleague here in Kyiv told me she is going to be gone for the next year probably, I dreamt I was working at the museum still, and that my lovely boss was retiring, which meant I could apply for his job.
Whenever I saw the person who replaced me during my maternity leave, who then applied for and got my job, she was always so grateful that I decided not to come back. She always thanked me for the great job opportunity. I bet she's still there, and probably like in my dream, the head of the department.
My former boss really did retire a few years ago and they've totally rebuilt the de Young. When I walk in, I'm not greeted by my brochures, signage and banners; I don't feel like I own the place anymore, I don't even know where Mrs Vicker is hanging.
Out of curiosity I got online recently and looked at the de Young/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco website, and checked out the jobs section. Current job opening : Graphic Designer in the Exhibits Department.
Maybe now that Camille is going to college I should consider my unpaid maternity leave over and go back?
At my current job I do graphic design for the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine and I help the grants team make decisions about how to support people who want to save the world with human-rights oriented projects. In the last year, Peter and the kids and I have traveled to Cyprus, Vienna, Latvia and Switzerland. I got to do an MFA program at an art school in Europe, which made me appreciate the paintings I saw 20 years ago on a daily basis even more. I'm happy where we are at.
But if you want a fun job where people refer to the priceless, ancient Mayan sculpture in the Oceana collection as the "Toilet Seat," where you can become personal friends with some of the works of the world's master artists, check out the Fine Arts Museums webpage for job openings, there are always a few because anyone who can do a museum job can work at Google and afford day care.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's employees belong to a strong union, with a retirement program, every holiday known to federal workers and excellent benefits. But maternity-leave wise, the city union nor San Francisco still don't allow parents to catch up with the rest of the world, including Ukraine.
When I left Romania I had completed the studio hours and course work for my MFA at the National Arts University of Bucharest, and my advisor had approved my thesis. I needed to do the oral presentation of my thesis, for which I was totally prepared. The painting department was convening to hear the presentations on the same day the Queen Mary sailed. I couldn't get Cunard to change their schedule, nor would the painting department change theirs. My advisor assured me that I could come back the following the February when the painting department reconvened and do my presentation.
In January I asked my advisor when I should come for the presentation. I was shocked when he told me that I needed to send him more paintings.
For a semester I sent more paintings. As the next semester started, I asked when I could come do my presentation. He said I need to send more paintings. At least ten more.
In the U.S. once you have checked the boxes, you are done and you get a diploma.
I contacted a member of my class still in Bucharest and, with embarrassment, told her about my situation. I was shocked that she was in the same situation along with a number of other members of my cohort. Our advisor gives us no advice beyond, "more paintings." Members of my class were so outraged by him withholding our diplomas that they contacted the Ministry of Education. The Minister said that since our advisor is not only the head of the painting department, but also the rector of the university, we have no recourse.
I contacted the person at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest who helped me get into the program, and she hasn't found a way to help me. I really don't like how it looks like he's waiting for a bribe. Since I'm the only American whose ever done the program, I'm so, so disappointed at my inability to finish and get my diploma, and also, there's no one to ask for advice.
I'm happy to report that some of my class members who were "held back" did have a show in January and did receive their diplomas. Meanwhile, I'm going on the second year of "more paintings." I'm now on number nine, but I think at least four of those he's not going to consider. I had to do nine to get to six. So I'm part way there. When I thought I was long finished. Not that I mind painting, but still, it seems so unfair, and just, weird.
I skipped kindergarten, but I'm now on the third year of my two year MFA program. Peter is my biggest cheerleader and I love him so much for his support. He doesn't mind me smelling up the living room/art studio with turpentine; he says,"You're doing it!"
Those of us who weren't awarded their diplomas are constantly going through all the stages of grief. Bewilderment, anger, bargaining. I'm not quite to acceptance yet.
So I paint.
Spring Break, Cyprus 2015
Today someone posted on the EFM, (Eligible Family Member) which means Foreign Service spouse, Facebook thread the question-that-is-not-asked. Essentially, "Do you hate the moving/not having a job/losing friends/not having a tribe/miss Target as much as I do?" The thread BLEW UP with the pros and cons of the foreign service life. I know readers come to this blog seeking information about expat life, especially with the State Department, so I just want you to know, many people straight up hate it.
Favorite Things People Love to Hate in the Foreign Service: Packing and unpacking. Talking to the household help about not washing the suits in the washing machine. Resumes that are shot to hell. Bad air, bad roads and houses chosen by someone else. Government-issued furniture. Not being able to sit next to our kids on 14 hour flights. Not having the internet. The time difference between where we are and where our family is, making Skype difficult. Some of us hate Skype. Bugs and lack of seat belts in taxis. Paying thousands of dollars for pet transport. That it takes two weeks to get anything from Amazon. Missing weddings, and worse, funerals.
You get the picture.
We have been overseas since 2006, ten years. One of the hardest parts of writing this is that I'm afraid I will sound like I'm humble-bragging. But the point is, or will be, for lot of people, the humble-bragging material--the benefits--don't balance out the hate.
Would we be happier if we were still in Portland, Oregon? Or if we moved back?
When we left Portland I had a great part time job that didn't exactly suit me and I was looking for freelance graphic design gigs. Perfect training for now, where I am in almost exactly the same situation. The other day my boss gave me a great assignment, something I've done before and was glad to take on again. Someone "relieved" me of that assignment because they wanted an officer doing it, not an EFM. What can I do? Go back to what I was working on before, enjoying the terrific colleagues in my section. And now that my boss has figured out I'm a actually graphic designer, we loaded Adobe Suite onto my machine and during the quiet times in the grants business, I've taken on graphics projects for the pubic diplomacy section. I love this job.
When Peter got the job with the State Department we had about $30K on a credit card that I use to cry about because I couldn't see how we were EVER going to pay that off. Once we were overseas, we paid it off in two years. Since then, aside from the mortgage, and the remainder of Peter's small student loan--which the State Department has paid off a big chunk of since we've been at a high differential post--we have been debt free. (We also drive a 16-year-old-car and our daughter goes to a state university. In spite of the Dyptique candles, we don't live like high rollers.) Our mortgage lender loved us.
We can pay for Camille to be in college and we'll be able to pay for Stefan on a pay-as-they-go system. They can graduate with no student loans.
I haven't mopped my own floor in 10 years. Except when we are home during the summer where I can't afford U.S. household help.
Have you been bitten by the travel bug? I remember literally crying when I was 28 years old because I hadn't been to France yet. Seriously, crying. Harder than I would about the future 30K on the credit card.
I really liked splashing in the Black Sea on the Bulgarian coast with my mom. Eating bacon buns in Latvia with Peter and his sister. Handing our ragamuffin of a dog to the mobile dog-groomer "ZooGollywood" here in Kyiv and having Bea pop out of the truck looking like a stuffed animal. Some people apparently don't get a kick out of being functionally illiterate. I like the slightly scared feeling of travel-- besides it's not that hard to learn to read the worlds salt and sugar, and you only make the mistake of mixing them up once. Per country. That edgy feeling of not being in your own country makes me feel like I have my eyes open.
Travel from the U.S. is expensive and sort of only for thoracic surgeons, or my teacher friend Gina who is a really good saver and doesn't buy Diptyque candles. Everyone in the State Department travels all the time. Summer vacations in Cyprus, Thailand, and Sicily. Christmases in Finland, Vienna or snow-skiing in Italy. They rent boats and sail around Greece or tour the wine caves of Moldova or become experts on all the Disneylands world wide. Couples go to Prague for the weekend. It's all normal. The U.S. is huge and isolated. Once you are out, you can fly from Hong Kong to Chaing Mai for a $150 dollars, round trip. (I just Skyscanned it! Why are we not in Hong Kong, or rather, Chang Mai?) So if you like to travel, I mean really like to travel, this is for you.
My colleague is so not at work this week, she and her husband are in the Maldives.
In Portland our kids went to the French school which was not expensive by private school standards. Assuming the tuition would have remained the same (unlikely) we would have spent $140K by now on school. Which never would have happened. They would have been in public school by 6th grade. With the State Department, they've gone to good overseas schools (not as great as private schools in Portland or San Francisco I don't think, a little uneven, but still, good.) and Camille for her last two years of high school went to boarding school in Switzerland.
The kids have gone on field trips to Berlin and Venice, and homestays in Istanbul and Munich. Camille volunteered at a girl's school in Kenya. When they try to make a list of the best pizza they've ever had, Pizzacato in Portland makes the list, but in first place, is a restaurant in Taormina.
They've put money in street musicians' guitar, violin or accordion cases using at least five different currencies.
When there was an explosion in a club in Bucharest, Camille was concerned about her Romanian friends. When there is an uprising in Ouagadougou or a war in Ukraine, none of this is abstract for my kids. They remember the biting bugs and the hotel with all the animal trophies in Ouaga. They've seen the tanks on the streets in Kyiv. The world is home.
I finally got to do my college semester abroad, and it was a Masters in Fine Art in a painting program at Brancusi's alma mater. For $2000.
I'm currently doing a painting workshop with a master classical painter and I take ballet lessons from a Russian ballerina. For two years, Camille practically lived at the riding stables. Stefan has had piano lessons from a Beethoven specialist from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, (not just named after Tchaikovsky, but because he taught there), a teacher whose father plays piano for the national symphony in Ukraine and an American felon in Africa.
Peter loves his job as the medical officer, running the health unit. He's too busy, but he's happy doing what he does. And no one ever tells him to not talk so much with his patients. Now, he eats lunch every day with his patients. For someone who loves treating the entire person, this is the medical job for you.
I don't have to deal with the water company, the trash people or pay the electricity or natural gas. If I need something fixed, someone comes and fixes it. If I'm not working, Peter has to make that call for me. (At some posts you have to be on an embassy computer to put in a work order.) Some EFMs hate how that makes them feel.
Some EFM's hate how it makes them feel so much that they'd rather be in the U.S. Some find the very term EFM degrading. I myself prefer the term "Trophy Wife."
Sometimes the distance of a couple thousand miles from family drama is just right, but I do miss our sisters (Peter's as well as my own), nieces and nephews, friends, and especially my 93-year-old mommy. I hate living so far from Camille as she has started college. That's really been the worst.
We get twenty paid holidays and Peter has so many vacation/comp/leave days he can't even use them all. I've taken two months off every summer to take care of kids and reconnect with family for ten years. In Portland I would have had weekends and short visits, but never two glorious months of visiting with friends and family, drinking wine on week-nights.
At our jobs, we are serving our country, doing the work of diplomacy. I'm not your friend wearing a star-spangled fanny pack, but there is gratification helping your country, and the world, be the best version of itself.
We've sailed across the ocean on the Queen Mary, seen monkeys swing from trees in Africa, met Joe Biden and seen the Nutcracker at the Bolshoi.
I do miss Target. But not that much.
I went to four different elementary schools and my sister went to a different high school every year. Just because you live in the U.S. doesn't mean you don't move, or that your friends don't move away. Just because you live in the U.S. doesn't mean you, or your children, are happy.
Peter and I lived nine years in the redwood forest of Humboldt County, thirteen years in San Francisco, four years in Portland, Oregon. Maybe because we got into this later, it feels like just another chapter of our lives. We are half-way through this chapter, in 10 years Peter will have to retire. It's not easy though, the heart-wrench of moving kids away from their friends, learning who I can trust with my own heart at a new post, living with loss, of household items that have been ruined or lost, of friends, of family far away, move after move, place to place.
I can't say if it will work for you, but so far, we are still 100% in.
I like the timeless feeling of the week between Christmas and New Years, and then because of orthodox Christmas in this part of the world, we get another week with an extra holiday between New Years and Christmas as well. And then it will be orthodox New Years, so we get another round of the holiday feeling, although without an extra day off. All over my internet, people are taking down their Christmas trees and enjoying the whisked-out look of January, but here, people are just putting up their lights and the Christmas fairs are still going strong.
After a warm fall and (the first December 25th) Christmas with no snow, the temperatures have plummeted and it's brutally cold, 1F/-17C, too cold for me to get up the courage to actually go to these fairs. So we spend the days making soup and wandering around the house wearing two sweaters each. I can't light enough candles or give the chickadees enough sunflower seeds.
When Peter's father was in his teens, at home in Riga, Latvia, a German officer knocked on the door, holding a tiny girl by the hand. Peter's grandmother answered the door and the officer explained that he had just hidden this little girl in a suitcase and smuggled her out of a concentration camp. He asked if she would take care of her. Peter's grandmother didn't know if he meant for her to watch the girl for one day, one month, or one year. Years later, when she was twelve, the little girl's uncle--who had managed to survive the war-- came and got her.
This Thanksgiving we visited Riga for the first time. What a perfect little toy town! Six flights of winding stairs, in an building constructed in 1788, took us to our Airbnb apartment. A train peeking through red rooftopped buildings and church spires give the town the look of a village set up under a Christmas tree.
With a populations of only 600K, this capitol city feels like a town, that also happens to be a medieval world heritage site.
We bought Thanksgiving groceries at the Central Market, which was built in the 1930's in three zeppelin airplane hangers. We bought already-cooked beets (what is this? Trader Joes?) from a vendor who taught us how to say thank you in Latvian: paldias. We also picked up milk, a poppy seed tort, apples and fresh cranberries for our Thanksgiving feast. In the afternoon, we roasted the 10 pound turkey I had lugged up the six flights of stairs.
We made eggs a couple mornings, and felt duty-bound to eat a lot of chocolate, since Peter's grandfather had owned a chocolate factory, but most meals we ate in cafes--the same ones, over and over again, they were so good!--as we walked around the cobblestoned-town. In the morning, the bill for three coffees, black tea, bacon buns, fruit pastries, and an eclair in a darling cafe came to 11 euros.
We visited the music conservatory Peter's father attended. While a student there, he entered a contest to compose an anti-Soviet march. He won the contest, but because of the popularity of the song, had to flee the country. He lost his country, but he did win a case rum.
I took an etching class at an Atelier-type place and got to print cards using an ancient press. One evening we drank hot wine and listened to rollicking folk music in a packed basement club. Nina and I extolled the virtures of a snowless, iceless November. We bought knitted mittens, woven wool blankets, handmade iron nails and ancient-Latvian style jewelry. It's like Portland moved to Europe and you can walk down the street with a paper cup of hot berry juice spiked with the local balsam liqueur.
I myself want to move there so badly I wrote the Latvian embassy and was happy to find out that we're already Latvian! Peter's family, because his dad left by force during the war, is considered a Latvian in exile. EU citizenship is four months away. Not sure how well the state department would take that though, but it's enticing for Peter's sisters and cousins.
Peter and Nina met up with the daughter of the "little girl" Peter's grandmother had taken care of, her daughter, Beata, and her little girl Sara. Together they visited the site where one of the most beastly acts of the war was committed. Hundreds of Latvian and Lithuanian jews had been rounded up, forced into the basement of a synagogue and burned. Now, an engraved marble list of names supports a larger marble slab. "When our world was collapsing, you supported us." (My loose translation.) The names of 270 rescuers are engraved in the marble, including that of Peter's grandmother.
Nina took these photos at the site of the burned Great Choral Synagogue.
Peter and Nina Skyped with the "little girl," now 77 years old and living in Tel Aviv. She refers to Peter's grandmother as Mama.
I'd heard about Peter's family taking in the little girl during the war, but walking the cobblestone streets with the family that Peter's family saved elevated the visit to Riga to something far beyond seeing a new city. Riga is absolutely tourist-worthy, but for us this trip went beyond site-seeing and spiked-berry-juice drinking, and helped us connect to the best part of ourselves.
Every few weeks my boss says to me, "Go on monitoring trips." Part of my job requires me to visit grantees in person to assure they spend grant money on equipment and workshops and not on fast cars and cocaine. After one year in my job, I finally took the leap, flight east and train west and saw Ukraine beyond Kyiv.
Of course, it's awesome.
Stefan was field tripping along the Berlin wall during my visit east. So Peter came with me for the first stop: Odessa, all the way to the right edge of Ukraine on the Black Sea.
My grants-team colleague and I roped Peter into speaking at one of the conferences. And then we drank presecco at the ballet. After grantee presentations, warm evenings encouraged us to eat dinner on the white sand beach, eat shrimp at a restaurant where for the first time in my life I sent the wine back (was it aged in a gas tank?) and take dips in the pool. Humid weather also forced us to leave the windows open during a full-blown chandeliers-in-a-white-tent wedding. The acoustic techno music that met us in the cab at the airport serenaded us until we climbed the stairs into the plane for the one-hour flight back to Kyiv.
The following week in Lviv I visited the journalism department at the National University to see how they were using the new equipment you bought them; and at another university we attended a State Department-funded journalism seminar.
All you hear from people in Kyiv is "Lviv, Lviv, Lviv." I mean, how charming can a world heritage site town be, right?
Gingerbread stores on every corner, delicious soups in every restaurant, the best coffee I've ever had, shops full of embroidery, second hand clothing stores, cobblestoned streets, Levitan and Shishkin paintings in the local art museum and church bells-- all wrapped around chapels built in the 1600s. As they say/spell it there, "Before you die, Lvov, Lvov, Lvov."
On the five hour train ride back to Kyiv, I sipped tea sold from a cart for 40 cents. Five hundred miles edge to edge -- Ukraine, man.