Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tasting freedom

We're back in the US of A, and so far we're up to 31 hours of traveling. And we're not done yet. We're in Tampa, waiting for the brother and sister-in-law to arrive before we head out for the one hour drive to our final destination. I'm predicting that we'll make it to at least 34 hours before we can finally put down our bags and shower. Seriously, I would kill for a shower right now.

Although we have a hectic itinerary, this vacation is SERIOUSLY needed. Nick and I have been going non-stop since we came back from Turkey 6 weeks ago. Nick more so than me. He's been very involved in the security contractors issue (that's PSCs, for those of you looking to add to your acronym glossary). So even though we're going to be bouncing around the US for three weeks -- Florida to North Carolina to NYC to Albany to Chicago to Tennessee (Nick)/Indiana (me) and DC -- it'll still be a billion times better than working 80 hours a week in Kabul on issues that don't seem to have a good solution.

These next three weeks will be crazy and fun, and filled with family, friends, and good food. We plan to make the most of every minute of freedom. I'd say we're off to a good start.

Our first taste of freedom: Sushi and a smoked salmon sandwich in the Dubai airport


Breakfast of champions in Dulles Airport: a beer and a screwdriver.
Hey, 7am DC time is happy hour time in Kabul!

PS: On Veteran's Day, just a quick thanks to all who serve or who have served our country. I'm proud to know a bunch more of you now.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Set your DVRs

For those of you out there who've ever been frustrated by how little I can tell or show you about what US civilians are doing in Afghanistan....it's CNN to the rescue. Starting this Sunday (I assume, but CNN didn't specify the date other than "Sunday", "Monday" etc) CNN will be airing a series of stories on the civilian effort in Afghanistan, gathered over a week-long embed with the Embassy this past summer.

Each part should be interesting, but I have to say that I'm most curious as to story that will be told in Part Five: A Day in the Life. I wonder whose "life" will be reflected.

CNN provided the following write ups of each of the five parts:

Part One: The Other Surge – Sunday 12p EST on CNNI/Prism and Monday on Situation Room on CNN-USA between 5-7p EST: Civilian surge: there are more than 1,000 U.S. civilians in Afghanistan, triple the number before the new Afghan strategy is announced. We see how Jeff Stanton, a long-time State Department diplomat, works with the governor of Wardak to help the local government stand up in the province, and Abdullah Sharif, an Afghan-American who has returned to his homeland to work with USAID as an advisor to the mayor of Kandahar. What are the challenges to helping rebuild Afghanistan and getting the government to stand up? What have been the biggest surprises?

Part Two: Sword to Plowshare – Monday 12p EST on CNNI/Prism and Monday on American Morning 6-9a EST: We meet Gary Soiseth, a 25-year old almond farmer who left his family farm in California to help train Afghan farmers in Wardak province and follow the "Dirt Warriors," a group of military reservists putting on a civilian hat to help farmers in the mountains of Kunar bring water to their villages. Afghanistan used to be the bread basket of South Asia and the U.S. is trying to help it regain that role, working with farmers throughout the country and building a farming infrastructure so they can get money to expand their farms, grow better products and get them to market.

Part Three: Women on the Move – Tuesday 12p EST on CNNI/Prism and Tuesday on American Morning 6-9a EST: Women couldn't leave the house under the Taliban and still are subject to repression throughout the country, but are grabbing opportunities to make a living. In Jalalabad, we meet a group of war widows learning house painting, carpentry, electrical and plastering as part of a U.S. cash-for work program and visit a U.S.-funded female journalist training program in Herat , where women are desperate to become journalists despite the objections of their families and intimidation by the Taliban. Another very visual piece involving women hard at work and dirty in the trenches as they refurbish a women's center.

Part Four: Judgment – Wednesday 12p EST on CNNI/Prism and Tuesday on Situation Room 5-7p EST: Jill meets with judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys in Kunar where the country’s first public trials were recently held. The challenge of creating a justice system and establishing rule of law in a dangerous security environment where Taliban intimidation is common. Afghanistan is a very tribal society, and the Afghans have a delicate balance between maintaining local structures - such as shuras, while trying to institute state justice with trials and prosecutions. Jill also joins Kandahar’s mayor for a shura where he discusses problems and seeks solutions from tribal elders.

Part Five: A Day in the Life – Thursday 12p EST on CNNI/Prism and Wednesday on American Morning 6-9a and Situation Room 5-7p EST: Take a look at life inside fortified U.S. embassy complex in Kabul. We followed Ambassador Karl Eikenberry through a day at the Kabul embassy to see what goes on behind the fortified walls, and why he and his staff risk living in a warzone to do this.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Do you know Dubai?

This post is completely self-serving.

I'm working on all of the logistics for our upcoming R&R to the States. We will spend one night in Dubai on our return trip. Our only requirements for the hotel are:
  • close to the airport
  • close to a grocery store that's open until at least midnight.

This is where you, lovely readers, come in. Are any of you in-the-know on Dubai grocery stores? Can you recommend a hotel that meets our requirements?*

*By the way, we already tried the Intercontinental and Crowne Plaza hotels at Dubai Festival City. The Crowne Plaza has no vacancies, and the Intercontinental is over our per diem by about $500!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Every once in a while

To be honest, I have been a little skeptical of the new themed format of the Weekly Foreign Service Blog Roundup. But, seeing as the new format has inspired me to write new posts for two weeks in a row, I suppose I need to change my position. This week's theme is "I never knew I'd"....

I have two. The first is just a random thought. The second was inspired by a little trip (and I mean LITTLE -- all of about 90 seconds) I took yesterday afternoon.

I never knew I'd....:
  • ....actually like being a wife
  • ....get to ride in a bad-ass Chinook* helicopter. You know, the kind where the back hatch stays open, with a gunner dangling his/her feet over the edge.

© Crown Copyright/ MOD 2009

Photo used via a Creative Commons license.

I know that I mostly gripe about being in Afghanistan. But I have to admit that experiences like this do make me just a little giddy. But only a little.

*Disclaimer: Obviously I didn't take these photos. Of course I'd be the idiot to forget her camera. But I swear I really flew on one of these yesterday!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Where I'm at

My brain is totally fried and just a little pickled and unable to form coherent sentences. There's been lots of drama this week.

In case you haven't heard, President Karzai is playing a very dangerous game of chicken with the international donor community.** I worked 17 hours on Wednesday; I got to the office while my USAID colleagues in DC were just going to bed and left the office at the same time DC staffers were heading out for happy hour. Nick worked 14 hours on Thursday. Today is Friday (our one day off each week, in case you forgot), and I'm getting ready to go to a 4pm meeting. Therefore I'll just post some pictures in response to this week's Foreign Service Blog Roundup theme "Where are you now?", and let the New York Times do the talking for me.

My field trip to the Kabul Women's Garden




**Update: Yeah....the DAI project mentioned in this CNN article and this NYT article....yeah, I'm involved in that project. Holy tenous situation, Batman.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Busted

The history books tell us that the name"Afghanistan" comes from the Persian language, where the word "Afghans" referred to the Pashtun tribes that rose to power in the region during the 18th century.

The history books are wrong. "Afghanistan" does not mean "land of the Pashtun tribes." It means "land that destroys small household electronics."

In the 11 months since I arrived in Kabul, the following items have gone kaput:
  • coffee maker
  • immersion blender/food processor/most kick-ass kitchen gadget ever (aka the "Thunderstick")
  • electric tea kettle
  • several alarm clocks
  • Nick's beard trimmer
  • my hair dryer

Yes, they were all plugged into an adapter or step-down converter when they died. Yes, they were all working when we left the US.

We really don't know why all of these appliances bought the farm. Luckily only one was a must-have: my hair dryer. It died just this past Friday, and I was in a bad mood about it for 2 days! I know this makes me sound like a high-maintenance girl. In fact, all I could think about was the line from Spaceballs: "That's my industrial strength hairdryer, and I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT IT!" I mean, anyone who really knows me will tell you that I am anything but high maintenance. But with my newly shortened hair (I got it cut in Istanbul -- letting a guy who didn't speak much English take a pair of scissors to my head was an interesting experience, and an exercise in trust!), I can't just hop out of the shower and into a ponytail. I need a hairdryer......and a straightener, ideally. But that's all I need, I swear! I am not a collector of useless hair and beauty gadgets and products! Fortunately Nick and I were able to locate the ONE hairdryer available for sale on the ISAF compound, after Nick had searched high and low at the Camp Eggers PX and bazaar.

Bye bye tiny blue hairdryer. Hello giant red (& very heavy) hairdryer

As for the other two priority items -- Nick's beard trimmer and the Thunderstick -- well, Nick and I are very lucky to have incredibly helpful and generous parents. Nick made use of the "spa" services over at Camp Eggers to keep his beard growth in check while his parents mailed him a new trimmer. And my folks kindly replaced our beloved Thunderstick as a gift for our first wedding anniversary.

The other busted items aren't so much of a priority, at least at the moment. We bought an alarm clock with an Afghan plug at the little grocery store on the compound. Since we don't eat breakfast at home (we eat at our desks -- best way to deal with the new mandatory 8am start time), we don't miss the coffee maker. And the stove works just as well as the electric tea kettle.

And now, I don't really know how to wrap this up. How about a lesson of the day?

Kabul blows...............the circuits of small household appliances. *tee hee*

Sunday, October 3, 2010

SSDD

We've been home for just under a week. My tummy troubles have returned. The work-related stress is back, just as if we never left.

The vacation glow lasted all of two days. Le sigh.

I think this time around will disprove my theory that I'm more motivated to write in the blog just after we return from leave. I'm working on a post recapping our trip to Turkey, but you all saw how my trip report from Bali and Singapore worked out. And I was in much better spirits then.

But there are lights at the end of the tunnel: the Marine Ball on November 5, a trip back to the States five days later, a good friend's wedding and Thanksgiving with our families...and of course, Budapest. We're trying hard not to put all of our hope eggs in the Budapest basket, but it's hard not to be excited.

8 months to go.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Merhaba

That's "hello" in Turkish. Thus far the trip is great. We just finished the lllooonnnggg drive from Pamukkale (which was really beautiful at sunset and not at all as touristy as I had feared) to Goreme in Cappadocia. Thus far we've seen ruins, cats, ruins, road, ruins, the biggest nothingness I've ever seen (the Anatolian plateau) and more ruins. Loads of pictures to share later on, and lots of stories -- about the shortcut through the industrial park, the shortcut on the dirt road, the motorcyclist we almost killed at a tollbooth. Road trips are always an adventure.

Off to bed soon. Tomorrow is a long day of mountain biking and hiking. But before I go, here's a quick photo of our trip. And yes, it's of ruins.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Next stop

Egy hideg sört kérek!

That translates to "I would like a cold beer please" in Hungarian.

Next stop: Budapest! Coming Summer 2011....

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The one where I remember that the blog doesn't write itself

Hey. Hi. Sorry for not writing in a while. Work has been crazy busy and frustrating and just GRRRR! Which means I end up without any time to write, and in terribly bad moods that aren't exactly conducive to writing. And Nick was sick. And I was sick. And then sick again. And sick some more. But I made a promise to myself that I would try to do a quick update before we head out on our Turkey vacation. Three sleeps to go!

Speaking of vacation, I've noticed that there seems to be a direct correlation between the frequency with which I post in the blog and the number of days since our last vacation. When I first get back from leave, I'm not only rested, but I'm out of the loop at work. This means I am less busy, with both the time and the energy to write. So the frequency with which I post is higher. When I'm 3 months past my previous leave and 4 days away from my next, I am too tired and burned out to write. And thus the frequency with which I post is lower. Hence the monthlong gap since my last post.

Anyway, here's a quick recap of the exciting (or not-so-exciting) stuff that's been going on in our life over the past month or so:

  • We just discovered that while we are on leave, we will miss: Yom Kippur, the announcement of Nick's next post, and the season premieres of Modern Family and Glee! Trip scheduling fail.

  • Or...we might hear about Nick's next post before we go. I just heard a rumor that we could get word as early as tomorrow. Stay tuned....

  • If we don't hear before we leave, I bet they have internet in Turkey. Where we will be in 3 more sleeps!

  • Although it's been a summer of many goodbyes, I had my first really really sad goodbye on September 6, when our good friends G&S left for their next post. In addition to living across the hall from us, I worked with G in both of my offices. G and his wife S were great cooks and dinner companions, champion euchre players (I am pleased to report that the girls defeated the boys in our final showdown!), and offered a lot of wise council on life in the foreign service as a married couple. To top it all off, S was a Glee fan, and G was a video game fan. So while S and I were having our "Glee girls" nights, Nick and G were having "boys play video games where they kill enemy soldiers with big guns and OMG-did you just shoot that guy in the head?!" nights. I know that life in the foreign service means a life of many hard goodbyes. But this first one is really smarting.

  • I've been dealing with a pretty serious case of homesickness. Well, not exactly homesickness. Let's call it "normal life" sickness. A few weeks before he left post, the aforementioned G was searching for a hotel at which to stay during his brief two week training stop in DC. In a flash two of my colleagues and I were up out of our chairs, recommending hotels and neighborhoods, with arguments such as "But Hotel X is close to a WHOLE FOODS!" And we were shouting out restaurant recommendations and where to go shopping and OMG you have to go to Harry's for happy hour because they serve beer in FROSTED MUGS! Then we heard what we were saying....and realized that we were all really missing life in the U.S. See, it's not really that I love DC with all my heart. It's that I miss being able to do normal things, like going to a grocery store, or out to a bar. I can do that in any city or town in the U.S. I just can't do it HERE. I miss having things to do each day other than work.

  • I bet they have great food and grocery stores in Turkey. Where we will be in 3 more sleeps!

  • Recent field trips: Serena Hotel for G&S' going-away brunch (with sushi and lox and a dessert bar and SUSHI!); a day trip to Mazar-i-Sharif for me, and a 3-day trip for Nick; a day trip for me to Bagram airfield which turned into an overnight trip because it was raining and our planes can't fly in the rain even though it's only a 10 minute flight between Bagram and Kabul and oh screw it I'll just walk home kthxbye!; a going away dinner for another colleague at the Kabul version of TGI Fridays; brunch at Le Bistro; and a going away party at the Kabul Health Club, where we were treated to a performance by the Kabul Dreams.

  • Nick and I have grown so tired of the food that we're cooking dinner at home almost every night. We've happily rediscovered crockpot cooking, and it's amazing how useful the slow cooker has been in making delicious meals with limited access to fresh ingredients. A few weeks ago we made pulled BBQ chicken sandwiches. Last week we served slow cooker lemongrass-garlic chicken to a bunch of friends who aren't so lucky as to have a kitchen. This week it was meatballs and tomato sauce for a big pasta dinner for our hooch-dwelling friends. The weather is starting to cool down a bit, and I am already thinking about the day it will be cold enough to make Manhattan clam chowder or Mom M's Glorified Stew.

  • Did I mention that we go on leave in 3 more sleeps!? All I can think about at the moment is "turkeyturkeyturkeyturkey." I'm so over this work thing. And for those of you who are interested, the destinations for our remaining breaks are: the U.S. (November), skiing in Europe (early January), destination unknown (February), and Nepal for an Everest base camp trek (April). And then We. Are. Done! (Sorry to be whiny. Did I mention that we're going on leave soon? Hopefully a good vacation will help with my attitude). We'll have intermittent access to the internet while we're travelling, so I'll try to get a few posts up about what we're seeing and doing and eating in Turkey. Don't be surprised if all I get out is a picture and a few words (see: posts from the Singapore and Bali trip). And I will try to post pictures of subjects other than of food. Maybe.

Update: I just finished a nice 50 minute run with my friend Go. General Petraeus said we were looking good and to keep it up.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

One of these things is not like the other

I snapped this photo last week while attending a going-away dinner at an Embassy-approved restaurant. The restaurant had a small art gallery in the back corner.

As soon as I spotted it, I knew I had to take a picture.

Sometimes Kabul is just absolutely bizarre.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Listed Part II

Last night, as I ran truncated loops around the Embassy compound, Nick submitted his bid list to USAID HR. Seven Missions, not all of them exactly desirable. Hopefully the bad luck associated with the date of our bid submission -- Friday the 13th -- won't rub off on the decision process.

And now we wait.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Picture Pages

Holy crap I am so far behind on posting pictures. Over the last two weeks my work load has just exploded. As in Liz's brain has gone kablooey and is oozing out her ears. Also Nick and I are both fighting off the Kabul Krud.

So, not a lot of insightful thoughts today. Mostly picture pages. Here's a look at Nick and Liz's June 2010 in Kabul.

When Nick and I returned from home leave, we discovered that one of the Kabul Kitties had given birth to 4 kittens: one orange and white striped, one black and white spotted, one grey and white striped, and one calico. Given how different the kittens look I think Mommy Cat might be a bit of a tramp, although I leave it to Toad to educate me on cat genetics.



The British Ball took place about 2 weeks after we got back from home leave. With dinner, dancing, and way too much to drink, we were almost able to forget that we were in Kabul with 12 more months to go before the end of our tour.

We went to the Ball with a bunch of friends, including the lovely lady pictured below. That's Go, my awesome running buddy. She kept me company on my pre-3oth birthday half marathon (which I did finish, in about 2.5 hours under the blazing Kabul sun. And then two weeks later Go went and finished the Kabul Marathon in just about 5 hours, never mind the nasty stomach bug that kept her from eating for 5 days prior to the race. Show off).

A week after the Ball I spoke at the USAID-sponsored Afghan First conference, held at a hotel high on a hill on the outskirts of Kabul. The conference served to educate Afghan business owners about contracting opportunities with the USG. I was bombarded with questions that weren't really questions about USAID's stabilization programming ("The river cleaning program you did in City X. I do not think that was a good program." Okay, thanks!), with business cards from construction company owners, and with requests to pose for pictures with said business owners. And I spent 3 hours under a head scarf in a stifling hot conference hall. What was good about the conference? As always, the chance to leave the compound and get a different view of Kabul (and the air was remarkably clear that day!)


But the very very best thing about the conference? A non-DFAC lunch.

Lastly, at the very end of the month, Nick and I and my friend Sarah got to go out on a Thursday night for an "official" event -- a party at the Serena Hotel (Kabul's only 5 star hotel!) to celebrate the launch of Safi Airline's new plane. It was another night that was so pleasant as to almost make me forget where I was. The Serena would be a beautiful hotel in any city -- the fact that it's in Kabul only heightens its appeal. We sat in a lovely courtyard at tables with white tablecloths, sipping fruit juice and enjoying the sunset and a warm summer (dust free, for once!) breeze. We chatted with tablemates. Nick chatted up the Deputy Minister of Finance. We listened to some speeches and scored some Safi swag.


Of course, you can guess what the best part of the whole evening was, right?

It was absolutely the 20 ft long buffet dinner. With fish. And salads. And carrot ginger soup. And Singapore noodles, Afghan chicken, lamb, potatoes And vegetables that weren't cooked and salted to death. Not to mention desserts.

Oh yeah. The company wasn't too bad either.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Listed

The bid list. It is here.

There are lots of positions open in Afghanistan. And Iraq. And Sudan.

There are slots at Missions other than these three, of course. At first glance, some are very appealing (eastern Europe). Some are not so appealing (a conflict prone country in the Pacific). There are one-year positions in CPCs, like Afghanistan. All of them make me ask whether the FS life is right for us.

Let the deliberations begin.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Leaks

You might be waiting for a post with my thoughts and reactions the Wikileaks story. For propriety's sake, there's not much I can say except.....some days I feel like I know the answers, and some days I have nothing but questions.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Circus, circus, I love the circus!

In another life I will have the skills and flexibility to be a real circus freak.

In the meantime, I will just have to live vicariously through those individuals who are doing it in this lifetime.

Coming this November....



J, please set your DVR NOW!

Monday, July 12, 2010

None of your bid-ness

July 12 was supposed to be a red-letter day: the day USAID HR would release the priority bidding list. At last, Nick and I would be able to answer the question that everyone -- friends, family, and colleagues alike -- has been asking us: where are you going to go when you're done with Afghanistan?

For the uninitiated, the bid list is the process by which a foreign service officer (FSO) picks which post s/he goes to next. (I think the process is essentially the same for USAID and State, although of course we're looking at different positions and posts. But just FYI that any time I talk about FSOs in this post, I'm talking about USAID employees.) In very basic terms, HR sends out a list of all of the jobs available at all of the USAID missions throughout the world. Nick, and everyone else serving at a critical threat post, get to bid before the rest of USAID. Nick and I review the list, pick three countries that sound like fun, and then we get assigned to one of them. Quick and painless, right?


Wrong.


According to colleagues with significant bidding experience and the booklet we received from HR titled "Tips for first time bidders", bidding is a long and complicated process. Deciding which posts to bid on involves more than just looking at a map and picking what country we'd like to see next. We have to take into consideration:
  • Nick's career trajectory
  • how difficult it might be for me to get a job outside the Embassy (or if it's even allowed)
  • how far away from our families we want to be for the next four years (the duration of most USAID posts)
  • whether it's a language-designated post (requiring us to move to DC temporarily so Nick can do language training)
  • the different benefit packages associated with each mission (danger and locality pay differ from country to country)
  • the security situation, and
  • the overall quality of life.

The last two points -- as well as the second bullet -- are especially important as we move into the potential baby making/adopting years. Wait, don't get excited (I'm looking at you, Parents X, Parents M, and Sister J). It's not something we're looking at in the immediate future. But it is something in the back of our minds, and something we need to consider when picking where we're going to be living from ages 31-35.

Needless to say, the buildup to the release of the bid list has been intense. We've been tossing around our "dream" locations, trying to get inside information on what positions will be open, grilling our colleagues about the pros and cons of the missions at which they previously served, and doing a lot of thinking and talking about whether a career in the foreign service is right for us. Nick has even been counting down the days to the release of the bid list, until I asked him to stop because just thinking about all of the variables and the implications and the...bigness of it all made my head hurt. So I was really looking forward to today. July 12. Bid list release day. The day when the fuzzy, shapeless mess that is our future would become just a little bit more clear.

Except that it didn't happen. Saturday morning an email went out to all USAID staffers: "Due to unforeseen circumstances, HR must delay indefinitely the release of the bid list for priority bidders."

So today ended up being just another Monday, like all the other Mondays in Afghanistan before it. And the waiting resumes.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Awards

In a rare change of pace, Nick and I have actually had a pretty busy social calendar. His birthday, the British Ball, the 4th of July, and lots of going away dinners and parties. It's a very busy turnover season -- I think something like 85% of Mission staff are departing this summer. And everyone gets a party. Or sometimes multiple parties.

I have lots of pictures and anecdotes to share. And I'd share them all with you in this post, except Nick left the camera at his office.

But I do have a few pictures that I can share right now, because they're from someone else's camera.



Pretty spiffy, huh? That's Nick with Ambassador Eikenberry, receiving one of his 3(!) awards at last week's Embassy awards ceremony. And that's me and a few of my colleagues receiving an award from the Ambassador in recognition of our work on the Marble Conference, one of the two group awards I received.

There are days where I can't stand my work. There are days where I can't stand being here. But even I have to admit that this was pretty cool.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

They say it's your birthday

Last year Nick celebrated his birthday -- his 30th birthday! -- all by himself in Kabul.

OK, so he wasn't quite all alone. Thanks to a little birdie, his colleagues knew it was his birthday, but he'd only been in Kabul for a few weeks. So he hadn't grown close to anyone yet, and in spite of his friends' efforts he spent most of the day feeling lonely and throwing himself a pity party.

I wanted to make up for that this year, and although a big blowout bash wasn't in the cards, a pizza party certainly was!

So last Thursday night we ordered in a ton of pizzas from a local restaurant, and served them up al fresco at the fire pit, with plenty of beer and wine. The pizza was....a little weird, with some pinkish mystery meat on the pepperoni. It was better than most of the DFAC's food, but a far cry from the delicious Chicago deep dish we were enjoying just a few short weeks ago.

The birthday boy indulging in 3 of his favorite vices: food, beer and smokes.
And doing it all at once, with one hand.
An impressive display of skill.


Another indulgence: one of the Kabul kitties.

Yes, we had jello shots. Apparently not everyone was a fan.


We also had chocolate-dipped peanut butter cookies.


A quick note on the cookies. I had wanted to make Nick's favorite brownie -- Toad's chocolate-stuffed peanut butter brownies -- but completely forgot to carry the necessary ingredients back with me from the states. The cookies were the best chocolate-PB combo I could make with limited supplies.


We also had smores.


And cake. Stacy is our neighbor, whose birthday was also last week.

And lots and lots to drink.


It was a long, fun, rather intoxicated night. The next morning I woke up to make a special birthday breakfast: pancakes and bacon.


Just what the birthday boy wanted!



The rest of the day was spent browsing the bazaar, napping, and playing video games. A perfect day in Nick's world.


Happy Birthday Nicky!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Perspective

If you're wondering if we made it back to Kabul safely, we did.

If you're wondering why I haven't posted anything since our return, it's because coming back has been hard. And when things get hard I find it difficult to motivate myself to post. And when I do post when things are hard, I tend to whine a lot.

My post about our return to Afghanistan was going to be a whine fest. I was going to whine about how discouraged I get trying to maneuver my way through US government bureaucracy. About how our trip back to US made me realize how much life I'm missing by being here. About how I've reached the limit on my ability to eat DFAC food. About how defeated I feel.

But then I read this article and looked at these pictures from the New York Times about U.S. military medical evacuation teams......and I realized that I have no right to complain about my experience in Afghanistan.

Perspective. It's a sobering thing.

Friday, June 4, 2010

We're still alive

I did warn everyone that posting would be light while we soak up as much family time/friend time/DC time/freedom time while we're back in the U.S. For once I'm following through on something I promised on the blog. Heh.

We're coming to the end of our home leave -- just 3 short days left. In bullet form, highlights of the trip thus far are:
  • riding in a convertible with Nick driving
  • getting my hairs cut
  • visiting with the whole Marvin clan at my grandmother's 90th birthday party
  • finding vacuum packed fresh gnocchi and vacuum packed sausages, neither of which need to be refrigerated. Score!
  • clothes shopping in an actual store! I shelled out $200+ dollars at H&M in one go
  • watching Nick and my dad grilling together
  • eating my mom's home cooked food
  • watching Nick devour $42 worth of sushi by himself
  • visiting with the whole Vivio family
  • Mom X's fridge full of Greek goodies
  • seeing Iron Man 2 in a real movie theater. The movie wasn't that great, but my new philosophy about most things is "it's better than Kabul." So from that perspective, the movie was fantastic!
  • gorging ourselves on Chicago deep-dish pizza
  • watching a major sporting event (Blackhawks vs Flyers) at the appropriate hour while drinking beer in a noisy bar filled with other sports fans (instead of in a dusty tent with four guys sipping coffee at the butt crack of dawn)
  • watching the current episode of Glee as it airs
  • indulging in a fancy lunch at Central. I would crawl belly deep through hell for the gougeres alone
  • running from Foggy Bottom to far Capitol Hill and realizing just how much my running has improved. And Nick made the run too. I am so proud.
  • flying trapeze
  • seeing a show! The fact that is was the world premiere of a new musical -- Sycamore Trees -- at Signature Theater only sweetened the deal
  • having a little alone time with my Toad so that I could vent without worrying about hurting anyone's feelings
  • Nick finally getting his hands on his new bike
  • blasting Glee in the car with my sister (how could I forget this when I first wrote this post?)

We're planning to make the most of our remaining time, busying ourselves with a big happy hour party with our friends, more trapeze classes, more theater, more runs through the city, more visits with friends and family, and more shopping. It's busy busy busy, so I'm going to leave the post here and go get started on all of those things we stall have left to do.

But before I go, here's what our Year 2 consumables shipment looked like:



Sunday, May 23, 2010

Here

We're here. Safe and sound back in the good old US of A and already stuffing our faces full of yummy foods. Posting will be light over the next two weeks as we criss-cross the country visiting family. We've just about completed Stop 1 -- Chapel Hill, NC for my grandmother's 90th birthday. Step 2 -- Albany, NY to hang with my folks for a few days is next.

And for those of you who are curious as to what we did on our very first day back in the States....



Wednesday, May 19, 2010

They say

They say that 30 is the new 20. I don't know many 20 year olds who have sciatica. That was the diagnosis I received yesterday for my recurring leg pain.

Yep, I'm officially old today. Although if I've been lucky enough to inherit my grandmother's good genes -- she turned 90 yesterday! -- I have many more years to enjoy.

We're on a plane in just about 12 hours, U.S.-bound. And there was much rejoicing.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Runnin'

On May 28, the Embassy is hosting its second Kabul Marathon. I would run the half marathon, but Nick and I will be on home leave so we're missing the whole thing.

A few weeks ago I re-committed myself to doing the best I can to eat healthy and stay in shape while we're in Afghanistan.

A few weeks ago I committed myself to running the distance of a half marathon (13 miles) to mark the milestone of turning 30. Since I'd miss the marathon, I picked the last Friday before my birthday as the target date. And tomorrow's the big day. (Ignore the date on this post. In Kabul it's already Thursday, May 13)

8 loops around the compound. 16 times down and up the horrible tunnel hill. No one cheering me on or handing out beverages or presenting me with a medal when I finish. Just me, my iPod and a couple of strategically placed water bottles.

On your mark, get set.....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

1 of 3

The next 3 posts will be rather heavy on the pictures, and light on the self-reflection. As our leave date gets closer I find I have less and less brain capacity to dedicate to writing words. Most of my brain seems to be occupied with planning our whirlwind visit (DC-NC-NY-IL-DC), making lists of things we need to buy for our second year (consumables, toiletries, and clothes), and daydreaming of yummy food that tastes like...well, food!

Our theme for this first post is: The Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TMF). (I can't let a post go by without a new acronym!)

A few weeks ago I had a meeting out at TMF's Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture. For those of you unfamiliar with this organization, TMF is a "non-profit, non-governmental organisation that was established in 2006 at the request of HRH The Prince of Wales and HE Hamid Karzai, The President of Afghanistan...Turquoise Mountain's aim is to revive Afghanistan's traditional crafts, and to regenerate Murad Khane, a historic area of Kabul's old city known for its rich cultural heritage." TMF also operates a school -- the Institute for Arts and Architecture -- where students learn traditional crafts and arts skills (jewelry & gemstones, woodwork, calligraphy & painting, and ceramics) from master teachers.

Cool fact: the chair of TMF is Rory Stewart, famed author of The Places in Between.

Full disclosure: TMF receives funding from USAID. Hence, why I was out at the Institute for a meeting.

Here are some of the sights from in and around the Institute.

A typical view from a drive around Kabul.

Another typical Kabul sight: an ad hoc bookstore.


The Institute is located in a restored 19th-century royal fort that in the 1920s was given as a bride price to the family of a wealthy merchant.


TMF rescued this beautiful doorway from the trash heap, and installed is a part of the restoration. The fort is filled with such rescued treasures.


The fort is quite beautiful. The gardens even more so. This is seriously the most greenery I've seen anywhere in Kabul.

This amazingly detailed painting is a work-in-progress from one of the Institute's students. I forget what the artist is demonstrating with her hands. She was so nice, answered all of our questions, spoke wonderful English, and was more than happy to take on commissioned work! Everything is done by hand, with the tiniest brushes and pens I've ever seen.


A display in the jewelry workshop. The pieces shown in the picture are nice, but not much different than what I find at the ISAF bazaar. But then the instructor showed us the "special" display case, with the most fantastic Afghan jewelry I've ever seen. I didn't snap of picture out of respect for the students' designs. But they were seriously amazing. There was a pin that we were all fighting over. Sadly the Institute doesn't sell the students' work. But one can commission a student to create a custom piece. I think I smell a birthday gift for a certain special someone....


The gemstone polishing workshop was very interesting. Here are some students polishing stones.....

....and here are some other students, also polishing stones. The students learn on both the modern and tradition polishing machines, ensuring that traditions are preserved while giving the students the skills they need to succeed in the modern industry.
We also visited the woodcarving shop, but my pictures didn't come out all that well.


In addition to operating the Institute, TMF is also restoring Murad Khane, a historic commercial and residential quarter in the heart of Kabul's old city, renowned for its rich cultural heritage of traditional Afghan architecture and crafts. Turquoise Mountain is working with Murad Khane residents to rebuild and conserve historic buildings, clear rubbish, and build schools and health clinics. Eventually the Institute will move to Murad Khane.

That's about it for the photo tour of my meeting at TMF. Next up: my visits to Jalalabad and Kandahar.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What a difference a year makes

Wow. This blog is one year old today. One year ago, I was a newlywed, still dealing with the letdown from the wedding, lost in the chaos of packing Nick out for Afghanistan, unsure of when I would be joining him in country, and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer uncertainty, magnitude, and jumping-off-a-cliff feeling of it all.

So where am I now? I feel like I have come a long way in some ways -- after all, it's 6930 miles from DC to Kabul -- but in many ways little has changed. I'm in Afghanistan, obviously, so that's one major difference. I'm writing speeches for ambassadors, visiting military bases out in the middle of nowhere (more on that later), riding around in armored SUVs, and living in a place only a small number of Americans ever see. I've also collected a fantastic and diverse group of friends, who have lived in every country imaginable. And I've collected a whole bunch of new stamps in my passport, with more to come (we're looking at cycling the Dalmatian coast in September!)

But I'm still dealing with letdown, a feeling that plagues me every time we come back from leave. I'm still dealing with chaos, but now it's the chaos of trying to push out a massive development initiative, with many moving parts, to empower the Government of Afghanistan to operate at the district level. I'm still unsure, but now it's about where we'll go once our tour in Afghanistan is done in June 2011 (we start the bidding process for our next post in July). I'm still overwhelmed, now by the unbelievable amount of work that remains to be done in Afghanistan. I'm uncertain about the choice we made in coming here, and overwhelmed by the magnitude of what the people of Afghanistan and the US Government are trying to accomplish. That "jumped off a cliff" feeling has never really gone away.

Now that I've probably depressed and scared you all, I'm not really sure how to wrap this up. Nick and I keep taking it day by day, evaluating our choices and trying to figure out the best options for where we'll go after Afghanistan. We know that paying our dues now will open up more possibilities for our future, and that's what we focus on during the really bad days. We love each other, we support each other, we still find ways to have fun together -- even with our limited freedom while on the compound -- and we know that at the very least we'll come out of our tour with some cool stories and interesting experiences.

Thanks to all of you -- family, friends and strangers alike -- who have been following along and keeping tabs on our adventure. I'll keep updating as often as I can...or at least as often as I have something interesting to talk about. And Nick and I will see a whole bunch of you when we're stateside in just 16 more sleeps!

Lastly, as a thank you present to our loyal readers (or maybe just to M&D M and M&D X)...links to photos from our trip to Singapore and Bali, plus a video bonus!

I never delivered on my promise to tell you all about our trip. At this point I'm not sure I'll ever get around to finishing those posts, and I'm starting to get a backlog of photos (Jalalabad and Kandahar, coming soon!). So, enjoy. And thanks for sharing the past year with us!

Wedding photo by Lara Swanson, who rocks!


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In lieu of a real post...

....here's a picture of us shopping at last month's Embassy bazaar.

I swear I'll get a substantive post up soon. Maybe.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Acronymese

I am working on becoming fluent in the government's primary language: acronymese. I'm really flexing my vocab muscles today -- here are the acronyms I've used thus far in putting together my office's bi-weekly newsletter.

ACBRIT
ACCILARA
ACDLLC
ADTMAIL
AISAMCIT
ANAMOCI
ANPMOE
ANSAMOF
ASMEDMTO
ASYCUDAN-ACEG
ATNATO
AWBFNCDO
CBSOPIC
DABPOS
EGGIPRT
EPAARC
GDARUFCOD
GIRoASME
ICNTAFA
IIFCUNOPS
IMFWTO

Ugh.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Shaken, not stirred

Coming to Afghanistan, there were two things about which I was especially nervous: bombs, and earthquakes. I experienced a bomb less than three weeks after I arrived, so that left only the earthquake to worry about.

Last night I was reading in bed by flashlight, as Nick had already gone to sleep. I'm used to him being a little twitchy when he first starts to go under, so when the mattress started bouncing in a strange way, I assumed it was just Nick being really, really twitchy.

This morning I received an email confirming the occurrence of a 5.3 earthquake on April 19 at 12:58 AM Kabul time. The epicenter was in Samangan, 120 miles north.

Huh.

Now, don't get me wrong. After all of the recent catastrophic earthquakes, I'm quite glad that this was a small one. Given that many of the structures in Kabul -- and throughout Afghanistan -- look like this....


...even a small earthquake could be devastating.

But there's also a small part of me that's a little disappointed. After all of my worrying...that was kind of anti-climactic.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Out

Let's see, what I have I been up to over the past week or so?

Oh, just the usual really. I ran 7.5 miles last Friday, although it took me forever because I had to stop to go to the bathroom 5 times (I caught the Noro virus that's going around the compound).

What else? Um, Nick came back from Greece loaded down with goodies: olives, bread, tins of eggplant and green beans, cheese, halva, salmon, dried meats, tea. So that was nice.

I think that's about all....

Oh yeah, I also wrote some remarks for some Embassy official. And for the Administrator Shah guy that he mentioned.

And on Tuesday I went here....

Which looks like this.....


...and this....
(photo courtesy of skyscapercity.com)

...and this.

I went to a conference where lots of important people talked about marble, about how important it is to Afghanistan's economic development (there's an estimated $1 trillion+ dollars worth in the ground), and how bad it is that the current practice of extracting the marble from the quarries -- otherwise known as blasting it out with dynamite -- results in a loss of 50-80% of the product, and the stone that isn't destroyed is pretty damaged. But there was still some cool stuff on display made from stone that survived.



And then these two high-ranking U.S. officials....
(that's Dep. of State Jack Lew in the middle, and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry on the right)

...stood up in front of the huge conference hall full of important people and said some more words that I had written.

And then I ate some yummy Afghan food, and then we flew home.

I can smell the pollution from here


Another day, another dollar. You know?

The end.