foreign service life

thinking about our traveling life

Life in the Foreign Service invariably means a life of traveling. Going back to the States to see friends and family, getting to know a host country, exploring new regions of the world. We are so lucky to have these opportunities, even if it means we’re (geographically) far from many of the important people in our lives — and to be honest, that’s not always the easiest.

As most of you know, so far, we’ve made our home together in four countries on three continents: Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Belgrade, Serbia; Brussels, Belgium; and of course the United States. Each of these places is different from the others — the culture, language, religion, food, and even weather! More than living in each of those cities, we have enjoyed being able to see more of the world by exploring each place and its environs. One of the greatest things about travel is that no two trips are alike.

Khiva, Uzbekistan

Khiva, Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistan, traveling around the country and region wasn’t the easiest: bad roads, gas shortages, and great distances all worked against all but the most determined traveler. Despite these difficulties, we did our best to see the country, visiting the silk road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. in addition to lesser-known destinations like Shakhrisabz (the birthplace of Tamerlane), Nukus (literally in the middle of nowhere, but there’s a great art museum!), and Margilan (found in the Ferghana Valley, locals produce beautiful silk).

We even managed a long weekend in Kyrgyzstan, staying on the shore of the beautiful Lake Issyk-Kul — but that is a story in and of itself. Central Asia is a fascinating place unlike any other, and we’ve found we now have a strong bond with anyone we’ve met who has lived there, purely based on the common experience of a place hard to describe to those who haven’t.

Our move to Serbia opened us up to a completely different experience. We were fortunate enough to have gotten a number of months in language training prior to our relocation, which not only gave us the tools to get around the region linguistically but also gave us time to learn more about the history and culture of our new home.

Plitvice lakes, Croatia

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

After our time in Tashkent, we realized we really had to hit the ground running in terms of travel: two years can go by surprisingly quickly, and we didn’t want to suddenly only have a few months left in which to explore ten must-sees. Within weeks of our arrival, we joined a group going on a day trip to Timisora, Romania. And as soon as our car got there, we planned a number of big trips on our own.

Even so, 18 months into our assignment, we realized we were running out of time. Yes, we hoped that we would end up back in the Balkans at some point, but since that isn’t a guarantee, we needed to make the most of our last months. Ultimately, we planned a vast trip that took us from Serbia, down to Macedonia and Greece, then back up through Albania, Macedonia again, and back to Serbia. Fifteen hundred miles and 10 days later, we were back in Belgrade and getting ready to packout.

Cathedral in Trier, Germany

cathedral in Trier, Germany

Like living in Belgrade, Brussels is a central location that makes travel incredibly easy. Unlike Belgrade, where train travel was horrible and our roadtrips tended to be 5+ hours of driving each day, the trains here are fast, well-connected, and easy, and driving, we can be in four other countries in less than two hours. Needless to say, we’ve tried to take advantage of this!

As convenient as air travel is, we’ve found the car to be our favorite form of travel. It is so easy to just throw everything in (including Scarlett!) and take off, and our plans can stay flexible because we aren’t tied to specific flights or train timetables and can easily get around and with our own set of wheels. We also really like to explore things that are off the beaten path, and although that was a lot easier when our starting point was in Serbia — where pretty much everything is off the beaten path — having a car makes a big difference wherever you are.

We have a number of exciting travels planned for the coming months, but are always looking for new places to go: where are your favorite places to travel? Where do you most want to go that you haven’t been?

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it’s been a minute

… since I actually wrote something here. Sorry about that.

I am sitting in the corner of one of my favorite coffee shops, wondering how to write a post that will bring my blog back to life. Or really what to write in such a post. There is so much to say I don’t know where to start, even if being in the coffee shop inspires me to write. The couple at the table to the right of me is speaking Serbian, and hearing them distracts me from my eavesdropping on the Italian ladies discussing their dinner plans. True story. We’re surrounded by people from all over and although I’m glad I have a smattering of French, I sometimes think the bits and pieces I know of other languages end up being just as helpful.

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We are now well into our second year living in Brussels: I really can’t believe it has been fourteen months (and counting) since our Belgian adventure began. I’m not sure if the honeymoon phase ever really left because I am constantly discovering new things and enjoying it all — almost. There are definitely some things of which I am decidedly not a fan, but as frustrating as they can be, I’m able to remind myself that I’ll only be here a couple more years, and then they don’t bother me quite so much. Usually.

I had grand plans of keeping this more up to date when we moved to Brussels, thinking that a dark, damp winter, combined with a husband working long hours would leave me with plenty of time to write posts I could put out later, when life was busier. But I didn’t anticipate how busy I would be during that dark, damp winter and those long, husband-less days. For one thing, we’ve had a steady stream of visitors, and even if a visitor or two wasn’t at our apartment, there has almost always been at least one on the horizon, which of course meant preparing and planning.

For another, we’ve really tried to embrace life in Western Europe and have been doing a lot of traveling — while that gives me lots of fodder for the blog, the planning and the executing of these trips takes up a lot of time and energy… And I’m not always up for recounting everything right away, as much as I should. Some trips I hope to highlight on here include lots of wine tourism to Alsace, Champagne, Burgundy, and Germany’s Mosel Valley.

We also took two very big trips recently: back to the States for some family time and (as you may have seen on the last snapshot sunday) all the way to Hawaii for the wedding of some friends. The travel for that trip in particular was brutal — and made much worse by United Airlines’ incompetence — but our time with friends in Hawaii was truly magical.

My professional life has also taken a turn for the more exciting: in addition to freelance projects (including a chapter in another book! More on that soon because really, it’s a great book!), I started a full time, work-in-an-office position last spring that has kept me very busy and also makes me want to have a break from my computer when I get home. And so the blog suffers. But here’s to hoping my blogging drive continues as the days are indeed getting darker and I’m more likely to want to be curled up and writing somewhere cozy…

the 15 of 2015: scarlett’s golden ticket

When one lives in Europe, the thing to have for one’s pet is, without a doubt, an EU pet passport. As we live in Europe and now live in a country that is within the Schengen area, one of my first moves was to get one for Scarlett.

Sure, she has an Uzbek pet passport and a Serbian one (the US, strangely, issues no such item), so what is so special about an EU one? Well, it means she can travel in and around all the EU Schengen countries without a problem. This is probably me just worrying too much as a poodle mommy because we’ve never had issues crossing borders with her in the past, but I felt such a huge sense of relief when she finally got one.

 

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I think it is also safe to say that our move to Belgium has, in a way, also been a golden ticket for Scarlett. Dogs are allowed pretty much anywhere, and people do take their dogs with them almost everywhere. I’ve noticed that bakeries and grocery stores tend to adhere to the “no dogs allowed” rule that is basically everywhere in America, but other than that:

Public transport? Check. Dogs don’t even need a supplement ticket or anything (they should just be on leashes).

The mall? Check. Okay, technically dogs are not allowed in the mall. There are big “no dog” signs at the entrances. That being said, every time I’ve been there, I have seen numerous dogs — of all sizes!

Restaurants? Check. I even saw a woman with multiple spaniels at a pretty fancy restaurant in downtown Brussels. We usually only take Scarlett when the weather is nice and we can sit outside but that might change.

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It is really nice living in a place where people are so not uptight about dogs. I like that I can bring her along with me without much of a problem — and she likes it too! As a result, she’s added a few more countries to her been-to list and has even accompanied us wine tasting in France! She’s one lucky dog… but we already knew that!

the 15 of 2015: hello brussels

Other than leaving our life in Belgrade, it is safe to say that starting a new one here in Brussels ranks up there for big things that happened to us in 2015. After a fun and busy home leave and a few days of consultations in muggy DC, we hopped on a plane and landed in rainy Brussels. As the plane broke through the clouds to land, I wondered when we would next see the sun!

All joking aside, I really didn’t know what the rest of our time here would look like but all I knew was that it was in the mid-90s when we left DC and it was maybe 60 in Brussels… in July. We’ve had a fair amount of sun these past few months and although there’s not much of it now, my morning sun lamp ritual helps a lot.IMG_3499.jpg

We really love living here. What’s not to love about being in the land of beer and chocolate (and right next door to some of the best wine country in the world)? Well, I guess it would really help if the gyms had longer hours. Really, though: it is rare to find one open before 8 am, and the weekend hours are very abbreviated.

Even if we can’t make it to the gym, we do spend a lot of time walking and plan on using our bikes more when the weather is a bit warmer. There are tons of great parks all over the city. And if we want to go just a little bit farther from home? There are a lot of castles with beautifully kept grounds all across the country.

Like being in any new place, life here comes with its frustrations; those are definitely overshadowed by the many benefits. Brussels may not be the most exciting city in the world, but there is always something going on if one knows where to look!

the 15 of 2015: the end of a tour

One of the biggest things that happened to us in 2015 was that we finished up our tour in Belgrade. Our feelings on this were definitely bittersweet: it is hard not to be excited to move on when one is moving on to a cool city like Brussels, but we really loved living in Belgrade. Two years there was nowhere near long enough!

We’ve been gone from Serbia since June and there are things I think I will always miss, no matter where we are in the world. The incredible green markets — open daily all over the city — definitely rank up there. Serbian food is delicious, the cost of living is low, Belgrade is beautiful in an unexpected way, and we interacted with some pretty great people on a daily basis. Oh, and the weather. In the winter, the sun set ridiculously early (before 4 pm!) but in general, I loooved the weather, with lots of sun throughout the year and snow in the winter (but not for too long and not too cold).

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our last Saturday evening in Belgrade

At the end of every tour comes the dreaded packout, when a group of guys comes to pack up everything non-Drexel in a residence, put it all in boxes, and send it to the next destination. Packout is very not fun. For liability reasons, we’re not actually allowed to do the packing ourselves; instead, we have to monitor it. This can be hard when there are people packing up boxes on three different floors. Even with Grant around, too, it was difficult to keep tabs on everything, especially because we need to make sure that the right things went to the right places — although we figured (correctly) that it wouldn’t make much difference timewise whether we sent things in our UAB (unaccompanied air baggage, which has very limited weight) versus HHE (household effects, which is usually quite a bit slower), we were also sending things back to go into storage.

I really shouldn’t be complaining because this was my first “real” packout with tons of stuff since Grant had handled the one in Uzbekistan all by himself. It definitely helped that Scarlett was not around because she gets upset when a suitcase comes out so with a whole lot of boxes… the poor poodle doesn’t know what to do! She usually demands to be held the entire time.

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our last Saturday evening in Belgrade

We managed to get everything done in one day, thankfully. Everyone but us thought it would take two days: little did they know how organized we are (or, more accurately, how organized Grant is!). The apartment was very empty and echo-y with all of our stuff gone, so we were very happy we only had to live with it like that for about a week. That week was full of parties and receptions, of which a couple were farewells in our honor. It was a great chance to say goodbye to those who had help make our life in Serbia so wonderful for the time we were there.

As we drove to the airport early in the morning on our way to leave, I continued my tradition of saying “goodbye” to everything at the end: “Goodbye apartment, goodbye Pink Circle, goodbye bus stop, goodbye Partizan Stadium…” etc. It is sad to leave a place you’ve loved, not knowing when you will be back. But we were off to be reunited with Scarlett (and get in some beach time with family), so that helped with the looking forward!