Resilience & Lemonade


One of the main components of resilience is to make sure that you stay in control of what you can control and let go of anything else that you cannot control. I learned that when I kept putting on weight whenever we moved out of a host country and came back to the U.S. and moved again to another country. After 50, I decided that the only things I could control were my body and my mind, and that allowed me to lose 25 pounds.

This time, my move is quite different; it is not what we call, in our jargon, a PCS (permanent change of station). It is not permanent – at least I hope so. But I do have orders. Orders to leave my home, leave my husband without saying goodbye, leave for an undetermined number of months with a tiny carry-on. This time, I am an evacuee from China. I don’t know about your kids, but when I was a kid, never in my wildest dreams nor nightmares, I would have thought that one day, I would define myself as “I am an evacuee … from China.”

Like for other difficult situations, you always think that only others than you will get impacted. The tsunami is not for me, nor the earthquake, nor the C-section, nor the house on fire – this clearly only happens in the movies or in faraway countries. When I followed a seminar to be prepared for a medical evacuation, I didn’t think it was for me – my health is great. And then, one day, I had to be medically evacuated … because accidents happen. And when you give birth naturally to your first baby, you cannot imagine that you might ever require a C-section for the second baby. When the earthquake shakes your building and you are in the shower with shampoo in your eyes, it’s hard to remember the numerous training sessions: do I shelter in place or get out of my building as fast as possible? Those who were not naked in their shower ran outside … and I am still here to write this.

The sense of “it’s for the others” applies to countries, not only individuals. In Beijing, they thought “it’s only in Wuhan”; in the West, they thought “it’s only in China”; in the United States, they thought “it’s only in Italy”; in Wisconsin, they think “it’s only in New York”.

In Beijing, China, we felt safe. China is a very – very – safe place; maybe because the people are nice, maybe because of all the surveillance cameras, or both. I don’t want to know why; all I know is that as an individual I feel very safe in China, I feel safe to take the metro at any time, I feel safe to walk in the streets at night. I do not feel safe to do this in most large cities in the West.

Who could have predicted that a sudden virus would change all our lives? It used to be the lives of all people living in China, and many questions arising for expatriates like us who do have a choice to shelter somewhere else. But now, our plight is being shared by the entire planet in epic proportions. When you are young, you are taught that sharing is a good value … with many exceptions!

There’s a proverb in the United States that I like very much because it’s so positive: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Turn the negative in positive, in other words, find the silver lining(s).

So rather than dwelling on the separation from my husband, not being in my home – some 6,922 miles away, having to adapt to a new job, and finding that where I am now is not any sanitarily safer than where I was – get out of the rolling wave just to be smacked and engulfed again by another giant wave that takes you, breathless, in a spin, like being in a washing machine, I need to see that my situation is not as bad as many others and that it has silver linings.

Others don’t have a shelter, a job, food on the table, they have to cancel their wedding, can’t see their baby being born, can’t go to funerals, can’t visit their elderly relatives, others are bankrupt, endure domestic violence, don’t have internet to follow online classes, will fail their school year, and the list goes on.

My Lemonade

After all my pain was swallowed, I started to count my silver linings:

  • We are posted in China for the standard Foreign Service three-year tour so when we say goodbye, we say goodbye to family and friends for three years, even four years sometimes. This sudden move gives me the opportunity to see family and friends after only 18 months of separation. These strange times also allow me to see them more than once and see many more of them.
  • My mother-in-law had to move to assisted living the day Wuhan was locked down and my sudden move made me the first respondent when my husband could not be there. I helped her move and feel comfortable in her new home. I advocated for her to ensure she received proper care. I was able to thank in person the people that had helped her.
  • My employer found me a very interesting new position in Washington, D.C. I am now in a section where I learn and stretch every day, surrounded by smart people who are nice also.
  • I have been evacuated at a good time when Beijing is still extremely cold while Washington, D.C. has a milder climate this March and I was able to enjoy the cherry blossoms and the magnolias in bloom.
  • Besides making lemons out of lemonade, it is proven that you can build resilience by helping others that are less fortunate than you. I now have more time to dedicate to my volunteering activities.
  • I finally made time to take some online classes.
  • I am discovering the uplifting world of TED talks.
  • And the list goes on …

I would have added that Washington, D.C. is a great place because all the Smithsonian museums are free, but measures of social distancing were enforced before I could even visit one of them!

Yesterday is history,

Tomorrow is a mystery, but

Today is a gift.

That is why it is called the present.

Enjoy it!

Back in the US – Crazy Food. Part Two: the “Healthy” Kind, or Not.

Part One was about fast-food.

Novelties for foreigners and Americans who have lived overseas for a while.

We were posted overseas for eight years back-to-back (Africa, Mexico, Asia, Europe – I know Mexico is not a continent), never having participated in language training. We took home leave three years ago, but lived like tourists so did not fully appreciate all the novelties. Perhaps these novelties did not even exist three years ago during our last home leave. Here is a small sample of the foods that have been marketed recently to make people buy more of what they don’t need, often disguised as healthy – and most often not.

We finally resettled in the United States, and as for each move, I dedicated myself to exploring the neighborhood and its resources. I do not like wasting my time shopping, but wish to make sure I discover the best quality and deals of my neighborhood. In a new country I always visit the surrounding supermarkets so that I can narrow down where to shop for what, and the same applies to the U.S. For example, good beef cuts are hard to find in supermarkets in Budapest or very expensive at the butcher, but Metro (a Costco-style place) offers good quality beef at reasonable prices.

While searching for the best fish, meat, vegetables, and fruits, I discovered many new food offerings that flabbergasted me. It is possible that long time American residents will have not noticed either because when you shop, you usually know what you want and look just for that so you might have not noticed the weird new offerings. They exist in every single aisle. You can eat them or drink them. They pretend to be healthy or not, and are, or not. From milk to chips, trail mix snacks to vegetarian burgers, welcome to new foods. Including pork rinds and pork crackling …

We knew that besides cow milk, you could have goat milk – so last century. To care for the lactose intolerant and vegan crowds, marketers packaged soy milk and rice milk. Even almond milk and coconut milk existed three years ago. You can now add cashew milk, almond-cashew milk, hazelnut milk, and my discovery of the day: quinoa milk and hemp milk. Hemp is a seed. It is not the marijuana drug. It does come from the plant species Cannabis sativa hence some confusion.

Asian food
Sea vegetable flakes ‘agar agar’ – Kombu the vegetable of the sea” features a happy fish dubbed “Sea Snax”. Its expiration date is in 15 months from now. How many preservatives and chemicals do you need to add to this ‘snax’ to achieve such a longevity.

Remember when Ramen noodles were the cheap meal for students – at $0.99 a pack? Now you can go organic on your Ramen with the Koyo brand, or fancy with the Lotus Foods brand which proposes Forbidden rice ramen noodles, Jade pearl ramen noodles, millet and brown rice ramen noodles. Not the same price at all.

I love ‘pho’ (pronounce ‘fuh’), the legendary Vietnamese light soup. I discovered kits to prepare it yourself. But did they need to come flavored? “Zesty ginger,” “garlic goodness” or “shiitake mushroom?” I can add the ginger, garlic and mushroom myself! I just needed the right blend of spices. The Happy Pho brand which offers the kit also makes the noodles out of brown rice.

Seaweed has become a fashionable snack these days. They used to be a favorite of Japanese people and it seemed that it would be hard to penetrate the American market. Ah – but someone had the idea to make seaweed “American” by injecting them with a good dose of “Texas BBQ flavor!” And why not propose a sea salt flavor as well since sea salt is so popular these days that you can even find it in chocolate. To remain in Asia, seaweed is also proposed with a sriracha flavor – just in case seaweed alone had an unpleasant taste …

At the Good Fortune Asian store in Little Vietnam/Eden Center, I found a drink called Essence of Chicken with Cordyceps extract near black-skinned chickens. As adventurous as I am, I didn’t dare try. The names for herbal teas made me laugh. Besides the common Relax, Cholesterol, or Immune, there were the less romantic Menopause and PMS! The produce section was very colorful with cucumbers that look like crocodiles, round white or purple eggplants smaller than a tennis ball, taro, and the unusual yampi and ratalu, both deformed roots.

Chips and Crunchy Snacks
With The Better Chip brand, we can indulge in chips (typically unhealthy) that are supposedly healthy because they are made with beets or spinach & kale, radish & chia, chipotle or jalapeño – whatever is in fashion. Not only the photo makes you believe you will eat pure beet, there is even a magnifier to show you the rings inside of a fresh purple beet. Its number one ingredient is whole grain masa flour – not beet – are you disappointed? Before you switch from crackers (‘bad-unhealthy’) to veggie chips (must be good since it’s veggie), check the facts. For the recommended serving size of one ounce (28 grams) these veggie chips bring 140 calories and 8g of fat when evil crackers bring 120 calories and only 3.5g of fat (Triscuit for example). Which one is evil?

Chips can also be made out of beans instead of potatoes, and the first ingredient is beans (yeah!), then rice and oil. Alas it does contain 7 grams of fat per serving and still 140 calories.

On this ever expanding healthy snacking (oxymoron intended) market the brand Hi I’m Skinny is a “new healthy alternative to snack food.” Instead of chips they propose sticks in healthy options: quinoa, sweet potato, and ‘superfood’ described as ‘mean & green’ in case you have no clue what a superfood might be (I remain clueless). Unfortunately, per serving size of one ounce (28g), you will get 140 calories, 8 grams of fat, 2g of protein and a tiny gram of fibers (Quinoa Sea Salt version). I’m staying with my evil regular cracker!

All is good in pork. Indeed, this ‘snout to tail’ commitment to use the entire animal is a great incentive for ranchers to raise their animals in a better environment. Delicacies such as pig ears, easy to find in Asia or on the markets of central Europe, is now modernly packaged in several flavors: the ubiquitous sea salt & pepper, maple bacon, or BBQ (no jalapeño yet). If I say pork rinds (skins) or pork cracking (fried-out pork fat with attached skin), it sounds very unhealthy and fattening. Yet, for the same amount of our earlier veggie chips you ‘only’ get 160 calories – not that big of a difference.

I knew of brownies and chocolate chip cookies that we don’t bake anymore, we purchase them in a box. I did not know the same could be possible with pies. A pie seems like a messy snack to give a child. Not with Nature’s Path proposing toaster pastries (filling is inside the dough) in many different flavors from Granny apple pie to wildberry acai and chocolate for example.

Mac & Cheese

A Kraft packet costs less than $1 (even in DC), supermarket brands cost half. But if you cannot boil water and add pasta, milk, and orange powder like it says on the package, Whole Foods has prepackaged the easy already-cooked version for $6.49 per serving!!! At this price you cannot even use a microwave since it is presented in an aluminum dish.


The brand Dreaming Cow proposes yogurts made with milk from barn-free, grass-fed cows and these yogurts only have natural ingredients (whole milk, agave nectar, pure vanilla extract and live active cultures for the vanilla-agave flavor) and 92 calories/4oz, 2 more than a low-fat Dannon Activia fruit yogurt. The non-fat Activia Light yogurt boasting only 60 calories needs to incorporate many ‘horrors’ to give it some taste: non-fat milk, blueberry puree, water, modified food starch, inulin, acacia gum, modified corn starch, kosher gelatin, carmine, pectin, sucralose, calcium lactate, malic acid, milk calcium, acesulfame potassium, and xanthan gum.

Vegan friendly

September 2017, I discover “pluots”. As the name indicates clearly, it is the contraction – and combination – of plums and apricots. Not called “aprum” because it tastes more like a plum than an apricot!

For vegans and vegetarians who need their “meat fix,” marketers do wonders. Vegan burgers made of beans or soy are well-known. Now they manage to imitate to perfection the look and texture of meat balls, sausages, or breast of chicken. The brand Gardein proposes “chick’n scallopini.” The photo is great, the ingredients much less apetizing: water, soy, protein isolate, expeller pressed canola oil, methylcellulose, organic vinegar, tapioca starch, yeast, cane sugar, potato starch, … color added, …

Unfortunately, when you want to drink something as natural as raw cow’s milk, the producer needs to label it for cats and dogs because State authorities have decided that humans can’t have it! Can you smell the power of lobbies behind all this?

The list goes on and on, with marketers always eager to sell more processed food, when at the end of the day, if you wish to stay healthy, you just need to go “around” the supermarket, it is where the fresh food is, counter-clockwise in many supermarkets: produce, cheese, meat, and fish.

PS – I discovered all these new offerings while shopping for ideas to match with my new habits to successfully control my weight; read more in my post about Weight Loss. This post will have many sequels to help people lose weight, even after 50, and for free.

Raising Bilingual Kids

While growing up in France, I developed a surprising love for the English language. I don’t know when it began. I officially started to learn it in 6th grade at age 10. To compensate for the only three hours per week of English I received at school, and for the abominable accent most French people – yes even graduated English teachers – have in English, I started to go to the movies a lot, two to three times per week, to see American movies in their original English version. I learned at least as much from the cinema subtitles and accents than formally. Before my twenties, I had determined to raise my future kids in English. The father would probably understand. And then by a twist of fate, I ended up marrying an American.

When I met hubby, he did not speak French. Therefore English was the home language, which was perfect. Once pregnant, we researched best practices to raise bilingual kids. Linguists and psychologists had a clear theory. I was supposed to speak French, and hubby was supposed to speak English. Yet, I wanted more than theory. I wrote to the two most prominent French baby magazines and asked real parents for their advice. They advised to take into consideration the ‘weight’ of the country in which you live. If you live in a third country, you may follow the rule of one parent-one language, and the kid will also speak the country language, becoming trilingual. There is some balance in this solution. On the other hand, if you live in a country where one of the languages is spoken, you create a large unbalance. To remedy, we were advised to both speak English since we lived in France.

Along came guinea pig number one.  English was the home language; French was the outside language (nanny, grandma). I had to warn French family and friends not to give our daughter any Disney movies or books, since home was English-only territory. At age one, our daughter started to speak well in both languages. When she was three, two events occurred at the same time. Guinea pig number two arrived, and our daughter began school.

Instead of having two parents who spoke English and one nanny and one grandma who spoke French, which seems fairly balanced, she found that the entire school population spoke French – we were greatly outnumbered. And she spoke more. Learned more. In French. Meanwhile hubby’s French was getting very good, to the point where it was natural for him to respond in French when first addressed in French. Back from school, our daughter started to tell about her day, in French. Little brother heard a lot more French than she did during his first three years. This muted him for almost three years. At age two, he was not speaking and we were worried. We tried rationalizing, putting this lack of language on account of being bilingual and a boy. When he finally spoke, instead of a few words, he pronounced entire grammatically correct sentences! In French only of course.

When we visited the American grandparents, our kids clearly understood them but did not speak English to them. We redoubled our efforts. We could not go back to the U.S. as often as needed for language immersion, so we went to England where we would fill our children’s brain with television. Imagine! Parents insisting that their kids ‘gobble’ television programs all day. [This obviously dates us because today one can get English-language programs without actually going to an English-speaking country.] We continued our life speaking English (parents) and French (kids), occasionally mixing some sentences (the four of us).

After few years, we joined the Foreign Service, and all of a sudden they arrived in their new house in Virginia in May. They were enrolled at school immediately in 5th and 7th grade. We were a bit worried that they would understand but not be able to express themselves. Once they realized that the new normal was to speak English, they simply spoke English. It just flowed naturally. Their accent was light and gradually disappeared. Our efforts were rewarded! Yet, since we were now in English-speaking country, we had to reverse our approach and make home a French speaking territory.

We later moved to a Spanish speaking country. By this time, our children mastered equally well both English and French languages. They joked, mixing them all the time, mid-sentence, or just inserting one French word in an English sentence or vice-versa. They even started a game to conjugate English verbs in French!!! We had just developed our own family dialect.

In summary, raising bilingual kids is possible – and of great benefit to them, but it is a hard job that requires dedication, consistency, and perseverance even when you don’t see immediate results. The rewards in time are well worth the sacrifice.

Interesting Gift: a Soldier’s Ration

At Christmas time, a thought about gifts, and an anecdote about a certain gift.

There are gifts that are like perfume samples, we do not use them either because we love them too much to consume them and see them disappear or we do not like them at all. Sometimes we want to keep the gift intact. With our Foreign Service nomadic life it is impossible to keep consumables without consuming them. Otherwise the result would be too many boxes on our next move. That day hubby reminded me that it was necessary to consume a Christmas gift that our son had received from his cousin now in the French army: a single day’s ration!  I found this an excellent idea, wishing to know what they feed soldiers.

The ration is packaged in a cardboard box half the size of a shoe box. The inscriptions are in French and English, but clearly it must be provided by a French supplier since there is a spelling mistake in the English, ‘NATO APPROUVED’. Packaged on 1 July 2014, the box promises that the included food can be consumed until 11 January 2018. Imagine the number of chemicals necessary to ensure such a long shelf life! Despite the menu description outside the box, it is not easy to picture what I will truly find inside.

There are many small boxes and cans inside but the entire amount seems to be more appropriate for a woman on a diet than for a young soldier who needs more than 5,000 calories a day – probably doubled during combat. Alas, none of the meal boxes mention any calories nor carbohydrates, fiber, fat, etc. We will have to speculate and guess. The heating device fits in a tiny box, the size of two decks of cards. It includes a disposable container, grasping pliers, matches, six fuel pellets, six water purification tablets and a garbage bag.

The menu is fittingly French! For the two main courses, we may feast on Marengo veal with potatoes and pork with mushroom risotto. As the veal is cooked in white wine, a Muslim soldier would go hungry. And, were our son a soldier, he would only have one main meal since he hates mushrooms.

The veal can comes from a ‘Daniel and Denise’ brand (absolutely unknown) and mentions that it is Joseph Viola, best cook in France, who created the recipe. Whoa! Will soldiers really care? Since we never buy canned meals I do not know if it is normal to find carrageenan in it. Never heard of it? Me neither. What I read on Wikipedia is instructive: “Carrageenan is a polysaccharide (galactane) extracted from red seaweeds and used as a thickening and stabilizing agent in the food industry.” It is notorious for causing diarrhea – not really the most comfortable condition on a combat zone – and it is also used in shampoos, fire extinguishers, toothpaste, etc. This meal also includes xanthan gum (a more familiar name) which comes from polysaccharides excreted by various soil microorganisms (including bacteria). Our appetite is now completely whetted!

The mushroom risotto includes pork cheeks and smoked bacon and its can mentions an even later potential expiration date – until March 2018. Its maker, House Larzul (unknown brand again), does not mention any dye, thickener, gelling agent nor preservative (is that legal?), yet the ingredients include butter and sour cream.

For appetizers, there is a small can of roasted chicken rillettes, branded Hénaff (a known brand), and a small can of melted goat cheese, also branded Hénaff. When I say small, I mean small. They are only 78 grams each (2.75 oz). Where am I to spread the cheese? On so-called ‘campaign cookies ’in French, translated in English by a plain ‘army biscuits’ – this does not sound as appetizing. They are packaged in a box, four sachets of two salted crackers and four sachets of two sweet biscuits. All of these contain 11 grams of fat per 100 grams which is bad from a nutritional point of view. There is also a sachet of instant dehydrated potato-leek soup.

A French soldier has many choices for breakfast. He can choose between ‘cocoa aroma’ powder or two instant coffee doses packaged in 70s style which looks very cheap or two tea bags almost luxuriously packaged, Royal Ceylon and China tea with mint from Max Havelaar, all of them accompanied by two white sugar packets. For solid food the soldier can count on strawberry muesli manufactured in Germany, and Andros strawberry jam.

For snacks between meals the soldier gets a 70% dark chocolate bar, a coffee flavored rice bar, a fruit pulp bar, a bar of nougat with fruits, and four vanilla caramel candies. Finally, to complete this varied meal box, there is a powder to make an isotonic drink, a packet of tissues and two packets of salt and pepper from Alicante in Spain and written exclusively in Spanish.

Then our son returned and, as I was just finishing examining the contents of the box, declared that he refused to share his daily ration with us as an experiment. He stated that he had planned to eat it all when he goes camping with his friends. I already regret the sweet taste the carrageenan must have…

Welcome Kit

When a regular person moves, it usually takes place in one day. You may pack for several days but eventually in one day you are across town or state. Upon arrival you unpack the basics and voilà!

With the Foreign Service when you pack, you move across countries, continents, oceans. You never – never – get your stuff the same day. Heck, you usually don’t even land in your new country the same day. How do you manage in your previous house, after packing for two to four days, and supervising packers and movers for two to four days? Your house is bare except for the timeless Drexel furniture we all cherish.

Our General Services Office (GSO) puts together a Welcome Kit which may slightly vary from post to post. In some places the welcome kit is given for good. Stuff in it is so cheap, it cost less to give it to the families for a one-time use than to have people collect it back, inspect it, inventory it, store it, and lend again. Actually a two-time use: once you arrive and your own belongings are not there yet, and later when you depart. Then you have a happy housekeeper inheriting all!

In general the Welcome Kit is well thought with the basics: sheets and blankets (don’t ask me about quality or allergy to acrylic!), pillows, towels, plates, glasses, silverware, pots and pans, coffee machine. The devil is in the details. In Budapest we have only ‘whisky’ type glasses, no wine glass – then again better than to only have long cocktail glasses I suppose. This is minor. But no kettle! An appliance I use (need) ten times a day. Yet we have a mixer, so it was not a question of space in the Welcome Kit. I have never used a mixer in my life – I am not a baker. No place mat or table cloth! No bath mat! Two slotted serving spoons but no ladle? Worse: no broom, no mop, no bucket – yet the place needs to be spotless clean when we depart – at 3 a.m. Pans are tiny, good for a single person, not a family of four. And we definitely need to travel with our own knives.

As I go through the Welcome Kit I re-create my own because for the first time in this second career we are not going to a welcoming overseas Post with free rent, free maintenance, and nice GSO to welcome us. Did you guess yet? We are going back to the mother ship. Washington, DC. The first few days we will be in a hotel room but when we move to our permanent residence, there will be no Welcome Kit. Only that box that I am putting together, aptly marked “Welcome Kit – UAB DC – Open first”!

Another major thing that will be missing in our future residence is furniture. In our first overseas house we had our UAB (airfreight of about 600 lbs) upon landing and then I had ample time to play around the given furniture, change it to my liking before being invaded by 300+ boxes of HHE (slow freight three months later). I am dreading the day when we ask to receive our HHE the day we move in – otherwise we’ll sleep on the floor!

Winter Sports in Budapest

Last Saturday 16 degrees Celsius big sunshine, yesterday 3 degrees some rain. This morning I opened my curtains on a big blanket of snow – surprise! It had not been announced. I can already hear some lament that it is too cold here, getting colder, too grey, getting darker so early in the afternoon. This is snow and snow lifts my spirits. It is joyful and playful. When you say snow I think winter sports, ski, snowmen, snow ball battles, sledding, and ice skating. I think hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts. I love the warm fuzzy feeling when your body melts, feet first, once you come home after an hour outside in the snow.

So when I saw the snow this morning I knew it would be part of my day. Part of my dog Venus’ day too. Someone had given me dog booties and although my tiny Italian greyhound had showed adverse disposition with shoes before I thought that with snow on the ground I should try this new model. I had barely finished equipping her fourth paw that she had shaken off the first bootie. Then she looked miserable and refused to move so I took the booties off, put her coat on, and off we went.

Hungary is a flat country but Budapest is a hilly city. Half way up the Martin hill I thought that maybe if it continued snowing a few days there would be enough snow to go sledding. Then I reached Normafa – almost the highest point with asphalt, the hill which leads to János hegy, John’s hill, the ‘summit’ of Budapest at 528 meters. No need to wait for one more day of snow there. Suddenly in a few minutes it was like I had been transported back in the Alps in a winter station. Not only people had sleds, but skis, not only Nordic skis but alpine skis too! Some people even wore their full ski gear with flashy colors.

Multicolored flat plastic sleds and classical wooden sleds where competing on the hill, adults and kids alike were enjoying what could be labelled by many a sad cold grey day. Venus was not the only dog running fast and being all crazy about the snow but she was certainly the smallest and the fastest. I took plenty of photos just in case it would not last like last year when winter came for less than two weeks.


After strolling in the woods and meeting a few skiers we started our way back home. The GPS told me that it was at about 4.4 km and that it should take me 46 minutes walking. I chose a road that I didn’t know to avoid the major fare with too much traffic for my taste and Venus’ security. After ten minutes my GPS vanished because my phone was out of battery. Ha! Anywhere in the desert or even in New York if you want to go south, you go south, there will always be a straight way to get from point A to point B. Not in in the Budapest hills. Streets curve and a street which starts going south will then curve east and finally take you north. Some streets lead to dead ends or huge detours that are perhaps feasible with a car but not by foot, not if you wish to be home before dark. So I had to rely on instinct and a few foot prints to dare take snowy dirt ways until I finally reached Agnes, a street I knew.

Once home, the first thing I did was to drink a hot cup of chocolate.

No? You want the truth? Really? OK – the first thing I did was not watch my milk carefully and make a big spill all over the stove.  I did curse a bit but I am still happy I enjoyed the snow today and walked over 12 000 steps!

Logistics: use bus 21 or 21A to reach Normafa or legs or bike or chair lift (Libego) or – last resort – car (on days like this car parks were full). I count my steps with Withings.

Hotel Rant

Where to sleep in Pécs?

We love travels. We love travelling. We are not difficult. We can sleep in a hut if the type of travel mandates it – for example an eco-trekking we did in Thailand in 2012 (I’ll have to come back on this because it was fantastic).  We slept on the floor, just like our hosts. On a same trip in the same country we can go from hut to high luxury and hut again, it just depends on what is right at that time and what we intend to do: for example, meet local people in villages (Chang Mai region) or visit museums and palaces (Vienna).

Sometimes we find that the best fit for our family, when the four of us travel, is to rent an apartment. Actually sometimes we are five if we count our tiny Italian greyhound and more apartment owners accept dogs than hotels.  Since we like to cook it is also very practical to have your own kitchen. It also helps control the quality of the ingredients and the amount of fat that go in your plate.

As much as we look for practicality I always have an eye on aesthetics. I don’t like ugly, especially if the prices don’t match ugly. When we were on ‘home leave’– a specificity of the Foreign Service describing the extended ‘re-learning Americana holiday’ we take between two missions overseas – I was trying to get across the country for as cheap as possible. Every FS family will tell you that it can be costly to be in the U.S. for two months = 60 (even 61) days with no roof of your own. With a cheap hotel like $100 a night for four, this is already a whopping $6,000 – on only one salary. Not every FS employee has a house available, either because they are too young to have purchased one, or it is rented. Not every FS employee has parents with a mansion that can accommodate a long stay. Home leave can be nine weeks you know since the employee gains three weeks per year abroad. Some colleagues would argue that ‘yeah, but it’s impossible to take that long’. You can do it. We did it. Just negotiate!

Back on the notion of ‘acceptable ugly’. If I choose Motel 6 and Super 8 because I want to travel to major cities to show our kids the United States in all its grandeur, from Maine to California (Home leave 2013), and I don’t want to break the bank, I accept savorless hotels where we will barely spend a night. But when a hotel pretends to be ‘charming’ or ‘boutique’ with higher pricing associated with such adjectives, I really don’t appreciate that they look like having supplied their rooms with IKEA-like furniture (and at least this would have a clean feel to it), or worse that they are using old cheap 1950s furniture with a carpet so worn that you can’t tell which color it is, much less which color it was. The bed cover can also be repulsive and it is a much cheaper investment to make to improve a room.

So why am I all excited about this topic today? Well, I am planning for a trip to Pécs which is supposed to be the most beautiful city in Hungary after Budapest. I’ve asked my Hungarian colleagues and teacher about which cities not to miss and they all agree. Pécs comes first. Then there is a tie between Debrecen and Sopron. While I am dutifully making my research on and Tripadvisor to cross-reference opinions I could only find abominable hotels in the loveliest city of the country!!! Some hotels might look good from the façade to the reception desk and dining hall, the rooms are still very mediocre. The one that dares call itself ‘boutique’ is among the ugliest one. At this point I looked for Bed & Breakfasts and they were all ugly as well.

My conclusion is if you are an entrepreneur: go open a real boutique hotel in Pécs because lovely city means romantic and romantic needs a proper nest!

24 hours in a day is not enough to write!

Let’s see why according to some common statistics that are very accurate in my case.

Personal time: 10 hours

Personal time includes sleeping, eating and every personal task around it: getting cleaned up and prepared. If you count eight hours of sleeping time, it leaves only two hours in the bathroom and to have three meals a day – not much. I usually don’t sleep all eight hours.

Work: 10 hours

I would distribute this as eight hours of work per day and two hours of commute, one hour each way. That is if you are lucky. An executive works 10-12 hours on average and at some point in my life I had to commute four hours per day, five days a week.

Chores: 4 hours

Statistics say that on a weekly average working women still spend three to four hours per day doing chores. Stay-at-home parents do more. An average means that some do only one hour (not my case), some do five or six hours. I’m in the average. Some chores are not disagreeable: cooking, gardening, gourmet food shopping. But others are more annoying: staple food shopping, watering or mowing large areas, cleaning, doing the laundry and above all ironing – I hate ironing! Other chores not happening daily but that do take time include sewing/mending clothes or repairing things in the house or bringing clothes to the dry cleaner’s or shoes to the shoemaker’s or coordinating for someone to come and repair them. At this rate even men do a weekly average of 2h30 per day in chores.

Doing the math

We are already at 24 hours and I did not mention taking care of a child (or children), a parent (potentially a sick parent – even more time), a pet (several pets, different species), let alone socialize with friends or neighbors. Oh – and what about reading, learning, doing sports, traveling? Am I missing something? Television and social media? Volunteering?

The unplanned

All my calculations don’t even come close to reality since you have to add all the unplanned events. They don’t need to be big events (tornado, bomb, etc.), just things that get in your way and make you waste your precious time. A car is poorly parked and blocks the tram which cannot deviate from its rails. 5-15 minutes. Rain makes the garden muddy and the dog comes back leaving a trail of mud everywhere: clean the floor + clean the dog. 10-15 minutes. A bottle of spices loses its distributing top and suddenly you have to scoop up all the unwanted thyme from your dish to avoid ruining it – I’m not inventing this, it just happened to me – which is why usually it’s my husband who cooks! A minute before I was also putting hot peppers in my dish, I’m glad that top stayed on …5-8 minutes. Does this sound familiar?

My sad conclusion

All this explains why I’ve missed publishing a post yesterday. When do I have time to write? Become a real writer? I write since age six: novels, poems, essays. So I am de facto a writer. What makes it more real?

Being read and appreciated – so don’t spare the comments!

So many addresses …

I had promised to count the exact number of physical addresses I have lived in so far. I had mentioned making a comparison between home number 17 and number 21. My husband has reached 27 actually. Not me. No such “luck”. I have only lived in 16 houses but since 8 of them happened in only 7 years… I got carried away!

Seven years ago I joined my husband starting his second career. We lived in a small apartment in Virginia which was house number 9 for me and number 20 for him. We had to learn the different neighborhoods to pick the right one for school purposes. After three months there we found a little brick house (#10) in a great neighborhood with very good schools and fantastic neighbors. It was my first time living in the United States for real (I had had summer jobs in Florida when I was a student) and it felt unreal, like in a movie from the 1950s. Kids running, playing in the street, basketball, hide and seek, no worrying parents. Neighbors bringing you welcome carrot cakes and chocolate chip cookies. One day my son came back, amazed, from his new friend’s house describing how the cookies were in a glass jar because the mom had cooked them herself – shame on me buying them at the supermarket! Christmas caroling from house to house.  Sycamores in the fall.

Alas less than a year later we were assigned to our first tour overseas. I say alas because we were leaving our fantastic neighbors but we were obviously also happy to finally start our big adventure. We landed in West Africa and a huge white house welcomed us (#11). White outside, white inside floors, walls, ceilings. No cookies from neighbors here but the call of the muezzin five times a day and a stray dog who adopted us, named Roxy by my daughter. Senegal is a francophone country so it was very easy for us to settle and we welcomed the warmer climate.

After two years we came back to the United States and lived in Arizona (#12) a few months before our next assignment to Mexico City (#13). We lived in an apartment because the choice was an apartment in the Polanco area (my favorite place in the city) or a house in the hills, which meant horrendous commute and much colder weather. After almost two years in Mexico we moved to the greenest city of this part of the world: Islamabad (#14). It is funny how you don’t grow up fantasizing about making Pakistan your home country … and yet we had a great time there, much better than anticipated.

After one year in Islamabad we moved to Budapest in a nice house (#15) but for technical reasons we had to move again after six weeks and finally settle in house #16.

I now need to explain why I wrote physical address and not just address, why each time we move we are actually juggling with seven snail-mail addresses!!!

1 – our permanent address in the United States (use for banking & retirement)

2 – our permanent address in France (use for banking & retirement)

3 – our official address in Washington (use for official mail)

4 – our personal address in Dulles (use for online shopping with sites who refuse to ship to DPO)

5 – our DPO address in the U.S. (the most used for online shopping)

6 – our address at the Embassy (our official response when asked where we live; also for invoices for example)

7 – our real address (we only give it to friends and the school shuttle)

Yes, you need to be organized when you become a Foreign Service Officer.

500 words a day challenge – Gone Girl

I went to see a very powerful movie last night. I usually pick a movie because I saw the trailer or read about it or heard about it. I also pick a movie because I’m an unconditional fan about a director or an actor. It doesn’t really apply to this movie.

David Fincher? On a first question I would think, after squinting my eyes and shirring my nose, ‘it rings a bell’; when prompted about Seven, Panic Room or Benjamin Button and the excellent TV series House of Cards, I would definitely think ‘this is a great director’. Ben Affleck? Besides Argo I saw him more in the people press than in movies. If I bumped into him in the street one day I would not even recognize him. Rosamund Pike? An illustrious unknown to me. Never saw her anywhere, may have heard her name.

So what made me go yesterday to the movies when I had not gone in three or four months? My daughter, studying movie making in Paris, said ‘OMG mom you have to see this movie, it is so good and twisted and it’s rated 8.5 on IMDb’. Indeed. IMDb is this new site that has become the internet Bible on movies, actors, directors, etc. IMDb is known to be harsh and when Schindler’s List gets 8.9, many other great movies barely achieve a 7. An example? What about Bob, our family’s favorite movie with excellent Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss – we know every scene by heart. Nevertheless it only got a low 7.

So Gone Girl has 8.5. The title is unappealing to me but I’ll go. Since I live in Budapest, my secondary reason to go to the movies is to see the subtitles in Hungarian and therefore make progress in this very hard language. The poster is unappealing. Tonight there is no subtitles in the theater. I can focus on the movie only. It starts slowly and seems simple, well-acted but fairly simple and then we get more engaged … Then the first twist comes and half an hour later the second twist. David Fincher plays the audience like a puppet. We go where he wants. Our thoughts and emotions are racing.

It would not be fair it I was to write about the twists and reveal the plot. I don’t want to spoil such a good movie. I can describe the context and the first part though.

A couple has been married for 5 years and it is the morning of their anniversary. She is always very creative on these days and gives him clues to treasure hunt his gift. He has more trouble finding good ideas. While he scratches his head about what to give her for this wood anniversary we get to know her through their past that she describes on her diary: when they first met, dating, getting married, moving from thriving New York to ‘burb-town’, Missouri. We get to know her uppity parents and his country style parents, his twin sister … So far you see it is simple, almost a chick-flick movie … wait ‘til you see the rest.