Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mount Vernon

Despite being snot-deep in the middle of his second cold/flu/major-annoyance-to-me since arriving in the metro DC area in late October (darn that drastic change in weather!), TJ mustered the energy to crawl out of bed long enough for us to accompany our Guadalajara friends Craig and Jo (and their rascally son Hector), who are also stateside in preparation for their next tour with the State Department, on an excursion to historic Mount Vernon this past Sunday.

Mount Vernon was the plantation home of our nation's first president, General George Washington (1732-1799).  The estate was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

This was a much-anticipated outing for us, as our last stay in the Metro DC area didn't find us exploring much of the area beyond the District of Columbia.  Not that Mount Vernon, situated a mere 15 miles northwest of DC on the Potomac River, is what anybody could call very...beyond.  

Our tour of the facilities began at the Ford Orientation Center with a brief video tour of the property hosted by TV legend Pat Sajak.  It's always fun to see D-list celebs thrown into ridiculous situations, and Sajak, dressed in period garb and pretending to be jostled in a horse and buggy, doesn't disappoint.  This was followed by We Fight to Be Free, a 2006 short film that recounts Washington's most important military achievements and his courtship with Martha Dandridge Custis, the future Mrs. Washington.  I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but the snorts and chortles I could hear from down the aisle led me to believe that TJ, perhaps, did not.  Eight-year-old Hector was more entertained, though he did almost fall out of his chair at the onset, when the announcer revealed that the film would be 18 minutes in length.  I was right there with him.  

As the crowd shuffled from the theater we made our way over to the main attraction:  The Mansion.  

Oh wait.  We stopped and saw a Christmas Camel named Aladdin first.  Now, I'm still not quite sure what a Christmas Camel is, but there was a plaque that explained how Washington enjoyed seeing exotic animals and paid 18 shillings to bring a camel to Mount Vernon in 1787.  I think that's something in the ballpark of  ninety cents, making him a sucker.  The National Zoo has free admission and lots more than just camels.  Of course, that didn't open for another 102 years, but whatever.   Anyway, Aladdin will be on display until January 6th, so plan accordingly, folks.   

Our next stop was the mansion, which is allegedly depicted as it was in 1799, based on an inventory conducted upon Washington's death.  

Photography is not allowed inside, which is always a sticking point for me.  How in the world am I ever supposed to remember what something looks like if I can neither take a picture of it nor be bothered to open my laptop and blog about it until three days after the fact?  I'm just going to steal a quote from the website:  "The Mansion features original furnishings, items owned by the Washington family, 18th-century objects, and a small number of reproductions.  Vibrant wall colors, reconstructed after careful paint analysis, demonstrate the Washingtons' wealth and sense of fashion."  Tour guides were stationed throughout the house, and through them we learned that the last room in the house to be finished was the dining/entertaining room, which features intricate wall art to represent Washington the farmer, not Washington the general.  We learned that Martha decorated their master bedroom, an uncommon occurrence during the period which was likely permitted because she used the space as her private office during the day.  We learned that Martha vacated the bedroom and relocated to a room in the attic upon her husband's death.  Oh!  That reminds me:  We got to tour the attic, a treat reserved for the holiday season.  Like the camel, I guess.  

Surrounding the house are a variety of structures like the restrooms (both public and historic), the kitchen, the storage facilities, carriage houses and the (eek!) slaves' quarters, all set up in your standard museum/take-a-peek-at-an-authentic-room-of-the-times fashion  Two building that feature staff presentations are the Blacksmith Shop and the Greenhouse, though both were inconveniently closed for lunch as we passed through.  You'd think they would stagger breaks like at Disney World, but whatevs.  Near as I can tell, the "blacksmith" pretends to make things and the Greenhouse is only used for guest interactions with people dressed up in period attire.  That's sort of odd, given that this wintery time of year presents a golden opportunity to showcase the benefits of a greenhouse.  I mean, seriously.  Look at the dead garden outside the greenhouse.

Next up was Cobbler, the National Thanksgiving Turkey.  This one makes more sense than the camel.  Cobbler was this year's recipient of the famed (and coveted, in turkey circles) presidential turkey pardon .  Cobbler is very protective of his friend Gobbler, and was none to happy about our sstopping to take photos.  The pair will be on display until January 6th, at which point they will move into a custom-made pen at Mount Vernon's livestock facility.  

We then meandered through the gardens of the estate, making our way to Washington's Tomb (site &  materials specified in his will) and the Slave Memorial (designed by students at Howard University).

The remainder of our day was spent walking the trails, where a humorous sign that began "Species Washington Didn't See" in an attempt to explain animal migration instead had me imagining unicorns and dragons, and visiting the museum, where we saw the lower half of Washington's famous wooden teeth and bitterly wondered where the top half ran off to.  An exhibit entitled Hoecakes & Hospitality:  Cooking with Martha Washington provided several recipes that we are dying to try at home, including one for an alcoholic beverage called the Cherry Bounce that Craig and Jo enjoyed over lunch.  The taste I managed to sneak was divine.  Speaking of lunch, The Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant provided us with the most delicious meal I have had since being back in the states.  TJ and I shared a bowl of Virginia Peanut & Chestnut Soup, followed by a Meat & Potato Pye for him and a a Duck and Sausage Cassoulet for me...followed by a shared helping of Homemade Bread Pudding.  My lack of food reviewer training prevents me from describing just how savory this meal was.  Suffice it to say, we will be going back next month, when out-of-town visitors provide an excuse for a return visit. 

I'm super excited for this return visit, as my camera died shortly after visiting the tomb and memorial.  I discovered early in the day that my camera battery was low.  Hector wanted to take a picture of a squirrel he saw climbing a tree along the bank of the Potomac, then proceeded to take fifteen (Seriously.  Fifteen.)  photos of various animals' derrieres.  Here's his best one:

TJ's cold had started flaring back up around lunchtime, and after that meal we were all exhausted anyway, so we decided to call it a day.  All in all, it was our most enjoyable excursion since returning to the states and a great start to the many tales I plan on recounting over the next eight months!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Back in the Saddle

Wow.  All I can say  I have never been so tired in my entire life, and all I do is sit in a classroom all day.

I had NO idea that language training would be so exhausting.  Or that transitioning between posts could be so frustrating.

The government will graciously pay to ship your car to your next post for you, free of charge.  Or to Washington, DC so that you can have it with you during your training.  But they won't do both.  What this means is that at some point, should you choose to bring your car along for every step of the journey, you will be responsible for a fairly large shipping bill.  That's where a posting in Mexico or Canada is so helpful:  your vehicle can be driven across the border.   Of course, that's slightly more difficult in Mexico, where drug violence has resulted in a ban on driving across large swaths of the country.

And so it was that on the evening of Sunday, October 21st we said farewell to our Jeep Compass, our pets and whatever belongings we could shove into the car and watched as they all disappeared into the evening darkness, piloted by a man we had never met before.  In order to avoid shipping fees we entrusted them all to the brother of the previous ACS chief's boyfriend, who was to meet us at the Nuevo Laredo airport the following afternoon.  As we went to sleep that evening, thoughts of never again seeing our car, in which we had just invested $3,500 in unexpected last-minute repairs, danced through our minds.  Oh, yeah.  The animals, too.  But mainly the car...  

Everything went as planned and we were ecstatic to arrive in Nuevo Laredo early Monday afternoon to find that no animal had used the backseat as its own private bathroom during the course of the overnight, eleven-hour drive.  Whether he was kind enough to stop and walk them, I can't say...though given that he still had all ten fingers and none of them had run off into the desert, I'll hazard a guess and say that didn't happen.  Either way, this plan saved us from a headache like the one we experienced importing our pets INTO Mexico.

After dropping the driver off at the bus station, waiting in line at the border for thirty minutes to return the Jeep's import permit, waiting another twenty minutes to cross the actual border, and then spending twenty minutes at the Laredo, TX DMV to get a temporary vehicle registration for the state of Texas so that we'd be street legal (Yes, only twenty minutes at the DMV, can I get an 'Amen'?) we were ready to begin the thirteen hour trek to Pensacola, FL, where we would renew our Florida vehicle registration.  Gotta maintain that Florida residency, y'know?

We spent Monday night in San Antonio, made it to Pensacola the next evening and then, following another short trip to the DMV (Seriously, did they improve their efficiencies or what?!?!), set our sights on Atlanta, where we stopped to rest and have a short visit with our friend David Z.  David is a friend from Orlando who, after changing his name to DZ set off on a quest for lyric-writing stardom that has seen him travel to NYC, LA and now Atlanta.  He's had many adventures along the way and appears poised to finally have his dreams come true.  I wish him well.  But this is my story, so we're moving along.

After our evening in Atlanta we made our way to Williamsburg, VA, where we set up camp for the next two evenings.  We're theme park people.  We're also Halloween-at-theme-parks people.  With that in mind, TJ pushed us through lengthy travel hours early in the trip so that we would arrive in Williamsburg in time to spend a full day at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and a night at their Howl-O-Scream event.  The rides were fun, but the haunted houses were kinda...well...I wouldn't say they were bad, per se...just that the ones at Universal Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, and Kings Dominion are much, MUCH better.  I did get to meet Cookie Monster, which was pretty awesome.

Saturday, October 27th found us finally rolling into Oakwood Falls Church, the corporate housing community that was our home for nine months in 2010 during TJ's A-100 and subsequent Spanish and Consular training, and will be our home again for the nine months of his Arabic and Economics training.  I wasn't too thrilled with Oakwood last time.  I think we both almost cried when we first laid eyes on it, and I distinctly remember TJ avoiding direct eye contact for fear that it would start a fight.  Throughout the course of our previous stay we were subjected to limited parking spaces, unsightly clutter in our hallway and on the community grounds, and lots of loud construction noises.  That was all due to a large wave of home renovations that the property was undergoing at the time, and I must say that it has paid off.  We have been here for a month and are thoroughly enjoying the new Oakwood.  I still wish it was closer to DC, but with pets there's not a lot we can do about that.  Plus, it's close to The Foreign Service Institute, where we spend most of our time anyway.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

We arrived with just enough time to unload the car, meet our friend Jhonny for lunch, and start unpacking before it was time to start thinking about stocking up on provisions.  You see, Hurricane Sandy had decided to come to town that weekend, too.  Anyone that knew us at the time joked that we brought "Snowmaggedon" with us last time, and a hurricane this time.  Writing this, I am reminded of my dear friend Bernard the Snowman, who kept me company during my first few days working at home the last time around.  I'll be with TJ at FSI this time, but I smell snow on the horizon...I think Bernard will be making a comeback very soon.

As more information is gathered about the storm, we are learning that her impact on the region was more devastating than that of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans back in 2005.  At the time all we really knew was that it pushed our Arabic classes start date from Monday, October 29th to Thursday, November 1st.  We were fortunate enough to maintain all utilities throughout the storm and to face no traffic obstructions in the aftermath, a lucky streak that has been with us since our days in Central Florida facing that region's vicious hurricane seasons.

When access to FSI was finally granted, new problems arose.  Through a payroll error either in Guadalajara, Mexico City or Washington, my final paycheck did not drop.  I should have received it on November 2nd; I finally got paid on Friday, November 30th.  I've heard from other EFMs that have served at other posts that they've had issues getting paid properly as well, so going forward I'll just assume that EFM abuse is an unacceptable yet unavoidable par for the course.
 TJ faced his own pay drama when it was determined that our second night in Williamsburg would not be covered under his travel reimbursement because we had not actually travelled anywhere.  He had previously been told that it didn't matter how much we travelled on a given day so long as we departed post when instructed and arrived for training when scheduled.  The new instruction says "Well, yeah, okay...but you have to travel a little."  Right.  Anyway, per diems and travel reimbursements take forever to receive, so we're still waiting on what we will be receiving.  My final paycheck was nice to finally obtain, but it was sad knowing that my portion of the income will be missing for the foreseeable future.  Upside of being an EFM:  Free language studies/  Downside of being an EFM:  Your job disappears when your partner/spouse leaves post.

Oh, we also found out last week that the tenants living in our house are moving out at the end of December.  Hah.

Somewhere along the way, we hit the campaign trail in support of our favorite presidential candidate, finding ourselves only slightly disappointed when she lost...

...then settled in for our favorite holiday feast.  Thanksgiving was a quiet affair, just the two of us and our friend Joey, who brought a lovely arrangement of bread stuffed inside a homemade cornucopia.  I'm ashamed to say the only photo I took was of the food...and that I still haven't managed to master the art of food photography.  We spent that evening at The Kennedy Center, watching American Idol runner-up Constantine Maroulis and gay icon Deborah Cox tear up the stage in Jekyll & Hyde.  The performances were amazing, but that doesn't save the show from a lack of coherent plot.  The critics seem to agree.

Beyond the above, not much has happened while we've been in town.  We've walked the National Mall, had a few drinks on the town, and studied...studied...studied.  Oh, and slept.

Learning a language as a full time job is exhausting.  My two month "let's-learn-how-to-go-to-Wal-Mart"  course toward the end of our last stay in the area was a cakewalk compared to this.  I now understand why TJ used to come home from work exhausted and lacking the desire to do anything but nap, watch television over dinner, and go back to bed.  I used to give him such a hard time, and now I can but apologize for being an unsympathetic jerk.

We start our second month of Arabic tomorrow morning.  We've pretty much got the alphabet and basic pronunciation down, along with several key words and phrases.  We're not even close to being able to have a decent conversation.  I never managed to obtain fluency in Spanish, but I'm able to communicate effectively.  And, one month into Arabic, I sure feel like I'm fluent in Spanish.  Woof.

We've seen a lot of recently released movies and chowed down on the foods we couldn't find in Guadalajara.  We've wandered out on the weekends and made a couple of new friends.  But nothing "new" has happened since we've been back.  Until today.

Today we managed to muster up the energy to accompany some friends from Guadalajara on an adventure to Mt. Vernon.  It was a lot of fun and I can't wait to tell you about it.  BUUUUTTTTT, it's the first truly new thing we've done since arriving, so that will get its very own post within the next few days...if I can manage to stay awake after class, that is.