Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Wonderful World of Disney (and Universal, Too!)

If we've learned anything since joining the Foreign Service, it's that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Case in point:  Our original plan had been to enjoy a nice, relaxing home leave on the West Coast following our two year assignment in Mexico.  We planned it out and it looked like we could spend a month in California, Washington, Vegas, etc. before heading to Virginia for TJ's Arabic training.  The State Department didn't agree, and all of the training came first.  That was fine, no biggie.  The only hiccup was that, were home leave to begin prior to training, we could control where the flight out of Mexico took us (i.e. West Coast), whereas having home leave after training meant we were already situated in Virginia (i.e. East Coast).  We weren't too keen on driving all the way out west, so a new plan was formulated.

...And, there we were.  At last.  A long ten months and eight days after leaving Mexico, we finally arrived in Orlando.  Home.  

What follows is basically an episode of any sitcom that ran during ABC's TGIF Friday night programming following the Disney/ABC merger in the mid-90s.  You know the drill:  The Tanner family (or the Foster-Lambert family, or the Winslow family, etc.) goes to Disney World and spends 22 minutes (plus commercials!) getting themselves stuck in a series of hilarious yet troublesome situations that will be resolved the following week (these were typically two-parters) while they float seamlessly between parks as if they are all the same place.  

This probably won't be as entertaining as all that, but we did float seamlessly between parks for the duration of our nineteen day trip.  

We arrived on August 30th and, after a quick unpack and rest at the hotel, headed to Downtown Disney where we met up with our old roommate Kris.  We walked the full length of this outdoor shopping, dining, and entertainment complex during our chat.  We window shopped.  We stopped for a drink.  I took a picture with this awesome Lego Hulk.  It was nice catching up with Kris, but on the whole the experience was a tad depressing.  Pleasure Island, the section of Downtown Disney that had been devoted to nightclubs and booty shaking, had closed on September 27, 2008.  The Virgin Megastore, where TJ and I met for the first time, closed in spring 2009.  The McDonald's where we shared our first meal later that day because-it's-not-a-date-so-why-be-fancy closed on April 30, 2010, shortly after our original departure to join the Foreign Service.  Now, construction barriers are set up all over the complex, paving the way for something called "Disney Springs" that is scheduled to open in 2016.  I'll try to reserve judgement, but right now I'm just bitter that so many of the locations surrounding the beginnings of our relationship have faded away. 

The following day was spent at EPCOT, TJ's favorite of the four theme parks that fall under the Walt Disney World umbrella.  After all but conquering Future World, we set our sites on the World Showcase.  First stop was "Mexico," where we enjoyed Margaritas and nachos, listened to a mariachi band, and replaced Panchito Pistoles and José Carioca as members of The Three Caballeros.  Disney photography policy prevents the taking of pictures with their characters while in the presence of alcohol but make no mistake ladies and gentlemen, those margaritas are sitting just to the side of the far right bottom corner.  We spent the remainder of the day leisurely strolling the World Showcase and sampling foods and beverages as we took in the attractions.    

That was followed by a day at Animal Kingdom, which I have always
suspected of being situated directly above hell, due to its ever-uncomfortable, always higher than average temperatures.  Our friend Tommy joined us for a day spent traveling through time to the day of the Dinosaur, learning that it's Tough to be a Bug, embarking on a East African safari and learning all about the "Bear Necessities."  If you don't get all of those references, it's because either you don't know enough about Disney, or I know too much.  And since this is my blog, we'll throw the blame in your direction.  We would see Tommy one more time during this trip, and that would be following Tuesday evening for night of dancing and PBR at downtown Orlando's hipster club, I-Bar.  The crowds were young when we left Orlando, and even more so now.  We, unfortunateley, had aged another three years.   It took a while to get into the groove, but once we did it was fun.  If nothing else, we ended our evening better off than the guy who was sitting outside in a puddle of his own...something...when we left.  Though, looking back, maybe he did have more fun than us.  

That evening saw us arriving at Disney's HollywoodStudios for a night of turkey legs and scary fireworks (Really, Disney?  What were you thinking with this whole Fantasmic thing?) with my old friend and colleague Shalinn.  TJ was excited to ride the newly renovated Star Wars attraction (Star Tours - The Adventure Continues) for the first time, which I had managed to do during my 2011 trip to San Diego.  We had planned to meet up with Shalinn, a champion eater who manages to stay super skinny just to spite me, for an evening at a local food truck fair later in our trip, but we were sadly rained out.  Next time, pookie!

The next day was spent at my favorite park The Magic Kingdom.  We immediately headed over to The New Fantasyland to explore a park renovation we had been dying to check out for months now.  Among the pleasant new features was Gaston's Tavern, where I was able to partake in something called Lefou's Brew, a frozen apple juice concoction with a hint of marshmallow, topped with a passion fruit-mango foam.  It was delicious.  This was not to be our final day at The Magic Kingdom...nor was it to be our final Lefou's Brew.

My parents drove down from Texas for a brief visit September 3-5.  In what has become something of a tradition since they started visiting us in Orlando all those years ago, we made sure that they got to experience one of the local dinner shows.  This time around it was Disney's Spirit of Aloha at the Polynesian Resort.  The family-style buffet features hula dancing and a fire-knife performance.  On the second night we went to Kobe Japanese Steakhouse for a teppanyaki-style dining experience TJ and I introduced them to on their last visit, and that they seem bent on turning into a second dining tradition.  Sounds good to me!  Not much in the way of activity to report beyond that.  They weren't keen on visiting the parks ("There's more to life than Disney," I believe mom said....I know, right?  She's totally crazy.), so we did the family thing where you sit and talk and reminisce and sometimes go shopping at Target.  Important things to do, as I'm not quite sure if/when we will be returning to the states, other than the end of our tour in Jerusalem. 

While we were at the luau, our car got to hang out with Herbie!

That Saturday I got to meet TJ's sister, brother-in-law, nieces and nephew for the first time.  They had recently moved to Tampa and, thanks to Kris's awesomeness (and employment benefits), we were able to treat them to a day at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.  The kids all had a great time, with TJ's nephew happily proclaiming "This is the best vacation ever!"  Indeed, kid.  Please note in the attached photo, the sleeping baby in the fore with all of the "must-be-this-tall-to-ride" graduates happily queued up and ready to go in the background.  We all had a fun-filled day meeting Spider-Man, exploring Hogwarts and going on an adventure with the Autobots.  It was my first time truly doing the theme park experience with kids in tow, and I must say I enjoyed it.  Hopefully I'll be able to do it with a tot or two of my own one day.  

The rest of the trip was filled with more of the same.  Further exploring the parks on our own and hanging out with friends when we had the chance.

We met up with Nisrine, another old friend and colleague, for a quick chat at a local wine bar.  It was brief, but so good to see her.

We befriended a British tourist named Anwarul and went miniature golfing.  

We spent a day with Chloe.

We spent time away from Disney with Kris and his new boo, John.  Brunches, dinners, Insidious Double Features and martinis, oh my!  Oh, and I did make them return to Universal one more time.  Rain and time hadn't permitted proper exploration of the new Springfield environment.  Mission:  Accomplished.  Little known fact:  This is one of maybe four photos of Kris in existence.  I own all of them.  He's the pouty one on the right that doesn't appear to want to have the camera pointed at him.    

We had appetizers and drinks with our friend Gavin, during which time a frumpy hag of a waitress named Agatha denied me drink service after declaring that I had a mole on my neck in my driver's license photo that was not currently present on my person.  It was one of those miracle moles that you could scratch off with your fingernail, but she was having none of it.  She made me question basically everything about my life.  Diet, exercise, skin care routine.   Even with a "mole," do I look that drastically different than the person in my 2003 driver's license photo?  Who knows. But now that we are settled in and my new place of employment has a gym, I'll be hitting it hard going forward.  So that's turned a negative into a positive.  

We also took some time to visit the gorgeous little craftsman home that we purchased when the Foreign Service was but a future possibility.  The tenants are taking care of the place and have turned it into an adorable little bachelorette pad.  Should we hold on to it, it shall be a wonderful place to retire. 

Amazing that home leave ended just two and a half weeks ago.  It already feels like a lifetime.  And the two and a half weeks of home leave itself?  Felt like a day and a half.  Time flies when you're having fun, and you rarely get to do everything, or see everyone, that you'd like to.     

I don't really know how to wrap this up, because doing so is just further confirmation that our all-too short time at home is already over.  But I know we'll be back someday.  And so...

M-I-C...See ya real soon!


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Dog Days of Summer

Sometimes...not often, but sometimes, I really, really hate the Foreign Service.  Those of you on the outside looking in may see us as a bunch of highly paid pencil pushers that get to live in fancy mansions in faraway between exotic vacations to Italy and Fiji, of course.

Well, you'd be wrong.  We are actually a bunch of modestly paid pencil pushers that get to live in average-for-Middle-Class-Americans housing that just happens to be in faraway between giving up any and everything that we hold dear.  

We say goodbye to our family and friends.  To favorite restaurants and nightspots.  To old careers that we may or may not have loved.  To houses that we bought barely two years prior and thought we would grow old together in but instead will probably not set foot in for another 20-30 years...if we don't just get bored and sell them off first, of course.

And then, just when you've been at post for a couple of years...just when you've established new friends, new work connections, new local uproot your family and start from scratch all over again.

And sometimes...sometimes this job causes you to lose your best friend.  Your compadre.  Your pretty little girl.  That precious, dopey, flopsy mopsy golden retriever that you bought for you husband in 2007 as a present for his college graduation....but that everyone secretly knew you really bought for yourself. 

We knew almost from the beginning of our relationship that TJ had wanted to pursue a career in the US Foreign Service.  It was his dream job, but given the highly competitive nature of the State Department, we put that dream up on the "Wouldn't that be swell?" shelf in the closet.  By the time February 2010 rolled around and we realized we'd need to pull the dream down and dust it off, we had accumulated two dogs, a cat, and a 30-year mortgage.  

The house?  No biggie. Slap some paint on the walls, replace the carpet, find a property manager and rent that sucker out.  

The pets?  Also no biggie.  Throw them in the car and road trip it on up the highway until you reach Virginia.  

Then came the first pet exporting disaster.  After weeks of bureaucratic delays (both Mexican and American) resulted in several thousand dollars beyond our projected shipping expenses being tossed to the wind, the animals all arrived safely, if not a little rattled, in Guadalajara. 

Two years later, we tactfully circumvented this issue on our return trip by hiring a driver to escort them to the Texas border, from which we were able to safely and leisurely drive back to Virginia and prepare to start the whole process again. 

Almost immediately upon returning to the US, we began to crunch the numbers and realized that, bare minimum, it would cost approximately $3,500 to purchase air fare and get all the critters "up to code" per Israeli import regulations.  That's a hefty chunk of change, though certainly doable.  But...what happens when TJ receives his next posting, and it doesn't require a lengthy stay in DC?  We'd have to fly the pets back to the US for one month of mandatory home leave, and then fly them to our onward assignment.  $3,500 to get them all to Israel suddenly turned into a hypothetical $10,500 round trip experience.  Doable.  But logical?  Feasible?  Maybe not.  

Then we took a long, hard look at each of our pets.  They are all getting older.

Sophie is an 11 year old gray cat with an average life expectancy of 13-15 years.
Zelda is a nine and a half year old beagle/jack russell mix with an average life expectancy of 12-15 or 13-16 years, depending on which breed she favors.
Chloe is a six year old golden retriever with an average life expectancy of 10-12 years.

Other than a bad case of kennel cough-turned-pneumonia in Zelda's infancy, all three pets have lived perfectly healthy lives.  Assuming that continues, Sophie and Zelda are on trajectory to clock out of this mortal realm in the next few years, with Chloe following a short while later.

But stress can effect an animal's health, and all three of them arrived in Mexico looking much worse for wear.  We were hesitant to put any of them through that again.

Then we were assigned to our housing unit in Jerusalem.  It looked...shall we say...much more cozy than our accommodations in Mexico.  It also lacked a yard.   Zelda is a cuddler, but Chloe is a wild beast that loves to run.  We were concerned about a lack of space to keep her entertained.

We had already been considering the possibility of needing to find alternative homes for our furry friends as far back as February 2011.  I just didn't think it would actually happen so soon.

It was important to us that, should any of our pets leave our home, we would continue having access to them.  We began putting feelers out there to see if anyone would want to foster any of them.  Our logic was, if we could find someone we know to take them, we would do that.  If not, we would weather all health and financial risks and bring them along.

Poor Sophie.  Nobody wanted her.  She has apparently developed quite the reputation among our friends over the past decade as an evil demon from Hades.  She's actually quite sweet.  She just likes to hiss at people she doesn't know, and glare at those she does.  Plus, she isn't declawed, so that's a deal breaker for a lot of folks.  One person did offer to take her, but it would have been as an outdoor cat and we know she doesn't have the chutzpah for that.  Due to lack of viable interest by anyone but ourselves, Sophie was coming along.

Zelda would have been welcomed by our old roommate, Kris, and with open arms.  He loves her and we've always suspected that she likes him more than us, anyway.  Timing being what it is, though, he's found himself in a relationship
with someone who has pet allergies.  I suggested they break up, but apparently they're happy.  Oh well.  Another friend committed to taking her, only to back out saying his landlord didn't approve.  I've since seen pictures indicating that he's adopted two puppies, so he's currently on my poop list.  Had he said no at the onset, that would have been fine.  Sadly, he let us down so close to departure time that we had to decide whether it was worth the risk to wait for another bite or to start the lengthy and expensive process of getting vaccinations and genetic testing just in case we had to take which point why not just bring her along?  And so, Zelda joined Sophie as a two-time world traveler.

Then there was Chloe.  She's so beautiful and sweet, who would NOT want her?  The day our friend had falsely committed to taking Zelda, I sent out a Facebook blast asking about Chloe.  Offers immediately poured in.  I decided on Pam, a sweet woman I have known for about eight years from a previous job.  She lives with her granddaughter who is just about to start college.  They have several dogs and a cat already and had previously shared space with a golden retriever, so they knew all about the breed's behavioral patterns (or lack thereof).  Pam graciously offered to foster Chloe while we are overseas and says she will return her upon the completion of this tour.  Pretty sweet deal, huh?  Of course, it was right around this time that our other friend reneged on his offer to take Zelda and I felt like a monster.  You're not supposed to have favorites, but I do.  And Chloe is mine.  I felt like I was abandoning her.

I used what little time I had left with her to the best of my ability.  I know that it is a human flaw to impose human characteristics upon animals, but I wanted Chloe to know that I love her.  Realistically, I'm sure I just needed to make myself recognize that I loved her.  Either way, I took her for extra long walks, bought her more toys than usual, forced everyone to sit for a family portrait and generally just made a point of being more attentive.

The result of which was that I had somehow managed to cry myself out by the time we made a whirlwind weekend trip down to Orlando and handed Chloe over to Pam and her granddaughter, Bailey, on August 3rd.  We knew our car was going to be stuffed when we made our final departure from Virginia at the end of that month, and we wanted to give them all time to adjust to each other before we headed off to the other side of the world and found ourselves unable to make adjustments if needed, so handing her off early seemed like a smart idea.  Pam did a great job of reassuring us that Chloe was in good hands.  They have a huge yard, a doggy door (always wanted one of those!) and toys galore.  I knew our baby would be in good hands.   As we got in the car to leave, Chloe watched curiously from the screen door.  She didn't look sad, nor happy.  It was just sort of a "Those are my daddies.  They are there and I am here," curious kind of look.  Weeks of emotion had left me dry.  I calmly turned to see TJ, who had been bottling it up for weeks so as not to exacerbate my feelings, finally, briefly, lose it.  The drive back to DC was sad, yet oddly happy.  We knew that Chloe would be well cared for.  And that's the important thing, right?

We had the opportunity to spend some time with her during home leave.  I picked her up from Pam's house on the morning of September 10th and she was so excited to see me that she almost knocked me down running out the front door (Chloe, not Pam).  I had claw marks all over me for days from her trying to crawl into my arms!  We didn't do too much that day.  Just lounged around in a big dog pile watching trashy television (Maury) at the hotel, for the most part.  We did want to spend some alone time with her so, leaving Sophie and Zelda in the room, we loaded Chloe in the car and
headed to Celebration, FL.  TJ lived there when we first started dating and we had been been wanting to stop by to reminisce.  We walked to one of our favorite eateries, The Market Street Cafe, and took a seat outside.  We ordered our favorite dishes and a bowl of water was brought for Chloe.  We had never taken her out to eat like this before, and she behaved like an angel.  We were so proud of her!  After lunch we walked around the lake and the downtown area before heading back to the hotel for some more trash television.

Pam wasn't home when we dropped Chloe off, but Bailey was.  Chloe ran to her just as eagerly as she had run to me that morning.

I know she's in good, loving, capable hands.  I just hope those hands are still willing to release her when two years have passed.