We’re twelve days into 2014 and, as one might expect, there’s been a lot of reflection about 2013.  The top news stories.  The top political cartoons.  The top films (and just FYI, if you haven’t seen 12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, or Mandela:  Long Walk to Freedom, then you should stop reading this right now, go to Fandango.com, and purchase your tickets.  I’ll be here when you get back).  Anyway, you get the idea.  I thought about doing that this year – I’ve done it in the past – but decided to do something a little different this time.

2013 got off to a rough start for me, personally and professionally.  I was really struggling.  One of my Facebook friends had posted a story/article/blog piece about counting your blessings.  Every day, you write on a piece of paper one blessing in your life and then you put that piece of paper somewhere – a jar, a vase, a box – somewhere where you can see it.  It seemed like a good way for me to focus on the positives in my life, so I decided to give it a try.

Now, I have to confess:  I did not count my blessings for the entire year, but I did do a pretty good job.  I wrote my daily blessings on bits of colored paper and dropped them in the big glass vase that sat on my kitchen counter.  Yesterday, I finally got around to opening those bits of paper so that I could review my 2013 and the many things I have to be thankful for.

My 2013 Blessings

My 2013 Blessings

My blessings tended to fall into a few categories:  weather, pets, family, work.  I am pleased to note that “work” didn’t dominate.  What I mean is, I tend to be pretty career-focused and sometimes I forget to stop and smell the roses.  Turns out, I didn’t forget.  I won’t share every blessing with you, but I’d like to point out a few highlights (in no particular order):

  1. The honeybells arrived!  Last year, I got a six-month subscription to a “fruit of the month” club.  First up:  the honeybell.  Honeybells, in case you are wondering, are the most amazing fruit ever.  An orange/grapefruit hybrid.  Sweet.  Super juicy.  So juicy that a bib is included with the shipment.  If you’ve ever had one, you’ll understand why their arrival was such a wonderful blessing.  If you haven’t, stop reading right now and go out and get some.  They’re only available January through March!
  2. Cheerwine – another special treat.  This is North Carolina’s version of Dr. Pepper, but not quite the same.  I don’t think it’s sold anywhere else – at least I’ve never been able to find it.  So whenever I visit my parents in NC, I try to swing by the Food Lion to pick up a 12-pack or two.  Soooo good.
  3. Pushing my boundaries and getting outside my comfort zone.  Now, I have no idea what I did here.  I might have been referring to the Meetup group I joined, or maybe I went to a play by myself, or maybe I went skydiving.  (FYI – pretty sure I’d remember skydiving).  Whatever it was, it was something that I wasn’t used to and I did it anyway.  Go me!
  4. Arlington County firemen.  At some point in 2013, I got stuck in an elevator and I am totally not joking.  I was in the elevator of my parking garage to pick up my car and head home after work.  All of a sudden — BOOM!  Elevator stopped.  No power.  I was alone.  No a/c.  And most importantly, I.  Didn’t.  Have.  Anything.  To.  Read.  People who know me will understand how important that is.  Anyway, I managed to stave off panic by figuring that I probably wouldn’t die if the elevator fell – after all, I was stuck between basement levels 1 and 2, and the last basement level was 4, so it wouldn’t have been a huge drop.  Broken bones maybe, but I’d live.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to test my theory because the firemen from Arlington County saved me.  I was extremely thankful.
  5. This one’s a two-fer:  sleepover/afternoon tea with my sister and having the best sister in the world.  My sister is married with a toddler, so for her birthday last year, I thought it would be fun to have a girls’ night.  I booked us into the Willard Intercontinental, took her out for cocktails and dinner, and then the next day we shopped and returned to the Willard for afternoon tea.  It was fun, relaxing, and nice to have time for just the two of us.  We had so much fun we’re doing it again this year!  As for “the best sister in the world” – well, she’s been my number one cheerleader for a long time.  She tells me the truth when I need truth-telling, reassures me when I need reassurance, and makes me giggle when I need a good laugh.  She really is the best.
  6. Spending the day with my niece.  This is the best, especially now that she’s such a chatterbox.  She is a little person with her own tastes and opinions, and I enjoy hearing about them – even when she tells me she doesn’t like something I knitted for her.  Can’t win ’em all, I guess.

So that was just a little glimpse of my 2013.  I’m not doing this exercise for 2014 – not because I didn’t think it was worthwhile.  It definitely was for me.  I have a lot of wonderful blessings in my life and I hope that I will do a better job of remembering them because of this.  No, this year I’m focused on de-cluttering.  I’ll be headed overseas for my next assignment this summer, so I’ve got to clear out some of the junk.  Collecting bits of paper – even ones with my blessings written on them – is counter-productive at this stage.  That said, I’ll do my best to count my blessings every day.


There’s a man who stands outside the Foggy Bottom metro station almost every day, belting out gospel songs.  I kind of hate this guy.  He’s not a very good singer, but he has a powerful set of lungs.  Yet there he is almost every morning, rain or shine, his tip jar at his feet.  So I wondered:  what keeps him coming back, fighting for space at the top of the escalators, competing with all the other singers, musicians, and student groups selling Krispy Kreme donuts?  Is it the acoustics?  The tips?  Is this how he makes a living?  Does he earn enough to pay his rent or buy a meal?  How does he not get discouraged and throw in the towel?

I think I may have the answer:  faith.  He has faith that he’ll remember the words, that his voice won’t fail him, that the tips will come.

And it occurred to me that these days, I have to do the same.  The climate in Washington is cold – and I’m not talking about the weather.  Federal government employees have taken it on the chin:  three years with no pay raises, sequester, politicians and the public calling us lazy, incompetent, or worse.  And now the government is shut down.  Most feds have been forced to stay at home for the last two weeks; some are working without pay.  I am one of the lucky ones:  State Department management cobbled together no-year and multi-year funds to keep us open and operating – and collecting a paycheck.  But who knows how long that will last?

Let me tell you what I do know:  federal employees are hard working, bright, dedicated people who are proud to serve our country.  We smile and grit our teeth when people call us leeches or describe this shutdown as a “vacation.”  Guess what?  It’s not a vacation when you’re stressed out about how you’re going to pay your mortgage or your kid’s school fees.  We will keep working and waiting and hoping that our elected leaders will put an end to this madness.

And like that out of tune gospel singer at the top of the escalators, we will keep the faith.

The New Madrid Fault Line

The New Madrid Fault Line

We are spending half a day in New Madrid, MO, our last port before we reach Memphis tomorrow.  New Madrid (pronounced with a short ‘a’ as in ‘snap’ – definitely not the Spanish pronunciation!) – is a small town.  Population 3,116.  At this point in the journey, I’m pretty much museum-ed out, so I’ll rely on the boat’s River Times to describe the town:

“The sun was a ‘globe of red hot iron’ the day before the quake came; the animals restless and uneasy.  But no one was prepared when the tremors began early in the morning of December 16, 1811.  They would last almost two years – with major shocks interspersed with the minor – destroying much of the bustling port of New Madrid, and sending its citizens fleeing for firmer ground.”  According to Wikipedia, some of the major quakes reached a magnitude of 8 and were felt as far away as the East Coast.  New Madrid lies on the appropriately named New Madrid Seismic Zone – the source of intraplate earthquakes in the southern and midwestern United States.  This citizens of New Madrid seem to take it in stride; our tour guide says after you’ve lived here a while, it becomes normal for your walls to shake a bit!

Like I said, I couldn’t face another museum, so I just walked around the town a bit.  During my walk through New Madrid’s downtown, I ran into a very nice gentleman.  I didn’t get his name, but I would like to share his story.  I met him in New Madrid’s little park dedicated to men and women from New Madrid County who served in the armed forces – from WW!! to the present.  I asked him if he’d lived in New Madrid his whole life, and he told me he had moved to New Madrid from eastern Tennessee many years ago.  What brought him to New Madrid?  He was serving in Vietnam, and a buddy from New Madrid sent a list of names (including my friend’s) to his sister, who posted the list in the local welfare office.  I surmised that these were the names of soldiers who were looking for pen pals.  Well, one young lady ran her finger down the list, settled on my friend’s name, and started corresponding with him.  A few months later, they were married and settled in New Madrid.  Forty some odd years later, they are still happily married with three grown children.  A lovely story, I thought.

That story made me love New Madrid a little bit.  Thank you, sir, whoever you are.

Welcome to Paducah!

Welcome to Paducah!

After a day of steamboating yesterday – during which I basically did NOTHING (hey, it was crazy hot and humid yesterday!  Don’t judge) – we’re in Paducah today.  Many, many years ago, I passed through Paducah from Atlanta on my way to St. Louis.  I was spending Christmas with my sis, who lived in STL at the time.  My ill-fated trip to the top of the Gateway Arch probably happened during this visit.

Anyway, I passed through – never stopped to visit.  Paducah is a river town, located at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers.  Apparently, this was a valuable port city back in the day, with a drydock for steamboats and towboats, and a railway hub.

Kentucky was a key state during the Civil War, and was officially neutral at the beginning of that conflict.  However, slaveholders continued to keep slaves.  In September 1861, forces under General Ulysses S. Grant captured Paducah and took control of the mouth of the Tennessee River.  Thus, Paducah became a key supply port for Union gun boats and supply ships.

Paducah’s a port city.  Like Cape Girardeau, the city constructed a flood wall – built by the Army Corps of Engineers – to protect it from rising waters.  What I love about it is that – again, like Cape Girardeau – Paducah uses the flood wall as a canvas that portrays the city’s history.  In 1937, the Ohio River crested to 60.8 feet, flooding the city for three weeks.  27,000 residents were forced to evacuate.  So yeah, I guess they needed that flood wall.

Mural on Flood Wall - Paducah, KY

Mural on Flood Wall – Paducah, KY

Paducah is something of an artists’ colony.  According to our tour guide, in 2000 the city began its Artist Relocation Program, recruiting artists to move to Paducah and revitalize the rundown Lowertown neighborhood.  It appears to have worked:  the neighborhood’s old Victorian structures have been restored and the area is on the National Register of Historic Places.  I realize this is not the place to discuss real estate values, but let me just say that it makes me a little ill to realize that I could buy a two bedroom, two bath HOUSE in this town for half of what I paid for my two bedroom, one bath CONDO in Arlington.  I know, I know:  it’s a trade-off.  Still makes me sick.

Anyway.  Paducah, also known as “Quilt City,” is home to the National Quilt Museum.  Apparently, 35,000 rabid quilters descend upon the city every year for the annual quilting show or conference or contest or something.  Winning quilts are placed on display at the museum.  The museum also displays quilts from the Civil War era.  (No photos allowed in the museum, so unfortunately, I have nothing to show you here).  Look, I freely admit that I know absolutely nothing about quilting.  I saw some beautiful designs, I’ll admit.  But it’s a little hard for me to get excited about an award-winning quilt when I read that it was produced by machine.  Yes – these machine-made quilts were lovely and perfect, and yes – it was easy to see the flaws in the quilts stitched a hundred years ago:  slightly misaligned panels, wobbly lines, etc.  I think I prefer the hand-stitched ones, flaws and all.  I mean, how much credit can you give the quilter if the machine is doing all the work?  It sounds like knitting by machine.  Yes – if I knitted by machine, my sweaters and scarves would probably look a lot better than they do…but that feels like cheating to me.

And so, onward.  We depart Paducah tonight and head for New Madrid, MO.

Steamboats - Port of Paducah

Steamboats – Port of Paducah

Flood Wall:  Welcome to Cape Girardeau, MO

Flood Wall: Welcome to Cape Girardeau, MO

Cape Girardeau is just a memory now.  What can I say?  It is a small town.  The people are friendly.  The murals on the flood wall were interesting.  Rush Limbaugh is from here.  Gross.  We were there on Sunday, so most of the shops were closed.  That is all.

What I wanted to focus on in this post is the American Queen’s onboard entertainment.  Let’s face it:  we are living on this boat, so the steamboat company is doing as much as it can to keep us entertained with music, performances, movies, etc.  Alcohol helps too.  Last night’s premiere entertainment:  Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.  Impersonators, obviously.  But they were really good.  “Dean” kept a cigarette (unlit of course – no smoking on the boat!) firmly grasped between his fingers and sipped regularly from his tumbler of scotch between jokes.  And “Frank” came out wearing a fedora and entertained the crowd with his classics:  “Volare” and “My Way” among others.

Oh – did I forget to mention that I’m not the target demographic for this cruise?  Let me tell you how it went down.  St Louis.  Saturday morning.  Complimentary breakfast for the American Queen passengers in the Grand Ballroom.  I walk in and see many, many retirees.  Like in their 70s.  “Oh.  My.  God.” is my reaction.  No biggie, right?  Surely, there are a few people my age on this cruise.  Right?  Right?  I check in with the steamboat staff.  Gotta get my boarding card, my dinner table assignment, sign up for additional “premium” excursions if I so desire.  I ask the two friendly crew members who have just given my dinner table assignment:  “so, is there anyone on this cruise under the age of 45?”  “Yes,” they immediately respond, “the crew.”  Awesome.

This is my life, ya’ll.  I have this amazing ability to choose vacation trips that skew older.  Let’s be honest about this trip though.  I think the main reason this cruise skews to the older set is 1) they have the disposable income and 2) they have the time.  So I can’t really complain about being fortunate enough to have both at the young age of 42!  In many ways, the age difference makes it easier to accomplish what I wanted on this trip.  I wanted to relax, to decompress, to forget about work for a week, to read a lot, and to write.  I’m able to do all of it.  That said, if I ever do this again, I’m bringing my parents!

Whew!  I spent the day walking around downtown St. Louis.  I forgot how easy it is to get around this town.  My hotel was conveniently located in the heart of downtown, so I started my morning with a walk to the Gateway Arch.  My sister used to live here, so this wasn’t my first visit to the Arch, but it was nice to see it in the peace and quiet of an early Saturday morning – just me, the river, and a few early risers.  Construction on the Arch began in 1963 and was completed in 1965; the stainless steel monument is 630 feet high – the tallest man-made monument in the United States.  Did not know that.  Last time I was here – which was many years ago – my sister and I rode the car to the top of the Arch.  There are windows up there, so you can look out over the city.  And you can feel the structure sway a bit when it’s windy.  Let me just tell you now:  I have no photos to document this experience.  I’m afraid of heights, so I had to be cajoled into taking this little excursion.  Once at the top, I stood in the middle of the room not looking out of either set of windows.  So lame.  My sister got a real kick out of it.

Gateway Arch, St. Louis

Gateway Arch, St. Louis

But I digress.

By mid-morning, the temperature really started to rise.  No more cool, breezy morning.  I walked to Busch Stadium, snapped a photo of the Tums building along the way, and then headed back to the hotel’s cafe for a rest break.  Once I was sufficiently revived, I caught the MetroLink to Forest Park, where visitors can find the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Science Center, and the St. Louis Art Museum.  First, let me just say that I really enjoy St. Louis’ light rail system.  The cars are clean and air conditioned, and the PA system works well (at least when I rode it today), and the maps make sense.  Granted, the MetroLink routes are not as complex as the DC area’s Metro system – MetroLink only goes east to west – but it’s still a good rapid transit system.  I think all of the stops are above-ground, so there are no complaints about adequate lighting (I’m looking at you WMATA!) and the system takes you to many of the tourist hot spots.  I give it a B+ (deducting only because of the limited lines).

In Forest Park, I stopped by the Zoo.  By this time, it was about 93 degrees outside, so I wasn’t really in the mood for a long stay.  And my timing was bad:  most of the animals were hidden from view in an effort to escape the heat.  I did manage to catch a glimpse of a rhino, a few Asian elephants, and a hyena.

Forest Park is massive – 1,371 acres (according to Wikipedia), smack dab in the middle of the city.  The park opened in 1876 and hosted both the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and the Summer Olympics (both in 1904).  The park is known as the “heart of St. Louis.”  I wish I’d had time to explore more than just the zoo, but I was on a bit of a time crunch.

After the Zoo and lunch at Union Station, it was time to head for the American Queen.  I’m checked into my little stateroom, unpacked, and settled in.  This should be fun…

The American Queen

The American Queen

I know, I know. It’s been a while. I have been really lazy about visiting DC’s monuments and historic sites. But I’m turning over a new leaf!

This post is going to be short and sweet. It’s late and I’m tired. I just arrived in St. Louis, Gateway to the West. Tomorrow I will board the American Queen, a boat that cruises the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In my Foreign Service career thus far, I’ve travelled to some interesting – sometimes exotic – places. I figured it was high time for an adventure in the good old USA.

So here we go. St. Louis: adventure begins here…

Ten years ago this month, I embarked on a crazy adventure.

I’d officially been in the Foreign Service for about a year, going through orientation, then consular training and political tradecraft, and finally Albanian language classes.  Albania:  my first overseas assignment.  The adventure was about to begin.

It was a strange time.  My emotions were all over the place.  I was really excited, really looking forward to starting the “real” work of diplomacy.  I was thrilled for my friends and colleagues, who were going to exotic locales and setting out on their own wild adventures.  I was a little sad, too.  Living in DC had been fun.  I made some fantastic friends.  When my sister moved back from Santiago, Chile, she moved here and we shared an apartment.  And I was so scared.  I mean, Albania?!?  What the hell was I thinking?  I distinctly remember saying exactly that to my sister:  what the hell was I thinking?  Let’s think about it:  here I was, a young, single, African American woman heading off to an isolated, former communist country whose leader had closed the borders for decades.  What would I think of them?  What would they think of me?  And why in the hell was I leaving the comforts and conveniences of the United States?

All valid questions.  But my sister reminded me that I knew the answer:  because this was my dream.  I was going to go places and do things that most people never even think about, and of those that do – many find all kinds of reasons for why they can’t.  “You’ll be fine,” she said.  “You’ll have fun.”

She was right.  I was fine.  Still am.  I did have fun.  Still do.  I met some wonderful people – Americans and Albanians – in Albania; I travelled all over that country and around eastern Europe.  I also made a few trips to Turkey, Greece, and Italy.  My sister even came to visit!

Since then I’ve served in Belize, Italy, and Washington, DC.  I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve grown a lot.  I picked up more friends along the way, took a few road trips, and snapped a lot of photos.  Most importantly, I learned less is more when placing my consumables shipment order.

Funny story.  When access to consumer goods is limited in a country, the U.S. government allows you to have a “consumables shipment.”  Basically, you order what you need – food, paper products, cat litter, whatever – from the closest U.S. military commissary or grocery store and the USG ships it to your overseas location.

I waited until after I got to Albania to place my order.  I wanted to see what was available on the local market.  Now, I haven’t placed a consumables order since my first tour so things may have changed by now, but back then, you got a list – an Excel spreadsheet, as I recall – from the commissary, reviewed items available, and placed your order.  I remember that spreadsheet.  It was pages and pages and pages long when I printed it out.  And whoever created it didn’t “wrap” the text in the individual cells, so a lot of the information was cut off.  For example, I ordered several bags of what I thought were plain tortilla chips and ended up with the ones that have a hint of lime.  (I really hate those).

The really funny thing was toilet paper.  You see, toilet paper in Albania was pretty thin.  One-ply.  Everyone included toilet paper in their consumables shipment. So I ordered several cases of toilet paper – what I thought would be enough to get me through my two-year tour.  But because some of the info on that spreadsheet was cut off, I didn’t know how many rolls of toilet paper were in a case.  I ordered blindly.  A few weeks later, my shipment arrived.  Let’s just say that I haven’t bought toilet paper for 10 years.  Not in Albania, not in Belize, not in Italy, and not in Washington, DC.  This is a photo of the last roll in the last pack from the last case of the last carton of toilet paper from that shipment.

The Last Roll

The Last Roll

So, you know – hooray for consumables and the quality paper products made by the fine people at Cottonelle.

I’m outta here today.  But before I go, I wanted to pass along a few random photos and thoughts about Colonial Williamsburg.  It’s definitely worth a visit.  The length of your stay will really depend on the depth of your curiosity about colonial times.  I’m sure some people go into every building, attend every special demonstration, and engage all of the “interpreters.”  (That’s right you guys.  These people in colonial garb are not mere actors.  They are INTERPRETERS).  Anyway, I am not one of those people.  I really loved the experience, but a weekend was all I needed.

I did make a point of visiting the African American Religion Exhibit.  A little disappointing – even when I put it in context.  The exhibit, located inside the former First Baptist Church, is on a side street on the edge of Williamsburg.  The building is small.  Okay, that’s realistic right?  I imagine that’s completely historically accurate.  The exhibit itself leaves something to be desired.  There’s a bible on display, and a few banners with quotations from historians.  And….scene.  I understand that recreating these communities depends largely on the historical records left behind, and given the status of African Americans in colonial times, it’s very unlikely that they left extensive written records.  Still, I wanted more.  Especially when you compare the little Baptist church with Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church.  Take a look:


First Baptist Church

First Baptist Church

Bruton Parish Church

Bruton Parish Church























Spinning, weaving, dying

Spinning, weaving, dying










Inside the little spinning/weaving workshop.  Thank God it’s a lot simpler now.  It takes me forever to finish a sweater as it is.  Can you imagine if I had to spin and dye the wool first?


The Playbooth Theatre:  All Shows Weather Permitting.  Remember – there are no small stages, only small actors.  Or something.

photo 2 photo 3












photo 4

Adios Williamsburg

photo 5

And Happy New Year!














Christmas Town.  Where children go to be amazed and grown-ups go to be children.  And I mean that in the nicest way.

My Colonial Williamsburg package included free entry to Busch Gardens’ Christmas Town.  (Although let’s get real.  Entry is not “free.”  I paid for it in my Williamsburg package.  But, whatever.)  So I was exhausted last night after walking around Colonial W’burg, but I was determined to see Christmas Town.  I was on a mission to check it out as a future vacation destination for my niece and her parents.

I’ve never been to Busch Gardens, so I have no idea what the place looks like on a “regular” day, but I believe it must be completely transformed for Christmas Town.  If you don’t own stock in the local electric company, call your broker now.  Christmas Town is truly lit up like a Christmas tree.  Times a thousand.  So you’ll need shades.

In addition to your sunglasses (haha), bring your walking shoes.  There’s a lot of ground to cover.  Christmas Town consists of several international villages:  Italy, France, Ireland, Germany, England, and a few others that I’ve forgotten.  And I guess each village is supposed to be representative of that particular country’s culture – everything from the music to the cuisine to the gift shops.  There are also special shows and performances that you can go to…but don’t be surprised if a separate ticket is required. There’s also a funicular and a train – fun for kids of all ages!

Now, I just did a quick circuit of Christmas Town.  I passed through England, Ireland and France.  Christmas week is a challenging time to visit; the crowds are unreal.  My suggestion?  Go earlier in December and if you can manage it, go twice.  Your first trip should be during daylight hours.  Consider this your reconnaissance trip.  Figure out the lay of the land and identify places you’d like to spend more time when you return.  Maybe even purchase tickets for evening shows and performances.  After your recon trip, go back to the hotel and relax.  Once the sun goes down, head back to Christmas Town.  Did I mention that there’s a shuttle that takes you from W’burg to Busch Gardens?  It picks you up right outside the Williamsburg Lodge.  You definitely want to go back after dark, so that you can see all of the Christmas lights.  It’s actually really beautiful.  My photos below don’t do it justice.

My verdict?  Christmas Town is definitely worth a visit.  Take your time, wear comfy shoes, and treat yourself to a hot chocolate.

Christmas Town:  France

Christmas Town: France

Big Ben:  Christmas Town England

Big Ben: Christmas Town England













Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 363 other followers

Unaccompanied Baggage

Unpacking the best U.S. Foreign Service blogs