Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Not as Young as I Once Was

So, I'm hurting. So hurting. Just got back from a great weekend in St. Louis playing in a volleyball tournament. There were 15 teams in our play level from all over the country (Baltimore, Dallas, Florida, Columbus). It was a lot of fun, but I'm paying for it now. Played 8 pool/group games on Saturday (8 AM - 5 PM). We went 0-8. Yep, everyone was scared of us. Sunday was elimination time (two loses and you are out). We were the bottom seed in the bracket play, kind of like starting as the 16th seed in March Madness. And we lost our first match to bump us into the loser bracket. But as with any team I play with, there has to drama. And the funny thing, we didn't lose another game. We clawed our way through the losers bracket to the Championship game. Beating 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th seeded teams (who all lost at some point). Everyone was saying "you guys are still here?"

While we lost in Championship game, 2nd place isn't bad. And it was a lot of fun. But playing 8 games on Saturday and another 8 on Sunday (because we just kept winning) takes its toll on my 28 year old bones and muscles. Might ask for physical therapy gift certificates for my wedding gift because I feel that I'll still be hurting in October.

And I got a little beat up. Hitting the ground, scraps, bumps and bruises. Check out the picture. Oh yea. And who says that volleyball isn't a contact sport.

And Masha will be happy to know that I had to cut my shell necklace in order to play in the tournament. She absolutely hated the necklace. But maybe I'll put it back together for our wedding. She'll love that. A little wedding gift.

Anyway, enjoy the pictures from the tournament. And the exhausted look on James (old friend I've known since 3rd grade and plays on another team) after the long weekend.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Go ahead, poke me again

It's confirmed - I have magical powers. I made it snow in Yerevan today. We've been having warm(er) weather the last few days, and the giant mounds of slush on the roads had begun to shrink. I put my down jacket and insulated boots back in the closet. Last night it rained, and this afternoon, as I was walking into the conservatory for my voice lesson, I thought to myself, "I'm so glad it's not snowing." An hour and a half later, while I was in my car driving to church, the rain turned to snow. After the service was over, there were four inches on the ground. Yerevan has a way of poking you in the eye just when you think things are looking up. I hear the temperature is supposed to drop way down in the coming weeks.

This evening I went to a Masquerade Ball put on by some folks from USAID. I got dressed up, but wore my Alaskan Xtratuf boots to the event (and brought my dress shoes in a bag). After an hour or so of dancing, I got fed up with the heels, and put my Xtratufs back on. They were a big hit. Carina tried to take a picture, but she couldn't seem to get one that showed the full splendor of the Xtratuf. She said it was because the room was dark, but I think it was one too many vodka-and-cranberries. That's her (in the mask) and Taline in the picture below.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Here comes St. Louis!!!

This weekend, I’m heading off to St. Louis to play in a volleyball tournament. It should be a great time, but I don’t know if my body can handle the 8 hours of playing/day, followed by the 8 hours of drinking/night. Sure, you say that there are still 8 hours available of sleep, but that doesn’t mean my body recognizes that. Any tips would be helpful. I’ll send you pictures later and put them up here.

Nothing much to report on the election front. Voting is on Tuesday, so there is a lot of pushing and shoving on the media front in order to get coverage. Like the current mayor and his pledge to pay $100 to any college student who works on Tuesday to hand out literature at the polls to voters. I should be able to predict his vote percentage based on the amount of college students out drinking and paying off bar tabs on Tuesday night.

Additionally, I hope that you’ve all had a chance to enter into the February Madness pool and made your picks for the elections. There are some great prizes!!! But no $100, sorry.

Prom and my run in with the fridge

Alright, so I’ve been a little lazy in the posting department as of late. Masha has sent me some strongly worded hate mail about how the blog represents our commitment to togetherness, longevity, and our future. I thought that was a mortgage.

Anyway, here is a little update (with no pictures sorry, but the censors will have a fit).

Masha still won’t allow me to post her Valentine’s Day cookies online, so you’ll just have to take my word on it that they are tasty. Very tasty. Ladies, you need to send them to your guy. Trust me, you’ll come home to a happy man.

Also, ask my mom and she’s always waiting to hear what part of my body I have hurt next. Well, as luck would have it, I busted my eye lid open this past weekend. Again. Let’s see here, 12 stitches on my left eyebrow for running into a trashcan when I was like 10. A couple more on my right for running into a volleyball net on the ice (and doing a Jackie Chan style flip onto my face) when I was 12. Well now you can choke up a busted left eyelid thanks to a refrigerator door. I was running through the house last Saturday during our Prom (more on that later) and hit the edge of the stainless steel door of the refrigerator. Oh yea, it was a little gusher. Thankfully no stitches. And no dent to the door. Stainless steel, gotta love it.

Now, to the PROM!!!!

Yes, my co-op house had a prom. It was a lot of fun, too much (as you can tell from my run in with the door). We decorated the house up in red, black and silver in a Valentine’s Day theme. Had a photo booth set up for pictures, and way too much punch (mixed by an unlicensed bartender). Red lights, a DJ (local iPod), chandelier and what prom wouldn’t be complete without a pregnant prom queen and 70’s style chaperones with rulers (see if you can spot them, hint: mustache and short leering woman).


Now, as for my outfit, Masha doesn’t like the shirt. How can you not like the shirt? It’s awesome. Check it out. Ragstock: $19. How can you beat that. And it's complemented by the suit that I got in Armenia. Ohhhhhhhhhh, that's so hot.

And I’m threatening to bring it to Kabul. Who supports me in that effort?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Forgiveness Sunday

I was quite pleasantly surprised to discover yesterday that there is a beautiful Orthodox church literally feet from our hotel here on the hill in Tbilisi. Made it very easy to attend church this morning, and this evening for the Forgiveness Vespers (this is the service that kicks off Great Lent). The services were, of course, in Georgian, which sounds completely like gutteral gibberish to me. But the church was packed for both services, and the women were all in skirts and headscarves, and I would say that the majority of churchgoers were in their 20s and 30s. I was in Georgia for Forgiveness Sunday last year too, and noticed the same thing then. It's very pleasant, particularly after the empty churches of Armenia, where it seems most people just tend to stop in to place a couple dozen candles and then walk right back out again. It seems to be more superstition than anything else. I get a very different feeling here. The singing was also gorgeous. Georgian polyphony is fascinating. The tonal structure definitely has an Eastern feel to it, but it is still accessible by ears used to Western harmony. And once again, I find myself smitten by Georgian iconography. It's less austere and more folksy, for lack of a better word, than the Byzantine icons I tend to gravitate towards. I took the below photos during my trip here last year. I stopped into several icon shops on Saturday, looking for a Georgian style icon, but have yet to find one I want to put up in my home. I plan to take another trip here before I leave, though, so hopefully I'll find one.

I think I would like to live here. I used to be scared of the crime, but I really love the churches all over the city, and particularly the vibrant faith that I see within them. I also like the robustness of the culture. Armenian culture is very distinct as well, but, particularly as manifested in its visual and performance art, it's a lot more melancholy than the exuberant Georgian culture. Maybe we can come here after Afghanistan (though I'm not sure how Jeremy would feel about that).

So today, after church, Taline and I went to the English language bookstore, where I picked up a copy of "Stalin:In the Court of the Red Tsar." Started reading it this afternoon. Very interesting. Then we went to CD store, where I picked up some Georgian folk music, and then to another cafe, where we read for a bit. This evening we met up with our friends Sonya and Amy from Yerevan, who happen to be staying in the room next door. I'm pooped from all the strenuous sitting around we did today, so I left them in the bar and came down to bed. It's been a nice, relaxing weekend.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

In Georgia

We arrived in Georgia around 2 p.m., after a 4.5-hour drive. I was wrong - it's not 100 miles to Tbilisi; it's about 170. So we made decent time and didn't get lost (not really, anyway). Then we went straight to McDonald's for Filet of Fish sandwiches and french fries, and then did some art shopping and cafe sitting. We are staying at Betsy's Place, a nice hotel at the top of a hill, with a great view of the city. Tonight we went out for a good Georgian meal (sturgeon shashlik, khachapouri and salad with walnuts), and were surprised by some phenomenal restaurant music. There was a male quartet that sang some traditional Georgian music and then started taking requests ... from the table of Azeris sitting a few feet from us. Taline's Armenian blood sprang out from under her pop culture-loving American exterior, but there were no altercations. We did, however, request American music, and they obliged us with "My Way," after a terrific rendition of Funiculi Funicula for a table of Italians. Fantastic music, and a very nice evening. I stupidly forgot to bring my camera cable, so I won't be able to post pictures until I return to Yerevan on Monday.

Midnight train to Georgia

OK, so it's actually a morning Jeep to Georgia, but still, I'm leaving town for the three-day weekend. Taline and I are going to go stay in a nice hotel and I am going to eat a lot of khachapouri (Georgian cheesy bread and possibly the best comfort food there is) before Lent begins on Monday. We're taking off in a few minutes for the five-hour, 100-mile drive. I'll have photos when I return.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Bargain of the week

So, I got my wedding dress this week! It's a sample from a bridal shop that retails in the $800-$900 range, and I bought it off eBay for less than $100. Not bad. I'd show you the picture but then Jeremy might peek, and he's not allowed to see.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

He's all heart ...

Happy Valentine's Day! So this morning Jeremy called and I got to open the Valentine's Day present he had sent me, which came in two boxes last week because it was too big to fit into one. It made me laugh. Here it is:

It's a department store Valentine's display ornament from Carson Pirie Scott, whose downtown Chicago store is going out of business. I actually love it, but I'm not sure why ...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Places in Between

So, I'm sure that most of you know about as little about Afghanistan as I do. In light of that, I'm going to start reading a book called "The Places in Between" by Rory Stewart. I understand that it's a great book about a diplomat who backpacked across Afghanistan right after the downfall of the Taliban.

In fact, my mom is sending me a copy and is working on starting an online book club in order to study the book. So, I offer an invitation to all of you to read the book and offer your insights. It'll be a great opportunity to begin to understand the Afghani culture and then to compare it to our actual experience in the country. Hopefully we'll be able to get out of the capital a little, but if nothing else, it'll be a great experience and something that you can help witness.

Monday, February 12, 2007


This being the last week before Lent begins, I had a bunch of friends over last night to eat blini. Blini are Russian yeast pancakes that you eat with smoked fish and chopped-up egg and sour cream and other yummy things. They are traditionally eaten during the week before Lent, also known as "Maslenitsa," from the Russian word "maslo," or butter. So about a dozen folks came over, and my Ukrainian friend Irina and I fried up blin after blin in the kitchen.

First we ate them with lox and red caviar (and fried ground beef for the less cultured), and then we brought out raspberry sauce (from my frozen raspberry stock) and Nutella and whipped cream for the ever-popular dessert blini. Everyone had a good time, but no one drank the vodka Brian brought. We're all still recovering from last weekend.

(I have more photos but they refuse to load on my crappy dial-up Internet connection. I'll put them up later in the week.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Reception hall and coffee grounds

It's 2:07 a.m. here in Yerevan, and I can't sleep. It's either because of the Armenian coffee I had today at lunch, or because I'm so excited that Jeremy and I have chosen a venue and a caterer for our wedding reception. My parents went down to the Shenandoah Valley today to check out a few places Jeremy and I had been talking to, and upon hearing their impressions, we decided to go with an historic hall and a local caterer. I'm very happy with the decision (not to mention relieved that the biggest wedding-related chore is over with, and much cheaper than I thought it would be). And now we have a definite wedding date: October 28!

The Armenian coffee this afternoon was pretty good, too. Taline read my cup, and there was a big tree with a bull on it, which apparently means that I am going to charge through some minor annoyance and come through alright. Then I read her cup (she's been teaching me how), and I was quite proud of myself because today I saw a rabbit (which indicates a coward - not Taline, but someone in her life), and a swan (which indicates marriage), and a seven (which indicates luck) and a tulip (which indicates love and marriage, again). Usually I catch a seven or a candle (means make a wish) or something, and then start seeing aliens which, of course, leads me to predict a late-night abduction (duh). But today's cup reading was a lot more credible, apparently. Look, just because she doesn't *remember* being abducted, doesn't mean she wasn't ...

Friday, February 9, 2007

Chicago Politics!!!

Ahhhhhhhhhhh, Chicago politics. Isn't it great? We have old felons, potential new felons, and good old fashioned name calling up here in Chicago. While I really only deal with students and getting them out to volunteer at campaigns, part of my internship is to keep up to date with the comings and goings of candidates that are vying for offices with the City Council, as well as for Mayor and City Clerk. So, for the past month or so, I've reading the blogs, listening to the radio and scouring the newspapers looking for new information on what is going on.

So, below, you'll find some of the highlights and quick hits of the funnier side of Chicago politics. Enjoy.

First up, welcome to Chicago Politics, Vegas-style. Where else could there be a betting pool on who wins the races for City Councilman (called Alderman here)? It's like March Madness, but for politicians. Check it out and lay your bets. (This also a great website to check out various candidates and how much money they have raised). And for those of you who are wondering what does an Alderman exactly do and why are there 50? I have the answers.

Second, there can't be a Chicago politics race without a little controversy. The first deals with an alderwoman who is currently charged with corruption, but can still run. Interesting??

And if that isn't enough check this OUT.
And now, who says that you can't have a second chance at election. Just ask these guys.

And then there are the current local politicians who want a new office, but are convicted felons who took bribes while in office: 1 and 2

And if you didn't think family wasn't important. Check out this local race. It involves Jesse Jackson Jr.'s wife versus the daughter of another Chicago politician and their bid for City Council. Oh and Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Mr. Beavers have an old feud. Think Hatfields and McCoys.

Now, let's see what today's paper says:

Oh yea, Obama is set to announce he is running (and subsequently wants to miss the first Presidential debate). T-shirts, buttons, flyers and the guy hasn't even announced yet. And the blogs are already saying that they've spotted Matt Damon and George Clooney are in Springfield for the announcement. Some of the high school students I work with are going down to Springfield tomorrow in order to witness his announcement. I'll let you know what they say.

Oh, and here is a debate with Keyes (who Obama ran against for Senate in 2004) that he had while running for Senate. How is he?

Well, now that you have had a taste of the political score, I can officially say "Welcome to Chicago" in the proper way.

Failure and success

Well, apparently we're not so good at this blogging thing. I think the whole point is that you're supposed to write every day (I figured that with two of us on the job, we'd succeed, but clearly I was wrong). The problem is that I'm still getting over my initial disdain for the blog. Why would anyone think that people would be interested in reading their daily ramblings on the Internet? But I read blogs quite often. I read those kept by my friends who live overseas. I read a lot of personal finance blogs (good tips to be found there), and lately I've been reading wedding planning blogs (also helpful occasionally). I enjoy reading them, and have found many to be well done. And this blog is really for an audience of people who already know us and care about what we are doing.

The success part of this entry deals with Tuesday's poker tournament. I took second place, and I was only a tad bit upset that I had not continued the first-place streak I had begun two tournaments earlier. Second place is still OK. We have a biweekly game of Embassy folk, and usually there are seven or eight players. I'm the only girl. We play Texas Hold 'Em (the same game they play on the World Championship of Poker), which I have gotten pretty good at. I still stink at reading people, but I have learned the odds pretty well. The great thing about Texas Hold 'Em is that, while luck still plays a role, there is actually a skill set you can learn that will make you a better player. I learned that while in language training at the Foreign Service Institute before coming to Armenia, when I played in a weekly tournament. My friend Josh would call my cards all the time, and he was often right. It frustrated me so much that I actually went out and bought a poker book and studied it. Go ahead and laugh, but reading the book really did help. There's no substitute for practice, of course (or avid watching of the World Championship of Poker when it's on TV), but it helps to have a few basic pointers under your belt. I hear there is a good game in Kabul; I'm sure that after a year there, I'll be an even better player.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Just a girl in the world

When I worked for AP, aged 22-24, I was often asked during press conferences what college newspaper I represented. And while sometimes the weight of my employer's reputation worked in my favor, often it wasn't enough to garner any respect for my still-teenaged face. Now I'm 28 years old and a U.S. diplomat, but I still find that to be the case sometimes.

To wit: This weekend, a bunch of us went out to celebrate a friend's birthday. We were at a popular downtown bar, and all of a sudden I noticed that a mid-level, middle-aged government official from an agency I regularly deal with was sitting at a corner table. Feeling ever the diplomat (we're never off-duty, you know), and not yet hit by the impact of the two tequila poppers I had just had, I decided to go over and say hi. I should mention that I had just seen him in a meeting two days earlier, in which I had quite harshly given him a piece of the U.S. Embassy's mind regarding allegations of corruption in his office. And when I said hello this weekend, he looked at me blankly. I barely had time to identify myself before he grabbed me around the waist and began to twirl me about in a bizarre, awkward version of swing dancing. As soon as I was able to disentangle myself from his grasp (about 30 seconds later), I went back to my table. (Though my friends had noticed the clearly-not-my-type middle-aged man groping me, none of them bothered to come to my rescue.) He followed me, tried to dance with me again, and when I demurred, grabbed my hand and kissed it. Then he shoved his hands into his pockets and produced handfuls of carnation blossoms. He pulled them out of the outer pockets of his jacket, the inner pockets of his jacket, the pockets of his pants and who knows where else. I began to get uncomfortable by his attention (and not a little annoyed that this fellow whom I had soundly scolded was treating me like just another woman to hit on at a bar). Finally he left, and eventually disappeared out the door. He returned a few minutes later with an enormous bouquet of flowers, which he brought over to me. After that failed to produce the desired result, he let me be to flirt with other women.

Gee, wonder whether he'll take me seriously the next time I have to deliver a harsh message?

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Rotten Broccoli Soup

Rotten broccoli soup is not bad-tasting or poorly made broccoli soup. Today, I made soup out of broccoli that was clearly past its prime. Brown, to be exact. See? Next to the broccoli is the rest of the pathetic produce I bought during my weekly trip to GUM, the produce market today. And this stuff wasn't cheap. (As you can see, I did manage to find one single good head of broccoli. I'm saving that one to eat steamed or raw.)

To understand why I would pay through the nose for brown broccoli, you have to understand first that broccoli only made it into the Armenian markets literally three weeks ago. It just wasn't available before that. And the funny thing is that broccoli has never been my favorite vegetable. But during last week's trip to GUM, I was on a mission to find vegetables that had not been pickled and that were not tubers. I needed something dark and green (vitamin A deficiency, anyone?) I saw the broccoli and it didn't matter how much it cost - I had to have it. Last week's broccoli was in considerably better shape than this week's. When I got home today, the dilemma of what exactly to do with three and a half pounds of brown broccoli hit me. It's only going to get browner, after all, and in the States I never would have bought it to begin with. So, rotten broccoli soup was born. I threw in the brown broccoli, some vegetable boullion, milk, lots of garlic and pepper, and it tasted pretty good. It wasn't perhaps as green as it should have been, but it passed.

I'm longing for summer. This past summer, I bought a bucket of raspberries (three kilos) every week, and froze half for the winter (and I am so glad I did). There was lettuce (now $1.30 per "bunch," which consist of about six measly, mealy leaves), cherries, apricots, strawberries, tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, dill, and loads of purple basil. I really, really miss summer.

How's the other half coping?

Well, it's been an interesting year to say the least. Graduate school, internship, and moving to Chicago. All while trying to fly off to Armenia as many times as possible to see Masha (only managed two visits). It's been a unique experience growing closer to Masha without her actually being on the same continent. Thank goodness for internet phone calls and Yahoo Messenger. And the only other alternative would have been letter writing (spell check isn't included). And everyone knows that wasn't happening.

But it all paid off. Becoming engaged to Masha has definitely become the highlight of my life. It was great to go through the process of designing the ring, setting up the proposal, proposing and then spending those precious first moments soaking it in with Masha. And with modern technology, we've been able to begin planning our wedding. Must be a trip for the reception halls and caterers to be getting phone calls from both Armenia and Chicago about the same event.

Not going to lie and say that it didn't suck when Masha had to leave so quickly. But we know that it's only temporary, so I just keep telling myself that in 50 years, I won't remember these 5 months apart.

In terms of coping, I'm doing alright. Not liking the distance and time away from my fiance. Definitely not, and I wish that she was here with me, but it'll happen soon enough. But this it is also what makes our relationship truly ours. Our whole relationship has always been an interesting story, so no sense in making our engagement a typical period. Instead of moving in together, looking for a house or going from store to store for the registry, we just move to separate countries.

And forget about having a typical honeymoon. While most people take 2 weeks and then get back to their job, we're planning a one year romantic getaway to Afghanistan. But Kabul will be great. We'll be in their before the tourists, snapping up deals, and enjoying the local scene before Lonely Planet turns it into the next Las Vegas.

Alright, enough from the man in the relationship. I know that you are all really more interested in what Masha has to say. So, I'll sign off and let you wait for Masha's next musings. Maybe eventually we'll write one together. But I doubt she'll let me near the keyboard.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Engaged ... and alone

Yesterday was Groundhog Day, and if Punxsutawney Phil lived in Yerevan, he definitely would have predicted six more weeks of winter for us. Earlier this week, I woke up to a crystal clear morning and drank in the view of Mt. Ararat as I crossed the drunken bridge (so named because it is flanked by brandy factories) on the way to work. It was also the first time since returning from vacation in the States on January 16 that I'd had a clear view of the road from my window on the third floor of the Embassy. The Embassy sits just above Yerevani Lich (Yerevan Lake), which means that on days already prone to be foggy, it gets lost in a raw, mean cloud. Didn't think fog could be mean, did you? It can. Especially when you've been waiting a week to get out of town and the planes aren't taking off because the airport is also built in a fog pit. But that was last year.

This year, my vacation to the States went smoothly. Jeremy met me at Dulles on Dec. 30, and we spent New Year's at the newly renovated Herbst house in Virginia. The new sun room is beautiful, and it and the rest of the house is jammed with rugs and tchotchkes my parents had collected during nine straight years abroad. It was nice to be home. Jeremy played basketball and watched sports with Nick and Johnny, and my sisters and I had a chance to catch up.

But of course, the big news, is that Jeremy and I are now engaged. He proposed on January 9 in Chicago, with a beautiful ring he had designed himself, in a beautiful condo he had rented for the week that had a great view of Lake Michigan. Later in the week, we went to visit his parents in Nebraska. They threw us a lovely engagement brunch, complete with huge blinking rubber heart rings for the guests. We are very happy, but the euphoria has been tempered somewhat by the fact that I flew back to Armenia less than a week later, and we won't see each other again until my tour is up, probably sometime in early June. At least I have this rock on my hand to stare at all day. I'll let Jeremy tell you all how he is coping.

We decided to start this blog mostly because I've really enjoyed reading those kept by my Foreign Service colleagues, and also because we thought it would be a fun way to keep our families apprised of our lives as we count down the days to our wedding (still in the very early planning stages), live in the same city for the first time ever (those initial three weeks in Armenia hardly count) and prepare for our first year of marriage ... in Afghanistan.