Oh, how I love domestic airlines.  (Please read that with a sarcasm-laden inner voice.)

Just about a month ago, as we celebrated Flag Day and our upcoming departure for Chengdu, China, Thad and I decided that since we would be around until April that I may as well go home for a couple of weeks this summer to visit family.  Since most of the family works as teachers, summer is an ideal time, as many of them have a bit of free time.  I could have waited until later in the fall, but I foresaw the possibility of way too much classroom work headed my way, so I opted for our mutual vacation time!

Thad is delving into his Chinese studies, which consist of about five hours of language classes at FSI each day and then an hour to two hours of homework each evening.  His focus right now really needs to be Mandarin, so getting me out of his hair was another bonus of this trip home.  (Why is it that as soon as he is immersed in some language activity, I find the most brilliant meme on Stumble that I just MUST share?)

With a trip home in mind, and after some calls and Facebook-ing back and forth, it was decided that the excursion to Idaho would remain a secret to all but a select few.  What this really means is that Mom and Dad don’t know I am on the way!  Matt carefully checked some dates to make sure they would be around for the few weeks I would be home and then I booked tickets for July 19.  The plan was for Matt to invite himself to dinner, which would definitely not stand out at abnormal, and then I would show up with him and surprise them.

Once I was within about a week of that date, I found out that Mom and Dad bought tickets to the Idaho Stampede.  Hmm…that put a bit of a kink in our plans, as we would have to figure out where they were going to dinner pre-rodeo and get there are the right time.  It would be a bit weird, but we loved the idea that Mom would get to hang out for an hour and then head off to yet another event on her crammed social calendar.

All was planned and ready to go.  This morning I got up much too early (who knew there was a 5:00AM in Washington DC?) to get to the airport for my morning flight. The tickets were DC –CHI-BOI, arriving in Idaho just after noon.  The schedule was perfect!  It even allowed for an afternoon call from Mom (last night I reminded her to call BEFORE the rodeo, since it would be too late afterwards.)  Matt and I planned to giggle as I talked to her from his house.

What is it they say about the best laid plans?  Yup!  I arrived nice and early for my flight out of Reagan International, leaving sufficient time for my required pre-flight McDonald’s pancakes.  Once I realized that my terminal was void of Golden Arches establishments, foreboding struck deep in my gut.  No pancakes?  This was not going to be an optimal travel day.

Sure enough, it was all downhill from the start.  My United flight boarded normally, but after sitting on the tarmac for ninety minutes with several promises of “just fifteen more minutes folks,” the entire aircraft was de-boarded.  Apparently there was an issue with one of the three on-board navigational computers.  Everyone was ushered off the plane and put into lines as the customer service counter to rebook flights.  Twenty minutes later, when my line had moved forward by exactly two customers, an announcement came over the loudspeakers that our flight was to reboard the plane and we were headed to Chicago.

At this point, our plane took flight nearly two hours behind schedule.  There was no way most of us were going to make our connections in Chicago.  Sure enough, upon arrival, as I scurried to yet another customer service terminal, I was informed that my flight to Boise had already departed.  No problem, just book me on the next one, right?  The problem was, the next flight to Boise left Chicago at 9PM!  That’s right…9PM.  That would be nearly eleven hours later.  So much for my noontime arrival in Boise!

The clerk at the counter obviously had no power to do anything to help me out and I hate it when customers take their frustrations out on the guy at the bottom of the pecking order, so I asked where I could go to speak with a manager.  (Heck, I had ten hours to kill, so the fact that the main service desk was in the opposite terminal posed no issue for me.)

Customer service desk number 824 for the day yielded yet another line.  After waiting probably forty-five minutes, I was finally able to speak with another representative.  While waiting in line, I realized that the couple behind me and the young man behind them were all in the same situation- trying to get to Boise.  Once I finally reached the coveted counter, this employee told me that there was nothing she could do in terms of compensation, that there were no other flights to Boise today and that I would just have to wait it out.  It was time to step up the ladder a bit.  I asked to talk to a manager.  As I waited for the manager to arrive, I watched with fascination as the couple was given the same spiel as me, but the young man was quickly handed a $15 food voucher, no questions asked.  Hmmm..curious…

The manager finally arrived, charismatic and friendly as is possible.  As I explained my situation, I looked behind me to see the other three Boise-bound passengers joining in the discussion.  No problem.  They were dealing with the same thing I was.  The manager did some digging (or he possibly just hid in his office and enjoyed a Snickers bar for a few minutes) and reported back that there were no earlier flights on other airlines and there was little he could do other than offer us food vouchers and allow us into the Red Carpet Club for the day.

While this in my mind is not adequate compensation for an entire day wasted, I understand that it was all this gentleman could offer, so I thanked him for his help and accepted my $15, comfy chair, free internet access and all the cheese and crackers I could consume over the course of the next nine hours.

My high level of frustration has dimmed as the day has progressed, but my disappointment in our ruined surprise for tonight has not.  As I sit here, enjoying my cushioned window seat in the lounge of the elite fliers, I would much prefer to be visiting with family and enjoying time in Idaho.  I did use some of my waiting time productively- to submit a letter of complaint to United!  It makes me just a tad bit too happy that the letter was written in the confines of their exclusive travel room with their internet connection.

It is now 6:30 in Chicago, which means I have two and a half more hours until my flight leaves.  I will arrive in Boise at about 11:30PM, which makes my travel day eighteen hours by the time all is said and done.   I’ve ignored two incoming calls from my mom, for fear that she would overhear the very airport-ish announcements in the background. I have surfed through a good 82% of all content on the internet and I’ve finished nearly half of an awesome book about Peace Corps in China.  (Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy- hilarious!  I’ve broken the “quiet” rule in the airport travel mecca several times as I laughed at situations that I relate to all too well. )

A few more hours…cheese and crackers anyone?


Full Moon Lunacy

Even though I in no way follow the phases of the moon, heck I can’t even keep track of the days of the week now that I am not working , I would have bet my mom’s favorite teddy bear on the fact that the moon was full this weekend. As a teacher, we often joked about how the students were more wound up and craziness ensued around the time of the full moon.    Apparently, the same holds true for adult behavior during those times as well.  Etymology even points us in this direction: lunacy, lunatic…

The plan for Saturday was pedicures in the morning with Erin (necessary after the blister incident in June) and then Transformers 3 in the evening with Thad.  It sounded like a great way to spend a Saturday, and really, when all was said and done, it was a good day.  But, between the great parts, there were some really odd ones.

After having my feet doted on at a salon at Eastern Market, my pretty pink toenails headed out to meet Thad downtown for lunch.  As we traipsed about town after lunch at the Old Ebbit Grill, we ran into our first peculiar event of the day.  In front of us, a woman dressed in nearly all white with long baggy sleeves, long baggy pants and hair partially covered in a blue scarf, exited the Macy’s store.  Not a handful of paces later, a large man stormed out of the store and grabbed this woman by the shoulders.  He started hollering at her, “Are you stupid or something? Are you dumb?”  Thad and I watched, dumbfounded.  At first we weren’t sure if this man was related to her and this was some type of domestic dispute or something else entirely, but soon two other employees rolled out of the store behind the main security guard.  It seems this woman was being accused of shoplifting, as the three workers roughly escorted her back into the building.  The whole incident took place in just a matter of seconds, but it was rather strange to witness.

Strolling onward, we did a bit of window shopping and then decided to head home to get out of the sun for a few hours before the movie.  The Metro system is always good for people watching and Saturday was possibly the best I’ve seen it.  Out of laziness, we took the blue train from DC back to Crystal City.  The train car was full, but not packed.  Thad and I were lucky enough to have front row seats for the show that was about to commence.   Two stops into what we thought would be an uneventful ride home, a middle-aged gentleman and his teenage daughter boarded the train.  The man instantly struck me as a bit of an odd duck and it wasn’t long until my hunch was confirmed for an entire car-load of passengers.  As this man got on the train, he was on a cell phone, talking rather loudly.  The one side of the conversation that I could hear went something like this:

Man: If you talk to her, tell her I borrowed her phone because mine doesn’t work in the subway.  I have her phone.  I’m not lying. I borrowed it because mine doesn’t work in the tunnels!


Man: No, don’t call her.   If she asks, tell her I took it for today. Don’t make this harder.  I’m not lying.  I’m not going to break it.  I’m not going to smash it. I borrowed her phone because mine doesn’t work in the subway.


Man: It isn’t my phone.  It is hers.  I’m borrowing it just for today.  It’s not my phone.  My phone doesn’t work in the subway.  I am using hers today.  Mine doesn’t work.

The conversation continued this way endlessly.  Everyone on the train could have succinctly explained that the phone wasn’t his and why he had it, but whoever he was talking to just didn’t seem to get it.  At first, people politely read their newspapers or stared at the empty space above the heads of the others, but this whole tirade soon became too much for everyone to handle.  The quiet giggling started with one young gal as her boyfriend taped the incident on a phone, but quickly spread throughout the front of the car.  A good minute into the routine, the women around us were passing out tissues to wipe away running mascara and holding their hands over their faces in a vain attempt to disguise their own laughter.  As this under-the-breath chuckling continued, I thought the poor man’s daughter was going to die of shame.

Once the borrower-of-the-cellphone finished his call, he turned to his daughter and told her to text the apparent receiver of the call that he had borrowed the phone because his didn’t work in the Metro.  (Really?  That point wasn’t made painfully clear in the phone call itself?) Again, a long conversation occurred about the ownership and reason for borrowing the phone. She quietly told him that everyone was looking at them and he was embarrassing her, but he loudly proclaimed he didn’t care and told her to “Go stand in the corner!”  This guy totally sent his mortified teenage daughter to stand in the corner of the moving train!

A stop later, the daughter was un-banished from the corner so that the dad could tell her that they needed to get off and trade to the yellow line.   “We need to get on the yellow line.  Yellow, like a bus.”  As if this poor girl was color blind! Luckily for the gal, their stop finally arrived and she was able to escape into the catacombs that are the DC Metro system.  I was impressed with how calmly this young lady dealt with her obviously wacky dad and hope to heaven that whoever actually owns that cell phone is a bit more relaxed and less excruciating to travel with!

Relief was felt throughout the train after the exit of this odd little family and we made our way home in relative normalcy.  If only that normalcy had lasted the extent of the day.  It was time to see one of the great cartoons from our childhood played out on the big screen, so after packing my sweater in preparation for the inevitably arctic setting of the movie theater, we headed into Chinatown.  A vat of soda later, as the climactic battle between Autobot and  Decepticon waged in full force, our theater was suddenly filled with strobe lights.  At first we both chalked it up to an idiot with a cell phone, but it quickly became apparent that the lights went along with the evacuation notice being broadcast over the loudspeakers.  You know the old saying about not yelling “fire” in a theater?  That’s where we were at!  Only, this theater is located on the third floor of a building.  So, let’s see: 14 theaters, opening weekend of Harry Potter, massive amounts of people= recipe for disaster.  Luckily, things went much smoother than I was imagining as this all happened.  With an undercurrent of panic, the crowd maintained order was we exited the theater, headed down a back stairwell and into the streets behind the movie house.

At this point there seemed to be little information or plan.  It didn’t take long before the lack of fire was apparent, but the alarms continued to go off, people were everywhere and organization was not to be found.  Rather than wait an hour to see the last ten minutes of the movie, we assumed the Autobots won (mostly because Optimus Prime is awesome!) and decided to enjoy the mild evening.

Our day of full-moon incidents ended with one other small occurrence.  As we wandered out of Chinatown and toward the Capital Building, we walked through an area of town filled with bars and their Saturday evening patrons.  One man, having just been forcefully invited to leave one such establishment, decided to take his anger out on a guy headed into that same place.  He proceeded to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and scream at this seemingly random and innocent older guy headed into the bar.  The funny part about this whole thing was that the drunk guy’s insults included a lot of “fat” and “huge” (all of course proceeded by a lovely, multi-functional  four-letter word that starts with an “f.”)  Problem?  The receiver of the verbal abuse was in no way fat; he really wasn’t even a politically correct “bigger.”  “Balding” or “aging” would have been much more accurate insults!

What was there to do at this point other than come home and instantly Google “full moon” to see if that would explain the craziness of the day.  In 0.12 seconds, I had 56,000 hits, with the top one confirming my suspicions-Friday night had been a full moon.   From the seizure of a shoplifter to awkward moments on the subway and theater fires to misplaced insults, it was definitely full-moon worthy day!

For You the Flag is Flung

O Captain! My Captain!

Walt Whitman

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
    But O heart! heart! heart!          5
      O the bleeding drops of red,
        Where on the deck my Captain lies,
          Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;   10
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
    Here Captain! dear father!
      This arm beneath your head;
        It is some dream that on the deck,   15
          You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;   20
    Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
      But I, with mournful tread,
        Walk the deck my Captain lies,
          Fallen cold and dead.

While Flag Day was the main event of the last few weeks, it has hardly been the only event.  We were lucky enough to have some friends from Idaho fly in for the big day and then spend time touring our nation’s lovely capital city.

One of the great things about living in the DC area is hosting friends/family who have never been here before.  It is awesome to be with people on their first circuit of so many iconic places.  For those of us raised in the West, images of the Washington Monument lit by fireworks or the view of the White House from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial are ones that we encountered year after year in our history books, but remain two dimensional until the opportunity to cross the country arrives.  Those photographs were always compelling, but there really isn’t anything like seeing those same places in person.  Having people in town and experiencing those sites with them for the first time is a great reminder of just how tremendous it is to live here.

The weekend after Flag Day was the first time we have had a chance to get out of town, so we rented a car and headed out for short adventure.  That Saturday we filled with a self-guided car tour of Gettysburg.  I am not sure the guys all realized that it was sixteen stops long!  It really was a full-day activity, but the park area is set up so that the visitors can go through it in chronological order of that terrible three day battle.  After information overload from each of the stops, we ended our tour at the Gettysburg Cemetery where Lincoln gave his famous ten-sentence Gettysburg Address.  Sunday saw us visiting the homes of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  It was incredible to see the massive undertaking these estates are and image the work that must have gone into creating them hundreds of years ago.  I especially liked the beds that Jefferson built into the walls of the home to save space!  They looked like fabulous places to curl up with a great book or two.

Flag Day wasn’t the end of Thad’s A-100 training, so while he went back to work on Monday, I continued to sightsee around town.  We hit the requisite Smithsonian Museums, (had a great fry bread lunch at the Native Americans Museum) , walked the monuments and took tours of the National Archives (who knew butter was a food group at one point?), the Bureau of Engraving (no free samples) and the Library of Congress.

As another week came to an end, so did Thad’s A-100 class.  Friday July 1 was the last day of orientation and in the afternoon the official swearing in ceremony was held at Main State.  He, along with his 93 classmates, to their oath and became official diplomats in the Foreign Service.  It was a nicely put together ceremony, formal enough to convey the importance of the job, but not filled with never-ending speakers.

With time running out for our Idaho guests, it was time to celebrate Independence Day.  Sadly, I didn’t plan ahead enough to get Idaho Spuds shipped in from back home, but I think the Idahoans may have been the only ones in our group who would have enjoyed them anyway!  We were lucky enough to be able to meet up with several China RPCVs and watch the fireworks as they lit up the night sky over the Washington Monument.  (No longer is it just something from my history books!)

The past weeks have been filled with exciting milestones in Thad’s career and visits to amazing historical sights with friends from home.  As A-100 wraps up and Chinese lessons begin, Thad will be kept busy with studies and I will continue to explore Washington on my own!

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*Me at Mt. Vernon

*Thad and me after the official Swear-In ceremony (He’s official folks!)

*Jeremy, me, Thad and Jess at the Swear-In ceremony

*Enjoying the fireworks on the National Mall with friends

*4th of July fireworks at the Washington Monument

The “Real” Flag Day Wasn’t June 14

When the Ross family Foreign Service adventure started two years ago, I think we both looked it as a long shot.  Thad’s first test was taken on a bit of a whim.  He took it the day before we flew out of Idaho for a six week trip through our old stomping grounds in Gansu, China and then on to a variety of beautiful stops throughout Southeast Asia.  A couple of years and many tests later, we found ourselves facing the biggest event yet: Flag Day!

The build-up to Flag Day actually begins just a few days into class when the new hires are given the bid list.  This list lays out the positions available to the members of the class upon the completion of their training.  There are 94 people in Thad’s class and the initial bid list had 94 positions.  (The list had a few additions and subtractions, but basically, it includes one post for each person.)  Prior to receiving the bid list, I thought I had a pretty decent grasp of world geography, but once it was in-hand, I realized I may have let my 8th grade geography teacher, Mr. Shake, as well as my #1 teaching buddy Jim,  down a bit.  GoogleMaps and I spent a bit of quality time together that first evening!

Flag Day is a tradition for members of each A-100 class. We, along with nearly every other member of the class, spent about two weeks pouring over bid lists, talking endlessly about the pros and cons of each possible position and trying to come up with a strategy that fit both Thad’s career needs and our personal preferences. Bid lists became just about the ONLY topic of conversation when any two or more FSOs or EFMs (that’s State Department jargon for spouses) were within communicating distance!

As a part of this preparation process, I logged numerous hours in the Overseas Briefing Center- a library of resources that gives an endless array of information about each Foreign Service posting around the world.  For every posting, there is a box of information that includes official data from the embassy/consulate, which is nice to read, but the more useful folder of information is the one labeled “Personal Post Insights.”  These are a collection of surveys from officers and their spouses from each of the postings.  While the official information was great and full of statistics and pertinent facts, the PPI’s had what I was looking for- a realistic view of day to day life!  I quickly realized that each one had to be taken with a grain of salt, as the surveys are extremely subjective.  While I loved my time in Peace Corps, I know that if I had been asked to fill in a similar report on a particularly bad day, the results may have been less than positive, even though my overall experience was wonderful.  This was crucial to remember, as I read that in one not-to-be-named post as the responder said that s/he “…would rather stick my hand in a blender than spend another month in this country!”  (Knowing the country, I think it is rather fabulous that a blender was an available option!  Count your blessings buddy!)

Another part of this bid list process includes a meeting with the FSO’s CDO.  There are a handful of CDOs, each one assigned to a group of class members.  The CDO’s job is to get to know the skill-set/desires of their hires and then place them in the positions that are best for both the department and the employee.  Spouses are strongly encouraged to attend the CDO meeting, so off we went to Foggy Bottom to make our wants known.  This is where the process gets a bit crazy/confusing.  In the meeting, the employee is asked about their preferences in everything from language training to focus regions in the world to needs dealing with children and pets.  The whole idea is to let preferences be known, but at the end the CDO bluntly reminded us that Thad needed to be “worldwide available.”  We, of course, were well aware of this and really were open to nearly any placement, but when asked what we liked, we gave our opinions. I walked out of that meeting a little worried that Thad’s CDO thought we were too picky and set in our desire to be in Asia.  I was really concerned that we didn’t make a good impression and that that may impact his placement.  With nothing to do but fret and worry, we headed home to wait out the few weeks until the announcements were to be made.

Finally, Flag Day arrived!  This really was a day we had been talking about for years, so it was great to finally have it upon us.  Josh and Jeremy, two of Thad’s high school friends, were able to fly in for the ceremony and we were lucky enough to catch a ride to FSI with the wife of one of Thad’s classmates.  We met John, a close friend from PC China there, and anxiously waited to hear the Ross family’s fate.

The Flag Day ceremony is fairly informal with lots of young children in attendance and a rather festive atmosphere.  I came prepared with labeled print-offs that included each possible country’s flag and the post assignment city, as well as our finalized bid-list with our rankings so that I could check off each one as it was called.    After handing out the spare copies and a handful of pens/highlighters to our group, it was time to get started.  Just a few posts in, my personal number one choice (Kathmandu, Nepal) was called and given out, but I wasn’t too upset, as it was a long shot option for us.  It wasn’t very many placements after that though that we learned our fate.  The flag of China popped up on the giant screen at the front of the room and the announcer called out “China, Chengdu.”  This was Thad’s number one choice and right at the top of my list too.  After a seemingly endless pause I heard, “Thad Ross.”  I couldn’t believe it!!  I think a small yelp went out from our row and Thad was beaming as he picked up his flag and folder of information and nearly skipped back to his seat!  We couldn’t believe it!  My worry about the CDO meeting was meritless; apparently we made a better impression than I thought!

Thad’s assignment was called within the first third of the flags, so then it was a matter of waiting while the rest of his class got their postings.  I quickly gave up on marking my sheets and spent the rest of the ceremony texting family and friends back in Idaho with the great news!  It was tough not being able to sit with him, as we both wanted to talk about what had just happened and start planning for this next big adventure!

Chengdu, China will be our new home starting in April 2012.  Between now and then, Thad will be in a series of classes that include both language and consular training.  I will spend a lot of time preparing for the move and enjoying the DC area before that time rolls around.  We couldn’t be happier with the results of Flag Day and are thrilled to undertake this new journey together.

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