Searching New Sidewalks

Between the ever-so-trying trip home from Idaho last week (click here if you missed that saga), Friday’s government-sponsored packout and the subsequent organizing and reorganizing of suitcases to go with us to China, the only time I have to blog is at 30,000 feet above the surface of the Earth.  So, with a five hour flight in front of me (okay, four and a half at this point, since I was just cleared to use my electronic devices), I figured now is as good of a time as ever to get an entry logged and star-dated.

I finally made it home, not on Wednesday as planned, but at 2AM on Thursday morning. After falling into the giant king-sized bed, I slept for a few hours, but once Thad’s alarm when off, I was wide awake, not because I was feeling overly refreshed and rejuvenated, but rather because my uptight, must-be-organized genes were kicking in and I knew I had only a day to get the whole mo-partment ready for the movers.

Thursday was spent taking everything out of every closet, drawer, nook and cranny in good ol’ #905 and placing it in one of four piles:

*Suitcase-These are things going with us on the plane to China, including most of our electronics, clothing for both work and weekends for an indeterminate number of weeks, a variety of shoes to go with those clothes, as well as toiletries and nail polish to get me though until the other forms of baggage transportation come through. (I’m currently sitting at a mere five bottles of nail polish to see me through that period. I will be creatively mixing and matching those colors until my box of sixty-some shades arrives in Chengdu. Don’t ask about the shoe situation. It isn’t pretty.)

*UAB- Unaccompanied baggage is a shipment of limited weight that is goes by air, but not with us. It is supposed to arrive a few weeks behind the owners, but I’ve heard in China that “few weeks” can easily stretch to a couple of months. All of our winter clothes are in this shipment, as well as comfy house stuff, like throw blankets and pillows. Thad’s PS3 and video game collection is also in this load, although I am not sure it will do him much good until the TV arrives.

*HHE- The household shipment is truly the slow-boat-to-China load. It will literally get placed on a container ship, where it will trek across the Pacific Ocean, arriving in the Middle Kingdom at some unknown future date. It could be a few weeks after the arrival of UAB , or a few more months. Who knows! This shipment has all of the goodies I bought at Costco about six weeks ago (again, click here if you missed that adventure!), as well as my Christmas tree, a sizable stack of books, and all of the boxes from our house in Idaho that we packed up a year ago. (At this point, I have no idea what randomness lurks in those!)

*Storage- The final pile from Friday morning belonged to storage. These are things that we didn’t  want to take with us to China, but rather wanted put in permanent storage until we are living back in the US. The tricky part of this pile was that the moving company required a minimum of 200 pounds to put a load into storage, but we were well below that level. (This may be the first and only time in my life that I want to see the number on the scale go up!) We had a couple of boxes that were meant to go to permanent storage when we packed out in Idaho, but somehow mistakenly ended up in Arlington with us. (These boxes include such necessary items as the feather pen used by guests to sign-in at our wedding reception, my 7th grade mosaic of a pig made from kidney beans and split peas, and my ginormous graduate program portfolio.) On top of that, we wanted to put our TV in that stack, as we already have one headed to China from the Idaho house. When the packing company representative came to the apartment a few weeks ago to do the pre-pack survey, he estimated that we were about fifty pounds short of being able to do a permanent storage pile, so we either had to up the weight or haul that stuff halfway around the world with us. With no desire to take my bean-art to China, we searched high and low for random junk to add to that pile, but came up empty handed. It was at this point that I remembered that in the activity room of our Oakwood, there is a bookshelf for taking or leaving books at will. The bottom two shelves have been filled with the same pile of books for a year now- tomes of diplomatic history, Norton anthologies of literature and a few technology textbooks that appear to be at least a decade out of date. Sticking with the fashion rule “if you haven’t worn it in the last year, it is time to get rid of it,” I figured if no one had taken them in the last year, no one is ever going to want them, they would be perfect for my pound-needs. It took me two stealthy trips down there to collect the needed weight, but I was able to get within a few pounds of the requirement, which is good enough for government work!

With all of our earthly possessions boxed and hauled off (an entire day of sorting and piling turned in to a mere two hours of work for the movers), we were left with the mo-partment looking eerily like it had exactly one year before when we moved in. After a few evenings of farewells with friends in the area, time has finally arrived to embark upon the trek to Chengdu. We’ll touch down in LA (with cardigan in tow, just like Miley, although I’m not sure I can get Thad to throw his hands in the air if they are playing his song) in just a couple of hours, spend a day and a half in the Sunshine state and then head out for Chengdu on Thursday.

The section of sidewalk I’ve spent the last year exploring was a great one. I saw more of our nation’s capital than I ever thought I would (parts of it more than I ever wanted to!) and was able both spend time with old friends and make some great new ones. With that said, I also feel like I’ve worn that chunk of sidewalk to its core and it is time to take this exploration on the road. I’m excited to search a new section of sidewalk, looking not necessarily for where it ends, but for where it will lead.

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Why I’ll Never Be A Tetris Champion and Other Lessons from Costco

You know how there are things in life that you just don’t think you’ll ever do? Not things that you insist you won’t do because you are adamantly against them, but those things that you just don’t see in your future- those are the ones I’m thinking about. For example, fifteen years ago I would never have thought I would end up living in rural China. (The Dominican Republic was definitely on my radar, but East Asia? Nope.) Ten years ago I didn’t think I would ever take a random hiatus year from work. Five years ago I didn’t think I’d be the proud (although not worthy) owner of a motorcycle license. Well, last week, I encountered another of those “don’t think that’s for me” moments- a minivan. That’s right. A minivan. Pushing fourteen years of marriage and no kids, the minivan has never been on my list of things I wanted to drive. (And this is coming from someone who kinda’ wants to drive everything! I would do almost anything to get to drive a Zamboni.  When I heard the Idaho Red Cross where I used to volunteer was having a forklift driving class, I seriously considered buying a ticket to fly across the country, just to get in on that gig.) But, with a run to Costco looming, my best buddies at the Crystal City Enterprise didn’t think a Prius was going to cut it.

So, with my parents in town for a two-week visit, we loaded into the shiny new minivan and made the two block trip to Costco. I figured with the pre-shopping trip I chronicled in “It’s Not Peace Corps This Time Around,” plus the addition of two extra sets of hands, the trip should be fairly straight-forward. (Who knew Costco was not only blog-worthy, but double blog-worthy?!)

After being granted access to the store after my Dad flashed his members-only card (again, don’t even get Thad started on the exclusivity of a warehouse shopping experience), we chose a flatbed cart over a basket and retraced my steps from the previous outing. The list I created on my initial visit turned out to be more helpful than even my obsessively-organized self would have imagined.  We were able to go up and down the aisles in the same order I had done before, picking up the desired items in the desired quantities. It was like clockwork.

What wasn’t like clockwork? Mom’s and my stacking abilities. We quickly decided that Dad would be the muscle of the group, pushing the awkwardly huge cart up and down the aisles littered with wandering small children and cap-stoned with sample tables on each end. While he did that, Mom and I would get the items and add them to the flatbed. Apparently, we were horrible at this. I guess neither of us is bound for a job in freight-packing or as Tetris champions.  I get the basic concept. Big, heavy stuff should go on the bottom and light, oddly shaped stuff on top. The problem is, Costco doesn’t organize their store from big and heavy to light and oddly shaped. For some crazy reason they put items together by food category rather than size and shape! Thanks for that Costco.

At first, Dad tried to help out with suggestions and the occasional reordering while we were away from the cart, but I think it soon became clear to him that this process was not going to stack up the way he would like. The helpful hints soon became knowing smirks as Mom tried to figure out how to put twelve cans of tuna on top of a giant bottle of ketchup and I tried to cram one more box of Cheerios onto a four-inch empty spot on the side of the cart.

Once we had finally reached the end of my list, getting everything off of the two-page “buy” list, I had to make a decision or two. On my “maybe buy” list, I had included some camisoles, a polo shirt for Thad, some bath rugs and a 7’X5’ shag carpet area rug. The camisole verdict was quickly reached, when they were all out of anything but white in my size. Thad’s polo was an easy decision too, as I think he needs a few more and he could care less, so onto the cart it went. I eventually decided against the bathmats. I still do want to get a few small rugs, as they will add color to the house, but I also think I may have a few in storage that will be showing up in China a couple of months after we arrive.

The big decision was the area rug. Chinese apartments are almost always carpet-less. I know a lot of people think it is cleaner to not have carpet, but I love the softness of it. I love to be able to lay on the floor with a book and read (or with a laptop and write). Knowing that we will be lacking carpet in Chengdu, I really wanted this big, fluffy rug for my new home. I had talked about it with Thad ahead of time and he said he was indifferent.  So, it was off to the rug rack one more time to stare and them and try to make a decision. (Thad will tell you that this is a key part of all of my large purchases. Staring at them. It is as though I think if I look at it long enough, a light bulb will appear above my head telling me what I should do. There might also be a hope that if I stand there long enough, the price will magically go down.)

After a few minutes of staring and a consultation with Mom, I decided we were going to go for it. We had the minivan, after all! The rugs were all rolled and stacked on their ends in a giant box. Out of the four colors available, three of them were easily accessible from the edges of the holding crate. But wouldn’t you know it? The one I liked the most (there was only one!) was in the far back corner. Luckily, we brought the muscles with us! Dad abandoned the cart, leaving Mom to guard the precious stores of pudding cups and Mountain Dew, to dig out the one and only pretty mottled-brown rug from the back of the display. This meant pulling out about five other rugs, digging the last one out of the back of the box and then returning the previous five to their original holding pen. Thank goodness we brought Dad along! There is no way Mom and I would have been able to do that without creating a chaotic mess.

With my lovely rug piled on top of the goods, it was time to bid adios to Costco and head home, in hopes of finding a place to store all this randomness until mid-May. The mo-partment seems to be getting smaller by the day. The little-used dining room table is now totally off-limits, as it has become a make-shift pantry. (Just a few days after the Costco run, I bought a small cabinet at the Eastern Market, which will be fabulous in our home in China, but is currently sitting in the middle of my living room.)

I now have one more thing ready to check of my “getting ready” list, but maybe more importantly, I can cross “minivan” off my list of vehicles to operate. (Okay, technically I’d have to add it first, as it was never on the list, but you get the idea.) Now, how can I get my hands on a Zamboni?

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Country Mouse Gets Her Groceries Delivered

As I sit in my mo-partment on this dreary, drizzly day, awaiting the arrival of my groceries, I am reminded of a storybook from my childhood.  It was one of those fabulous Little Golden Books, the ones with the hard cardboard covers and the golden spines covering their bindings. (I remember having piles of those books, my favorites being The Tawny Scrawny Lion and The Large and Growly Bear.  This may date me a bit, but I even remember when Little Golden Books were the prizes that came with Happy Meals at McDonald’s.  I do believe there were several copies of The Pokey Little Puppy scattered throughout our house that can be directly credited to the Golden Arches. There was none of the shoddy plastic toys that end up crammed under the seats of a minivan or that fall apart before the kid even gets a chance to eat the now requisite four slices of apple that are included in each and every McMeal of happiness. Little Golden Books were the way to go!)

But I digress.  The sky is gray. Misty moisture hangs in the air. Groceries are to be delivered soon. All of this together makes me think of those picture books- namely The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.  The basic premise of this classic tale is that these mice switch places, the city one going to the countryside and the country mouse going to the big city. While on their little vacations, each mouse discovers that he is best suited for the environment from which he came, although they do each embrace a bit of adventure along the way.

The rodent-riddled story comes to mind today not because I mouse-ily wish to retreat to my former surroundings, but because as I sit here awaiting the arrival of my milk and eggs and bread, it is the perfect time to ponder the many ways that city life in the DC Metro area is different from the more suburban one I had living in the Treasure Valley.

Being car-less is probably the most overriding change I’ve experienced in our move across the country. Nearly all of the other changes are predicated upon this one omission. Not having a vehicle of our own means:

*Public transportation is the way to roll. In the last six months I have ridden a significant portion of the DC Metro lines. I’ve spent countless hours on the blue line shuttling into the District and back, enjoyed numerous monument-filled crossings of the Potomac on the yellow line and ventured into Maryland several times on the red. Professional sporting events have led me to brave both the green line and the far reaches of the blue, while the lure of tasty food has sent me trekking up the orange line. While possibly a nightmare for the colorblind, the rainbow-hued map of the Metro system has served me well for the last half year.

*Grocery shopping is done online and the bags of food are delivered directly to my front door. There is no more squeaky, wiggle-wheeled cart to push up and down the aisles of my nearby Albertson’s store, no more Sunday night runs to get sandwich fixings for the upcoming school week and no more dropping by the store on the way home from work to get a forgotten ingredient or two for that night’s dinner. Online grocery shopping may take a bit more planning, but it also means I can take care of my grocery list make-up-less and in my pajamas. (Okay, to be fair, if you grocery shop at Walmart, there are many a customer there who are shopping in a state that makes them appear as if they just rolled out of bed, but I can do so with dignity  in the privacy of my own little home!!) Not only is shopping done in the cozy comfort of the mo-partment, but the scheduled delivery means that Thad’s copious amounts of Diet Mountain Dew magically appear at my door without me having to haul them myself.

*Our knowledge of local car rental companies is quickly expanding.  Without a car, but living in a place where there are no less than a million historical sites to be visited, long weekends require personal transportation. Since we are on the east coast for a limited amount of time, we try to take advantage of every opportunity to visit the parks and monuments in the area. This means that the Enterprise and Hertz websites and I have become very comfortable with one another.  I can reserve the best deal, with discounts added, in a matter of minutes without having the search endlessly for just the right ride. Thad has become buddies with the manager of one nearby rental company, always stopping to chat with him before embarking on the circle of safety required before the car keys are handed over.

The transition from Idaho life to Virginia life isn’t nearly as dramatic as the ones faced by the country mouse and the city mouse, but the idea that such a change requires a one to develop a different set of coping skills still holds true. In Idaho, I probably would have scoffed at someone telling me that they had their groceries delivered, but living on the ninth floor of an apartment building without access to a car, such a proposition suddenly makes a bit more sense.

I can only imagine what this American mouse will be blogging about in six more months when Chinese mouse’s world becomes her own!

Awkward Moments Avoided Thanks to Inaugural Gowns

One great perk to living in our mo-partment is the weekly housekeeping that is part of the arrangement.  Coming from someone who didn’t know where our vacuum was stored for the first several years of our marriage, this is quite a boon! Each Friday I am treated to beautifully folded white towels, a tightly made king-sized bed and all the dusting that is possible in 600 square feet. This is all fabulous, and I don’t want to be one to look my government-supplied gift horse in the mouth, but I have yet to become comfortable with the actual process.

In theory, someone else doing my chores is superb, but the reality is just awkward. While I tended to fake my way through any assigned chores as a child, knowing if I did a semi-terrible job they would be reassigned to my much more capable older sister, I still had a list for which I had to at least pretend responsibility. Having someone else, usually a woman not much younger than my own mother, come and clean for me has been a tad bit disconcerting. For this reason, I spend my Fridays trying to outwit the maid and her schedule and be conspicuously absent when she arrives.  The challenge comes in that I am pretty sure the housekeeping services department throws the key of each scheduled apartment into a bag and then randomly draws the order in which they will be cleaned.  Since we’ve been here, housekeeping has shown up anywhere between 8:30AM and 4:00PM.  The unreliable schedule means finding an all day, out-of-the-house activity to occupy my Friday hours.

Today’s planned field trip was to Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  At first thought, this seems like a terrible place to visit while Thad is slogging his way through hours of Chinese class, as it is one of his favorite places to visit.  In reality though, going without him was a necessity.  Rather than slowing walking around the Gunboat Philadelphia, reading each and every placard in full, I was able to scurry right to the heart of what I wanted to see- the exhibit based upon America’s First Ladies.

Originally, this ongoing exhibit was based on the personal fashion and household style of the women who stood behind their elected official husbands, but as the role of women has evolved, so has the role of the first lady.  Now, the exhibit includes not only the dresses and jewelry of these fashion icons,but  there is also a large portion dedicated to the causes embraced and espoused by these powerful unelected, yet highly visible leaders. The public service agendas put forth by these women are important and note-worthy, but let’s tell it like it is: I want to see the dresses!

Michelle Obama’s beautiful one-shoulder white inaugural gown was the centerpiece of the showroom, complete with her jewelry and Jimmy Choo shoes worn during the festivities surrounding a new president in Washington.  Mamie Eisenhower gets props for her fabulous rose-colored ball gown that has withstood the test of time in terms of keeping its timeless fashion. The shoes and purse she paired with the dress would look extraordinary on any red-carpet event three quarters of a century later.

While I loved looking at the details on each and every dress, I do have to say that fashion is definitely a personal thing and several of these ladies and I are not on the same page! There were three women in front of me throughout the majority of the exhibit who just couldn’t stop gushing about Rosalynn Carter’s chiffon evening gown, which I thought  looked like a gold bedazzled housecoat. One woman drawled in a thick southern accent, “Well, I am sure Georgia never saw such a gown before Ms. Carter showed up in that!”  I’d have to agree, but probably not with the same connotation. While I give Mrs. Carter credit for her economical ways for wearing the same gown she wore when her husband became governor of Georgia, the dress was just not worthy of one, let alone two high level events;   with less money spend on gold beading, she could have gone with a second look!

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Having sufficiently held up the line of tourists at each new outfit and gotten an eye full of handmade shoes, hand-painted silk dresses and handcrafted jewelry, it was time to go people watch on the National Mall.  Talk about a U-turn in the fashion world!  I went from designer gowns and cocktail rings to mom-jeans and joggers.

Joggers.  They are a dime a dozen in the DC area.  We hadn’t been living here a week before I noticed this baffling dichotomy: joggers are everywhere all the time and there is always a Dunkin’ Donuts store within two hundred yards of any given location.  What is the correlation?  Is the jogging because of the donuts or are the donuts in spite of the jogging?  These are the questions that occupy my mind during semi-temporary retirement.

Back to the joggers.  It was nearly noon, 90 degrees outside and a relatively uncomfortable amount of humidity, and yet, there they were.  I can’t help but ask myself about who these people are.  Are they recently unemployed congressional pages?  Who else has time to go jogging in the middle of a work day? As I whiled away more time on that bench nearly smack in the middle of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, avoiding the possibility of an awkward run-in with the housekeeping services women, I was treated to a myriad of runners.  There were a few middle-aged/older gentlemen that while obviously in good shape, should refrain from sharing their man-boobs with visitors from other nations.  This is not the image we want our foreign friends to take home with them. At some point, boobs sag.  This is a fact of life.  Men, embrace it!  When you reach the point where you feel jiggling when you jog, it is time to wear keep your shirt on.  Most runners were solitary in their late-morning pursuit of fitness, but there were a few pairs and trios running together, either providing mutual encouragement or as in one case I overheard, mocking their companions in a rather frat-boy manner.  I guess as long as your pulse rate is up, it counts as exercise!

Feeling like it might be safe to return to my newly cleaned Crystal City apartment, I made my way across the Mall towards the Smithsonian Metro station, dodging the occasional Segway Tour (helmets required, buckling them optional), the ubiquitous family photo-ops and the massive crowd just spewed forth from the subway stop congregating around the visitors’ map/information signs.  A day in the heart of the capital left me thinking I should have gone into the fashion industry or at least that I should stop and buy the latest copy of Vogue.