Where to Next???

It was a conscious decision made by my husband and I, and we are going in with eyes wide open and with optimism that it will be a fulfilling, wonderful post for us. So, for those who have been waiting for the news just like my husband and I, our next post is Bamako, Mali!!

So, why Mali? Well, to be honest it is one of my goals to live on as many continents as possible. So, we can mark Africa off our list!! Another goal is to be debt free by the end of our tour in Mali. There will be great opportunities for regional travel. The time zone is only 4 hours from the east coast, which makes communicating with family and friends a little easier. There are great EFM opportunities. Finally, it was highly recommended by one of my husband’s A100 classmates

Here’s some information about Mali:

-The official language is French
-The population of Mali is 19.1 million
-67% of its population was estimated to be under the age of 25 in 2017.
-Mali’s climate is tropical, with March to May being the hot, dry season. June to October is rainy, humid and mild. November to February is the cool, dry season.
-The country’s economy centers on agriculture and mining.
-Cotton is the country’s largest crop export and is exported west throughout Senegal and Ivory Coast.
-Some of Mali’s prominent natural resources include gold, being the third largest producer of gold in the African continent,and salt

Bidding Season Round 2

With baited breath my husband and I have been waiting for the bid list for our second post. Due to extenuating circumstances (ahem, COVID), our bid list was sent a little later than expected. At long last, we received the bid list around close of business on Friday. For the past three days we have been researching what has been written or said about each post by fellow foreign service employees or EFMs, looking at YouTube videos, and having multiple discussions about ranking each post. Here was our process in deciding how to rank each post:

1) I created an Excel spreadsheet to put vital information about each post. There were various columns for differential pay, COLA (cost of living allowance), notes about housing, pets and employment found from websites, other blogs and colleagues that are at those posts currently.

2) I watched several YouTube videos by searching the city and country. I randomly selected videos to give me a good feel of the city. This way I could get a sense of if I could see myself living there.

3) Filtering through what we read or heard about each country and adding in the vibe of the country, we revised the list several times. We had conversations about post size, and how that might impact my husband’s job tasks, the climate, housing, vet care, cost of living in each post, and whether I would be able to find EFM employment easily were our top considerations.

For us, our pets are our babies, so they are important to us. We need to make sure vet care is good, that housing at our future post allows dogs, and that housing has parks nearby or green space for our dogs. We also have financial goals that we are working on, so post differential and EFM employment are important to us.

We came to an agreement in the ranking of each post. The top one was a a surprising pick for the both of us, which I have a feeling we will get. Hopefully we will hear by the end of July where we are headed next!!!

We got another dog!!

Whelp, give an inch, take a mile. That is what happened when I let my husband talk me into getting a dog…and then one dog became two dogs.

For months my husband has said “Mila needs a sibling.” I said “No, I want to keep her as an only child.” I also said it would be a pain to move every couple of years with two dogs versus one dog. Not to mention the added expenses of having a second dog.

In April, with his eyes still on the goal of adopting a second dog, my husband happened to find the most adorable male German Shepherd puppy. Too cute to pass up, I finally relented. So here he is, the newest addition to our family, Maks!!!

Riga Trip Part 3

On our final day in Riga, My husband and I went on a private tour to Kemeri National Park and Jūrmala. It was a sunrise tour, and tour guide picked us up at our hotel bright and early at 5:30AM. After a stop for coffee and pastries, we were on our way.

Kemeri National Park at sunrise was absolutely breathtaking. We entered the park through a forest, and shortly thereafter saw a clearing, and an extensive boardwalk. Our timing was perfect- we were able to see the moon go down on one side and the sun rise on the other side of the boardwalk.

Sunrise in Kemeri National Park

About two-thirds of the way through the boardwalk was a three story lookout. There were just two other people in the park besides ourselves, so we enjoyed the relative silence and peace (relative because the two other people decided to launch the drone at the lookout, which was quite noisy).

The boardwalk extended through the forest on the other side of the park

After our trek through Kemeri National Park, we drove to a rural beach in Jūrmala.

Jūrmala had varied architecture- from Victorian-to modern. It was interesting to drive through the town and listen to the history from someone who grew up close to there. According to our guide, Jūrmala is beginning to undergo renovations of many of its historical buildings. Unfortunately I forgot to photograph some of the houses, but they were very cool to see.

After our excursion, our guide drove us directly to the airport, where we caught our flight. It ended up being a great holiday, and I highly recommend visiting Riga, Kemeri National Park, and Jūrmala if one has the opportunity to!

Riga Trip Part 2

Our second day in Riga was spent walking and exploring the beautiful city!! My first impression of Riga was that everything is efficient, clean, and orderly. The architecture was so stunning and varied, from the Art Deco district to the old town.

On our walking tour of the city, we saw all the noteworthy buildings: the Three Brothers, the Cat House, the House of the Black Heads. Afterwards we wound up in the Central Market, which is amazing!! Definitely worth visiting- 5 buildings full of fresh produce, meat, and seafood!! Locals were there along with tourists. There was a food hall located in the Central Market serving meals with local and fresh ingredients for dine in or takeaway.

After many hours walking outdoors we treated ourselves to a sauna session at our hotel and ate some yummy food at Gastro Pub Duvels.

Day three of our trip was a spa day. I booked a three hour spa session for my husband and myself and it was worth every penny!! That day also happened to be International Women’s Day. It was so nice to see people give the women in their lives tulips and other flowers, take them out to restaurants, and pamper them. At dinner we saw four young women in their twenties giving each other small gifts and honoring each other as women. International Women’s Day is celebrated similarly to Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in the U.S.

We did not stay up late that night as we had a very early morning excursion the next day, which I will elaborate about in Part 3!!

Freedom Monument
One of Riga’s many beautiful Art Deco buildings
The Cat House
House of the Three Brothers
Old Town Riga
House of the Black Heads

Riga Trip Part 1

Riga, Latvia has been on my radar as a possible holiday destination for a little over a year now. It was a quick, direct flight from Kyiv, a quaint old town with tons to do and see, and also a very clean and safe city. Thus, I decided that my husband and I would spend my birthday weekend there. I insisted that I wanted to go in early March since there would be no crowds, and flight and hotel would be at a lower price than in summer.

At first, my husband resisted, as Riga was colder in temperature than Kyiv, he did not know that much about Riga, and he did not have the time or inclination to plan a vacation. Since I love planning trips, this was a fun task for me- I told him I would arrange everything. I was on a mission to make this the best holiday ever, so I pulled out all the stops.

The first day we arrived, I scheduled a car to pick us up from the airport. The Riga airport was clean and easy to get out of. Our driver drove us about twenty minutes from the airport to the hotel, which was located in the Art Deco district of Riga. If I were to plan another trip to Riga, I would have us stay in old town, because that is where most of the restaurants, shops, and museums are. Our hotel was great and had excellent amenities, however, so no regrets. We checked in, dropped off our bags, and set off in search for some dinner. We ended up at the Flying Frog, which had great food and ambiance.

After dinner we explored old town, which was so beautiful and quaint!!

We made an obligatory stop at Black Magic for some black balsam, a Latvian liquor. The bar was very neat, with servers in traditional Latvian clothing. I paired my black currant flavored black balsam with a yummy pistachio truffle. I was glad I ordered the truffle, as the liquor tasted almost exactly like cough syrup and I needed a palate cleanser. It is definitely an acquired taste. Latvians claim Black Balsam can cure any illness, and a bonus is it warms you up on a cold night.

We ended up at a Rockabilly club after Black Magic, and listened to live music.

All in all, a perfect start to our trip! We had a big day of touring the following day, which I will write about in Part 2!!

Working Out in Kyiv

A person can easily exercise in Kyiv. There are many gyms (cross fit, yoga, boxing, all sorts of sports clubs). Kyiv has tons of parks for walking and running. Bicycling is also common, as I know some people at the Embassy who bike year round and see couriers bike around the city all the time. In addition, there is always the option of streaming workouts for days when a person does not feel like leaving the house (during winter, for example).

Prior to moving to Kyiv, I worked out almost every day for three and a half years. I varied my workouts- from online workouts to running to yoga. Since moving to Kyiv I have worked out nearly every day by streaming workouts at home. Although I love my at home workouts, I really missed practicing yoga. I was hesitant to join a yoga studio here due to the fact that I am not fluent in Ukrainian or Russian. So, I did workouts at home instead.

A couple of weekends ago, after being fed up with the crowdedness of his gym, my husband asked me to come with him to check out another gym in our neighborhood. It was very nice, and reminded me of a posh boutique gym in the United States. The facilities were top notch and they had an impressive selection of group classes, including yoga. It was also as expensive as a nice gym back home; however there was an 8% discount that weekend for paying a year membership in advance. On top of this discount, the front desk manager threw in eight free personal training lessons and eight massages if we paid a year in advance. My husband and I are both suckers for a good deal, so we joined the gym.

The language barrier was still a concern for me. My first test of the language barrier was the treadmill. Our first day, on a high of joining a new gym, My husband and I worked out. Since there were no group exercise classes at the time we arrived for our workout, I chose to run on the treadmill. For some reason it did not occur to me that the words on the buttons and instructions on the treadmill would be in a language other than English. Which, in retrospect it makes sense for the words to be in the local language, but I was not mentally prepared for that. The distance was calculated in kilometers instead of miles, which also made it a challenge for me to figure out the appropriate speed to set the treadmill.

I had no choice but to roll with it, and estimated the speed as best as I could. I had a great time working out- mostly due to the fact that I jammed out to some groovy tunes during my 25 minute treadmill session. I took it nice and easy with a 5 minute warmup, 15 minute run, and 5 minute cool down. I proceeded to do some stretching for another 5-10 minutes after that. Not bad, considering I had not run prior to this in close to 4 years!

The next day was another language test: a Pilates mat class. The class was not in English (although she did say “tabletop” at one point). On top of the language challenge was the fact that I had not taken a Pilates class prior to that class. Surprisingly I did just as well as the other students in the class! The instructor corrected my form a couple of times, but I felt comfortable doing all the Pilates moves. I attribute this to the fact that I am a visual learner and have a background in yoga.

Three days after I joined the gym I went to my long-awaited yoga class. It was all in Russian, which made it difficult to know what the instructor was saying, but I did my best to mimic her movements. The majority of the moves were different from yoga classes I had taken in the United States, but it was a good class nonetheless. After the class, the instructor asked me if I spoke English, and I said yes. She said she wished she would have known- she would have taught the class partially in English!!

My advice to those who are hesitant to join a gym in a country where they don’t know the language- do it!! Yes, there are challenges, but exercise is important to one’s physical, emotional, and mental health. If joining a gym means that you will be motivated to move your body, don’t let the language barrier stop you.

Having a Dog in Kyiv

I thought I’d give an update on dog mom life, as well as to let y’all know my thoughts on having a dog in Kyiv:

After a ruff (LOL) first month or so of house training, things have been wonderful with our pup! She has completely won me over, as well as pretty much everyone in our neighborhood. Mila is such a charmer. She plays almost every day with her doggie friends and is enjoying life. She brings so much love and joy to our household.

Kyiv has been an ideal place to have a dog. Our neighborhood is super dog friendly, with lots of parks and green space. Most people love dogs here, and many stores and restaurants allow dogs. I thought living in an apartment would be a drawback to having a dog, but it’s actually been a benefit, since it forces us to get out and walk our dog (yay for exercise, especially in winter) and socialize her. Our vet and pet store are also within a short walking distance to our apartment. Best of all, costs are way cheaper in Kyiv compared to the United States for all things dog related.

Our dog walker charges $5 USD per walk for one hour, veterinarian care is super cheap and convenient (24 hours), and we are also able to order most of our dog food, toys and treats online to cut costs (dry food is more expensive here, believe it or not). Boarding our dog during our R&R cost us about 3,660 UAH (roughly $150 USD) for 10 nights of lodging, daily walks and playtime, pickup and drop off from our apartment, and daily updates. I heard it costs upwards of $60 USD per day to board a dog in the U.S., so it is quite inexpensive to board a dog in Kyiv in comparison.

When you factor in food, dog walking, vet costs (she’s had a couple minor issues we’ve had to take her to the vet for), monthly flea and tick medicine, treats, toys, and saving up for PCS (permanent change of station , or moving to another post), we pay between $250 and $300 USD per month for our dog on average.

Is $250-$300 USD per month worth the not fun task of house training I had for the first month, waking up early on weekends during the winter to walk Mila, and headache due to paperwork, costs, and logistics that will inevitably happen when we PCS? Absolutely. I mean, come on, look at her. She’s the best:)

R&R Part 2- Philly and NY

After a blissful 5 days in my home state of California, my hubby and I went to see his family in the Philadelphia area. Besides the fact that I always love spending time with my husband’s family, the stopover gave us a chance to get closer to the Kyiv time zone and made our flight back shorter.

My in-laws picked us up from the airport and had some fresh soft Philly pretzels and water ready for us (bless them). My sister-in-law and nephew came over to visit and to play Just Dance. It was so much fun and very good exercise!! I needed it after my indulgent food tour of San Diego!! We also got to briefly spend time with my brother-in-law and his wife.

The next day my husband’s best friend and best friend’s wife (who works for an airline) traveled from Atlanta to see us. We showed them around Philly, with a stop for cheesesteaks of course. The U.S. Mint is located in Philadelphia, and we toured the building to see where money is made!! Part museum and part manufacturing company, it was cool to see quarters, nickels, and dimes be pressed, cleaned, and inspected. Ben Franklin’s tombstone was close by, so we saw that as well.

After the day touring Philly, my husband’s parents arranged for a mini reunion with family that live in the area.

One thing my husband wanted to do on R&R was to see the 911 Memorial, so we planned a day trip (literally just 5 or 6 hours) to New York City. We took the train the following day to New York and had ramen at an interesting place. Each person sits in an individual booth and eats alone. The oddest experience, but the ramen was so good.

After our filling lunch we walked about an hour to the 9-11 Memorial. The Memorial museum was well done but very sobering. It got me into the mindset of what New Yorkers (and those at the Pentagon) were experiencing and feeling on that tragic day.

We didn’t get back to Philly until late that evening. The next day we ran errands and headed to the airport, where we continued our journey back to Kyiv.

Although our R&R was not full of rest or relaxation, it was good for my soul. Seeing family and friends, being back in the U.S., and eating all the foods we miss while living in Ukraine was definitely needed. I sincerely doubt we will be back until home leave next year, but was so glad we were able to make it to the U.S. for our R&R!

R&R Part 1- San Diego

One of the benefits of working for the foreign service is a thing called “R&R.” R&R is when we get a plane ticket within a certain dollar amount to get the heck out of dodge and recharge our batteries. To be clear, this is not a free vacation- we have to pay for our hotel, food, and rental car while on R&R, and use vacation time, but the plane ticket is covered, which is a nice perk.

When I found out there was going to be a big celebration for my grandmother’s 90th birthday, I convinced my husband to travel to San Diego for the event using our R&R benefit. My mom and brother were going to be at the celebration, as well as aunts, uncles, and cousins that I haven’t seen in a long time. We decided to tack on a few days on the East coast after spending time in San Diego in order to see my husband’s family and to make the long travel back to Kyiv more bearable.

After 17 1/2 hours of travel (3 hours from Kyiv to Frankfurt, 2 hour layover, and 12 1/2 hour direct flight from Frankfurt to San Diego), I was tired and hungry, but I was not going to rest until I had Mexican food. After getting our rental car and some SIM cards for our phones, we were recommended a Mexican restaurant a short distance from where we got our SIM cards. Oh, it was pure bliss for me – it had been about 10 months since I had proper tacos and margaritas.

Jet lag soon set in and we were asleep shortly after we arrived our hotel around 6PM. We were awake at 3AM the next day, and since we had an early start, we decided to go to the San Diego Zoo that morning. It was great fun and such glorious weather.

We ate at In-N-Out for lunch (duh, can’t visit California without going to In-N-Out), went back to the hotel to rest for a few hours, and then spent the evening at a dear college friend’s house, amazed that we were able to stay up until 10PM!

The following day we went to a restaurant where Bobby Flay had the best French toast he ever ate – a banana and peanut butter stuffed French toast. It was good, but I definitely would not say it was the best thing I ever ate.

After breakfast we had some errands to run, then headed to the big 90th birthday party!

Up early at 3AM again the next morning (thanks jet lag) I researched a restaurant that has amazing breakfast- The Mission. A must if you are in San Diego! I got a coffee with Mexican chocolate and tamales and eggs with a chili verde sauce- so good!

Since my brother only lives about an hour and a half from San Diego, we drove up to spend some more time with him and my mom. My mom was staying with my brother for the 90th birthday celebration because she lives out of state. We had Thai food and shaved ice cream for lunch, which definitely was enjoyed!!

The next day was spent running errands, with a break to have some good seafood and walk along the pier in Ocean Beach.

We called it an early night since we were still a little jet lagged and had a 6:45AM flight the next day. After a 5 hour flight, we arrived in Philadelphia, which I will cover in Part 2!!!