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!!!

Holiday Recap

First of all, Happy New Year!! I haven’t had a chance to sit down and digest the past month or so until now. Winter thus far has been good. It has been unseasonably warm for this time of year, so the little amount of snow we had did not stick. Not exactly the white Christmas I had envisioned, but it has been cold enough to give that cozy “hygge” feeling I had been missing for the past few years living in Florida.

I am much happier due to the fact that I am working and am earning a paycheck again. I have a routine that feels like what I had back in the U.S., which has also been key to my mental health.

Here is a glimpse at my “glamorous” everyday life now that I am gainfully employed again: My mornings are spent working out, tidying up the house, unloading the dishwasher/dish rack, throwing a load of laundry in the wash, feeding our dog, making breakfast, and making the bed. All this in addition to showering and getting ready for the day, of course.

Evenings are spent going to the grocery store (or ordering groceries online), cooking dinner, feeding the dog, doing dishes, folding and putting away laundry, balancing the bank account, making to-do lists, and sweeping the kitchen. If I am am not too tired, I take an hour or so to scroll social media or watch a show to decompress before going to sleep. In full disclosure, my husband walks our dog first thing in the morning and before bed at night, which especially in the winter is not my idea of fun. He also cooks dinner a couple of times a week (or we go out to eat if he doesn’t feel like cooking), so I am happy doing the household chores instead.

In other news, my hubby and I hosted a small holiday get-together at our house, I went to a friend’s holiday party, we went to the Christmas Market twice, we saw the Nutcracker and had a peaceful and quiet Christmas at home. We celebrated New Year’s Eve at a colleague’s home. Due to Orthodox Christmas being falling the second week of January, we had an additional couple of days off to enjoy the holiday season.

The only setback this holiday season is the post office has been extremely slow. I read about this prior to moving here but hoped it would not happen to me (HA!- spoiler alert, all the things I read in other foreign service blogs that I thought would not happen to me have happened. So take heed, people reading this who are about to join the foreign service). A present did not get to a family member until this week, some items I ordered a month ago haven’t arrived, and we just got some holiday cards this week. Oh well, I learned my lesson and will mail stuff weeks earlier next year and will tell friends and family to please keep in mind that it will take a good month to get letters and packages to and from us this time of year.

Without further ado, here are some pictures from this holiday season!!

London Trip

A few weeks ago I took a trip to London. It was for a couple of purposes- to see doctors and to visit one of my best friends.

In the event that you need to see a specialist that you are unable to see in the city that you are posted, you can be go on medivac to the regional city closest to your post. In our case, the medivac city is London. When on medivac, airfare and per diem are paid for, provided that there is urgent need to see a specialist in your regional medivac city. Since there was no urgency – I was just being proactive about establishing care and wanted to see doctors more frequently than the annual visit recommended by doctors back in the U.S. – I chose to self fund this trip.

Since one of my best friends lives in London, I was able to stay with her for free, and my flight was super cheap (about $100 USD). The only real expenses were the out of pocket costs for doctor visits, one night at a hotel, and spending money for food and souvenirs. Our health insurance stipulates that we to submit reimbursements for my medical costs and pay most costs up front, so I saved up for months to do so.

Most of the reputable doctors are based on or around Harley Street in London, so I chose some highly recommended places and made appointments all within a couple days of each other. The doctors I saw were top notch and I was impressed by private healthcare in London. I was able to get in for some additional recommended tests straight away.

The only downfall for my trip was the timing. I decided to book the trip a few months ago, prior to knowing the start date of my job. My trip ended up being the week after I started my job, so I had to take time off without pay. Luckily my supervisor was completely fine with me taking time off work so soon after starting the job.

My trip was great- I got to spend time with my friend and her family, the doctors were wonderful, and I had the best time getting acquainted again with London, since I had not been there in over 11 years. I explored Regents Park, the West End, went shopping at Harrods, and had high tea at the Shard. I was craving Indian food, Starbucks, and Steak and Ale Pie, so I got my fill while I was there. I was also able to buy some Christmas gifts for my husband during that time.

London is magical at Christmas time, and I am already looking forward to coming back again. It ended up being a way more expensive trip than I had originally planned, but I have no regrets in going – it was much needed for my mental health to see an old friend and to have peace of mind about my physical health as well. Without further ado, here are some pictures of my London trip!

The Circus

A couple of weeks ago, the opportunity to purchase tickets to the National Circus of Ukraine came up through the Embassy, so my husband and I decided to go. Some of my husband’s coworkers and their families ended up purchasing tickets as well, which made for an even more fun event.

When we mentioned to some of our friends at the dog park that we were going, they told us they were not impressed with the circus here. Thus, my expectations were very low. I ended up being very impressed with the circus and had the best time. Adults and children alike were entertained. There were dogs, birds, tigers, horses, acrobats, contortionists, gymnasts, and of course clowns. In addition, there was a live band that played during the show.

The animals all looked very healthy and well taken care of, and the choreography was impressive. One of my husband’s coworkers commented that there were moves in the acts he had not seen before, and he had been to quite a few circus performances prior to this one.

I can’t write about the circus without mentioning that there were the squat toilets in the bathroom. It was not my first time encountering them, but it was my first time using one. What can I say, sometimes you just have to suck it up and put your big girl pants on.

Other than the toilet situation, I highly recommend going to the circus here. It was such a wonderful experience and a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon!!

EFM Employment

When my husband accepted his position a little over a year ago, we both knew there would be a period of time that I would be unemployed. We have been able to manage living off of one paycheck thus far, but we have not been able to save money or make extra payments towards debt. Thus, I made it a point to look for employment prior to moving here so I would be a working woman again as soon as possible after arriving at post.

My goal was to work at the Embassy, since they have great benefits and the pay is better than what I would make on the local job market in Kyiv. An added benefit is I would be able to carpool to work with my husband:) However, positions do not always open up right away that a person would be qualified or interested in, and if you accept a position, it can take months to receive the required security clearance.

Earlier this year, as luck would have it, a position opened up that was a perfect fit for me. I applied and was quickly selected for an interview. Within a week or two, I was offered that position. One caviat- the position was contingent on me obtaining security clearance. I knew from my husband’s application process for his job that the security clearance process can take a while. Most people told me that the process can take three to six months. A few weeks ago, I received a phone call that my background check came through and I was cleared to start my position!! After six and a half months of unemployment I am now officially a working woman again – I am so excited!!

It has been extremely useful for me to be at home to take care of everything house related, and I can’t imagine someone living this life alone the first few months of moving to post. There needed to be somebody at home to let in technicians, handymen, and movers at least a dozen times in the first few months.

Not to seem ungrateful for the job of housewife (or house manager, as my husband jokingly refers to me), but it has been as far from a relaxing and unstressful experience as you can get. For those who think that an unemployed EFM sits around all day eating bon bons and drinking wine, I beg to differ. The past six months I have been a housekeeper, the sole cook, errand runner, daytime dog walker (most days twice per day), financial planner, accountant, personal assistant and professional organizer for our household. I have also been a language student and blog writer on top of those responsibilities. Those tasks together accounted for a good 30-40 hours per week of my time!!!

We recently hired a part time housekeeper and a dog walker to take care of some of the household responsibilities I have taken care of while unemployed. My husband and I will split cooking duties again (yay!!!), and he will have to help with some errands, however I will most likely have to continue the never ending tasks of laundry and picking up after my husband.

I will hopefully also be able to continue Russian lessons a couple times a week and will continue with writing this blog, as it is a great creative outlet for me. Working will give me a sense of purpose again, and a chance to use my college degrees and previous work experience. I will be able to continue contributing to my retirement account and make extra payments toward debt. I am beyond grateful and excited for this new chapter in my career!!

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