Friday, August 28, 2009

Do what you love

On this day in 2001, I was at DĂșn Fhearghusa, also known as New Grange, in Ireland. As you can see from this photo, I was very happy. Why? Because it was the first time I had toured an ancient site created by humans in the BCE era, and I thought the experience was amazing. I decided that day that I would use the rest of my time in Europe to visit other such sites. I felt like I finally had a focus for my time in Europe outside of work.

You can read what I wrote back then here. Notice a comment near the end of the essay, how after leaving the site, about five hours after this photo was taken, I met a German guy at the bed and breakfast where I stayed in Slane.

That guy was Stefan.

Today, it's eight years later. My but how I've changed his life. Positively topsy turvy.

We'll be spending our anniversary looking for a place to live, followed by me cooking up a little feast.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Looking for a home

Here's what's going on:

Stefan FINALLY found decent bread in the USA. It was really depressing him to not have "his" bread. The lack of hearty bread depresses ALL Germans in the USA: within one minute of meeting among native Germans, they start talking about it. Stefan did with a busload of Germans at a South Dakota rest stop/visitor's center.

This week, we're finally really looking for a place to rent long-term. After viewing several small towns between Portland and Salem, we've settled on Canby. I hope that, the next time I post, it's with pictures of our new home.

It was a hard choice, because the firefighter training guy in Silverton, which is near Salem, is one of the nicest guys ever and the way he talked about the volunteers in Silverton made me want to be a volunteer firefighter.

We finally found the real downtown Hillsboro, as opposed to where we live now amid all the high-end chain stores, and we liked it very much, particularly the local farmers' market in downtown.

My renters insurance company sent a letter, an email and voice mail demanding to know what other breed Albi is mixed with in addition to German Shepard. How in the FREAK am I supposed to know that? I was thinking of just randomly listing a huge range of dog breeds, or sending a photo of her and saying, "You tell me." Yes, I could have one of those genetic tests done -- and that's discrimination, IMO, to require those of us with mixed breeds to pay for such a test.

Albi LOVES going everywhere with us. We'll leave her in the room here only if she absolutely cannot come with us. As so many restaurants have patios that allow dogs, so many stores have places where one of us can stand outside with her while the other goes in, and even the UPS store where our mailbox is allows dogs inside (and has dog treats on the counter), she pretty goes everywhere with us. I think she wants to try to visit each of the Portland metro area's dog parks. That will take a while...

The downside of Albi with us all the time is that we can't take in a movie at a theater, and I'm DIEING to go to the movies. I don't want to leave her here alone at the hotel at night, because I'm afraid she'll bark and disturb the other guests. She's usually quiet, but every now and again, a kid will go screaming down the hall, and that sets her off. For the record, it also sets me off.

Do people really ride bicycles more in Portland than elsewhere? Because it hasn't seemed like that much more than Louisville. There are a LOT more bike lanes everywhere than any where else in the USA I've seen, true. But otherwise, this is a very car-oriented culture.

Finally saw the Portland riverfront. And... we weren't at all impressed. We met a guy walking an adorable puppy, and he recommended we lunch at Voleur, and we were VERY impressed: Stefan had the buffalo burger (he's developing quite a taste for buffalo meat) and I had a Caesar salad with three delicious shrimp on the side. It was all The Yummy).

I'm back to blogging on my professional blog regularly now, if you're interested.

Random thoughts:

Between the USA Network's NCIS marathon, and the Travel Channel showing back-to-back episodes of Anthony Bourdain No Reservations, I could sit on this couch at the Extended Stay Deluxe in Hillsboro, Oregon and never move. Bourdain's show was shown in Germany -- dubbed, ofcourse -- so I was already a fan. As for NCIS: why can't I work for Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) on NCIS? He's the *perfect* boss. I *love* bosses like him. He doesn't put up with BS, rewards results and ignores fluff and fluffy people. If only more UN staff were like him...

A friend wrote to say that, when he was at university, he was having a chat with a professor in the professor's office, and a call came in. He spoke to whomever it was, and then got off the phone. He
had this incredulous look on his face and told me someone from the athletic department had "requested" he give a star football player a passing grade...even though the guy had only been to class less than half a dozen times, hadn't worked with his assigned tutor, and blew the final!
And that's why I could probably never be a teacher. Because what I would have said on the phone in reply to such a request would have... not been diplomatic.

My favorite comment of the week, from, specifically: 6 Bullshit Facts About Psychology That Everyone Believes:
If you can't remember ever doing something dumb and embarrassing because you were feeling lonely and rejected, well, either you're very young, or you were just too drunk at the time to retain the memory.
One of the best things I've read in a long time: "Signed, John Hughes" - long time penpal of the 80's director shares just what a wonderful guy he could be and why he got out of Hollywood:
Tonight, when I heard the news that John had died, I cried. I cried hard. (And I'm crying again.) I cried for a man who loved his friends, who loved his family, who loved to write and for a man who took the time to make a little girl believe that, if she had something to say, someone would listen.
Everytime I see this Intel commercial, I laugh out loud.

What do I think of the whole Pitino thing? Or the whole Calipari thing? Email me and I'll tell ya.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A first hand account from voting in Afghanistan

As you all know, I worked in Afghanistan for six months in 2007, and I befriended a co-worker there, "Friba", who I have maintained contact with. I asked her if her family voted in Thursdays elections and what the experience was like. She wrote back:
We all voted but for different persons.
Ah, democracy! Sounds like my family!

I won't say who they voted for, except to say none voted for Karzai, the current president, and that should tell you something.

She also said:
I went early in the morning but in all streets we were the only women. My father and my older brother escorted the women of my family. I can tell you that in this election the attendance of people were not so much as the first election, especially the women.

For selecting presidential candidate it was easy for me, but for provincial candidates, it took me lots of time.

After voting, one journalist from Azadi Radio interviewed me. His questions were why I came to vote and whether I was scared after voting that I would go back home and the Taliban would cut off my fingers.

I told him since I am a woman it is my right to vote. It is our Islamic, legal and half of the population right to vote. I won't be scared by anybody and I won't let anybody to cut off my finger.
And that's the part where I started crying.

Never, ever take voting for granted.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Getting to Know a City

The first time I went to Austin, Texas, back in 1996, I knew almost immediately that I wanted to live there: I drove in on a US Highway, and my first sight of the city was green -- greenery everywhere. I stayed with someone who rented one side of a duplex in a tree-covered neighborhood practically downtown, and her side of the duplex had a massive back yard. I had a Mexican Martini at the ever-moving Cedar Door, sitting on a patio and over-looking "Lake Austin" (actually the Colorado River). I had some of the best green bean casserole ever at a restaurant called Good Eats on Barton Springs Rd. And I went to see and hear the legendary Don Walser on Sixth Street. It was May, and the weather was mild. How could I not want to live there? Five months later, it became my home for the next four years.

The first time Stefan went to Austin, it was June 2008, and hotter than Hades. His first views of the city were massive Los Angeles-style freeway overpasses, cars and concrete everywhere, and strip malls with the same stores you see in every city in the USA. Don Walser was dead. The Good Eats I loved so much was long-closed. The Cedar Door had moved yet again. Most of the clubs I frequented a decade before were parking lots or something equally ugly. There was a magical night at Ginny's Little Longhorn seeing Roger Wallace and Jim Stringer, some very good food, and some fantastic hospitality from dear friends, but he did not like Austin at all -- and neither did I anymore.

Would it have been possible to visit the city at a different time of year, and coordinate a series of initial experiences, that would have made Stefan love Austin, and have made me fall in love with it all over again? Did Austin change, or did a combination of unfortunate experiences turn us off?

We'll never know.

We had a rather magical experience living in Louisville, Kentucky for most of this summer. Our temporary home was in the Highlands, a historic, lushly-green neighborhood of gorgeous old, lovingly-restored houses and very friendly people, where independent restaurants, bars, funky shops and practical shops are just a short walk away. Our next door neighbors included a dear friend from my university days whose wife liked to bring us homemade whatever. It was our introduction to Louisville and, therefore, we loved Louisville pretty much immediately. But if our intro to Louisville had been one of the horrifically ugly apartments out on Hurstbourne Parkway, a massive four-six-lane street of car lots and strip malls, or an inner-city neighborhood with trash and unkept houses and yards everywhere, we would have hated Louisville.

As mentioned in my last entry, our introduction to Portland, Oregon hasn't been a good one. The lush, green, cool-weather city we were expecting has been burnt to a crisp by a recent heat wave (which, unfortunately, returns tomorrow), and everything that might have been green once is now brown and dead. We managed to drive down every wrong street there is in Portland, seeing the ugliest, most trash-ridden neighborhoods the city has to offer. I've seen as much furniture in front yards as I've seen in some of the more unsavory parts of Kentucky, my home state.

We've written our initial impressions of Portland off to bad timing and bad luck. Everyone gushes about Portland. Everyone says they love it here. We're keeping the faith that we'll be gushing about it eventually too. We loved the Lucky Labrador Brew Pub and the Mississippi Station restaurant for lunch (Albi especially loved both). So far, as far as neighborhoods, we've loved the Hawthorne district, the immediate neighborhood around the Peninsula Park Rose Garden, Irving Park, Rose City and Hollywood -- in other words, the most expensive neighborhoods Portland has to offer outside of downtown.

We're now evaluating all the communities in the area that involve volunteer firefighters. We've visited small towns surrounding Portland, Salem and Eugene. What are we looking for in these communities? Pretty, well-kept, well-built houses. A downtown, however tiny, that has some personality (or at least a pub). Neighborhoods that would be nice to walk, park and live in. Unfortunately, it means we may have to give up on the idea of being a one-car family. There's a strong possibility that we will end up far from any light rail stop, and too far to commute via a scooter.

Finding the downtown of a small town is a funny thing -- you can't ask someone where downtown is, because they will send you to the ugly strip mall full of all the same shops you find anywhere. Instead, we just type in "100 Main Street" or "100 First Street" into Stefan's GPS for whatever town we want to check out. Works every time!

We've been ready to stop moving, stop living out of suitcases, and start unpacking for months now. But it looks like we'll be in transit for at least some more weeks to come. Send us rental OR job karma -- both will be graciously accepted.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Arrival in Portland

I've been asked repeatedly: why did we choose Louisville, Kentucky as the first place to live in the USA upon my return from Germany, and why didn't we stay there?

I moved to Germany in 2001 from Austin, Texas, and while I love that city oh-so-much, I did not want to move back: it's too hot for too many months, it's much too congested with cars, and too many beloved music clubs are long gone. It will always be special -- but it's no longer home.

When Stefan and I decided to move back to the USA, I knew that the first thing we had to find was some place to land -- literally. Where would the plane land, and then what would happen? Would we walk off the plane and into a hotel? How would we get from the airport to the hotel? And then what?

In thinking about these questions, I chose Louisville, Kentucky as the place we would stay initially in the USA, for several reasons

  • The Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport is less than two hours from Louisville, and there is a direct flight from Frankfurt, Germany to that airport. I did not want Albi to be transferred at any point during the flight, as this is how dogs get lost.

  • A friend from college wrote to say that there was a short-term rental available right next door to him in the Highlands, the legendary neighborhood of Louisville. Having a place to stay immediately upon getting off the plane was a huge draw.

  • I have a lot of friends from many years ago in Louisville, and I hoped this would be a good chance to reconnect with them and have an immediate social network.

  • I have a brother and sister-in-law in Louisville, and the rest of my immediate family is less than two hours away in Henderson; I was ready to play the family card if needed for transportation and other help, and the family said they were ready to help (and they were).

  • I have really liked Louisville when visiting it over the years. I thought it would be interesting to really get to know it.
Louisville turned out to be wonderful. It was everything I wanted to be and more. The Highlands is surrounded by terrific restaurants and services within walking distance, and is surprisingly dog-friendly. It's also a neighborhood -- as are several of the surrounding neighborhoods -- where lots of people walk and bike-ride to get from point A to point B. Public transit is surprisingly good for downtown (but until there are at least three buses an hour, it will never be as successful as it could be). The houses are lovely, and people are incredibly friendly, greeting you as you pass. There are tons of things to do in Louisville: eat, go watch the minor league baseball team, eat, visit the various sites in and around town, eat, go to a concert, and eat. There are LOTS of arts events, music events and farmer's markets. You can drive just a little ways and be out of town on country roads and passing beautiful farms. And it was wonderful spending so much time with long-lost friends and new friends (Todd and Julie, you two are unbelievably wonderful), as well as my beloved grandparents. Our pictures from our time in Louisville say it all.

So, why not stay?!?!

A lot of reasons. Mostly because of the weather. My husband and I are wimps when it comes to intense, humid heat. We can vacation in such conditions, but not live in them. And as we are ATGATT adherents, that means there would be several weeks every summer we couldn't ride. It was very tempting to stay in Louisville, but for this and other reasons, we decided it would be best to try elsewhere.

We thought somewhere in the Northern USA might suit us better. And everything we've read online over the last three years has pointed to one place: Portland, Oregon. Because of the weather, the rankings in terms of walking and bicycling and micro-brewing, the likelihood of getting jobs, the political climate, and on and on.

We left Louisville on July 27 and, after 11 days of camping and seeing various sites along the way, ended up in Portland.

It was not a good arrival. We spent the first three days wondering if we'd just made the biggest mistakes of our lives.

Portland is a city that doesn't give up its merits obviously or quickly to outsiders. Those green, walkable, bike-friendly, funky neighborhoods with adorable houses you hear oh-so-much about are here, but they aren't easy to find amid some very trash-strewn, unattractive neighborhoods with streets-packed-with-cars and where houses look like run-down double wide trailers (Stefan's observation, and I agree). We initially stayed at a hotel in Gresham, because that's where I got the best deal, and that was a huge mistake; the hotel was fine, but the neighborhood was horrific. Sorry to all you Gresham-ites, but your city needs a huge attitude adjustment. After two days of walking Albi around the neighborhood and being terrified of her stepping on a hypodermic needle, I was ready to head back to Louisville.

After two days of not liking anything we'd seen of Portland, we drove to a dog park in Hillsboro that was highly rated on, and after not being able to find a real downtown amid all the shopping centers, we gave up and drove down to Salem. As soon as we got out of metropolitan Portland area, our spirits rose. And in Salem, we were enchanted. We had great food from a terrific little diner called The Sassy Onion and walked the beautiful grounds of the state government and Williamette University. At last, we saw the charm of Oregon and were glad we came.

So, we decided we would find a month-to-month rental and take 30 days, even 60, to visit Eugene, and then to find a small town outside of Portland or Salem or Eugene to live in long-term. After wading through endless numbers of scams and misleading ads on Craigslist (it's almost useless because of such), a friend found a great deal at an ExtendedStay in Hillsboro. And that's where we'll be, through at least early September.

And since we've moved here, we've found the neighborhoods and charm that have made Portland famous. Stefan has, at long last, found a German bakery that makes decent bread (something he never did find in Louisville). We visited a motorcycle shop and were floored when the salesmen told us that dual-sport motorcycles were his best-selling bikes (certainly not the case in Louisville). And Stefan applied for his first job in the USA! (but understands the likelihood of him getting even an interview for the very first job he applies for is... not great).

We've eaten at a dog-friendly restaurant almost every day (that's pretty much any restaurant that has an outdoor place to eat that can be reached from outside, without walking through the inside of the restaurant), and been to a few different dog parks (there are oh-so-many here), leaving Albi oh-so-content (though, as we've discovered, she's happiest camping).

Make no mistake: Portland is a BIG city -- there's no small town feeling about it. But once you know where to look, there's lots of great places to see, and maybe even to live.

So, our goal now is to find a small town with a volunteer fire department, where we would love to rent a place for a year and from which we can easily commute for whatever jobs we land.

Email me if you need a mailing address in Portland for us; we won't officially move here, however, until some time in September or October. Or just email me to give me some words of encouragement -- or job leads (even better!).

And so a new chapter begins...