Sunday, January 21, 2018

Oh, Maryland

When we hired our nanny when I started A-100 we jumped through a million and a half hoops to be sure we were paying all the taxes we needed to be, all kinds of insurances we needed to have or at least find out whether we needed to have it, etc.

One such hoop was Maryland state taxes. We dutifully filled out the online application form and waited to receive the tax rate we should pay and the necessary form to use when submitting quarterly taxes. Instead we received a form saying that we didn't need to pay Maryland taxes for the first quarter as we didn't meet the minimum threshold. I thought we had paid more, but it was only a couple of weeks in March before the quarter ended so maybe they were right. I cursed them because I knew it meant I had to do it all over again for the second quarter, because if they didn't think I owed taxes they probably wouldn't be set to send us the necessary forms three months later.

And this week I received a notice that our first quarter taxes are delinquent and we are being assessed a penalty for failure to pay. And because I lost the first letter (Ironically, it got lost because I carried it around with me trying to reach the person who sent it to confirm, because I didn't think it was right. My voicemail was never returned so I had to keep trying to reach a human being and never managed.)

I called the Maryland Comptroller's office and was basically treated like a liar. If I don't have the letter I don't have proof.

Somewhere in the computer system of the Maryland Comptroller's office a copy of this letter must reside. Unfortunately the office is backlogged and a response to my inquiry could take as long as 5 business days.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

My first big outing

I've been in Frankfurt more than three months,and although I have been back to the USA twice and taken another trip by plane within Europe, within Germany I have barely left Frankfurt.

Today I took advantage of the holiday (500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door and thus ushered in the Reformation) and took myself to Heidelberg.  There is a weird thing with the Deutsche Bahn - ticket prices to places that are within about a 2 hour drive are ridiculously expensive, so it doesn't make any sense to take the train even when one would prefer to do so. So, my first road trip.

This is the Academy of Sciences building, with the Heidelberg Castle lit up through the fog behind it. I am sure Terry hates this photo. I love it. The photo was taken basically right where I found a parking garage for the car.

I first hiked my way into and around the Philosopher's Way, so named because the university professors of old would come up into these woods and wander.  I had thought the name referred to a particular path, but soon changed my mind. The trails kept splitting off, signposts existed yet directed to places I had never heard of and none of them said Philosophenweg ... so I guess the term refers to all the forest paths.
This is the path up the mountain to the start of the Philosopher's Way. This path is called the Schlangeweg, or Snake Path.

The views were amazing, but hard to capture. This is Heidelberg's famous "old" bridge leading up to the Church of the Holy Ghost.

My morning in the mountain air caused (as the Germans say) a bear's hunger, and I managed to find a little pub-like restaurant a tiny bit off the main touristy area. I intended to order schnitzel  - they had three different kids that weren't pork as well as about 6 different kinds with pork, but then they had venison goulash with a berry sauce and spaetzle. I was sold.

After lunch, off to check out the castle. I didn't plan to actually go in, wanting to save that for a time when Terry and the kids are with me.  The entrance fee is actually due at the courtyard of the castle, so I only walked around a bit. It looks like it's half crumbling and there's plenty of nooks and crannies. The kids will love it.

There it is, looming over the town.

 The last part of the adventure was getting gas for the car. There's this perk where when we use a special card at certain gas stations, we can get gasoline without extra taxes. These extra taxes add up to about half the cost of the gas. I wasn't completely convinced on how this was going to work, so I didn't fill the tank all the way. But it worked! Unfortunately it also entailed a detour that added 20 or so minutes to my drive home. Driving in Germany is a bit harrowing, for example I'd be driving 80 mph and have cars FLYING past me. That takes some getting used to.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

SaTOURday in Frankfurt

[DISCLAIMER:  Terry has not seen or edited any of the photos shown here. He is not to blame for poor quality]

My days are not normally quite this busy ...

It started, Saturday morning, the day after the new curtains in my apartment were installed. Now, instead of hanging an inch or two above the window sill (and thus letting in first and all other light), my curtains hang several inches below.  And I slept past 8:30am.

After going for a run in which I successfully re-created the first few steps of a previous bike ride to Nidda Park, I made breakfast and got ready to hit the museums. The last Saturday of the month is free admission for most, but not all, of the Frankfurt museums.

The Children's Museum is located just steps away from the Hauptwache U-Bahn exit, so I went there first. The exhibits are very cool and interactive, but the place is tiny and it may be a bit young for my kids. I don't think I spent more than 20 minutes inside.

The Museum for Modern Art (yes, I went there. It was free!)  was about what you expect for modern art.  Some of the exhibits were thought-provoking, many just begged to be touched although that was frowned upon, one installation with bench seating did in fact allow viewers to sit so of course I did.
 This is one of many things I hold against modern art. How does this title relate to this work?

OK this one was cool. They are not dogs, but some kind of soft furry material shaped to look like them.

I tried to get into the Museum for Angewandete Kunst (Museum of Applied Art), which I had visited previously, but it looks like it is being prepared for new installations and any way the only door I found was locked.

Across a sweet little park from the Museum for Angewandete Kunst is the World Cultures Museum. The exhibitions focused on south America and Africa and art reflecting on the legacy of slavery.
This mobile is hanging from the entrance and along the two stories of stairs

My last museum stop was the Archeological Museum, located in an old church. There's an exhibit that unfortunately ends before the family comes to visit, all about prehistoric peoples. This was the winner of the day and the one I think the kids would even like. It definitely goes for breadth rather than depth, but I found value in the series of pottery that, in the course of a hallway, brought the visitor through nearly a millennia's worth of change and development. 

By the time I got home it was way past lunchtime and I was hungry and tired. After a brief rest and refreshment, I put my German license plates on the car and hit the road. Selgros is a membership-warehouse-type store, and I went to check it out. Three months into living as a single person, I still have trouble purchasing fresh produce with enough variety that I don't get bored during the week, but that doesn't rot when I can't eat it all. Needless to say, I bought little, although it isn't only full cases of stuff and I did go home with red curry paste and coconut milk.

Back at home, it was time to prepare dinner. When I returned to Frankfurt  last Sunday I took the whole chicken out of the freezer, planning to roast it later this week. My oven hasn't worked for 2 days, the chicken is now fully thawed, oh no, what to do?

Kenji, the culinary genius at Serious Eats, explains precisely how to grill a whole chicken and why one should do it his way. Without a meat thermometer and with the sunlight fading (it was full darkness when I pulled the chicken off the grill) it did entail a few risks, but the result was delicious and we'll find out tomorrow whether it was properly cooked. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Frankfurt, second impressions

Frankfurt reminds me of Philly. There is the downtown with skyscrapers, but much of the housing is 5 stories or less. Lots of green, lots of parks. Relatively easy to navigate the city. It has a comfortable feeling.

I continue to get settled. Yesterday I actually made a cake - I had ingredients and bakeware sufficient to the task. I invited a few people over to share it with me ... Given that I own 8 plates right now (4 big and 4 small) and the cake itself inhabits one of them, it is a small group. I'm not 100% sure I have drinking vessels for all.

Work is both harder and more rewarding than I had expected. My expectation is that I won't be getting bored any time soon, which is just the way it should be. My colleagues are smart, patient, and fun to work with.

The last weekend of each month, the museums have free admission. I used that opportunity to explore a couple of museums and check out the touristy area - the museums are in the neighborhood - and have to admit the scenery is indeed charming.  And the main tourist bridge has, as so many European bridges do, a slew of locks, most of them engraved with names and wedding dates, and in various colors.

This weekend I ventured to a farmer's market. I have complained quite a bit about DC area farmer's markets - they seem to be Whole Foods outside and maybe even more expensive than WF if that is possible, whereas everywhere else in the world the purpose of a farmer's market is to cut out the middleman store, which gives the farmers more income while also reducing the grocery bill for shoppers. This market is more like that, the prices were pretty similar to the regular grocery store but the quality was better, so the shopper still gets good value.  I found the first fresh beets I've seen in Germany, this year's crop and with the tops still on (once I saw a couple of leftover beets, dirt still on them, looking old and rubbery). I bragged to Terry about the beet greens I'll be cooking up this week.

Last weekend I checked out a "street food festival" that was basically a food truck mashup. The Filipino adobo chicken I had for lunch was so tasty I went back for something new at dinner time ... the Balinese stand I had my eye on was sold out of food so I had one of the best falafel sandwiches I've ever had instead.

If nothing else, I eat well here :-)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Cabin, Epic Treehouse Version

As usual for an in-the-USA July 4, we headed up to the cabin for the long weekend. It is not news that I love the cabin and everything there is magical and wonderful.  Because of logistical problems we have been debating whether it makes sense to just sell it. Then the kids asked for a treehouse and Terry got a bee in his bonnet to make it something better than a plywood board nailed in the Y of some random tree. Most of our "relaxing" long weekend was consumed with creating Epic Treehouse Cabin Version.

[note: this was supposed to be published a month ago. And with photos. Such is life]

Terry got 8 foot boards and decided not to worry about cutting them down, so the treehouse is 8 square feet. It has two trees growing up inside of it (i.e., it's got 2 tree support rather than just one. The trees come through the floor. They are perfect for leaning against while reading a book).

Day 1 was mostly just framing it out and anchoring the foundation to the trees. We didn't think about taking any photos until that work was just about done, oops, so there's no documentation. A decent chunk of the day was spent simply getting the lumber and tools up the hill to where the treehouse is - in the middle of the woods, nowhere near the lane or anything else that smacks of humanity. Everyone got good exercise and ate a larger lunch than usual - perhaps a bit of foreshadowing what it may be like to have 2 teenagers in the house? Day 1 ended with a trip to Home Depot for more lumber for flooring and the railing, and paint for the railing. And water ice, where we discovered cookies and cream water ice. And chocolate fudge brownie. All dairy-free (we asked). Alex was in heaven.

On Day 2 we had to cart more lumber up the hill. We had to paint the railings, too, which was a task largely delegated to the kids until Terry noted what a sloppy job they were doing. He was happy to release them from chores to play with their new friend, a neighbor girl who they had never interacted with previously and who they spent most free moments with during this trip. She and Zoltan were like oil and water - he'd come back upset from some slight, and 45 minutes later be running off to play with her again. In between the schlepping and painting, Terry lay the flooring. We ended up with a very fancy-looking design using both dark and light wood.

Day 3 was constructing and installing the railing, then realizing the kids are little and skinny and they would plummet right off in between the rails, so we needed to add something to prevent that - in comes some old lattice that had been laying around in what was essentially a junk heap and now finally had a productive use.

This project was much more time and labor intensive than I had thought it would be. And It is pretty close to the end for a while - our plan is to use it as is for a while and through the use determine what we'll do next. For example we first planned to close it in entirely, like a real house, with windows and a door. Then we realized it would be a tragedy to make so much of the surrounding area hard to see when sitting on the floor, leaning against one of the trees and reading a book. So we're considering keeping it open. Or using clear plexiglass to provide a bit of weatherproofing while not keeping nature out entirely. And that goes with the roofing options: something solid? a tarp that can be rolled up or down? A mix? All options are currently on the table.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Frankfurt, first impressions

I've been here about 10 days now, more or less, and so far everything is both exactly as I expected and totally different. There's a lot of people crossing against the lights, although I am pretty sure most of them are not German. For example, I heard a Russian couple arguing the whole way down the street and across it ... when the walk sign was RED.

It took longer than I've ever experienced to get internet set up in my apartment, which is a big deal because the internet is how I communicate with the family. But it is now done so I'm happy.

My boss seems great, my colleagues too. I was supposed to be training all week but a colleague called out sick so I started adjudicating visas two days earlier than the training plan had anticipated. On my first day I adjudicated a whopping 32 visas!  I got better at it the next day.  Still haven't figured out my routines yet but that will come in time. One thing I will say, it is good for my diet that when I am adjudicating visas I don't take a break for anything, I even forget to drink from my water bottle which is next to me on the counter (I think as I get more settled into it, though, that will change).  But it is bad for my diet that, like I hear about consular offices around the world, people bring in treats to share just about every day. And my desk is right in front of the nice little table where the treats are displayed.

I can't wait for my bike to get here, because there are bike lanes EVERYWHERE and most things are bike-able but not walkable, unless I have nothing else to do (such as go to my job or get home in time to eat dinner and go to bed). The buses show up at exactly the time stated on the schedule. I am constantly amazed at that.

My first weekend at post I mostly spent getting to know my way around my neighborhood, and stocking up with the basic essentials I need (no broom in the house. Or salt and pepper. Or sponges. Or cleaning agents to use with the sponges)  I've been paying attention to the pantry basics I am buying and thinking about life in other parts of the world, or for other parts of society. Between the rice, oatmeal, and couscous, plus the butter, sugar, eggs and olive oil, I could probably consume sufficient calories for a month out of what I have right now.  Sobering thought as I rush out to buy cherries or wine or some other totally non-necessary extravagance. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Goodbyes, again. And Hello

The car is on its way. The house seems bigger with so much less stuff in it. In the last few weeks I said "so long" to friends and family. For some, I've got a feeling I'll see them when I'm next in town - only about six weeks after leaving - and for others it's still hazy.  Offers to host people in Frankfurt have been extended.

My apartment is fine, everything I need and nothing more.  It is also the smallest housing I've had in the foreign service, good practice for when we retire and live at the cabin!  My boss and colleagues seem nice, my only complaints are happily temporary:  1. it is too hot for me to sleep, there's no air conditioning and Terry has ruined me for tolerating heat and 2. the process to get internet in my house is ridiculous. Makes waiting all day for Comcast sound like a walk in the park. So I am writing from the community center/restaurant in the neighborhood for its free wifi. I probably won't have internet for several weeks. Normally not such a big deal, but it is sort of how I can communicate with my family so it sucks.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Mom knows best

A couple of weeks ago we had a very "eh" kind of weekend. We had a lot of chores to do after having neglected the house for several weeks. I had to wake up extra early on Saturday to get the fourth tire put on my car before it ships to Germany (a rant on that coming later, maybe) so the day just couldn't be recovered after that. By Sunday evening the kids were snarling balls of emotions - they sniped at each other, then cried when the sniping got turned around, they whined and complained, and generally acted like two children who had barely left the house all weekend.

So I said "Get your shoes on, we're going into the woods."  Because nature makes people happy. Here's just one of many articles on the subject.

The kids whined and complained, although now their target was me rather than each other. They staunchly insisted they would be grumpy and miserable throughout the walk. I said that's fine, as long as it's outside in nature.

A segment of Rock Creek Park is just about two blocks from us. One grumpypants was already cheering up by the time we hit the corner of our block. The other grumpypants is more focused and dedicated and it took longer.

We discovered a million wild raspberry bushes, with the berries just starting to form (we also found three dark red ones to taste).  We captured fireflies (something I never did as a child, I don't even remembering seeing them up north). We made plans to come back with proper firefly catching jars, with mesh tops so they can breathe. We saw a couple of deer in the woods, until we scared them off. The serious, dedicated grumpypants decided with me that we should try to get into the woods as many evenings as we can after dinner.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Memorial Day

For the first time that I can remember, there were no illnesses or previous commitments, yet we did not spend the long weekend at the cabin.

Sunday we went to Gettysburg - it's only about 1.5 hours from home and I've been wanting to see it - this weekend seemed an appropriate time. On the way we listened to a podcast about the battles, which was useful as I could explain things from the podcast while standing in the battleground.

Gettysburg does this great thing where kids get a Junior Ranger booklet with information about some of the major sights, things to look for, and puzzles and games.  It definitely helped keep them engaged. Walking around downtown Gettysburg itself was also interesting, with all the buildings marked "Civil War" and trying to imagine what the town would have looked like back then.  We played "what wouldn't have been here" - cars, electricity poles/lines, the road itself.

Then on to visit Terry's sister and watch a minor league baseball game in her hometown.  There were a number of rain delays, but the game was never canceled. There were fireworks after the game, which was also fun. In general, it ended up a late night, but the kids surprised us by sleeping late the next day. Wins all around!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The mystery of fresh produce

 (stock photo)

Washington DC is a culinary wasteland. Yes there are some pockets of excellent restaurant food, usually food from Ethiopia, Korea, Vietnam, or somewhere else far from these shores. There may also be good, fresh produce at Whole Foods or the local farmer's market. However, with 5 mouths in this household the days of $15 bunches of asparagus are behind us.

Terry returned from a weekend in PA with four or five full bags of produce. Some of it was local, farmer's market.  The cauliflower he brought home was the best cauliflower I have ever eaten. 24 hours later I am still thinking about it. 

On the other hand, he brought home two plastic quart containers of Driscoll's strawberries, looking exactly like the strawberries I can find in any of the 6 large and medium sized grocery store chains within a 5 mile radius of my home.

I don't know where Driscoll's is, but it probably had to go through DC on its way to Pennsylvania. However, somehow, the freshness, taste and general quality was significantly better than anything I can find in DC. Given the aforementioned overstock of grocery stores in my neck of the woods, this is not a "supermarket desert". It is a quality food desert.

Can anyone suss out why on earth this is the case?