Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hillwood Estates

A moving picture of the French Gardens (created using
Yesterday was Museum Day across the country, meaning free admission at thousands of museums.  In DC we are very fortunate to have dozens of free museums through the Smithsonian Institution, the National Galleries, and other amazing spots.  But there are a few really great places that are private and thus cost a steep $15-$20 for entry. Knowing that it is pretty unlikely that I will willingly shell out several beers worth of money to see a museum with so many free options at hand, I took yesterday as an opportunity to see one of these costlier (by comparison to nothing) museums.

The Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Garden is the former private residence of Marjorie Merriweather Post and is now a beautifully archived collection of art and Russian artifacts spread throughout a her mansion and surrounded by amazing gardens.  Mrs. Post was the heiress to the Post cereal fortune and during her life collected art and decorative pieces, eventually deciding that her collection was best suited for public consumption. She meant her home to be a living museum, and indeed it was breathtaking.  Every nook and cranny was filled with intricately carved furniture, tiny porcelain collectables, and priceless jewels.  After a short stay in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, she  amassed a huge collection of Russian treasures (saving them from destruction during the tumultuous revolutionary period there). 

While I used the excuse of free admission to pay Hillwood a visit, it is entirely worth the $15 admission fee.  Visitors are invited to picnic on the vast grounds and you could spend hours wandering through the house and the gardens.  Mrs. Post had extravagant taste, but you can tell that the place was really a home, with personality. I loved it, and am now a little sad that I waited until now to check it out.

c. 1830 vase in cased glass from Russian Imperial Glassworks

Breakfast room with bronze place setting.

Red roses from the cutting garden. 

Pet Cemetery at Hillwood.

A "paper" dress from the Pret-a-papier exhibition of French artist Isabelle de Borchgrave

Monday, September 24, 2012

Alt for Norge

Three weeks into language training and my brain is starting to feel the burn. And even though I had the good fortune of a head start given my previous study of Norwegian, the pace we go is quite brisk. That being said, I'm still loving it and have no complaints about being a full-time student.

One great side effect of being immersed in all things Norwegian is that I've connected more with at least one small part of my ancestral heritage.  Like most Americans, my great grandparents came from all over the world to seek a new life here in the USA and I enjoy affiliating with the "old world" part of my heritage. Growing up, Norway was the dominate culture I was exposed to, though I'm also made up of Swedish, Dutch, German, and Polish. Maybe it was growing up in the Lutheran church, but my Norwegian roots always seemed the most exciting.

So when I discovered that there was a Norwegian Reality TV show based on the premise of Americans of Norwegian heritage returning to Norway to prove their "Norwegianness", I knew that I had to see this show. My teacher told us that this show, Alt for Norge (meaning "Everything for Norway"), is very popular and is now on it's third season, but sadly it cannot be found on TV in the U.S.  However, industrious youtube users have taken the time to put Season 1 up in 15 minute segments, all of which can be found here. Some highlights of the show include competing like high school graduates in "russ" and rowing a viking boat in an absolutely gorgeous fjord. I can totally relate to the contestants, who may be 1/16 Norwegian, but are drawn to their Viking roots and want nothing more than to win the show so they can meet their Norwegian family (yes, that's the prize).

Below is the "Russ" Episode of Alt for Norge, since I can't even begin to explain the silly tradition. If the embed doesn't show, the link is here -

Friday, September 14, 2012

in service

This week has been a strange one. With the killing of the U.S. Ambassador and 3 other U.S. Officers in Libya and the many ongoing uprisings in the Middle East, there has been a lot of media attention focused on this career that is still oh so new to me. Most people know that we have a Secretary of State and some number of Embassies overseas. But when asked about the Foreign Service or diplomacy, I'm sure that the average American pictures old white men in suits sitting around smoking cigars, drinking wine, or something along those lines. Fortunately, times have changed and so has the nature of this profession.

We are younger, more diverse, and way more female than just a few decades ago (though we still have some work to do). And while we still entertain and build connections at receptions over wine, we are just as likely to ride hours along a dusty road to go meet leaders in a small village way off the beaten path. Like any government agency, I don't think the State Department is above criticism, and it is always productive to examine our institutions critically, but the last week has been a little crazy. Rather than try to expand my own thoughts, it's probably safer to turn to a few of the many news pieces that

Our Diplomats Deserve Better - New York Times Op-Ed by Ambassador Prudence Bushnell
I had the great pleasure and honor of attending a small leadership seminar where Ambassador Bushnell came and spoke. Her experience during the Kenya Embassy bombing and work at the Department during the Rwandan genocide is heartbreaking. But, even after all of that she believed in the mission and work, and her words were what inspired me to pursue the Foreign Service.

A couple other good reads:

The Thankless Task of the U.S. Diplomat - Foreign Policy by Colum Lynch

America's Other Army - Foreign Policy by Nicholas Kralev

Foreign Service Families Know the Risk but Believe in the Work - Washington Post by Janice D'Arcy

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

a moment of reflection

This morning not much was known about the goings on in Libya and Egypt, but by the time I got to FSI it was confirmed that Ambassador Christopher Stevens and 3 other officers had been killed. I'm sad and more than a bit shocked by the senselessness of this violence. I am also appalled by the political rhetoric that has come out in regards to this tragedy. Our work overseas is complicated, difficult, and risky. And diplomats make sacrifices while working for our country and these sacrifices should be honored. Period.

Whenever I get discouraged by these kinds of politics, instead of retreating I go straight to the middle of it all, the center of our Nation's Capitol.  Riding my bike along the newly reopened reflecting pool on the National Mall is a good reminder of what it means to be American, and why I still feel proud to serve in the government. The mall is a place of unity and patriotism, and as I watched tourists and veterans participating in their own reflections at the various memorials, I thought how much of a difference it would make if politicians and pundits could also take a few moments to walk quietly along this historic pond. 

As I was getting back to Main State to meet a friend for lunch, President Obama's motorcode was just leaving. He had come the few blocks over to Foggy Bottom to participate in a memorial service open to all employees. My friend went to hear him speak and she said it meant a lot that he came over to talk to State Department employees. I admire this and appreciate the support, even though I didn't know any of those killed personally.

Below is a video of Secretary Clinton's public remarks (or go here to see it on web).


As I head towards the sanctity of the Foreign Service Institute this morning, a place where all U.S. Diplomats spend a significant chunk of their career, my thoughts are with those in Egypt and Cairo. There are many unconfirmed reports from all the major news organizations that several U.S. embassy staff, including possibly the Ambassador, were killed in Benghazi. These reports are a reminder that this job, while often amazing, has it's very real risks. I hope for the best for everyone involved.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


After a full week of Norwegian language class (norskkurs), I can happily report that I'm absolutely loving it. In total, the class if made up of 4 very enthusiastic language learners/future colleagues, and it's been so much fun to see just how much of the language I remember. So far things have been easy, but I can see that the pace of the course is fast enough that I will soon be in new territory. I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to spend 6+ hours a day fully devoted to language study. It's such an amazing gift and a major perk of this pretty awesome career.

The past couple of weekends I was also lucky enough to have my friends' car while they traveled back out west. This meant getting down to the beach and taking in some polo. Ahhh, the freedom of transportation!

Beach Scene: North Beach, Maryland 

Walking along the beach in Southern Maryland

Polo Ponies

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Things to know about Norway

Today was my first day of Norwegian language training, so I'm finally ready to immerse myself in all things Norsk. And even though my departure date is many months away, that hasn't stopped me from learning a little more about this place that will be home for two years. So here is a short list of things that I've learned.

1. It's Spendy!

I don't think I've been able to mention moving to Oslo to anyone without them immediately reacting to the notoriously high cost of living there. Yup, it's one of the most expensive cities in the world, putting even New York, DC, and London to shame. I've become accustomed to price shock here in DC, but I'm not sure you can really prepare for $15 beers and $40 pizzas. A friend of mine referred me to this funny piece that compares prices in Oslo vs. Portland.

2. The accent is NOT the same as Swedish

When I was back home I had the privilege of talking to the local Daughter's of Norway Lodge. It was a ton of fun, and my first chance to really talk about my future work to people outside of the government bubble. After my talk, I got a lot of questions about the State Department and learning Norwegian, and somehow got off on a tangent about the differences between Swedish and Norwegian (you could throw Danish in there as well). Having studied Norsk previously, I'm very familiar with the sing-song accent, which differentiates it from the other scandinavian dialects. I even mentioned at some point during my time home that spoken Norwegian sounds a lot like the Swedish chef from the muppets. Apparently the Swedes agree, as detailed in a article about the rival languages.

3. The scenery is out of control beautiful

The land of the midnight sun and fjords. Norway is unquestionable a place people visit in order to appreciate nature. As a lover of mountains and water myself, I really can't wait until I can get out there and "gå på fjell." I've even done some research into Den Norske Turistforening (DNT or Norwegian Trekking Association), which manages the hundreds of hytta (cabins) around the country. Hiking is a communal, civilized affair in Norway. A long day trek is rewarded by a night in a clean, affordable cabin where you can share stew and wine with your fellow hikers. The English version of their site is here.

And because I lack pictures of Norway (for a little bit at least), I leave you with this hilarious YouTube video titled, "This is Norway."