So I’m aware that this blog has been severely neglected of late, in large part because there hasn’t been all that much going on. Some cool travel, to be sure, but an internet connection as… underwhelming as the one we have in China makes posting photos difficult, and no one really wants to read posts that consist of me rambling about how awesome my travel life is. At least, I don’t think anyone does, probably because we’re not living in an International Coffee commercial.
But! I currently have travel information of the geeky variety, which probably is worth sharing here. At the moment, I’m on vacation for Chinese New Year, which will probably be my last long trip before I leave China in a few months(!). Struck by a fit of nostalgia, I decided to spend some time in Japan, where I lived for a couple of years after college. I spent my first couple of nights in Osaka, where I trolled through Denden Town, the city’s geek mecca, looking wistfully at old gaming systems and trying to figure out a good way to bring home an old Famicom. Looking around online for some suggestions of places to check out, I ran across a post discussing a bar called Space Station Osaka. It’s a tiny bar located in “America town” (or Ame-mura), which you can get to via the Shinsaibashi subway station. It was actually relatively easy to find once you look for it; find the Ame-mura branch of Tako King (which sells not tacos, but takoyaki, or fried octopus balls- that’s balls of octopus, not, um, actual octopus balls), and it’s a few doors down. It’s on the second floor, located right above a fantastic Japanese barbecue place, which does killer chicken and steak. So don’t be stupid and eat before showing up, like I did, because you can get some great food there, and the obliging guy who runs the barbecue place will bring the food right up to the bar for you.
In any case, Space Station is a video game-themed bar. The owner is a huge gamer (as evidenced by some photos he posted of his game room), and he’s outfitted the bar with a bunch of systems, both American and Japanese and with a healthy sampling of games for each, that span from an old Nintendo Entertainment System right up to a Wii U. The drinks are cheap, both the patrons and the owner are very welcoming and friendly, and playing games is free. It’s a really great little place, and I only wish it had existed when I was living in Japan. If you’re in Osaka and are at all gaming-inclined (and, really, even if you’re not), you should check it out.
So, for those of you whose lives aren’t governed by the changing of the Foreign Service seasons (namely transfer season, bidding season and EER season), bidding time has rolled around again. Bidding is the process by which Foreign Service Officers (and DS folks, as well, though their process is a slightly different ball of wax) find out where they’ll be going for their next posts. With a few exceptions for places with very high hardship or danger differentials, tours last between two and three years, and you usually bid around halfway through your tour. Bidding occurs in the summer and the winter, and there’s all kinds of conventional wisdom, strategy and superstition that goes into the process. There are two different processes when it comes to bidding, one for Entry Level Officers (ELOs, like yours truly) and one for mid-level people.
The first two tours for an ELO are what are called “directed tours.” This means that rather than just looking around at various bureaus, seeing who has jobs opening up and sending out feelers to try and convince someone that you’re just normal and sane enough that they should want to work with you, ELOs get a long list of available jobs. From that list, they cull thirty jobs that fit into parameters like timing, available time for training, language, timing, personal and professional goals, timing, and timing. Did I mention that it mostly boils down to timing? To give you an idea of how it works, I started with a list of hundreds of possibilities. It was all very exciting- I could go to Bogota! To London! To Israel! But from that list, I had about forty places that worked with my timing. At that point, it started to seem like a long line of doors closing. But no fear- I had some really great stuff on my bid list (some slightly terrifying stuff, too), so I crossed my fingers and fired it off to my Career Development Officer (CDO), who I assumed would laugh, set it on fire and proceed to send me wherever she wanted. It’s important to be realistic about these things, after all.
Anyway, I didn’t post on the bidding process before now because I was too afraid of jinxing myself and winding up in God only knows where for the next two years. After about a week and a half of agonizing waiting- on the Fourth of July, in fact- I got a text from a friend at work who was also bidding, wanting to know where I was going. Good question, actually, so with some trepidation, I checked my e-mail, and what I found was so unexpected, I had to read the e-mail from my CDO about four times before I was sure I wasn’t dreaming. I think I’ll need to send my CDO a fruit basket or something, because I get to go to….
So I haven’t updated in a while, and there are all manner of thrilling things going on (things such as bidding, for instance, which I will discuss later), but I’m going to exercise my blogger’s prerogative here and take a detour away from Living the Dream in the Foreign Service to wish Sir Paul McCartney a very happy seventieth(!) birthday. Because obviously, if Macca’s doing anything on his birthday, it would totes be reading my blog.
Anyway, I don’t know if it’s been mentioned here, but I am a gigantic Beatles fan. Paul’s music, both with the Beatles and solo, has shaped my own musical explorations and provided the soundtrack to vast swathes of my life ever since my father made me sit down and watch The Beatles Anthology when it first aired on ABC (at which time I was in junior high, which makes me feel ancient now). I think a lot of his stuff is criminally underrated, and it’s great to see a lot of it getting a second look in the last year or two, which has led Paul to getting his due, which is much deserved. I recently got a copy of the remastered Ram album, for instance, which is absolutely stunning. Even if you’ve heard Ram a thousand times, you should listen to the new remasters. If you’ve never heard this album, you should run, not walk, to Amazon or your local CD store and get a copy. Immediately. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Back? Isn’t it an awesome album? I know, right? At any rate, I am completely unashamed to say that Paul is my favorite Beatle, I can’t believe he’s seventy and still touring like a madman, and I hope I’m half as spry and productive at his age. Hell, I wish I was as spry and productive now. And as tribute, I present what is both one of my favorite songs and favorite music videos (many of the photographs were taken by Linda McCartney) of all time, “Maybe I’m Amazed”:
These are a little later than previously promised, but hey, better late than never. These are a few pictures from my Chinese New Year trip to Thailand, which was absolutely fantastic. We stuck to Bangkok on this visit, but I’m absolutely going to get back there at some point to see a little more of the country. If you haven’t been to Thailand, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Incredible food, incredible sights, incredible people. Truly, it is the Promised Land.
And now, a few (just a few) pictures. As always, more can be found on Flickr.
One of the many statues at Wat Phra Kaew, located in central Bangkok
Laundry drying outside a stilt house located on one of Bangkok’s many canals
… Is probably what I’m guilty of with regard to this blog. But hey, what’s a month and a half between friends, right? Right?
Yeah. Anyway, so part of the reason I haven’t posted much lately is that while things have been sort of busy, they’ve mostly been busy with much of the same sameness as usual. I’m still living the dream in the wonderful world of visas (that’s not entirely sarcastic, incidentally- a lot of the time, I genuinely like doing visa interviews), still adjudicating my fingers to the bone, and the applicants keep on coming. I have gotten faster, which makes me happy, but not as fast as I’d like to be, which gives me something to shoot for.
But! I have had the opportunity to do some very cool traveling lately. First, I went to Harbin over Martin Luther King Day with a bunch of my fellow consular inmates colleagues, and we went to the famous ice festival. It was absolutely awesome- freezing, but awesome. Harbin has a very Russian bent to it (which, given its geographic location, isn’t especially surprising) which actually left me really wanting to find an opportunity to visit Russia at some point, which I wasn’t expecting. Also, as our tour bus headed into Harbin proper from the airport the night we landed, our tour guide was talking about how influential the Russian Jewish population of Harbin was around the turn of the twentieth century. While he was talking, he mentioned that most (read: all) of the Jews of Harbin, which was previously the largest Jewish community in Asia, left for either other places in Asia (specifically Shanghai and Hong Kong) or Israel mid-century, saying that currently, there’s only one Jew left in Harbin. So yours truly doubled Harbin’s Jewish population, at least for the weekend. Hey, what can I say? I try to do my part.
A snow sculpture representing this year’s theme, which was China & Russia.
At long last, I come bearing photos. As mentioned previously, I spent my High Holy Days/National Day weekend in Melbourne, staying with a good friend who lives there and obligingly put me up for a couple of weeks. This was my third trip to Melbourne, so I spent a fair amount of time just hanging out, but we also took a long weekend to drive up the Great Ocean Road and visit the Otways, a really beautiful area a couple of hours outside of Melbourne. The whole trip was fantastic, and if I get to serve a tour there someday, I could die a happy woman. The whole set of photos can be found here on my Flickr feed, though I should probably explain that the lack of koala/kangaroo photos is the result of having been there a couple of times already and not having the chance to get out to the Melbourne Zoo or the Healesville Sanctuary this time around. Ah, well. Next time!
In the meantime, a few highlights:
Looking up through the trees in the Otways rainforest
Well, these are pretty long overdue at this point, but I’ve finally gotten my photos up from Shanghai, where I spent two and a half glorious weeks on a temporary assignment, and Hangzhou, where I took a trip over a long weekend that happened while I was in the area. For any fellow China hands (or future China hands) that might be reading this, I unreservedly recommend making the trip to Hangzhou at some point. I was there on a national holiday weekend, and while the place was hopping and public transportation was crowded, the area right around West Lake wasn’t crowded at all, and it was a great place to wander around, relax and take some pictures. There’s a lot to see (I didn’t get to see it all in one trip), and the people I met there couldn’t have been nicer. So definitely check it out. All of the photos can be found on my Flickr account, but here’s a couple from Shanghai and a couple from Hangzhou:
The ultra-modern Shanghai skyline
One of the pagodas at Jingci Temple, a Buddhist temple in Hangzhou
So, for any Jewishly-inclined readers of my blog, hope your High Holy Days were good and meaningful. Everyone make it through okay? Apologies in advance to everyone else, since this post is going to be heavier on the Jewish geekery than the travelogue-type stuff, but I’m going to do another post for that, complete with photos and suchlike.
I spent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Melbourne, at Kehilat Nitzan, a Conservative/Masorti synagogue located in the Balaclava area. The congregation was founded about twelve years ago, and they’ve got a great community there. The services were great, and the folks there extended me a lot of hospitality. Heck, I was actually given an aliyah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which for someone who’s not what you’d call a big macher (or, uh, a macher at all, really), wasn’t something I saw coming. Anyway, it’s a really nice community full of cool people (and a lot of younger folks in their 20s and 30s, which was also a really pleasant surprise), so if anyone reading this happens to be in the Melbourne area and needs a place to go for services, definitely check them out. My only regret is that I didn’t get a chance to go over to Shira, an egalitarian-leaning, Modern Orthodox minyan that they’ve started. I heard a lot of great things about it while I was down there, but there just wasn’t time to go. Ah, well. Next time. Or maybe the bidding gods will be smiling down on me someday, and I’ll actually get posted there. What? A girl can dream!
The Groggers are what they’d sound like. Granted, since both are bands comprised entirely of guys, this is a biological impossibility, but still. I found them through Kochava over at You’re Not Crazy (a great blog, incidentally), downloaded their album and have had it on heavy rotation since. Their songs definitely have Jewish content, but they aren’t as loaded with Hebrew as, say, Matisyahu. One of the winners is “Eishes Chayil”:
Other winning lines include, from “One Last Shatnez,” “One last shatnez but one big chance/’Cause I got these fibers inside my pants/There’s just one thing that gets my head spinnin’/It’s the feelin’ I’m feelin’ in wool and linen….”
They’ve got a couple of other videos up on YouTube, both of which are also great. Definitely worth checking out.