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Sunday, September 27, 2015


Tomorrow will be three weeks since we've been back in Falls Church. I've started studying Russian in preparation for my next post in Vilnius, Lithuania. For those of you wondering why I'm not learning Lithuanian, considering that it's the national tongue of that country (Russian speakers make up only about 7% of the population, considerably fewer than in the neighboring Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia), well, that's a good question. I was originally enrolled in the Lithuanian course at the Foreign Service Institute, but a reevaluation of the consular position led to my being placed in the Russian program instead. The rationale for doing so is that Lithuania is part of the Visa Waiver Program, meaning most Lithuanians do not require visas to travel to the United States. More importantly, the scaling back of consular operations at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk due to the sour relationship between Belarus and the U.S. means that Belarusians who wish to go to the U.S.A. have to apply for visas in a third country, with Lithuania and Poland being the closest neighbors. Russians living in the Kaliningrad enclave also likely visit Vilnius for visa interviews. Hence, Russian will be a more useful language for when I'll be doing visa interviews at the embassy. I've been told that I'll be able to receive Lithuanian language lessons after I arrive in Vilnius, and that English is widely spoken among the younger generation there. We'll see.

Meanwhile, Russian is proving to be brutal but interesting. Our class has been spending its time learning to read Cyrillic and, worse, Russian cursive. The grammar is also proving to be complex, certainly a lot more difficult than, say, Mandarin Chinese. Nonetheless, I'm enjoying far. I have seven months to learn the language sufficiently well enough to pass the grueling final exam. Everyone tells me that knowing Russian will open up a lot more positions in the future, but I'm not sure I want my career path leading me to destinations that end in the suffix "-stan". 

My daughter has started the fourth grade in Falls Church, and seems to be enjoying it so far. She's also boning up on traditional Chinese characters every Sunday afternoon at a Chinese school that operates out of the local high school, one of the drawbacks of being a cross-cultural kid. Amber has also joined the local Go club and we're trying to find a pool where she keep on swimming now that our apartment complex's pool is about to close for the season. As for my wife...seeing as she's always kept her cards close to her chest, it's hard to tell how she truly feels about our current living arrangement. I haven't been murdered in my sleep yet, so I'm taking that as a good sign.

The last time we were here, we did a lot of exploring in the Washington, D.C. area, visiting many of the region's famous sightseeing spots. I did a lot of hiking and walking as well, and while in Shanghai was looking forward to doing so here again. So it was that a couple of Saturdays ago, I unpacked my trusty AMC's Best Day Hikes Near Washington, D.C. guidebook and resumed my outdoor (mis)adventuring. I decided to begin with one of the "easy" hikes, the 12-mile (19 kilometers) walk along the Washington and Old Dominion and Cross County Trails. The W&OD Trail is a paved bike/foot path that follows the former tracks of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad for 45 miles (72 kilometers) through northern Virginia. I picked up the trail from the community center parking lot in Vienna; less than a mile into the walk, I passed by the 1859 Vienna train station, celebrated with a brightly-painted wall mural:

The trail was busy that Saturday morning with cyclists, joggers and walkers, and I was constantly being bombarded with cries of "On your left" from passersby. One of the drawbacks of returning to the U.S. soon became apparent: after years of being able to ignore what was going on around me in places like China, Japan and Taiwan, I now find it harder to tune people out when they're speaking in my native language. Having to listen to snippets of conversation on topics such as workouts, diets, marathon times, mapping of cycling routes and sons' high school cross-country teams drove home the fact that suburban Americans inhabit their own universe, quite different from the realities lived in by other people elsewhere on this planet:

There was no need to stop on this particular Saturday morning:

Signs along the trail introduce some of the local wildlife. I didn't see any groundhogs, but I did encounter numerous squirrels and small birds (plus the occasional hawk). I also saw a deer while on the Cross Country Trail, running at full speed through the woods, necessary seeing as signs along that trail warn hikers to stay on the footpath as it's now deer-culling season (though hunters have to use arrows and not firearms):

At the 3-mile (4.8 kilometers) point into the walk, I swung right onto the Cross County Trail:

The CCT is 40 miles (64 kilometers) in length, connecting Fairfax County from north to south. Unlike the W&OD Trail, the CCT isn't paved, though there were plenty of cyclists on mountain bikes riding through the  woods:

The CCT in this area runs parallel with the Division Run stream:

Though there were times when it felt like I was getting away from it all, civilization is never far away, as I was reminded when the trail passed under the busy Dulles Toll Road...:

...and later through an affluent suburban neighborhood. It was in this area where I encountered the deer:

I reached the halfway point (six miles; 9.7 kilometers) about 2¼ hours into the walk. The midpoint was supposed to be marked by a visit to the historic Colvin Run Mill (1813), but it was located across busy Leesburg Pike and I didn't feel like waiting for a break in traffic when there wasn't a pedestrian crossing. Instead, I turned around and retraced my steps on the Cross County Trail to where it rejoined the W&OD (at about the nine-mile/14.5 kilometer mark). And it was at that particular point that my legs and feet rebelled. Several factors were involved: 1.) I'm out of shape, and asking my body to walk 12 miles was probably too much; 2.) While the natural surface of the CCT was fine, the hard asphalt of the paved bike trail was murder on the soles of my feet; and 3.) I've always had poor mechanics when it comes to walking, and at my age, it appears it's starting to have an effect. For whatever reason, the last three miles back to the car were more brutal than dealing with Russian grammar. 

Despite the discomfort, there was no choice but to soldier on. At places there were interesting historical markers to briefly take my mind off the fact that miles are much longer than kilometers:

My good deed for the day was helping this turtle cross the W&OD, namely by alerting a couple of passing cyclists to its presence:

The historic Freeman House is a local museum and gift shop that looks like it might be good for a quick visit, but on this day my feet and legs only wanted to get back to the car, so I gave it a pass:

Time: 4½ hours. Distance: 13 miles/21 kilometers (when I first arrived at the community center, I made a wrong turn, which added another mile to my walk). Number of days feeling stiff and sore afterward: Several. Still, after two years in the urban spaces of Shanghai, it feels great to be back in an area where access to green spaces is only a short drive away. 

And maybe all those negative ions will help me remember how to conjugate Russian verbs...

Saturday, September 26, 2015

End of the Road: Fergie Jenkins and Frank Lloyd Wright

Amber stands in front of a statue of legendary Cubs broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, located on Michigan Avenue

Rain threatened to come down on Saturday, Sept. 5, our last full day in Chicago. While precipitation is never appreciated when one is on vacation, it's even more worrisome when you have tickets to a baseball game. And not just any game, but a visit to one of baseball's two hallowed shrines, Wrigley Field. Fortunately, the skies cleared as the morning progressed, and by the start of the game at 1:20pm, we couldn't have asked for better weather...well, my sun-hating wife could have, but at least our seats were shaded. 

Arriving at Addison Station on the Red Line, we were greeted by a statue of Cubs Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins:

Outside the entrance to Wrigley Field, which opened in 1914 as Weeghman Park (it was given its current moniker in 1926). It's the oldest National League ballpark, and only Boston's Fenway Park (1912) is older. I saw a game at Fenway in 1998; today would be my first visit to Wrigley:

The view from our seats on the upper deck along the third-base line, with the famed ivy-covered outfield walls clearly in sight:

The surrounding rooftops in Wrigleyville. Once upon a time, small groups of people would stand on these rooftops, enjoying cookouts and watching games for free. Starting in the 1990's, however, like so much else in American life, the atmosphere became commercialized, as some building owners put up bleachers and began charging spectators:

The Cubs take the field. Their opponents this day were the Arizona Diamondbacks:

The center field scoreboard:

The Cubs in action. Pitching was Jake Arrieta, who in his previous start threw a no-hitter on August 30 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the ending of which I caught on TV in our hotel room in Billings, Montana. Arrieta wasn't quite as sharp as that in this game, but he still shut out the Diamondbacks on only six hits over eight innings as the Cubs eventually went on to win 2-0:

Unfortunately, we never learned her answer:

I didn't intend for the photo to turn out like this, but I like the result:

One of Wrigley Field's hallowed traditions (at least since 1982, when it was begun by Harry Caray) is the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" by a guest conductor (after Caray died in early 1998). On this day it was none other than Fergie Jenkins (see statue photo above). In his 19-season Major League Baseball career, Jenkins won 284 games, struck out 3192 batters and won the National League Cy Young Award in 1971 (the first Canadian and Cubs pitcher to do so). He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991. As a singer, Jenkins was a great pitcher:

Cubs win! As I write this, Chicago is in position to clinch the second NL wild card spot, 5½ games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and 9½ games ahead of their closest pursuers, the San Francisco Giants. If the Cubs make it into the postseason, it will be their first playoff appearance since 2008. Of course, Chicago hasn't been to a World Series since 1945, and the last time the Cubs won the championship was way back in 1908 (the crosstown rivals White Sox ended their 88 year-long title drought in 2005):

A good day for the Cubs, a great day for the Kaminoge family. Seeing a game at Wrigley Field is like a pilgrimage to Mecca, something that every baseball fan should do at least once in their lifetimes. A Saturday afternoon on a warm September day, enjoying the fresh air, beer and hot dogs, seeing the home team win, is definitely a Ken Burns kind of moment. One day, if and when I have the time and money to do so, I'd like to visit all 30 MLB ballparks in one season, on another epic road trip across the U.S. and into Canada:

Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks:

Seeing the Cubs at Wrigley was pretty much the culmination of our quick visit to Chicago. That evening, I took a few pictures of the city skyline from our hotel rooftop:

The next day (Sunday, Sept. 6), we left Chicago, with our final destination, Falls Church, in sight. I'd intended on stopping off at Thomas Edison's childhood home in Milan, Ohio. Unfortunately, I didn't program the GPS carefully enough, and we ended up driving off-course. It wasn't until we were approaching Indianapolis that I realized we were heading in the wrong direction. By the time the necessary course corrections were made, it was too late to reach Milan. So we drove instead toward our last sightseeing stop before reaching Washington, D.C., getting as far as Cambridge, Ohio before finding a hotel and calling it a night. On the way, I introduced Amber and Pamela to yet another American icon, White Castle (this one on the outskirts of Columbus, OH). Truth be told, I've always found it hard to understand what all the fuss is about, but then again I never had a case of the munchies in a small Midwestern city:

On the last day of our epic road trip, we drove on, leaving Ohio, crossing a short stretch of West Virginia and entering Pennsylvania:

Our last stop before Falls Church was a late addition to the itinerary, made after purchasing a book on famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright at the Rookery Building in Chicago. Fallingwater, one of Wright's most famous designs, is located in Mill Run, in the hills of western Pennsylvania. We arrived for a 1:30 tour of the house, which lasted an hour. The home was partly constructed over a small waterfall, and was described by Time magazine as the architect's "most beautiful job". A National Historic Landmark since 1966, it's well worth a visit. Just as Wrigley Field is a shrine for baseball fans, Fallingwater is a must-see for anyone interested in architecture. I don't know enough about the subject to pretend I understand the significance of the horizontal and vertical lines, and of the way the house was built into the bedrock, but I do appreciate beauty, and Fallingwater is a gem. I'm now facing the challenge of how to reconcile Fallingwater with Bangkok's Jim Thompson House when the time comes to design my dream retirement home:

Pennsylvania, Maryland and finally Virginia. We reached Falls Church in the early evening on Labor Day, tired but glad to be in our new, but familiar, digs (we're staying at the same complex as the last time we were in this area, though in a different building). 12 days, 3200 miles, 14 states. Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, Chicago and Fallingwater. I did 99% of the driving and enjoyed every moment behind the wheel (except those times when the oil lamp would come on). My wife and daughter might beg to differ, but I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to be on the road in the U.S.A.





Tuesday, September 22, 2015

On the Road, Part VI: Chicago

The Windy City. The Second City. The...enough. Suffice it to say we arrived in Chicago on the night of Thursday, September 3, and checked into the Best Western River North Hotel, close to Michigan Avenue. The next day we set out on foot along that famed road:

Michigan Avenue eventually brought us to Millenium Park, arguably the most modernist green space in the entire country. Case in point is the Pritzker Pavilion, a band shell designed by Frank Gehry and the site of free band concerts in the summer:

The pavilion can be seen from the BP Bridge which crosses Columbus Drive (and which was also designed by Gehry): 

Another famous installation is Cloud Gate, designed by Anish Kapoor and known as "The Bean" for obvious reasons:

Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa is a combination water fountain/video sculpture that provides a somewhat creepy setting for cooling off on a hot, humid afternoon:

From Millenium Park, the Nichols Bridgeway leads up to the 3rd-floor contemporary sculpture garden of the Art Institute of Chicago, offering nice views back to the park:

Visiting the second-largest art museum in the United States took up several hours of our Friday, and every minute was worthwhile. If I were a Chicago resident, I would seriously consider becoming a museum member and making multiple visits in order to see everything on display. With limited time, however, we made do with downloading an app that gave us a two-hour tour of the museum's highlights. The following photos are just a taste of what we saw there:

The Assumption of the Virgin, El Greco

Old Man with a Gold Chain, Rembrandt (circa 1631)

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat (1884)

Stacks of Wheat (End of Day, Autumn), Claude Monet (circa 1890)

The Bedroom,Vincent van Gogh (1888)

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper (1942)

American Gothic, Grant Wood (1930). But you knew that already. What you may not have known (and I didn't) was that the couple in the painting were not a husband-and-wife pair. Rather, the man was Wood's dentist, while the woman was the artist's sister. Furthermore, Wood may have intended to portray a father and his daughter, though he never clarified this point.

America Windows, Marc Chagall (1977)

Bathers by a River, Henri Matisse

Venus de Milo with Drawers, Salvador Dalí (1936)

Hinoki, Charles Ray

Buddha Shakyamuni Seated in Meditation (circa 12th century)

Power Figure, a figure made in the mid-19th century in what is now the Congo region of Africa

Coronation Stone of Motecuhzoma II, commemorating the beginning of the reign of the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma II in 1503. 

And finally the Ando Gallery, created by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Andō 安藤忠雄.
From the Art Institute, we resumed walking, turning from Michigan Avenue onto Jackson Boulevard. Walking under the "L" evoked images from The French Connection: 

On LaSalle Street, we stopped to have a look inside the 1888 Rookery, the lobby of which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I bought a book on some of Wright's creations from the gift shop in the lobby, which was to inspire a change in our travel plans between Chicago and Falls Church:

In front of Daley Plaza stands Untitled, an abstract sculpture by Pablo Picasso. It must be the only Picasso in the world on which kids can climb and slide down, a fact which impressed my daughter (who can be seen in the photo below):

Taking a break on Washington Street at Toni Patisserie & Cafe:

Back on Michigan Avenue en route to our hotel:

That evening we had dinner at a Chinese/Thai fusion restaurant, which was actually a nice break from all the American-style meals we'd been having on our trek across the country. After nine days of driving across the vast open spaces of the American West, and taking in the natural majesties of Yellowstone and the Black Hills (the latter including the man-made wonder that graces the face of Mt. Rushmore), it was a big change to be back in a large, urban area. Downtown Chicago pulsates with a vibrant energy that makes it an understandable (and irresistible) lure for young single professionals with money to spend. Had I been 30 years younger...then again, I've never experienced a Chicago winter, and speculation is moot anyway at this point. I'm satisfied at this stage in life to put Chicago on that list of places I wish I could have had more time to explore, but which I still thoroughly enjoyed during the relatively brief time (three nights) we were there:

To be continued at Wrigley Field...

Amber in front of the Rainforest Cafe