Calgary, sans Stampede

Photos to follow!

Canada’s a big place, and up until now, I’d only been in a very small part of it.  In my life, I’ve never been west (in Canada) of Toronto, which is pretty far east.  So, when I had the opportunity to spend a week’s TDY in Calgary, I jumped at it.

Calgary, like Denver,  sits just to the east of the Rocky Mountains (a little further away, as I learned on my drive to the mountains, but certainly in the vicinity.)  It was home of the 1988 Winter Olympics (more on that later) and for the past 100 years, of the Calgary Stampede, which had the bad taste to end just before I got there.  Like Denver, it’s at altitude.  Calgary is the kilometer-high city (actually a bit over a kilometer) and the altitude and normal dryness of the air results in a climate which even when warm in the daytime, cools significantly at night.

Arriving Saturday around lunchtime, I proceeded to get lost at least three, maybe four (depending on how you count) times on my way to my home away from home.  That was with Google Maps directions.  I finally headed dead reckoning for the general vicinity of where I knew the house was, hoping to find a familiar sounding street.  That worked, although I took a few laps around the block to find the house kinda hidden behind some hedges.  Calgary, in spite of downtown being a conventional grid, seems determined to make sure it’s hard to get to there from here, using a combination of having both numbered streets and avenues, random one way streets,  places where the grid ends, light rail only roads and construction to keep you paying attention.

Sunday, I headed out at 0 dark 30 (two hours time change, remember, so I was awake anyway) for the mountains.  What was my plan?  Drive west until I found them!  The way to do that is on the Trans-Canada, and I had seen the exit for it on my way from the Airport.  When I took the exit from the highway, I was suprised to find that, at least in this section, the Trans-Canada was more Route 66 than I-66.  In other words – it was a regular surface road with traffic lights, railroad crossings and such instead of the expected limited access highway.  Eventually it cleared Calgary and became what I had expected for the most part, divided highway headed West.  Just about the time that happens, appearing to your left at the top of a hill is what, after a few seconds, you realize are the ski jumping towers from 1988 (also the bobsled, luge and ice arenas, but it takes a while longer to realize that.)

It’s about now you really begin to sense the mountains coming up, and notice a few things:

  1. They are very steep, more so than the ones in Colorado
  2. They are very “Rocky”, grey stone from about a third of the way up to the tip.  It really jumps out at you, even at a distance.

Just keep driving, and eventually you come to the last stop before entering the National Park…Canmore.  I didn’t stop there because which exit to take wasn’t obvious from the Trans-Canada and it was still very early in the morning, and all I really needed was batteries for the camera.  A few miles up the road, and you enter Banff National Park.  Like in the U.S., you pay for access to the National Parks these days.  They’re worth it, but you shouldn’t have to pay for things like National Parks, Interstate Highways and other federal institutions you have already paid taxes toward (I feel the same about Passports).  Of course, I’ve paid nothing toward the Canadian National Park system, so charge away!  They didn’t ask my nationality at the gate.

In order to appreciate parks you have to appreciate parks.  It’s about the scenery.  It’s about the experience.  It’s about the quiet and the beauty and the unusual.  This isn’t Disney World (or Disneyland…Canadians can’t seem to keep them straight), it’s mile and miles of mountains, streams, lakes and trees with just occasional interruptions for the town of Banff or the hotel at Lake Louise.  In fact, they warn you to keep your car topped off before entering parts of the park because there are no gas stations for long stretches (that’s true out of the park too…we’ll get to that.)

Pretty soon you realize you’re not only driving into the mountains, but up.  It’s nothing obvious, but the peaks start to be snowcapped and the temperature starts to drop (I wish cars came with altimeters!).  By the time you get to Banff (yes, the town’s inside the park) the temperature had dropped almost ten degrees Celcicus.  Nothing was open in Banff except the Tim Horton’s (still looking for batteries),  so I had a coffee and apple fritter and pressed on.

The next place to get off and hunt for batteries was Lake Louise.  I eventually bought some there at a gas station, and it is better left unsaid what batteries cost in the only place open in the middle of a no-competition zone, but I wanted to take pictures, and the little red battery low symbol was flashing ominously.  With what gas cost, I didn’t buy any.

Lake Louise is a glacier-fed wonder. And on that note, we’ll take a break.

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Memories and New Starts

We just passed the 23rd anniversary of my flight on NASA’s “Vomit Comet”, the aircraft they use for weightlessness training.  That’s a coincidence.  About a month ago I was poking around my computer files, which have gotten quite disorganized with years of different work computers, home computers, crashing disks and laptops.  I came upon a “contact sheet” of the photos from the flight.  Since my budget was limited back then, I had only purchased a print of one of the photos I was in.  Since I’d like the others, I emailed the good folks at the Johnson Space Center who are the keepers of the photo library with the photo numbers, and asking what it would cost to get new prints, or high quality digital scans, made.  They were in a good mood that day, or are just nice people, because they offered to make the scans for me at no cost.  A couple of weeks later, I was able to download them.  Thanks!  I was willing to pay for the service, but I appreciate the good will.

This is the photo that motivated me.  See all the folks in the khaki flight suits?  They were most of the Canadian astronauts at that time.  I thought it would be fun to hang this photo in my office while I was in Ottawa.  The tall guy over my left shoulder is Byron Lichtenberg, Shuttle Payload Specialist and the guy who made it possible for us to get on this flight.  He was speaking at Space Camp at one of the Enterprise Team sessions (a group of adults who helped Space camp design and test advanced programs) about his company, which was renting the VC and “subletting” seats for experimenters.  We went to him right after the speech and said we had several people ready to go if we could make it work.  Since this was a NASA aircraft, we couldn’t just joyride, we had to pass a flight physical, go through low pressure chamber training, and devise experiments for our flights, but eventually we did.

My experiment had to do with the use of a “kneeboard” to use a laptop PC onboard the Shuttle or space station.  here I am before I got sick.

Yes, I got sick.  The plane lived up to its name.  I blame it on the delay on the ground during which I sweated out most of the anti-airsickness drugs :).

In any case, as those of you who have seen me lately know, I look thinner in those photos, because I was!  So, I started an exercise program yesterday.  Nothing big to start, just some time every day on the treadmill in the apartment building, but that and cutting back on the food a bit will hopefully take me closer to my “flying weight” then I’ve been in a while.  It will take time, but I have time.

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Wind along the rails and other events…

As I’ve mentioned, we’re less than an hour from the U.S. Border (although on African roads it would be three hours…on a good day).  Ogdensburg, NY to be specific.  Shortly after you cross the border, there are some railroad tracks…usually empty…but not last Saturday when I was returning from a shopping trip to see these:

ImageThese are wind turbine blades, the business end of power generating windmills, and as I was waiting for quite a few of them to pass and let me return to Canada. I was wondering just where they were headed.  It is hilly in upstate New York, and we are right along the St. Lawrence River, so there are plenty of opportunities, but I had never seen more than the random individual windmill in the area.

That wasn’t the only reason I set out Monday (three day weekend, you know) to explore a bit up upstate I hadn’t before, east of Ogdensburg, even east of Massena, the next crossing.  In fact, all the way to Vermont.  If you go to Vermont from way upstate New York, there’s this big body of water in the way – Lake Champlain.  Home of Champ, the lake monster.  Site of Revolutionary sea battles, and too big to bridge, so I got to take some ferries across the water.

ImageThese are not Channel Ferry sized ferries, or even Staten Island sized ferries (although they are bigger than White’s ferry, and much bigger than the one near San Jac in Texas), but they do provide crossings at several points along the lake, and nice views of the shores on a nice day.

Returning from Vermont, I was bouncing along just south of the US Canada border when I found the wind farms.  There are several of them along the northernmost stretches of New York State, and I’d guess the load of turbine blades I has seen a few days earlier was headed to one of them.  I should have stopped and taken a picture, but I wanted to get home before dark, and I had exceeded my planned trip already taking the ferries to Vermont and driving down to the Dakin Farms store.

That leaves the day between, in which I didn’t travel back to the US but instead stayed in Ottawa and started exploring some of the museums in town.  First on my list was the aviation museum.  It’s at an airport (not the big one south of town) which is nice because it gives them the opportunity to sell biplane and helicopter rides over the city, which I left for another weekend.  I’ll get back to you after a few photos:

That last little piece of nose is all that is left of the Avro Arrow, a Mach 2 interceptor Canada was building in the early 1960s, well ahead of its time.  It was eventually cancelled by a government looking to cut budget (and because it was a pet project of the previous government).  But not only did they cancel the project, but they ordered the existing aircraft scrapped along with all plans, tooling, etc., which is why all that is left is this bit of the nose.

One of the nice things about Ottawa is that it is a very walkable and bikeable city, which makes it a nice place for a marathon…which is what I kept running into trying to get to the museum.  I knew my way there…but the way I knew crossed the marathon route many times (including right in front of my building).  I’ve now learned many of the back roads of Ottawa between my apartment and the Rockcliffe Airport.

Finally, the first Friday of each month is Professional Development day in the consular section.  We close the windows, catch up on paperwork, and hold some kind of event for team building or to learn more about what we do.  For example, In May we went out to the airport and got a tour of the DHS facility out there where they clear people going to the US before they even leave Canada.  This month, we broke into teams and went on a scavenger hunt around Ottawa, learning more about the history and geography of the city in which we work and live.  It’s an interesting place, and even as the least experienced in the city I was able to pick out a few places from the list others didn’t notice because they’d been here so long. We are in another country, as we are reminded from time to time.  Their heroes are the people who fought for the British during our Revolution (and then retreated to Canada).


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A nine hour drive…

…if I did it straight through, which I didn’t because I hadn’t warned anyone I was coming, and didn’t want to be sneaking into the House at 2am, but with the three day Victoria Day weekend I decided to go home and see family.  Ottawa to Annapolis is about nine hours, but I stopped once for dinner (and gas) and then at about 11pm to spend the night in a cheap hotel and avoid the 2am wakeup for my unsuspecting mother.

Plans are to leave around lunchtime Monday and be back in Ottawa by 10 pm (with a meal and gas stop).

Thanks to President Eisenhower for the Interstate Highway System, an fine example of the good use of government funds to provide infrastructure for the good of the economy and our way of life.


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Ottawa’s a beautiful place, but…

…there’s more to this life than the places we live.

First the happy stuff.

A spring walk in Canada often requires an extra spring in your step as temperatures can vary from Miami mild to Colorado cold. The sun shone starkly one Saturday morning as Ambassador David Jacobson and better than a dozen more members of the Embassy Ottawa community set out to the music of bagpipes for the five (or two, or seven … your choice) kilometer MS Walk along the Ottawa River. But although to the eye the weather was spectacular, there was a nip in the wind that blew off the water that led most to don hats, gloves and other winter gear before setting out.

MS Walk Team "The FAM"

MS Walk Team “The FAM”

Okay, we look a little warmer than we were in the picture, but this was after the walk, when it was warmer, and we had 5 km under our belts.

Spring has definitely come to Ottawa.  Mornings can be cold, but the afternoons have been very pleasant, mostly sunny, and Ottawa is a good city for walking and biking.

I was walking one day, when I saw something which caused me to double take.

Okay, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a Star Trek themed license plate (I used to own NCC-17Q1), but it’s the first time I’ve seen a state (or province) issue them.  The one I actually saw was Enterpris.  Unfortunately, these were issued about a decade back and are no longer available so when I go out in the next week or two to get my Ontario plates, they won’t be available.

Speaking of which, I’m having a bit of a challenge with that.  By (Canadian) law I need to put Ontario plates on my car, and get an Ontario license, which I don’t mind, so long as I can also keep it registered in Virginia.  You see, Virginia law has grandfathered my old hybrid plates into the law allowing me to drive the HOV lanes.  New hybrid plates don’t get the benefit, and I don’t want to give it up.  Virginia will let me keep my Virginia Driver’s license, but even if I keep the registration, taxes and insurance current, I’m not sure my plates will be good when I get home.  I’m still working on that one.  You’d think with all the Foreign Service folks who make their homes in Virginia, they’d have this figured out.

I’m a New Yorker by birth, but I’ll have to admit I have the usual downstate attitude that everything north of the Westchester county line is some big amorphus mass, so I am constantly pleasantly surprise with what I find just on the other side of the border.  I made a run down to Watertown last weekend, and took a drive along the 1000 islands area of the St. Lawrence.  Spectacular scenery that I’ll have to go back and spend serious time with one of these long weekends.  There are two in the next two weeks!

On to the serious stuff.  One of the questions that comes up multiple times as you apply for and enter the foreign service, is “what would you do if you had to support a policy you didn’t personally support?”  At the time, everyone was thinking “Iraq,” but the U.S has many, many policies, and they subtly and not so subtly come up in day to day work.  You start out at “bite your tongue and move on”, but stress has limits, and it’s unfair to your coworkers when you vent and they are standing in the way.  But if you don’t vent, stress has other results.

I’ve often told friends and collegues, “life is too short not to enjoy what you’re doing.”  And that’s as far as I’ll go with that right now, except to say, ignoring it is something which is neither good for the officer, nor the Department of State.



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Observing Ottawa

Last of the Pennies


So, here I am in Canada, and yes, that’s a different country.  For one thing, they have no dollar bills (just coins) and no pennies (they’re eliminating them in the coming year’s budget).  Also, as I noted in my visit in November, they take their holidays seriously.  Yesterday was Good Friday, and the Embassy was closed, so I thought I’d do some grocery shopping.  No luck — the supermarkets were closed.  Fortunately, Ottawa is a little less than an hour north of Ogdensburg, NY, where supermarkets don’t care (too much) about holidays.  So, a week after arriving in Canada, I made my first visit back to the U.S.  Ogdensburg is a nice looking small city, quite typical of old, small cities in the northeastern U.S.  There’s some pretty architecture, and a river runs past it (and separates it from Canada).  And, knowing that things are a bit more expensive in the great white north, as soon as you cross the bridge into the U.S., there’s a Walmart, a Lowe’s and a Price Chopper for your shopping pleasure :-).  And they stock Nathan’s, natural casings hot dogs!

This being Canada, there’s hockey.  In addition to the NHL Senators, Ottawa has the OHL 67’s.  So, last night I went to watch the juniors play the first game of the second round of their playoffs.  The arena they use is interesting.  It’s a multi-use facility, and one of the uses is as a football stadium.  Hence, the tilted ceiling, which sits under the bleachers for football.  It also opens up on one side to a large exhibition hall.  The arena seats a little under 10,000, and there really aren’t any bad seats.  Canadian junior hockey is for players 15-20 and most NHL players pass through the juniors on their way.  Dennis Potvin is the most famous former 67. And, they won last night’s game 5-1, although most of the scoring was at the other end of the ice from me :-(.

My other major projects of this first week were checking into the Embassy, and my search for housing.  Checking in is checking in.  Ottawa is nicely organized and has an easy to follow checklist.  If everyone is available when you stop by, it can go quickly.  I’m mostly done, just a few people to see and forms to fill out.

In the State Department, most postings you arrive at the airport and they drive you to your house.  Not so in Canada (and not just because I drove).  It’s what’s called a Living Quarters Allowance (LQA) post, which means they give me an allowance (money and space maximum) and I get to go find housing on my own.  The advantage is, you get to pick where you live, and the disadvantage is, you have to search for a place to live.  My choice in Ottawa was – close and smaller, or further away and bigger.  I went for close.  This building is walking distance to the Embassy, to the Byward Market area, parks and the Rideau Canal.  It’s been a long time since I lived in an apartment building, but this is a very nice one, with indoor heated parking and a decent view (if you look in the right direction).  It’s still a few weeks until I get in, so until then it’s Marriott Residence Inn time.  Not bad.  The suite has a full kitchen, washer dryer and full breakfast every morning.  The wired Internet in my first room isn’t working (so I’m on my laptop right now), but we’re swapping that for a new place today (after a week of trying to debug their system).  I’d have changed rooms earlier, but I have a car full of stuff in the room and it will take quite a while to get it all moved to the new place, so I was trying to avoid it.  Then, in a couple of weeks, I’ll do it all over again to get into my apartment.

And I need to get a local bank account, and local license plates and license, and set up utilities for the apartment and…




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Road trip!

So, instead of just hang around my (mostly empty of furniture) house for four weeks before heading up to Ottawa, I need to do something.  I looked at Cancun, and heading north to see the quite spectacular aurora, but just decided to jump in my car and head south to spring training.

Space Coast Stadium

Spring Training is spread out across Florida (and there’s a whole separate batch of teams in Arizona), so I decided to  spend two days near KSC, two days near Orlando, and finish up on the west coast near Sarasota.  I used to live near KSC when I worked there, and while driving around some back roads found this:

That’s an external tank and set of SRBs (just the casings, I’m sure) from the Space Shuttle, sitting in a field behind the KSC visitor’s center.  What I think they are, are the set that used to be on display at the visitor’s center, connected to a mockup of a shuttle orbiter.  That mockup is being replaced by Discovery, but I doubt they’ll display it outdoors as they did the mockup, with the ET and SRBs, so if someone needs a set…  The SRBs are collectors items.  They include segments of the filament wound boosters which were going to be used to launch shuttles from Vandenberg AFB into polar orbit.

Visiting an old homestead allows you to revisit favorite restaurants and stores.  In my case, it gave me the opportunity to get some fresh squeezed orange and grapefruit juice from my favorite place just outside the south gate.

I hadn’t planned to visit the air museum at TICO airport (well worth visiting if you’re in the area and have an interest), but as it turned out there was an airshow that weekend which gave me the opportunity to see rare WWII warbirds, including the only flying B-29, in the air, so that was just an unexpected bonus.

I ended up seeing five ballgames, including my hometown Nationals and childhood Yankees, but Spring Training is a lot more expensive than I expected.  I expected minor league prices.  They’re closer to major league prices, which given that you’re only seeing the major leaguers for a few innings at best, is a bit of a ripoff.  Add parking, food and the price of sunscreen 🙂 and it ends up being a pretty expensive way to pass time.  Still it was worthwhile, particularly after you add beach time and the great weather.

But, I had to return because there are things to be done.  I still need to find out how to get things out of storage and ship them to Ottawa, since the State Department doesn’t provide housing up there.  I need to pick up my visa (yes, a visa for Canada).  I need to sell off or give away the furniture I’ve been using while I’ve been here.  I’m replacing a dead tree in my front yard (with a live one) and getting my house ready for rental.

Two weeks, more or less, to go!



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Heading for Ottawa!

Cleared for takeoff (more or less) and I’ll be headed up to Ottawa shortly.

Why not immediately?  There’s this little thing called Home Leave.

Fort Ticonderoga - in the United States

Fort Ticonderoga - in the United States

Now, I like the idea of Home Leave.  The idea is that between each tour a Foreign Service Officer should spend some time in the U.S. remembering how to be an American.  It’s mandated by Congress.

Some FSOs complain it’s expensive if you don’t have a place to crash for (at least) a month and inconvenient.  Let’s be honest about something…a lot of FSOs prefer living overseas in a big house with people to watch the kids and clean and cook to living in a small house or apartment and doing all that yourself.  But that’s it.  That’s not how most Americans live and it’s important to remember who we’re representing.

That being said, I’ve been back in the US since September, so it’s not like I haven’t been living in the U.S. for a while.  Why do I still need to go on home leave?  A reasonable question, and the answer is (short version) because Congress says so and (long version) because if we made it flexible, the rules would get so complicated it wouldn’t be worth the administrative cost.

So, I’ll get organized for moving north, probably head south for some sun, visit friends and family, and get my house ready to rent…then I’m off to my next post…finally!


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Home Leave

Since I’ve been back in the U.S. I’ve been living kinda like a college student.  I’m living in my house, but…

Most of my furniture is in storage

Most of the rest of my furniture is in Ottawa

Most of my clothes are with my furniture.

So, I’m sleeping on a bed I picked up at Ikea, my kitchen table is foldable and suitable for tailgating (I bought it and two chairs at a sporting goods store.  Friends provided other chairs and bookshelves, and Ikea provided a computer desk, some end tables, and a Poang chair (which I’ll keep).

The place is pretty empty, and it’s something to take into account if you own a house you want to return to, but want to rent while overseas and live in while back.  What are the alternatives:

Rental furniture — pretty expensive as it turns out.

Rent the house furnished — when you’re back you won’t be living on your best furniture, but the house will be furnished.

Store your furniture privately, so you can get it out when you’re home.

Or do what I did, live with begged, borrowed, stolen and yard sale stuff.

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Et, si ça va!

2+/2+.  Needed a 3/3.  Another six weeks.  On the other hand, that’s about where I thought I really was.

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