A Kid-tastic Weekend in Philly

by Sarah Novak on October 21, 2014

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Last weekend we took a family road trip to Philly.  This was a very kid-centric trip and we had 2 specific destinations on our agenda.  The first was Sesame Street Place, a Sesame Street theme park with rides, shows, and character meet-and-greets.  Think Disneyworld, but with Sesame Street characters.

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It was the perfect time of year to go – not too hot and the park was decked out in Halloween decor (not scary though).  Unfortunately, everyone and their brother had the same idea as us and by 12 noon the park was jam-packed.  It was an endless sea of strollers and tantrumming toddlers.  We managed a grand total of 4 rides, 1 show, 1 parade and 0 character meet-and-greets.  It doesn’t sound like much but it actually felt like a pretty full day.

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It’s definitely a great weekend trip from DC (only a 3 hour drive) and there is inexpensive lodging right next to the park.  If we went again, I’d make sure to go on a weekday in the summer in order to take advantage of fewer people and the waterpark.  It’s not worth the full price of $63 a person, but with a Groupon (what we used), it was worth a $38 value.

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Sunday was devoted to another gem, the Please Touch Museum.  This was the children’s museum to beat all children’s museums.  Seriously, I can’t begin to explain how fabulous it was.  If we lived in Philly, we’d get a membership there in a heartbeat.

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First thing to know is that it’s housed in a beautiful building that was built for the 100 year centennial fair in 1876.  It has been beautifully kept up and the architecture was as delightful as the exhibits.  The far end also housed a carousel that was built around that time and recently restored.

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One of our favorite areas was the Alice in Wonderland exhibit.  The design work was exquisite and Nia had the chance to do everything from painting the flowers to dining with the mad hatter.

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Here’s a fun picture of us in the shrinking hall that was also part of the exhibit.

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The other area that was just mind-blowingly cool was the market.  This market had all the usual areas – dry goods, frozen, refrigerated – and they even used actual packaging for many of the items so it looked quite real.

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Kids were encouraged to fill their cart and ring up their purchases (and then pass their cart off to the parents to put everything away).  The pic I took above looks quite serene but this next one shows the reality of it, which was roughly 30 carts careening all over the place.  It was heaps of fun, definitely one of Nia’s highlights.  I’m so glad we took the time for a family road trip before the holidays started.  Twas good bonding time indeed!

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Sarah’s Photo Shoot

by Sarah Novak on September 27, 2014

It was finally time to get my business headshots updated after 7 years of using the old ones.  Thanks to Razavi Photography for doing such a fab job.  I love them and can’t decide which ones to use.  I guess that’s a good problem, right???

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Nia’s Flower Girl Debut!

by Sarah Novak on September 16, 2014

Nia and I just got back from a 1 week trip to Minnesota to attend Beth & Jim’s wedding (the 3rd of the 4 Miller gals).  The festivities began on Friday night with the rehearsal and 50 person boat cruise on Lake Minnetonka for the Groom’s Dinner (Beth may have stolen that idea from me).

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As the flower girl, Nia got to participate in all the weekend festivities.  Boy oh boy did she love being the only kiddo in a sea of adults.  She was on a high all weekend from the non-stop attention.  Unfortunately Nick got a viral infection early in the week and was forced to cancel his ticket.  We missed him but made the best of it.  Bad timing!

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Nia has a ridiculously large crush on Jim and if I ever lost sight of her I could pretty much bet that I’d find her near Jim staring up at him with googly eyes.  Thankfully, Jim’s a good sport about it.

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Beth and Jim spared no expense on their festivities (open bar all night with top-shelf liquor, stunning new venue for the reception, boat cruises for 50, party bus for the wedding party, grandiose suite for getting ready, etc).  The pics above and below were taken in the suite where we got ready.  It was a beautiful backdrop for a variety of pre-wedding shots (complete with matching robes!)

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The wedding took place at St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis.  Nia nailed her flower girl duties, artfully blowing kisses and waving as she went down the aisle.  And despite Mommy’s worries, we didn’t have any loud outbursts to distract from the ceremony.

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The wedding reception was held at MUSE Event Center in downtown Minneapolis.  It’s in the space formerly known as Trocadero’s but received a major renovation before opening as Muse.  Beth & Jim’s wedding was one of the first in the new space.  Wow was it gorgeous!

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In between the ceremony and the reception we took a 26 person party bus around the town for drinks & photos.  We got some great shots on both the Stone Arch Bridge and Nicollet Island.  I can’t wait to see what the professional photographer was able to capture!

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I was really proud of how Nia held up over the weekend considering that she didn’t get a nap for 3 days and had 10 PM bedtimes each night.  All the partying finally caught up with her on the wedding night.  Just as we’re getting ready to board the bus back to the hotel she threw up all over the front of her dress.  Poor thing… I think she did a wee bit too much spinning on the dance floor.

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All in all, it was a grand weekend full of wonderful memories.  We are so excited to officially welcome Jim to the family (although it feels like he’s been with us forever).  If only Nia and I could shake off the post-wedding exhaustion – we’ve rolled out of bed 2 hours later than normal for the last 3 days!  Hopefully we’re all caught up now and can get back to life as normal.

Best wishes to the Griffins!

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Friday Music Break!

by Sarah Novak on September 5, 2014

This vocal is downright lovely (not to mention the song is a classic).

Nicole Scherzinger: Don't Cry For Me Argentina (2013)

Enjoy your weekend!

Sarah

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Fun at the Farm

by Sarah Novak on September 2, 2014

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We decided to spice up Labor Day 2014 with a little trip to the countryside.  We had intended for it to be a family trip, but Nick had to bow out at the last minute because the hot water heater was leaking.  So it ended up just being Nia and I.

After doing a bit of research we went with Great Country Farms in Bluemont Virginia, a little over an hour outside of DC.  Key things I was looking for were honeycrisp apples, animals and kid-specific activities.  This farm checked all the boxes (and then some).

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We arrived at 10 AM and bee-lined it for the jumping pillow, a monstrosity that I have never before seen (that’s Nia jumping atop it).  As you might imagine, it was hugely popular with the kiddo and we managed to get some quality time on it before the big kids arrived.

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Next up was apple picking.  We jumped aboard the wagon and headed out to the fields.  Again, we did this relatively early in the day, so there were just a few of us out when we picked.

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Nia found apple hunting to be a grand old game – she even managed to select some of our best apples!

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She was quite awed by the vast landscape and took off to explore for a bit.  So much of Nia’s life has been in densely-populated areas that it was refreshing to show her what open countryside felt like.  I could tell she liked it, big time.  Iceland, here we come???

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The hands-down favorite activity of the day was feeding the goats.  We purchased a cup of feed and Nia meticulously doled out 1 pellet at a time to the impatient goats.  She was very particular in her feeding, making sure each goat got an equal amount.

Here’s a short video of the Nia-meister doing her thing with her goats:

Given the immense popularity of this outing and the fact that orchard season is just starting up, I imagine we’ll make another 2-3 trips to various farms before the end of October.  This makes Mama very happy, as apple-picking was one of my favorite annual traditions as a girl (shout out to Pine Tree Apple Orchard!)  May Nia come to love it as much as I did!

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The Tale of the Coffee Table

by Sarah Novak on September 2, 2014

Once upon a time there was a coffee table (originally owned by a beautiful, blonde-haired lady).  In its day this table was the center of girl chats, group board games and many a memorable dinner party.  Sadly, it got abandoned to a warehouse when the beautiful, blonde-haired lady married the dashing diplomat.

The lady & diplomat had forgotten all about the coffee table until it showed up on their doorstep just months ago.  Alas, the coffee table had seen better days.  It was bruised and broken from it’s travels; the glass shattered to pieces.

Lying in disrepair, the table remained in the corner until one day the blonde-haired lady & diplomat’s offspring took a liking to it.  The offspring delighted in this unusual find, managing to find a way to climb on it each and every day despite protests from the lady and diplomat.

After weeks of “talks” about the purpose of coffee tables, the lady & diplomat gave up, relinquishing use of the coffee table to the offspring.  The idea of replacement glass was abandoned (because the offspring would probably just stand on it and destroy it right?) and the offspring came up with dozens of creative uses for her new table.

Here best ideas included sitting on it and doing puzzles (not pictured),

practicing yoga,

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doing push-ups and….

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meditating.

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Sadly, the coffee table was never restored to its former glory.  On the upside though, it saw more use than it had in the last 5 years, so that’s something right?

The moral of the story – don’t let your offspring lay claim to your coffee table.

THE END.

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The Diplomatic Community Steps Up Once Again

by Sarah Novak on August 16, 2014

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It was about this time last month that I found myself in a bit of a conundrum.  We were in the process of setting our new apartment up and it was very obvious that there was no room for my beloved custom-designed chaise lounge from the Philippines.  I was heartbroken.

I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to sell it (I’m not into storage anymore, if there’s no room for it, then it’s gotta go).  I started posting it in our diplomatic community facebook forums and listservs. The response was overwhelming, but not in the way I had expected.  I got reply after reply telling me that I absolutely could NOT sell the chaise.  And interestingly, a unique solution emerged that I never would have considered.

The Diplomatic Community Never Fails to Surprise Me

People started volunteering to ‘house sit’ the chaise for a few years until we headed to our next post.  And mind you, these were not long-time friends, but total strangers.  There I was, humbled yet again by the generosity of our diplomatic community.

I accepted an offer from a lovely family whose timing matched ours (translation: we wouldn’t have to take it back before we leave again in 2-3 years).  We coordinated via email and they showed up yesterday with a big ole moving truck.  Not only did I not have to get it to them, but they didn’t even want my help carrying it from the apartment to the truck.  Talk about service, huh?!

Big thanks to Lauren, David and Lily for helping us find a creative solution to our problem!  No matter how big or small the challenge, I am thankful that we’re never in this alone thank to our amazing foreign service community!

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Foreign Service Institute

An Overview of Foreign Service

Institute Courses

The Foreign Service Institute is a sprawling complex located in Arlington, VA where Diplomats go to school.  It is here that they may enroll in over 600 different Foreign Service Institute courses in leadership, job-specific training, area studies and most commonly, language courses.  Amazingly, there are over 70 languages being taught there each year with courses ranging in length from a few weeks to 1 year.

In addition to preparing the officers to go overseas, there are also specific courses geared at getting the spouse/partner and family ready.  These Foreign Service Institute Courses fall under a different umbrella of the Institute called the Transition Center.  It is here that spouses take classes in security preparedness, raising bilingual children, preparing for pack-out and much, much more.  These classes were sanity-savers for me when we joined, so you can imagine my delight when I was presented with the opportunity to co-lead one of these classes for spouses!

The View from the Front of the Room

The class I got asked to co-lead was a full-day course called Portable Careers: Employment Options for Family Members.  This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as it causes many an identity issue for spouses who have to abandon their location-specific career to support their foreign service institute coursesDiplomat partner.  The class is meant to help spouses explore all the career opportunities available to them – from working on the local market, to being a professional volunteer, to teleworking or running a portable business – so that they may create a successful and fulfilling career alongside their spouse.

I came in at a time when they were revamping the content for this class, so I got to inject a lot of coaching-related material that provided opportunities for assessment and reflection.  Specifically, I created a workbook that helped participants look back at their prior roles and life experiences to recognize not only their job-related skills, but the ones they also picked up as an athlete, mother or volunteer (among many others).  The class was evenly split between this reflective work and more information-driven presentations from SCORE and veteran individuals who had successfully created portable careers.

The feedback I received indicated that the material was both useful and presented in a way that was fun and engaging.  While there were a few individuals that were on 2nd or 3rd tours, the majority were fresh recruits.  I remember all too well the overwhelm that accompanies those first few months.  I hope our class was able to remind them that they aren’t leaving everything behind, they are simply being called to use their skills and passions in new ways!

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We’re Freecyclin’ Baby!

by Sarah Novak on July 30, 2014

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Okay, I have to share a delightful little thing I’ve stumbled upon.  It’s called FreeCycle and it’s basically a place where you can give or get things for FREE.  You simply go to the FreeCycle website to find a group near you (there are over 5,100 groups in the US, by the way).  Then just type in your city or zip code and it’ll pull up groups that are in close proximity to you.  The Arlington, VA group that I belong to has almost 9,000 members alone!

How Does FreeCycle Work?

Here’s the process, in 5 simple steps:

1.  You put an offer up in the Yahoo Group that has a subject like this – OFFER: 5 Bottles of Bubbles

2.  The offers are sent to the group member’s email and if someone’s interested, they’ll email you.  You then get to decide who receives it (perhaps the one who emails first or the one who makes the most compelling case).

3.  You post a message in the group like this: TAKEN: 5 Bottles of Bubbles

4.  You arrange a pick-up time.  The other members are always in a specific geographic region, so you know you won’t be driving far for pickup.

5.  The item exchanges hands and avoids the dumpster!

And here’s the best part.  Not only can you make offers, you can also ask for specific things!  If you want to inquire about something, your post looks like this – WANTED: Old Magazines

I just love this concept because the recipient comes and takes it off your hands.  You also can give away things that might not be accepted at Goodwill, etc.  We’ve both offered and received something so far, so I can verify that the system works.  No weirdness on either the pickup or the drop-off.  And of course it’s free to join!  Is that cool, or what??

In case you’re curious, we gave away some brand new men’s hygiene products and we received a vacuum after posting a WANTED inquiry.

Anyone participate in this?  Definitely go to FreeCycle and see if there’s a group near you.  You’ll be amazed at what people give away for free!

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Realities of Foreign Service Life

Hey all – Perhaps you’ve noticed I haven’t been writing much.  Well, it hasn’t been for lack of interest, it’s just that I prefer to jump into the deep end quickly when arriving in a new place, as I’ve found that it makes me feel more connected and settled.

So, in no particular order, here’s what I’ve been up to:

  1. Moving.  Ick.  Yes, our stuff is comforting but each and every time I watch the 100+ boxes come through the door I question why we need it all (and this after downsizing 25% in Manila and 30% in Peru).  I swear it multiplies in the night when I’m not looking…
  2. Writing all new copy for the latest evolution of my business at www.coachsarahnovak.com where I’m now billing myself as a Grief Coach for Individuals in Life Transitions.  Check it out.  I’m quite proud of it.  Each time my vision gets refined (and then translated into new copy and programs) I feel one step closer to doing exactly what I was meant to do on the planet.  Yay for new clarity!
  3. Getting my volunteer on with AAFSW (Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide).  I self-selected to be the Happy Hour coordinator for the incoming classes of brand-spankin-new foreign service officers (and their families).  Last night was my first Happy Hour (although they’ve been going on for a few years now).  I jazzed it up a bit by substituting wine for ice cream sundaes (my absolute fave!) and awkward mingling for a killer ‘speed meeting’ event (think speed dating minus the awkward follow-up).

Happily, it was a mega-success!  We had 30ish veterans, 30ish newcomers and 20 kids too.  These folks had just handed in their bid lists that morning (a nerve-wracking process each and every time no matter how many times you do it) and were overflowing with questions about specific posts, birthing, housing, transit, safety and loads of other stuff.

As the night progressed, I noticed myself giving a lots of specific advice but a few larger pieces of general advice about the realities of foreign service life.  I want to share this broader advice in my blog as well, because I know that there are a lot of soon-to-be-officers (and spouses) that are reading – in fact, I met 5 last night.  Turns out Novakistan is kinda famous.  :)

So here goes…

  1. Every post has good and bad aspects.  I’ve met people who were miserable in London and others who couldn’t say enough good things about western Africa.  Those who thrive are the ones who choose a useful perspective and proactively look for the good things about a location.
  2. When signing up for the foreign service, you’re basically handing over control for a good portion of your life.  You will no longer choose what country you live in, where you live and what furniture makes up the space you call home.  You may be evacuated at a  moment’s notice or you may be forced to separate from your spouse for a year while they head to a hot zone.  Again, perspective is the key to success.  The other thing that I’ve learned is simply to roll with whatever you’re dealt and trust that it will work out in the long run (because it usually does).  Keep setting big goals and moving toward them on a macro level, but let go of the particles, or the exact means of how YOU THINK you should get to the end goal.  Turns out that there’s often a richer path to your goal than the one you dreamed up.
  3. You are at all times a representative of the US government.  You never get a break and people will be observing you at all times.  When you treat locals badly or make a drunken scene in public, people make a judgment about that and file it away with their other opinions about Americans.  Therefore, before acting, writing or speaking, always consider the implications of what you’re about to do and think about if the impact you’ll make will reflect positively or poorly on the United States.  You really are advancing or harming diplomatic relations with your everyday actions.  A burden?  Sometimes.  A great opportunity to have a positive influence?  Always.

So there you have it.  My two cents.  Veterans, what other general advice would you add to this list about the realities of foreign service life?

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