6 months (a 9th month reflection on adjusting to a new life)

Theory says it takes three weeks to form a habit. What about forming a new life? (The answer: 6 months)


Of all unofficial and farfetched theories I’ve postulated, this one might be the most accurate: It takes 6 months to settle into a new city and completely new routines.

Sure, at 3 months in, you’re probably fine since you’re smart and have figured out the basics in life (that’s what freshman year of college was for, right?). But 6 months in, that’s when you stop second guessing every decision you make, even decisions like ‘crunchy?’ or ‘creamy?’. When you stop having to explain ‘who you are’ and ‘what you do’ every time you go out. When you have managed to convince some people that you’re cool and they’d like to be your friends. When you finally learn all the side streets to work or home or to pizza. When you’ve figured out where pizza is (important). When you are able to give directions without sounding like an idiot, when you’ve figured out how to dress in the climate even though it seemed obvious at first (hot.), and when you’ve pushed the millions of questions/worries/stresses/fears you had when you first moved out of your mind. Six months is a long time, but I suppose we humans are indeed creatures of habit.


Dar is officially, happily, home now, and I’ve got friends and side streets and pizza and all that other stuff FINALLY figured out, at least, enough so I can dedicate my time to other things (like blogs, Instagram, and trip planning).

We’re actually 9 months into our life in Dar, which is 3/8ths of our way done. And now, my next theory: The next 9 months will go by WAY faster than the first 9 months.

More than the Average American

triple ribbon The mood’s been pretty somber in this little house of ours, and all around the Foreign Service community. We’ve lost another friend, and this time it hits much closer to home.

Yesterday morning, scrolling down my Facebook page, I saw the same updates that I always do – cats doing funny things, links to old school music videos, an increasing number of kids, and of course, photos of food. I was stopped cold when I saw the caption of a friend/the DiploMan’s close colleague. She had lost a friend in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. A quick assumption was later confirmed – Anne Smedinghoff, killed while on her way to donate books to students in a school in Qalat, was indeed among our wide yet deeply interconnected circle of Foreign Service friends.

Suddenly cats doing funny things, links to old school music videos, an increasing number of kids, and photos of food seemed so trivial.

One day and multiple news accounts later, I’ve read up more about the news and about Anne, who was only 25. Death seems so much more arresting and unimaginable at such an age. Anne was in the DiploMan’s A-100 class, which is sort of like a Freshman-class of sorts when you enter the Foreign service. For six weeks, about 80 U.S. citizens from all walks of life learn not only about how to represent the US government abroad but also about each other. Picture lots of class time, but many more dinners, retreats, weekends, lots of happy hours, and even more congratulatory hugs and happy high-fives when you learn where everyone is going to their first post. Anne was one of the youngest in the class, a fresh-out-of-college graduate. Seeing her picture today, I jog my memory and there is faint recollection of meeting her – a soft-spoken yet strong-willed young woman, perhaps so soft-spoken because she was still an adolescent suddenly thrown into circles of adulthood – our crude jokes, our meticulously curated dinner parties, our already jaded views on our 20’s, our somewhat hopeless view of saving the world, of the government, of the opposite sex, of getting older, of…well, of everything.

Maybe I met her, maybe I didn’t. This blog puts my feelings into words; she may have been someone we all knew, representing so much youth and so much enthusiasm in serving our country overseas:

What I am certain I recognized was the smile, the aura of the under-30 crowd, the disarming ordinariness (as opposed to banality) and eagerness of our newest public servants. That aura seems to me the norm now at Foggy Bottom, and in much of the country, and it’s probably a sign of my age as much as an indication of the lure of Washington itself.

Dinner last night was a little less chatty than usual, and we got up a little earlier this morning than on typical Sunday mornings. I can’t help but worry about my friends overseas, our future posts, and most of all my DiploMan, who is sitting in his chair right now reading the New York Times and jamming to his one of his favorite Spotify stations. We are normal people, doing normal work, maybe moving around a little more than the Average American, taking a few more trips to exotic locations than the Average American, but always acting with our best intentions – like delivering books to new schools in war-ravaged nations.

Read more about the news in the NYTimes here, a statement from Secretary Kerry here, and on one of my favorite FS blogs, here. There’s also a heartbreaking statement from the Smedinghoff family, here. The bomber also claimed the lives of three American soldiers, one other civilians, and three Afghans. None of these killed are any less important than our friend Anne.


Kale salad: Eating well and cooking well

Last night I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which chronicles master sushi chef Jiro Ono and his tiny 10-seat sushi only restaurant located in the basement level of a Tokyo highrise in the bustling Ginza business district. Have you seen it? You should.

Also of note, I watched via Amazon Prime, for which after living in China I will forever be grateful for fast internet speeds.

Jiro Ono

The movie is, to put it rather simply, a spotlight on one aging man’s lifelong quest for gastronomic perfection. Jiro’s 85-year-old, tortoise-like face exudes wisdom in every expression, even the nods that he gives. There’s much praise for his 3-star Michelin rated restaurant, given throughout the movie, but there’s also some fairly sad bits to the story as well. Like when he talks about how he wasn’t really around much for either of his two sons’ childhoods, or when the movie takes a turn and is suddenly more about how his elder son, working by his father’s side for the last 30 or so years, will seemingly never receive the praise that he deserves.


But through it all the main message of the movie is clear: the quest for perfection in food and art is a lifelong pursuit. It requires work and lots of passion. It perfectly exemplifies a lot of traditional Japanese culture: a dedication towards art and appearance, the mastery of organization and cleanliness, a lifelong pursuit of perfection, as well as sacrifice…all in the name of work.

Food films always hit a sweet spot in me, and one line particularly stood out. About twenty minutes into the short 80 minute film, Jiro says

“In order to make exceptional food, you must eat exceptional food”

Gahhhh! So simple, but such a bold statement. Jiro goes on to explain that one must hone ones sense of taste in order to know what good food is. He continues, saying that if your taste is subpar, how will you be able to impress your customer?

kale salad

I really love this idea, that you can only learn by doing.

It’s no happenstance that people will indulge their senses for things they are passionate about. Those who are in the fittest of shape exercise daily. The greatest artists are the ones who attend every art opening. Those who are scientific geniuses (like my Dad) study up on the most up-to-date sciences, and are constantly reading and learning (my Dad took a Molecular Biology class through a local Extension when I was taking Biology in High School, simply because my curriculum made him miss it. I got a C in the class, and I’m sure he aced his). Those who are great cooks love good food and restaurants.

close-up kale salad

With regard to eating, in our American culture, we are taught restraint at the dinner table. As a mass, we tend towards gluten allergies, peanut allergies, fruit allergies, and dairy allergies. We moderate our habits and try not to look like a pig at dinner parties. We gladly eat the meatiest parts of animals but often discard the fat, bones, and gelatinous particulars. And gosh, I’m certainly guilty: I cleansed over Christmas!

I’ve never met a chef or cook who didn’t like to eat, or who practiced self-restraint at any meal. Frankly, a lof of cooks don’t practice restraint in many things, which is one reason I like them. Others I meet who are deeply involved and committed in the food industry and to food service are the same way – give them a tasting menu and they’re happy, tell them to eat anything and they’ll do it (or, at least consider it).

I’m a good cook, sure, but there’s always room to improve. I’m always looking to make new recipes and better the ones in my stable. Taking Jiro’s advice, I guess I’d better keep eating well. That’s certainly some advice I don’t mind following.

(movie images c/o NY Times and cinekatz.com)

side view kale salad

Kale Salad

  • 1 bunch kale
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 1 lemon
  • 1-2 Tbsp. kosher salt
  • 1 apple – gala or fuji work best, but any kind is ok.
  • 1 bulb fennel
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds
  • olive oil
  • fresh ground pepper
  1. Rinse kale thoroughly and remove the tough stems and ribs. Cut kale leaves into thin, 1/8-inch ribbons. Thinly slice red onion (preferably using a mandoline). Toss with kale in a large bowl, and squeeze the juice of an entire lemon. Add a liberal dose of salt. Cover bowl, and set in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours (or more, even leaving it overnight will be fine).
  2. Take the kale out of the fridge and toss with your hands. Squeeze excess liquid from kale and transfer to another bowl. Slice apples and fennel into thin matchsticks (again, using a mandoline works best). Dress salad with extra-virgin olive oil, and some fresh pepper. Taste, and salt again if necessary. Add almonds and toss.
  3. Serve immediately, or cover and chill in fridge until ready to serve.

yield: 3-4 servings