24 August 2009

room with a view

Today was our first official work day for the 2009-2010 school year, and the first day for students is this Thursday the 27th. Even though I missed Nathan terribly, it felt good to be in my classroom again, organizing my files and setting up everything just the way I want. I got new carpet in my room, and Jarred moved downstairs to a smaller room to make way for the incoming 7 year-old class, which is quite large this year with 11 students -- nearly a dozen! (That's considered a big class for our little school!) Jarred was put into last year's French classroom, which is annoyingly long and narrow, but everyone told him it had the best view in the whole building, so naturally, we couldn't wait to see it. Well, here's the room...

...and here's the view...

What a joke! Darn that one lousy tree! Sheesh... I suppose things could be worse. =)

16 August 2009

Happy Birthday, NATAN!

Today we celebrated Nathan's completion of 2 years of life on this earth. Since we already held a big party in his honor back in Florida, we decided to keep it small with just one of his playgroup pals (the rest are still away on summer holiday) and a few of our close friends. We served a light lunch and a big cake, which I ordered from our favorite bakery. I wrote on a piece of paper the message I wanted written on the cake so all they'd have to do was copy it...well, Maria went to pick up the cake for us this morning, and it turned out the decorator left the H out of Nathan's name, so it said "Happy Birthday Natan!" But really, I wasn't upset -- since there's no th sound in Russian or Armenian, that's what everyone here calls him anyway!


04 August 2009

What We Did During Our Summer Vacation, part 2: Worst Travel Experience EVER

Trying to get back to Armenia from Orlando turned out to be the biggest adventure -- or should I say misadventure -- of all. We were booked with Air France to fly first to Atlanta (on a Delta flight), then to Paris, and finally to Yerevan. When we went to the airport on Tuesday the 28th, the Delta agent told us there was no record of our reservation, and that our names didn't even appear anywhere in their system. We asked if we could simply purchase tickets to Atlanta so we could still catch the AF flight to Paris. But the agent said we wouldn't make it on time because she couldn't check our bags all the way to Yerevan, meaning we'd have to go to baggage claim in ATL, pick up our bags, then re-check them with Air France. Additionally, all our bags exceeded the maximum weight allowance of 70 pounds (we made the mistake of assuming Air France would have the same regulations as Lufthansa, which we flew last year -- maximum limit 100 pounds per bag), which was beyond what they could accept, even though we were prepared to pay overweight fees. Since we weren't sure what was going on with our tickets, and we didn't want to get stranded in Atlanta with half a dozen overweight bags, a baby, and no way to get home, we decided to go back to my Mom's house to figure things out.

After making a lot of phone calls to Delta, the travel agency, Air France, and QSI people, we discovered two major, though completely separate problems:
  1. The itinerary I had been looking at was from Levon Travel...the wrong travel agency. Apparently, QSI was about to book our tickets through Levon and sent me the itinerary for confirmation, but before they made the reservation, they switched to Visa-Concorde, another agency (no one told me this), which offered a nearly identical itinerary for a lower cost. I never saw the updated itinerary.
  2. Back in May, Delta canceled the flight we were scheduled to take from MCO to ATL, and supposedly they notified Visa-Concorde, but somehow Jarred and I weren't notified.
Thankfully, Air France was willing to honor our tickets, so they reserved us for Friday, July 31. In the meantime, Jarred and I reorganized the luggage to meet Air France's requirements, and brought the rest of our stuff in boxes to the Post Office and shipped it all to Yerevan. Maria flew home as expected on Wednesday without incident. My family really enjoyed the bonus time with Nathan, and Jarred and I were able to go to the theater and see Angels and Demons on Thursday.

Friday came, and we went back to the airport, armed with reservation numbers, itinerary printouts, and our acceptably overweight bags. We were all set, so after many goodbyes and "one last" pictures, we passed through security and headed for our gate. There was a 25 minute delay for some reason, but soon enough, we were on our way to Atlanta, and we even liked our seatmate, Brooke, a young woman from Birmingham who got along with Nathan so well they played together during the entire flight. We felt relieved that all the problems had been solved...or so we thought.
Nathan and Ms. Brooke

Shortly after takeoff, our captain announced that we would be flying through a bad storm system headed for Atlanta, and that the flight attendants could be required to remain seated during most of the flight for safety. Strangely, we never flew through the storm...in fact, it beat us to Atlanta. We would have to wait to land. So many other planes were ahead of us in the hold pattern, though, that after about 30 minutes of circling the airport, the captain decided we needed fuel, and re-routed us to Jacksonville -- that's right, we went BACK to Florida.

Once we were on the ground, the captain said we could get out of our seats, but we weren't going to deplane. We thought that was fine; besides, how long could it take for a simple refuel? Well, that was the quick part. Flight control said we couldn't take off again for another hour-plus. Great. The flight crew put on a movie for us -- "to help pass the time," they said. Indeed the time did pass, for by the time we were on the runway, the end credits were rolling.

Back to Atlanta. Obviously, we had missed our flight to Paris by now (for the second time), so I got in a ridiculously long line at the international ticketing desk to find out what could be done, while Jarred took Nathan to the food court for dinner. Nearly 2 hours later, the line had hardly moved, and we weren't anywhere close to the front. I left Jarred in the line and went to to see if there was someone else who could help us. I happened upon a Delta agent scanning people's boarding passes in a machine to look up information on their new flights. I gave her our tickets and the machine printed out a receipt-size "Interrupted Travel" form. She looked at it and said, "Tomorrow. Come early." I asked, "What about our luggage?" "Your luggage will be put on the flight with you tomorrow." "So I need to get a hotel for the night?" "Yes. " "Will Delta pay for the hotel?" "No, not if the missed flight was the result of weather delays. How many care kits do you need?" "[sigh] Three."

On Tuesday, when we first thought we were going to Atlanta, my Dad had had the foresight to give us a couple of Marriott discount forms (he is an associate at their Vacation Club headquarters), just in case. We used the airport's terrible sound quality courtesy phones to call Marriott reservations. All the airport area hotels were full, so we booked a night at the downtown Marriott Marquis and took a $16-per-adult-passenger shuttle there from the airport. The hotel is truly stunning, but we didn't have time to enjoy it because by the time we got to the room, it was after 11:00. I put Nathan to bed, but Jarred and I were starving, so we ordered a pizza from room service, then we passed out.

Saturday morning, we checked out and took the shuttle back to the airport (there goes another $32). We had to stand in a line even longer than the one from the night before, but at least this one was moving. When we got to the front, I handed the Delta agent our tickets and Interrupted Travel forms, and after a few minutes of searching on the computer and talking to her supervisor, she said, "I can't help you with this. There's no reservation for you from Atlanta to Paris, only Paris to Yerevan. You'll have to speak to an Air France representative, but their desk doesn't open until 2:15." Lovely.

Waiting for the Air France ticketing desk to open.

We ate lunch in the food court, then went and sat on the floor in front of the Air France desk at 1:00. Nathan fell asleep, so we arranged our travel pillows on the SmarteCart we were using to push around our carry-on bags, and that's where he took his nap. At 2:15 on the dot, the Air France desk was open for business. Because of all the other people who had been re-booked due to Friday night's weather delays, all the agent could do was put us on standby for the 6:15 flight. Not wanting to hang around at the airport with Nathan for another 4 hours, just crossing our fingers for something that surely wouldn't happen, we requested to be put on the Sunday flight. Better to stay another night in a comfortable hotel and take a break from the stress-fest that this trip had become.

Waiting for our ride to the hotel.

I called Marriott reservations again, and this time there was availability at the Renaissance Concourse, right next to the airport, with free shuttle service. This too was a beautiful hotel, and since we checked in at 3:30, we had some time to relax. The mood of all the guests was very light and festive as a result of three family reunions and a wedding being held there that weekend. We had an excellent view of the airport, and Nathan loved sitting on our balcony watching the planes taking off and landing literally less than a mile away. After getting settled in our room, I used one of the computers in the hotel business center to contact everyone and let them know what was going on, then I took a cab to the nearest Kroger's grocery store because we needed more diapers.

A snack with a view.

Dinner at the Concorde Grill, the hotel's acclaimed restaurant, was fabulous, and we ordered the movie 17 Again to watch in our room once Nathan fell asleep. Sunday morning, we enjoyed a scrumptious breakfast buffet at the Grill before we had to pack up and head back to the airport. It was hard to believe that after all this time, we still hadn't crossed the Atlantic!

Third time's a charm, as the saying goes. We checked in at the Air France desk at 2:30 -- no problem -- and boarded our plane around quarter to 6. Aside from Nathan keeping us up all night with his superhuman energy levels, the flight went smoothly.

Asleep at ATL gate E14.

Watching a movie on the transatlantic flight.

We arrived at Charles De Gaulle on time, and we went straight to our next gate, where we would try to rest for the four and a half hours before the final leg of our journey. There were computer stations and a kids' play area at the gate across from ours, so that kept us occupied for a while, too. At last, it was time to board AF2998 to Yerevan.

Too bad we didn't have a real rocket ship...

Oh, the thrill of a large, slow-moving conveyor belt!

The flight attendants were kind enough to put us in an empty row so we had three seats all to ourselves. Nathan slept hard for about 3 hours. The in-flight movie was the summer blockbuster Star Trek, which we really wanted to see, but we were so tired that we simply couldn't keep our eyes open for the whole thing. We landed at EVN only a few minutes late due to some stormy weather around the city. We experienced quite a bit of turbulence throughout the flight, and unfortunately, it was so violent during our descent into Yerevan that poor Nathan threw up all over me and himself just before we landed, and of course, we couldn't do anything about it until we arrived at the gate. Jarred felt really queasy for a while, too. It was definitely the roughest landing I've ever experienced, but at least no one was hurt. I thought for sure that was the grande finale of our crazy trip!

But Murphy's Law had one more surprise in store for us. After all the cleaning up and changing clothes we had to do, we were last off the plane...then someone approached me and said, "Are you Angela Blackmer?" I said yes, and she told us that she had received some information that one of our bags didn't make it to Yerevan, and that we should go to the Lost and Found counter at baggage claim. I think I was so exasperated at this point that it was impossible for me to express any more frustration; I just looked at her blankly and said, "Thank you."

Thankfully, like last year, when the airport officials saw Nathan, we got priority at passport control and didn't have to wait in line (people here LOVE babies and will never let them cry for even a moment if they can help it), so we went straight through to the luggage carousels. We found three items, but after a lot of waiting, we were still missing Nathan's car seat and 2 bags. We went to the counter and the lady looked up our tags on the computer -- apparently, all of the three missing items were still in Paris, but she got our number and address and said they would call when the bags arrived so they could deliver them to us.

Sargis was waiting to pick us up, and maybe it's a good thing all our stuff didn't arrive because he had come in his personal car, instead of the school van, like we were expecting, and there wouldn't have been space for everything. We got home after 10pm, spent a few minutes chatting with the Olsons over a yummy vegetable stew Hasmik had cooked for us, and then we collapsed into bed.

Finally, here we sit, still waiting to hear from the airport regarding our missing luggage, but glad to be home safe and sound, despite everything that happened. And I really ought to mention how incredibly patient and well-behaved Nathan was during this entire ordeal...rather impressive for a toddler. Thus ends our tale of misfortune. The moral of the story is: when traveling around the world, pack light -- but in your carry-on bag be certain to keep extra cash, an extra set of clothes, and an extraordinary sense of humor.

An American boy in Yerevan.
(Thanks to Ben LaTorre for the Red Sox uniform.)

03 August 2009

What We Did Over Our Summer Vacation, part 1: The Fun Part

We're back after a month of excitement and adventure in the U.S! We spent two wonderful weeks in Virginia, visiting with relatives and attending the wedding of our two best friends. Afterwards, we flew to Florida for another 11 days of fun in the sun...actually, it ended up being 14 days...see my next post, "What We Did Over Our Summer Vacation, part 2: Worst Travel Experience EVER," for more on that.

Farewell, Ararat...
...hello, USA!

We had no problems flying to Washington other than that the changes in pressure severely aggravated an ear infection I didn't even know I had...a quick visit to Old Dominion Urgent Care, two prescriptions, and $130 later, I was on the slow and painful road to recovery. =)
If only we could have as much leg room on a plane as Nathan does!

We stayed with my Dad's sister Detsi (pictured above holding Nathan) and her family for the first week, and our time there was filled with laughter and merriment. Tita Detsi had saved many of her kids' toys in the attic and a basement closet, so Nathan had a blast riding around on a classic red tricycle every morning, playing with Little Tikes waffle-brick play sets, and listening to music on the very Fisher Price baby record player that I myself remember enjoying as a child at my grandmother's house.
Driving through the tunnel.

We also took a trip to the National Zoo with Nathan's Tita Melissa on one day, and on another day, while I went shopping with my mom at Tysons Corner, Jarred brought Nathan to the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum and Natural History Museum. Nathan really liked riding the Metro everywhere because it reminded him of our little subway system here in Yerevan.
The first thing Nathan noticed was that the "hippo has big doodle."

Mr. Nathan goes to Washington!

We spent the 4th of July at the so-called country house of my Tita Ruthie, my Dad's youngest sister, and her husband Ken. The house is on Furnace Mountain in Northern Virginia, practically on the Maryland border and not far from West Virginia, either. We had a terrific cookout, and it was nice seeing some old family friends there. They all asked questions about Armenia and our jobs, and it was an interesting test of our knowledge of the country and its history, now that we have lived here for a year.
Tita Ruthie and Uncle Ken on the deck of the country house.

Nathan and his Tito Galen enjoy the porch swing.


On another evening, we had dinner with my mom's cousins Gene and Mike...visiting their home floods my conscious mind with vivid childhood memories, as I spent a good deal of time there growing up. They also had saved some of their children's toys (for their own grandkids), which I clearly recall using on many occasions, and Nathan didn't want to leave because he had so much fun using them, too!

July 9 was Jarred's and my 4th wedding anniversary, so Tita Detsi and my mom babysat while Jarred and I went out to Blues Alley, a supper club in Georgetown featuring live jazz performances every night. The food was mediocre, but the music was superb! The band in the spotlight that evening was called Minsarah, and as all its members seemed to be close to our age, we were humbled by their songwriting talents and instrumental skills. Seriously, check them out.

At last it was time for THE event of the summer, the wedding of Kevin (Jarred's good friend from college who served as a best man in our wedding) and Melissa (my best friend from grade school who was my maid-of-honor) at the Lorien Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. The bride and her friends kicked off the festivities with a morning of beauty and relaxation at the hotel's luxurious spa (they even served us complimentary wine and champagne since we were a wedding party), followed by lunch at the nearby La Tasca tapas bar & restaurant. In the evening, the guys headed out for a night of jazz and alcohol at Twins Jazz in Washington. Kevin's father, uncle, and a few others retired to the hotel before midnight, but the "young bucks" didn't return until the wee hours of the following morning...I understand the final bill was over $600! That's a lot of booze, even for a bachelor party! As for the wedding itself, it was very lovely and truly unique...but I'll let Kevin tell the whole story. Below are some of my favorite pictures of the event, taken by my brother Cavan.
The happy couple!

Nathan and Melissa's cousin Sebastian were the ringbearers in the ceremony.

Babies in tiny formalwear...so adorable!

With my parents and brothers, all dressed up.

After the wedding weekend, Jarred, Nathan and I drove back to the country house for a little family retreat. Since there's no phone or internet set up out there, and our cell phones no longer work in the U.S., it was a real getaway. We spent 3 and a half days doing very little besides hiking,
picking (and eating) vegetables from Tita Ruthie's organic garden...
...and wild raspberries from the forest's edge,
playing in the Shenandoah...
...and Potomac Rivers,

and napping away the hot summer days.
This is the life!

Sadly, it was time to leave Virginia, but not before running into some friends at Dulles International Airport.
Um, yeah, never use a glossy finish on a life-size cardboard cutout.

On to the Sunshine State, where we met up with our Armenian friend Maria, who had never been to Florida before. We all checked into Marriott's Grande Vista Resort in Orlando, the same resort where we hosted our own wedding weekend back in July 2005.

Maria poses in front of our building at the resort.

Even though Nathan's birthday isn't until August, we decided to throw him a party a few weeks early so his grandparents and Florida friends could be in attendance. We prepared a luncheon with various Armenian-style salads, buckwheat, apricots, cheeses, and Jarred even made homemade khatchapouri.
A diplomatic feast!

I also made dolma, but they are not on the table in the above picture, so here's a nice close-up of them in the pot:

It was great having everyone over at our villa for Nathan's fire truck-themed celebration! The cake, which we ordered from Sprinkles in Winter Park, was a total success -- there wasn't a single morsel left!
All done!

4 generations: Pop-pop & Mom-mom, Grandpa Jack & Grandma Shell, Mommy & Daddy, and Nathan -- who apparently finds his toy fire trucks much too fascinating to pay attention.

A couple days later, we drove to New Port Richey on the Gulf coast for a boat and beach day with Grandma Shell and Grandpa Jack. We had the most gorgeous weather! Nathan still talks about the boat ride, and imitates the sound of the motor quite well.

Protected from sun and sea.

Enjoying the tranquility and natural beauty of Anclote Key.

Feeding frenzy!

Watching the little fish swim around his feet.

Nathan's second time to the beach, age 23 months...Maria's first time to the beach, age 21 years! (And yes, she wrote "I [heart] Florida" in the sand.)

Co-captain Nathan gets to pilot the boat back to Grandma and Grandpa's house on the Cotee River.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009: Nathan's first trip to Walt Disney World! We didn't want to subject Nathan -- or ourselves -- to an entire day at the park, so we took it easy in the morning, arrived at Magic Kingdom after 3 pm, and stayed for the fireworks. He rode Pirates of the Caribbean, watched the Enchanted Tiki Room show, took a 2 and a half hour nap in his stroller while the adults took turns on Splash Mountain and The Haunted Mansion, woke up in time to ride "It's a Small World," had dinner at Liberty Tree Tavern (which is no longer a character dining experience, blah), then went for a spin on Cinderella's Golden Carousel before watching the nighttime SpectroMagic parade and "Wishes" fireworks show.
Our Walt Disney World family portrait.

"Fireworks say 'Pop, pop, pop, BOOM!"

The next day, we slept in a bit, then spent the day enjoying the resort's fabulous swimming pools, and had lunch at Copa Loca, the poolside cafe. Nathan couldn't get enough of the pool!

In the evening, Grandma Shell and Grandpa Jack came over to babysit, so Jarred, Maria, and I could partake of the ultimate Orlando tourist activity: putt-putt golf on International Drive.

Maria scored a hole-in-one on the first hole!

Friday was Nathan's annual cardiology appointment, which is never fun, but it has to be done. He had his sedated echocardiogram and full check-up at Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital, the same place where he had his open-heart surgery just three days after his birth. Anyway, thank goodness, his doctor says he's doing very well and everything looks as it should, so he's all set for another year. Yay!
Our brave little boy.

That's one cranky baby.
Oh, yeah, cute story...before the procedure, we asked Nathan if there was anything he wanted. He replied, "cherry ice cream." When he woke up a few hours later, we brought him back to the hotel and granted his wish.


Saturday Maria and I took Nathan to Disney's Animal Kingdom. This time we went early so we could beat the crowds. We had a great day!

We even had time after DAK closed to catch "Illuminations" at Epcot.
Spaceship Earth is much more beautiful at night.

On Sunday, Jarred and his golf buddies attempted to play Marriott's Grande Pines, but got rained out. Meanwhile, Maria, Nathan, and I went shopping at Michaels Arts & Crafts, Toys-R-Us, and Marshalls. In the evening we met up with Jarred and the LaTorres downtown for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Pho Hoa.
Chloe and Nathan found the restaurant's aquarium quite entertaining.

After all the visiting, celebrating, eating, story telling, driving, sunbathing, eating, shopping, park-hopping, swimming, driving, eating, golfing, visiting, picture-taking, and yes, eating(!!!) that we did in Florida, our time was up. We packed our bags and prepared to fly back home to Yerevan. But our story doesn't end here...

Armenia Avenue in Tampa is probably the only Armenia most people there have heard of.