La Vida Lopota

For Labor Day weekend, we joined some friends and their kids at Lopota Lake Resort in the Kakheti (read: wine) region of Georgia.  The drive took about 2.5 hours and despite some very windy roads, it was relatively easy. A friend tipped us off that we should specifically request ground floor rooms in the S building, which we reserved several weeks in advance. Alas, when we arrived those rooms were not available, but the L building, right next door, suited us just fine.  I do recommend the ground floor rooms because of their great patios and you get to avoid the stairs!

Although the weather had cooled a bit, we still took advantage of the multiple swimming pools right away. The food at dinner was decent, but a bit overpriced. The restaurant decorated their walls with bottles of wine (full bottles, which is important to this story).  JR asked the server for a glass of that specific type of wine and the server hesitated, saying “Oh. I will have to check if we have that.”  We all looked around bewildered because there were dozens of bottles around us, including one within arms reach by  JR’s head. The server returned a few moments later to confirm that unfortunately, they did not have that type of wine available.

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Oh well, he ordered a beer instead.

The next morning after breakfast the air was a bit cooler and we noticed that some of the other guests’ children were bundled up like it was full blown winter.  I think it was maybe between 65-70 degrees?  The weather did not keep us from a last dip in the pool!  We only stayed one night so we didn’t explore all of the grounds, but there was plenty to do and we will definitely visit again next year.

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We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing at home. Our friends from down the street came over for a farewell dinner – they are headed back to the U.S. for a few months.  Abby and their daughter, K are best buds and I was really sad to say goodbye!

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One last hug!

On Monday, Abby helped me make cookies.  She was quite impatient waiting for them to  bake!

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We closed out the weekend with a sunset bike ride.

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No really, what do you do?

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JR has been with USAID for over 4 years now (and recently received a promotion!), yet I’m pretty sure our friends and families still don’t know what he does. Which is normal, my sister is a chemical processing engineer (I think?) and she’s explained it to me a few times and I’m just like, oh mm hmm, I see! When really I do not. At all. I’m also at a different job with an agency I’d never heard of before I applied, so it stands to reason that no one has a clue what I do either.

JR is a Contracting and Agreement Officer for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID is an Executive Agency tasked with promoting democracy, economic growth, and peace and stability in developing countries around the world (I stole that directly from their website. Citing my sources and all that jazz). He’s part of the USG’s Diplomatic Corps, otherwise known as the Foreign Service, which USAID’s website explains as:

Through their dedication, technical skills, and creativity, Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) drive American foreign policy towards its objectives of global peace, stability, and prosperity. USAID FSOs are responsible for developing and managing foreign assistance programs that encompass   economic growth and trade, agriculture and the environment, education and training, democracy and governance, stabilization and conflict mitigation, global health, and humanitarian assistance.  USAID FSOs work in close partnership with the governments and people of more than 100 countries in five regions of the world, with private voluntary organizations, universities, private businesses, trade and professional associations, other donor governments, faith-based organizations, and other US government agencies. They assess country needs, prepare strategic plans, design and evaluate programs, oversee budgets and contracts, and report on results.

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Specifically, JR has the legal authority to solicit, negotiate, award, and possibly terminate any agreement that USAID enters into in a given country. In order to do his job he has what’s called a warrant that allows him to obligate money on behalf of the U.S. government. Since the U.S. government is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the world (by far), the process of obligating money on its behalf is heavily regulated. Another way to look at it is that he’s a “business advisor” for the government and ensures compliance with federal contracting laws.

Here’s a very generic example: If USAID had funding for a new education program, such as sending students to the U.S. for master’s degrees in economics, they would need an implementing partner to manage the program. First, they would announce that they have this program and that U.S. or local organizations can bid on it if they wish to be chosen to run it. Then USAID would review all the bids, make sure everything is compliant with legal regulations, and then select the best implementing partner/bid for that particular program. Someone at USAID also has to oversee the implementing partner to ensure they are managing the program correctly and make any necessary adjustments to the contract/agreement. This all includes a lot of paperwork. JR has the legal responsibility for all of those components.

So that’s JR’s job in a nutshell. Makes perfect sense, right?

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We will spend most of his career overseas, although we may be posted to DC at some point for a 2 or 3 year tour.

My job is Program Coordinator for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) in Tbilisi. If you are like me and had never heard of DTRA, you might be surprised to learn that DTRA is a pretty large agency just outside of D.C. with almost 2,000 employees. Here’s a snapshot of the main objectives of DTRA:  http://www.dtra.mil/About/WhoWeAre.aspx.

In Georgia, DTRA supports Embassy objectives including Euro-Atlantic integration, international cooperation, and peace and security measures.  One of the biggest areas of work is the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program. Basically, the U.S. has a strong interest in ensuring that Georgia understands best practices in biosafety and security, is prepared to handle infectious diseases or outbreaks, and enhancing international research partnerships. You can read more here:  http://georgia.usembassy.gov/embassy_offices_andotheragencies2/defense-threat-reduction-office.html

Like my job title says, I coordinate. We have visitors and contractors from the U.S. and they need assistance scheduling meetings with Georgian officials and people within the Embassy. I also attend the meetings and report back to our office on what is happening and any action that we need to take to facilitate things. One of my first tasks was the opening of a boat basin in Batumi, funded by DTRA. It was a large-scale project so we had high-level Embassy representatives attending and I was responsible for contact with the front office of the Embassy, coordinating the schedule, and writing up the speech and press information for the event. I’m learning new things all of the time and I really enjoy the work.

My position is specifically for EFMs (eligible family members – typically, spouses or partners of foreign service officers). At any given post, I can apply for all of the EFM positions that seem to fit my interests and background. It’s unlikely I’ll be hired as a divorce attorney, but I hope I can continue to find interesting work while we live overseas.

So… that’s what we do.

Mtatsminda Park

We took Abby to a small amusement park that overlooks the city called Mtatsminda.  The drive took about 30 minutes from our place and parking was frustrating because we didn’t know exactly where the entrance was located or where we should go, just that it was by the park.  You can park at the bottom of the mountain and take the funicular up which would probably have been a more convenient option in hindsight.  We skipped it thinking it would just delay our arrival and I wasn’t sure how much Abby would care about the funicular, but we’ll definitely try that route next time.

The park was larger than expected, and it was hot so I became quickly annoyed when we couldn’t figure out where to buy tickets for the rides.  After walking around for a bit, JR came through in the knick of time by locating a ticket booth where you purchase a card and can put as much/little Lari as you want on it.  We also stumbled upon a map of the park at that point, which also included ride prices – very helpful!  They ranged from about 1-5 Lari.  Abby is still a bit small for many of the rides there, but we found a few that she really enjoyed.  The flying bumblebees and the carousel were big hits. She did not understand why she had to exit after the ride was over and it took a lot of explanation (and crying) for Abby to agree to exit the rides. I think JR took her on those bees at least 3 times.

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They also had a few smaller arcade-style rides including cars that move and play music which she enjoyed.  Her favorite by far was the trampoline though. It was just a small kids trampoline with the netting around it, and I have no idea how much they charged us or how long you are supposed to “ride”, but she jumped forever.  She loved it.

We took a break for ice cream and this was probably the highlight for all of us.  Abby’s eyes were so wide when she grabbed the cone, and she made us laugh while she made a mess eating every single bit of that ice cream. It had cooled down a little by this point and we really enjoyed the people-watching and the view of the city.  We did encounter some trouble during our bathroom break.  The restrooms near the kid area had Turkish toilets.  Not my favorite thing under any circumstance, but particularly less so with a newly-potty trained toddler.  We improvised and lived to tell about it (note – apparently there are regular toilets in the cafe near the funicular.  Clearly, the funicular would have solved many of our problems.)

We had a really nice afternoon and we definitely plan on going back!

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The Secretary, My Mom and a Baby

Secretary of State John Kerry visited Tbilisi on his way to the NATO Summit at the beginning of July. JR and I weren’t involved in the logistics of his visit, but it was really interesting to see just how much goes into every detail of planning a VIP visit at the Embassy and in the city.  Embassy employees were invited to a short meet-and-greet with him before he departed and we went to see him.  I had no idea I was such a huge John Kerry fan until I saw some of these pictures.

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My smile could not be any bigger. Clearly, I am smitten.

After a fun 4th of July weekend (that included my first trip to the Hard Rock Cafe in Tbilisi – we now have a Hard Rock here!), we only had to wait a few more days for my mom’s second visit to Georgia.  I already wrote about us ditching her immediately so we could enjoy a quick trip to London, but luckily she had 2 full weeks here so we were able to spend some quality time together.

We went out to dinner with friends and my mom – who is a pickier eater than me (and that’s really saying something) – shocked us all by trying quail.  One minute we’re chatting and the next I look over and she’s nibbling away on some grilled quail.  I was impressed!  She said it tasted pretty good, but I’m not quite ready to try it myself.

Most of her visit was spent as “Nana”, which is all she really wanted, although she also enjoyed some lazy afternoons at the Zurgovani pool.  On her last weekend, she helped me (okay to be fair she did most of the work) host a turkey dinner at our house for a few friends.  I ordered a turkey back in the fall before we had plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we spent both holidays with friends and didn’t need to prepare our huge bird.  I had no idea when we’d use it and this seemed like the perfect time, especially considering I’ve never cooked a turkey.  We had a minor crisis when we realized the “turkey bag” I thought I had was actually a cellophane bag and those are apparently not the same thing at all.  The bag burst and we thought our turkey was doomed, but my friend Elizabeth came to the rescue with an extra bag that was in fact designed for cooking a turkey, and we were able to enjoy a wonderful dinner!

My mom would have been content to spend all of her time in our little gated community just enjoying Abby’s company, but we made a last minute decision to drive to Kazbegi, home to Mount Kazbegi and the small village of Stepantsminda.  The drive took us just under 3 hours, which would have been a bit shorter but we had to stop many times for cows in the road.

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We checked into Rooms Hotel and had a picnic lunch on the patio, enjoying the perfect weather and gorgeous views.  JR and I wanted to see the famous Gergeti Trinity  Church, which sits high on a mountain overlooking the city (I never know the distinction between a hill and a mountain.  I’m from Ohio, so they all look like mountains to me).

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You can hike up to the church, or drive in your own car or pay a taxi or guide to take you.  Surely you can guess that I was not interested in the hiking option.  Instead, we hired a guide to ride in our car while JR drove us up the mountain. It was a really rough drive.  Our poor car and my poor stomach.  But the church and the views were absolutely worth it.

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We met up with my mom and Abby back at the hotel for some relaxation and dinner before heading in for a peaceful night of sleep.  Or so we thought.  Apparently, it was the opening night for a brand new club on the other side of the valley and the thumping base played ALL.NIGHT.LONG.  I’m not kidding, you could still hear it at 8am. We woke up a little grumpy but wanted to enjoy a few more hours at the hotel, so we had breakfast together and then spent over an hour at the indoor pool.  Abby’s attitude towards pool time is hit or miss (heartbreaking for this former Orrville Otter and my husband, a Black Oak Swim Club record holder) but she was totally into it!  She “swam” up and down the pool and jumped into our arms over and over again.  I was sad to check out and look forward to another visit, hopefully without the club music!

Before we knew it, it was time for my mom to head home.  Our goodbye was a little easier this time because we know we’ll see her again in about 11 weeks, when we head back to Ohio to await the arrival of baby #2 in December!

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London!

JR and I just got back from a wonderful quick trip to London.  I don’t think London gets enough credit – all the parks and green space, the fascinating history, the people are exceedingly polite, and for JR’s benefit, there are pubs on almost every corner.

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JR was also appreciative of the “people respecting the queue” since it’s sometimes lacking from our everyday lives abroad.

My amazing mother perfectly timed up her summer visit to Tbilisi so that JR and I could take off for a few kid-free days.  Traveling to Tbilisi takes 3 flights and a LOT of time.  She left Cleveland around 7:30pm on a Sunday, quick layover in DC, a 9ish hour flight to Munich + a 9ish hour layover there, and finally she landed here at 4am local time on Tuesday!  As a show of our appreciation, we promptly left her in charge of Abby just 24 hours later. In case that wasn’t enough to deal with, Abby started feeling sick right before we left.

We took a quick trip to the med unit and left with a Nebulizer and some breathing treatments.  Hey Mom, welcome to Tbilisi, here’s our sick toddler, we’re out!

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(Abby was fine, just a bit of a cough that went away after a few days.)

Really, all that quality time with Abby was the highlight of her trip.  My mom made friends with everyone she met, people on the plane, the electric cart driver at the Cleveland airport (no really, they’re on first name basis), and all of our neighbors. She kept herself busy holding picnic lunches in our yard, making Froot Loop necklaces with Abby’s friends, fruit popsicles and bead bracelets, and the list goes on and on.  I have no idea how we will entertain this child now that she is gone!

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Meanwhile, we had a beautiful 3 days in London and probably my favorite trip there to date!  We saw Book of Mormon (hilarious, highly recommend), visited Westminster Abbey and the Churchhill War Rooms, wandered around Carnaby Street and through the parks, and did a day trip to Oxford (and a walking tour there with entirely too much walking, in my opinion).  JR’s favorite parts were the history of Oxford and, of course, enjoying a pint in J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ favorite local pub, The Eagle and Child.

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British food doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and we probably ate more than was necessary.

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Can’t wait to go back!

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Paw Patrol to the rescue!

Somehow I let a whole month pass without even attempting to write a blog post. Oops!

May was a wonderful month here. There were multiple local holidays, including Memorial Day, so we had long weekends and several short weeks. Glorious!  Instead of doing something really cool, or travel to a beautiful destination, we made the adult decision and took advantage of the first long weekend to try the 3-day potty training method with Abby. We debated the idea for a bit but she was showing signs of readiness so we cleared our schedules, read helpful tips on the internet, and purchased supplies.

The first day was absolutely terrible. The book we were trying to follow recommended having your child spend the whole day indoors, completely naked/bottomless, and you watch them like a hawk every second to catch them going to the bathroom, then whisk them off to the potty. Constantly watching your child is actually exhausting and tedious. By 10am JR and I were looking at each other and wondering how we’d survive the entire day. JR kept a running tally and by the end of the day the score was Abby 7 and Parents 7. A 50/50 split but that’s still a lot of Clorox and we were not mentally prepared.

Luckily, we turned a corner on day 2. We threw out the idea of going naked and went with some “big-girl” underwear. Abby is a huge fan of the show Paw Patrol, so we gave her some special Paw Patrol underwear and made a big deal about keeping them dry. Suddenly things started to click for her!

Yeah Paw Patrol!

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Of course, there were still a few accidents that day but nothing like the catastrophe of the first day.

Day 3 was even better and we couldn’t believe how quickly Abby took to the sudden change. After about a week it felt like we could safely say she was potty trained (we’re using pull-ups for nap and at night, although sometimes I think she could skip those, but I’m not willing to risk it and deal with the potential mess).

Another big milestone for our girl – she turned 2! We celebrated by having a joint party with our friend’s daughter. I didn’t get any good pictures of the birthday girl, but there is a video of Abby on my lap while everyone is singing Happy Birthday, and at that exact moment she stuck her fist in her cake. It didn’t mess it up too much, but she was furious that her hand was covered in frosting. All eyes were on us and I didn’t have any way to clean her up, so I first tried to wipe it off in my hand, and then I resorted to sticking her fist in my mouth and licking the frosting off myself. Put that in the “sentences I never expected to write” column. The party was great fun and thanks to the hard work and creative mind of my dear friend Elizabeth, minimal effort on my part! A win all around.  :)

Over Memorial Day weekend, we met up with friends of ours and their two kids in Borjomi, a town about 2 hours away. Shortly after we arrived at the hotel, it started pouring down rain while we ate lunch. Abby took a long nap (and so did we) and when she woke up we went down to the pool.  She was totally uninterested, but she sure did look cute in her swimsuit! The rain stopped so we spent some time walking around the hotel grounds and playing at the playground before heading downtown with our friends.  It’s a smallish town but there is an amusement park, cable car, and some restaurants and cafes.

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We hopped on the cable car and enjoyed beautiful views of the city and waterfall. On on our ride back down the attendant wanted to smoke, and being so thoughtful to the children and passengers on board, he just stood with the door partially open and blew his smoke outside -while the car was moving. A great comfort, really. Below is a picture I found online that illustrates the open door, now just imagine it looking that way as we traveled back down the mountain.

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We had a nice dinner in town and then returned to our hotel for a fantastic night of sleep. We splurged on the deluxe suite so Abby’s pack n’ play was set up in a separate room and that meant peace and quiet for all.

Since we were off on Monday for Memorial Day and we still had our nanny working, JR and I drove to an ancient rock/cave town called Uplistsikhe (good luck pronouncing that!), a few kilometers away from the town of Gori. It’s one of the oldest urban settlements in Georgia and dates back to the Early Iron Age which is around 1200-550 B.C.E. (thanks Wikipedia!).

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Most of our time has been spent enjoying the warmer weather (although this past week has been all rain and cold) and playing outside. When it was finally warm enough to bring out the water table and our baby pool, a few of the neighborhood kids came over to play. We set up the other pool and even more kids showed up. We had a great time, but made the mistake of storing the pools on our back patio. The wind here is insane, and it’s especially bad in our neighborhood because we’re up on a hill. The little round pool blew away one night and hasn’t been seen since!

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Family, friends and Dairy Queen

I’m always a few weeks tad behind, but here are some highlights from our R&R in Ohio:

  •  Being around friends and family reminds of just how much I miss them. Life is great in Georgia, but I had so much fun while we were home.
  • The radio. You don’t realize how much you miss it!  There were so many great songs on the radio, but most importantly, I’m a full-blown Belieber now.  If you aren’t listening to Justin’s Bieber’s “Love Yourself” you are missing out.  I also love this cheesy “Stand By You” song by Rachel Platten. I was driving alone singing that song and having an emotional moment and thinking how much I loved JR and I would totally stand by him, and as the song says “I’d walk through hell for you.”  But then I thought to myself…eek.  Hell would be so hot.  My feet would burn so quickly!  So maybe not quite that much?

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  • JR had a week long training in DC, and on his way to Ohio he stopped in Gettysburg, PA for the night and toured the battlefield next morning. There’s a great tour guide program that allows you to pay a very reasonable fee for a private, certified guide who you pick up and they’ll actually drive your car for you as they show you the sights.  He said it was one of the best historical tours he’s ever been on and highly recommends it.  http://gettysburgtourguides.org/guided-tour-rates/
  • My grandparents wanted to take all nine – yes, NINE – of their great-grandchildren to Build-a-Bear for Easter.  I do not totally understand the pull of BAB, but kids love it and it’s insanely expensive so hooray to the company owners.  A $35 limit per kid was set, but of course my Mom was all “well, if Abby needs something additional I’ll just pay for it.”  Mmhmm.  She’s 2, I don’t think she actually needs anything.  Abby picked out a cute cat that we like to think reminded her of Annabelle and enjoyed the stuffing process.  Then it was time to shop for accessories.  My Mom would not hear it when I insisted the cat did not need an outfit because she’s a cat.  Next thing I know, I’m buying TWO pairs of sparkly flats for the cat.  Two, because she has 4 paws of course!  Okay, but it was all worth it when Abby put on these fake glasses and danced around the store. 
  • We had our first ER visit.  The day before we left, Abby had a cough in the morning that sounded much worse when she woke up from her nap.  My mom thought it sounded like croup, and we didn’t want to take any chances before traveling so we made our way to the nearest Urgent Care.  Which was closed.  At 4pm on a Saturday. What is the point of an urgent care??  That left the ER as our only option for her to be seen that day, and ultimately I’m glad we went.  The doctor agreed that it was probably viral croup and gave her a dose of steroids before sending us home.  She seemed totally fine the next day, thank goodness!

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  • American roads and highways.  After driving in Tbilisi for several months (think Mad Max Fury Road meets Mario Kart) we were amazed with the driving. Nobody driving the wrong-way on the highway, everyone in their lanes, stopping at lights, even blinkers for goodness sake!  At our first 4-way stop in Ohio, another driver politely waved us on and JR said “Can you believe how nice that man was? This is amazing!”
  • Many people we meet think we live in the state of Georgia.  Even though I always try to say “we live and work overseas in Tbilisi, Georgia” hoping the “overseas” part will tip them off, we still confuse people.  A nurse at the doctor’s office asked if I was local and when I said “No, I actually live overseas in Tbilisi, Georgia, near Russia” she said “Oh, so you drove up here then?”  Well, not exactly.  JR had a similar encounter where he told someone we live overseas in Georgia and she replied,”Goodness, I bet the South is having better weather than we are right now.” It’s understandable that strangers are confused, some of our own family and friends still think we live in Russia.  To be helpful, see the map below.  Georgia borders Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and the Black Sea.

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  • The Price is Right.  Enough said.
  • We have some really nice grocery store options here, but there is still something that blows my mind when I see the cereal or bread aisle at Buehler’s.  So. Many. Options.  Also, every single fruit or vegetable is practically without blemish. It’s overwhelming and amazing.
  • My sister came home the first weekend we were in town to see us and take care of some wedding planning.  I was super excited for cupcake tasting with her, and I also went to her florist appointment.  The wedding stuff made me nostalgic for my own big day, so I made my whole family watch our wedding DVD – the ceremony and the highlight reel – just to get everyone in the spirit!
  • At one point JR was looking at our credit card statement and said “How many times have you been to Dairy Queen?”  I told him to stop judging.lay-off-me-im-starving-gif
  • I was on the hunt for a pair of sandals for our nanny’s son.  One night JR said, hey we have some down time, why don’t we run to Target and you can get the sandals and I can pick up some beer. Note that this was my first trip to Target in about 9 months.  $204 later, we walked out of the store with a six-pack, no sandals, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I really, really needed.

That sums up our R&R –   family, friends, Dairy Queen, explaining where Georgia is located, and overspending.  It’s a long haul to return home but we’re grateful for the opportunity to do it.