Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas in America

This was the first time in 5 years that I was home for Christmas!  Christmas in Estonia is great, but being home is even better. 
 When we came the weather was beautiful which meant for some awesome time in the pool. 

 Our baby has enjoyed watching Frozen songs from a TV.  Usually she gets to see them on an i-pod.  Music is the same, visual effect very different.

 I found some old Star Trek ornaments in the  basement to add some Christmas cheer!

 Our tradition has always been to have a nice breakfast for Christmas.

 It was great to have Jeff and Jeff here for Christmas.  Other than us, they were the only ones here for Christmas.  We had a great time playing farkle.  We wish them best of luck on their move to New York.  Closer to us in Estonia, but still not sure when we'll get to visit.  

 Of course one of the best parts about being home for Christmas is the crazy food and candy.  This is a Reese's Peanut Butter cup package, that is 453 grams and only 2 cups!

 I went to the US embassy Christmas party a few weeks back and they had egg nog, it was amazing!  It had been so long I totally forgot about it.  So it has been nice enjoying it some more.

 The day after Christmas (which is still part of Christmas for our Estonian friends) we went snowmobiling to Smiley Creek Lodge.  For lunch I had a double bacon cheese burger and a strawberry milkshake.  If life ever takes a wrong turn and I find myself on death row ordering a final meal I think I will order a double bacon cheesburger with a strawberry milkshake.  It doesn't get any better than that.

 This was my attempt at making a selfie with a normal camera. It can be tricky without that reverse screen.

Beautiful country in Idaho.  You'll notice the two feet of powder up here in the mountains.  Down in Twin Falls there is also quite a bit of snow.  On Christmas morning we woke up to snow! A Christmas miracle!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Party in Amsterdam! (not that kind of party)

We are spending Christmas in the US this year.  It is the first time in 5 years that we have been here for Christmas, there will be more posts coming about that!  On the way over we stopped in Amsterdam for a day and had a really nice time.  The city was very beautiful, lots of Christmas decorations were up.  In the taxi from the airport the driver recommended the red light district.  But since we both aren't into smoking weed, sleeping with prostitutes, and since we had a 14 month baby with us we decided to skip it.  Instead Maris went to the Anne Frank house and then after we all went to the zoo, and what a zoo it was!

 This is the dam square, it was nice but would not make a top 10 squares list.

The most impressive for me was the train station, I think this was in the movie the Best two years, it seemed familiar.   This picture isn't very impressive, but it was a breathtaking scene.

 We saw quite a few of these super small cars.  These are the smallest cars I have ever seen, much smaller than a smart car.  They are about as wide as a motorcycle.

 This is a museum about marijuana, we didn't go.  There were some other museums that weren't suitable to post about.  It did make me wonder if we accidentally walked through part of the red light district.  

 There were a few of these warnings up about drugs being sold on the streets.  One alert had a death count which was at 3.  This is really nice, in Estonia there is a terrible drug problem and overdose problem and no one has really done much about it. 

 Our favorite was the zoo.

 Our baby loved all the different animals.  We loved having a nice travel stroller with us.

 The most interesting part was how open the zoo felt despite being in the middle of the city center.  It was way nicer than the Tallinn zoo.  Some of the cages and areas were a bit small for the animals, but nothing unethical like the polar bear cages at the Tallinn zoo. (While the Tallinn zoo is very nice in many ways, the polar bear cages still need work.  They have been raising money for new habitats for a while now, hopefully they will be able to make the improvements soon).  They had some free roaming areas.  I felt like this monkey was going to jump right on me.  In an indoor exhibit I almost got pooped on by a large iguana!  We were walking through looking at the monkeys and then I hear a large plop I look over and see some weird stuff on the floor about 3 feet away.  I look up and a giant iguana sitting right there.  They also had bats just hanging from the ceiling.

 They often had natural barriers like this moat giving the zoo a much more open feel to it.

 Our babies favorite was probably the monkeys.  Well she also liked the moving doors a lot.  All in all it was a great trip. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Christmas miracle!

Barack Obama and Raul Castro recently announced a normalization of US-Cuba relations! A Christmas miracle.  This was the one foreign policy move I was hoping Obama would make before his time in office runs out.  This move is 25 years too late, but better late than never.  I want to use this blog to thank President Obama for ending one of the worst US foreign policies in recent memory and for melting the 'last icicle of the Cold War'.  Hats off to the Pope for playing an important role in the deal.  The decision to punish the Cuban people in response to the Cuban regime's human rights violations seemed like bad policy during the Cold War and simply unethical after. The new deal will be good for US commerce and good for the people of Cuba.  It will be key in improving US relations with the region as a whole.  The entire left wing/anti-American movement lead by Hugo Chavez could have easily been avoided if the embargo would have been lifted 25 years ago.  This is a win-win decision for everyone.  For those who say this is encouraging bad behavior, they need to take it easy.  The Castro regime is on its last leg (Raul is 83) and they have been making significant steps including a liberalization of the economy and the release of political prisoners.  Yes, they won't be winning any human rights awards but there are many countries who do worse that have normal relations with the US.  We normalized relations with Vietnam back in 1995!

For those interested in more detail of the negative impact of the embargo here are some articles that have called for an end to the embargo in the past: the CATO institute from 2005, a National Interest report from 2012, republished yesterday, and a 2009 report by Amnesty International that documents the impact of the embargo on the people of Cuba. 

When the move was announced I thought of a conversation I had some years back with one Estonian while waiting in line to get travel documents (I was getting an ID card, she was getting a new passport).  She said she was going on a trip to Cuba.  It seemed like a mystical place.  One of my friends went and had a wonderful time, she mentioned that the people were poor.  Unfortunately that poverty is in large part a result of US policy.  I found it offensive that my government, which was supposed to stand for freedom, would tell me where I can and cannot go on vacation.  The news to normalize relations does not remove the entire embargo, because that needs to be done by Congress but it is a start.  I can't wait for the day when I will have the freedom to go to Cuba.  Maybe I never will go (the Maldives, Bora Bora, Hawaii, and Cape Verde are all ahead in my fantasy vacation priority list), but it is important that it will be me making that decision instead of Congress or the State Department.  I hope that Congress will do what is right and end whats left of the embargo as soon as possible.   

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christmas cheer

I love Christmas!  It is my favorite holiday of the year.  This Christmas season started off with a Christmas miracle.  When we were putting up our Christmas decorations we found two Reese's peanut butter cups, the tree shaped Christmas editions that were left over from last year!  I don't remember if we did that on purpose or if we just forgot about them (is that even possible?).  Needless to say the decorating was much more exciting than usual.  We had to put our mini Christmas tree up high this year so our toddler wouldn't destroy it.  We have problems fitting all of our Christmas tree ornaments on it, but it more or less works.  If you look close you can see our awesome mini Star Trek ornaments!

 We got an awesome Christmas package this year that had a cute snowman! It really adds some Christmas cheer to our apartment.

 For family night we went to the Christmas market in old town, it was awesome.  A pork roast, donuts, roasted almonds, and a beautiful environment.  The Tallinn Christmas market is a place to visit if someone has the chance. 

 They even had reindeer. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Keila on the rise

We have lived in Keila for just over 2 years and we love it now more than ever.  It's the perfect place for a young family.  There are a lot of nice small cities in Estonia, but Keila is the only one that is near Tallinn that has normal real estate prices.  In the short time we have lived here, the city has developed at a rapid pace.  While Estonia is developing quickly overall, this is not true for all of Estonia.  Many country side places are falling apart and emptying out due to the demographic trends.  We feel very blessed to be living in such a nice place like Keila.  Here is a list of some of the major developments and plans over the last 2 years.
  • New trains which came on line summer 2013
  • New grocery stores.  They built a Grossi store at the end of 2013 and now they are building a Maxima not too far away.  Also two other grocery stores were remodeled in the past year and a half.
  • New apartment buildings.  They have built quite a few new apartment buildings and have plans for more.  Even though Keila is a small city (10,000) it has all sorts of different residential units: apartment buildings, homes, town houses, and duplexes.
  • New fast food restaurants.  A new pizza place opened up which put another pizza place out of business, the Hesburger moved locations to take the place of the old pizza place and a new Subway took the place of the Hesburger.  We now have a Subway and the Hesburger is closer to home! Add these to the Pizza place and the local cafe's and the eating out scene isn't that bad (I'd love to have a Chop Sticks and a Baby Back, but you can't win them all).

  • They are replacing the entire lighting system in the city.  This is a pretty big project that was funded with some money Estonia got by a CO2 exchange program.  It didn't pollute so it exchanged the CO2 quota to another country who then paid for environmentally friendly projects.  Estonia was one of 7 Estonian cities to get their lighting systems replaced. 
  • Remodeling.  Many buildings have been remodeled and now look nice.  Fortunately many of them are near our building.  The police building was also remodeled. 
  • They also announced plans to remodel part of the old mostly abandoned hospital.  It will be a 10 million euro project that will turn one wing into a rehab and care facility.  Most of it will come from the EU structural funds.  There are two main problems in Keila, one is the abandoned high school and the other is the abandoned hospital.  This project will go a long way in fixing up the hospital.  Supposedly they have plans to tear down the abandoned high school and to build some office and residential buildings in its place, but I haven't seen any work on the project yet.  Lastly, Keila annoucned plans to build a new walking bridge over the Keila river that would better connect two residential areas.
Keila does have a high debt level around 100% of its yearly income but it should go back towards 60% (the norm for Estonian local governments) by 2018.  Most of the debt was from the new high school which was built a year or two before we moved.  All in all Keila is the best
 and it is only getting better.