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A Trip to See Grandkids (and their parents, of course.  And some friends too)

November 7-17, 2015
Written November 8+
Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,

d151107_02_roses.jpgIt has been a year and a half since we had an airplane ride, probably the longest we've been on the ground for the last 40 or 50 years.  It was time to get back in the saddle-sized airplane seats and no better reason than to visit grandkids, (their) family, and friends.  On Saturday morning (November 7th) we closed down the house, checked the garden for the last time, and bid the roses farewell.  I expect they will be gone when we get back. It's that time of year.

Fresno International Airport, aka "FAT", is a great place to fly in and out of.  It's 15 or 20 minutes from home, modern, friendly, and almost line-free. The dozen or more gates service barely two dozen flights a day, not much crowding here.  I hope it manages to stay open, because driving three hours over to SFO or SJC is not an attractive prospect. 
Our Fresno-to-Denver leg took us out over the San Joaquin Valley, up past the Sierra lakes and peaks, over the Panmint Mountains bordering Death Valley, and, eventually, over the Rockies into DEN.  It was nice to see some snow from last week's storm.  Now we need another dozen such events before next year's dry season.  Pray.
The flight from Denver to Washington DC was completely uneventful - a great sign. By the time we arrived and got the Hertz car it was after 9pm and we faced DC traffic at night.  Like usual, the roads from IAD, into the Beltway, and around to I270 into Maryland were either under reconstruction or just re-arranged from our last visit a couple of years ago.  I have been driving this route almost since the airport opened decades ago, and I still get intimidated by the drive.  Of course it doesn't help that Geoff and Suzanne's house is at the end of a route with fourteen turns, once we leave I270.  Must be getting old. 

It was worth the drive, of course.  Three-year-old Sean and eight-year-old Ryan were as cute as we remembered.  Both are full of energy and, after a bit of shyness when we first greeted them Sunday morning, they warmed to the Opa and Oma they don't get to see very much (except on Skype.)   Sunday was mostly just a hang-around day, fine with us and the family.  Our major excursion was fine dining at Red Robin: salads for Oma & Opa, mac-and-cheese for the kids, and regular food for Mom and Dad.  "Regular", but carefully accounted for, as both are on strict and successful diets, enforced by calorie apps, Fitbits, and discipline.  Maybe we seniors need to take lessons.
On Monday morning Ryan was off to school, grandparents Dan and Mary were over to take care of Sean, Geoff and Suzanne off to work, and Oma and Opa headed down to Virginia for visits with friends.

Our first stop was Chin and Peter's house in McLean, Virginia, a prototypical inside-the-beltway community.  Communities like this grew with government wartime and post-war expansion in the 1940s and 1950s.  The small, brick homes of that era seem ubiquitous to the inner Washington suburbs.  Nowadays, however, they are being torn down and replaced with homes twice the size, clear signs of prosperity in federal government and the supporting private sector. I wonder if we can import some of this activity for Fresno>  Probably not.

Dinner was over at Nancy and Steve's, where we were joined by Mary and John.  This crew of eight used to hang around in Kiev, 15 years ago.  Time flies!  It is always great spending time with these friends as we catch up and discuss the progress of families and countries.
Good laughs and conversation.

Good food and drink.

One of Marianne's paintings in her art patron's home.

Tuesday at Chin and Peter's started slowly.  Nice, because we were still adjusting to the time zone change business.  In the old days, we had to handle eight or more hours shift and it would take me at least a week, but this smaller 3-hour change seems to be requiring about half that.  Not bad.

Of course we were (almost) in Washington DC so we needed to take in at least one tourist attraction.  First, Peter chose a longer route into town and I saw again just how beautiful our nation's capital is.  I think Marianne and I need to come back for a longer stay, say a month or two, and rent a DC place so we can see much more than a few-day visit can provide. 

d151110_02_museum.jpgChin suggested we visit the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, a conjoined pair of the two or three dozen free attractions in the Smithsonian galaxy. We tend to allot ourselves about two hours in any gallery or museum before we start to glaze over, but today that allowed us to see about 10 or 15% of just this Gallery and Museum pair.  Based on that, I think we could spend a couple months saturating on  such indoor attractions and another month on all the parks, monuments, and outside malls.

For our one-afternoon visit, here's some pictures:
The Portrait Gallery and Art Museum buildings were joined in 2007 by the 864 translucent panels over the Kogod Courtyard.  The space alone would make a stop here worthwhile.

Can you read the license plates?  ("WE TH ... P PUL...")

A favorite attraction for me was the show of IPA art work from the mid 30s.

Our visit to the "portrait" part of the facility included presidential portraits.  I particularly like the Clinton picture by Chuck Close. (We had seen a show of his work in Oregon earlier this year.  Amazing work despite handicaps.)

d151110_30_lunch.jpgHaving barely scratched the surface of the twin gallery-museum, we needed to get on our way.  Peter and Chin took us to a Vietnamese shopping center out near their McLean home where we were guided through a very authentic lunch.  Authentic ethnic enclaves are another feature of the DC area, so when we have our long stay we will be able to eat around the world too!

We bid friends good bye, resolving to get together more often in the future than in the past, and headed into one of the WORST features of the DC area: traffic.  The morning trip had been under 30 minutes, but now we were facing rush "hour"  (actually, the three or four hours starting at 3pm).  Our GPS-lady routed us around some traffic jams by sending us all over Northern Virginia and NW DC before she sent us on I270 out toward Gaithersburg. The return took two-and-a-half times longer than the morning  trip.  When we have our long DC stay, we definitely need to find a place downtown, or at least near a Metro station.

d151110_32_play.jpgWe did make it however, and enjoyed the rest of the evening hearing about the grandkids' days.  Ryan said he enjoyed his school day and proudly noted that he had finished the 250-page book we had given him just a couple of days ago.  Congratulations.  Sean had spent the day with Suzanne's mom and dad and was as cheerful as usual.  He put on a display of identifying shapes, colors, number, and letters that confirmed that he a bright little guy.  Of course.  (This is an objective grandparent evaluation.)


Wednesday was a quiet day, for the most part.  In the morning, we had a chance to play with Sean, while big brother was in school.  The three-year-old played with rockets for me and modeled Play Dough with Oma.  Maybe he just senses when he is around an artist versus an engineer.

When mom came home with Ryan, Marianne and I tried out the local rec department for our gym exercises.  We have become more devoted to exercising than I would have thought and a good part about our travels has been visits to new facilities.  On Monday morning, Peter had taken us to his club in McLean Virginia, where he claimed the clients included retired CIA folks.  After he said that, I viewed everyone differently.  Our Wednesday visit to the Gaithersburg Rec Center was decidedly low key; plenty of equipment and hardly any other users, spies or not.

d151111_10_geoff.jpgThe evening even was a BBQ with Suzanne's mom and dad, aka Mom Mom and Pop Pop.  (Why is it that grandparents adopt pseudonyms?)  The chicken and asparagus were great and we all got in just a bit more play time. 

Thursday started at Starbucks and continued to breakfast out for just Marianne and me since the boys were in school and the folks at work.  Even little three-year-old Sean goes to school four days a week, for a few hours each.  One pair of days is for speech help.  When trying to learn foreign languages I have certainly noticed that speech is a different skill than hearing comprehension and, apparently, even in a native language that can be true.  Fortunately, it's all learnable and there are programs to teach little kids what they need to learn, before they become too frustrated. 

In the afternoon, we had Sean to ourselves as mom, dad, and big brother went to a school conference for Ryan.  All good news apparently, with high marks in reading especially.  Congratulations! 

After the conference, it was a quick pizza dinner and then I went off with Geoff to watch his volleyball championship.  Geoff plays in a couple of local leagues and, this fall, his team has done well.  Tonight they were  favorites, playing for the championship.  I tried my hand at sports photography and here's my story:
The games were played in the Germantown "Soccerplex", a huge complex of soccer fields and this indoor court, big enough for eight simultaneous volleyball games.

For the first match of the "Double A" league, Geoff's team served as scorekeepers and linesmen.  They would play the winner, so it gave a chance to see who they were up against.  The marquee player from their eventual opponents would be Vincent, a young man who seemed to have springs in his feet and even his head routinely cleared the top of the volleyball net.

Geoff's team, at least the ones I managed to get closeup pictures of.

A strategy session and then on to the action.
Lots of jumping and a bit of falling.

In the end, the other side played well and Geoff's team didn't, so they saw the championship slip from their grasp.  Oh well, there's always next season and, besides, it's just for the exercise, right?

For myself, I learned again how hard it is to get decent sports photographs.  Like the players themselves, I need to remind myself it's just for fun and learning, right?

On Friday the Thirteenth, the little boys went school, the big boy went to work, and Suzanne managed her Friday chores.  Oma and Opa decided what to do as the time clicked by.  Breakfast out was a start, so we chose a cafe/bakery at random up in Germantown, reportedly the first organized German settlement in America.  Nowadays, it is simply another DC suburb, with shops and stores and restaurants from the same chains as anyone else in the country. 

d151113_02_exercise.jpgThe rest of the day was as ordinary as we could make it.  We returned to the Gaithersburg Recreation Center exercise room to work off the breakfast bakery food.  This makes the third visit this week, so we felt very righteous.

d151113_04_sean.jpgFrom there, it was back home and some play time with Ryan and Sean.  With Ryan, that means kinetic outdoor activity with balls.  We threw knerf footballs, kicked a soccer ball, and even threw a real baseball.  (He managed to find my own glove, a forty-year-old relic.  My throwing and catching were very rusty.

Sean played out side too, and tried to keep up with big brother, but later settled into indoor play, including "photography" with his own toy camera and mugging for mine.  Cute kids.

Our late afternoon and evening were disturbed by news reports of a terror attack in Paris.  We could not help but remember our own stays in the Morais district, where some of the attacks took place, and think of the many Areva colleagues I had from my Paris headquarters.  Watching the event unfold on live TV gave us the same sense we'd had on September 11th, 2001.  We were living in Kiev at the time, so that too was happening far away, but would have a profound affect far beyond the attack site.  I think this killing in France, along with the downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai, will also have waves and ripples throughout the world.

Saturday.  No plans.  After a really slow start, we managed a breakfast/lunch at Bob Evans with everyone. I treated, but Suzanne pulled up a 30% off coupon on her "RetailMeNot" app.  It was kind of like winning a mini-lottery. 

After that, it was over to Wegmans for the week's groceries. This place is huge, and includes a food court with live music as well as a TV area showing the Disney Channel on loop - a great place to park kids, Dad, and Opa.  We need one of these in Fresno, but, so far, the chain is only in the Northeast, so it will be a long time coming.
Back home, it was time for some outside play.  I started with a trip to the park with Sean.  It was a very brisk day, but he ran continuously and stayed warm, while Opa froze.  It all came to an abrupt end, for reasons I never did figure out.  Fun pictures though.
I missed my opportunity to take pictures of Ryan in his element when he and his dad went to the same park for their "sports event".  Reportedly, there was a bit of baseball, basketball, football, and soccer.  Sorry I missed it, but I suppose pictures do get fewer as little boys turn not-so-little.  Trust me, he's a cute not-so-little guy.

Sunday started with an early gym workout.   We have been good on this trip, with sessions on most days.  Back home, Ryan was getting his exercise with Geoff.  I'm not sure I understand Geoff's eyes-closed technique.
Our main event for the day was a brunch at friends Alice and Chuck's.  She prepared particularly nice crab cakes, along with homemade bread and pastries.  I think this compensated for the morning trip to the Rec Center. Mostly, the visit was devoted to conversation.  I caught up with Chuck's continuing work, mostly concerning the Fukushima nuclear accident.  He is a world expert at tidying up after the untimely demise of nuclear reactors, but we hope he will run out of work some day.  (My own specialty, new nuclear plants, has already hit a lull - again.)  Marianne and Alice caught up on grandkids, a perennial topic for our generation.

After brunch, we took in a movie: Bridge of Spies.  We all enjoyed the reminder of Cold War history, but anything with Tom Hanks would probably be good.  By early evening, we bid Alice and Chuck farewell, until after Thanksgiving when we will see them in Fresno. They will be traveling to see kids and grandkids.   Marianne and I had dinner at Hersey's, an old-time hole-in-the-wall restaurant that has a well-deserved reputation for excellent fried chicken.  I think this meant that our daily exercise-vs-eating balance tipped to the calorie-excess end.  Oh well, there's always tomorrow.

d151116_02_schoolclothes.jpgMonday was our last full day visiting the Trotters.  Geoff and Suzanne had to work, of course, and Ryan needed to go to his third-grade work.  It was Spirit Week and Pajama Day at Gaithersburg Elementary, so he had a pretty casual start for the day.

Suzanne's dad came by to bring Ryan to school and then to play with Sean, as is the normal routine.  Nonetheless, we did get a little bit of Sean-only time and managed to help with trains and reading.

Marianne and I enjoyed a lunch with Geoff at a Thai restaurant next to his office and then we non-workers spent some time at the gym.  By now, we feel like the Gaithersburg Recreation Center is our own private club.

After Ryan came home, we played outside.  Sean watched things in his favorite lawn chair and Ryan bounced around, one of his favorite activities. 

When mom and dad made it home from work, the decision was made for a dinner out and the choice was Old Town Buffet where everyone could get their choice.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that Marianne's choice came along with a quick case of food poisoning, keeping her trapped in the bathroom for three hours in the middle of the night.  The joys of travel

Tuesday started slowly, especially for Marianne.  Fortunately, she got stronger as the day went on.  We bid our farewells and headed out to Dulles International Airport, and IAD airport that remains under construction, as it has been for the forty years I have flown in and out of there.

Check in was easy enough and even the TSA security check was quick.  We had expected much worse, given yesterday's ISIS threat to bring terror to Washington DC.  I'll admit there was some relief in leaving the area, although our friends and family will remain of course,  and remain subject to the low-level anxiety that come with the territory - literally.  I think folks in the DC area and those in New York do have a source of anxiety that the rest of the country may not recognize.  I know I am glad Geoff no longer works downtown.

d151117_02_airportbus.jpgd151117_04_infomary.jpgDulles still features the "mobile lounges" (aka "big buses") to reach many of the gates and I can even remember when these vehicles drove straight to the airplanes!  It makes me feel OLD.

At Concourse D, we used our wait for a decent lunch, something that is more and more possible at airports today I suppose this is an upside of all the wait times people need to build into flying.  After lunch, we wandered toward our gate and ran into our friend Mary.  She was doing her once-a-week volunteer duty at the information booth very near our gate.  It was  a great surprise and I felt even more that IAD was my "home" airport.

d151117_06_line.jpgd151117_08_crunch.jpgOut at the gate, we joined the proper line, waited our turn, sat in our aisle seats, and watched as crowds trundled past us, only occasionally swinging bags into our shoulders.  Aisle seats are preferred for the flying part of the trip, but they do come with boarding hazards.

The four-hour flight was completely uneventful.  I read, mostly, and Marianne ended up chatting with her seat mate. I am sure such impromptu conversations make a flight much shorter.

In Denver, we had another meal and a two-hour wait.  I like this type of scheduling, since it gives a cushion for delays and Denver Airport is interesting enough.  Then, after our two-hour flight over the hills to Fresno and a short taxi ride, we were were back home.

John and Marianne


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