Home Leave is here again! Home Leave is the congressional mandatory requirement for Foreign Service Officers to spend a minimum of 20 working days in the United States between overseas tours so that we may reconnect and reacquaint ourselves with the people and the country we represent and serve.
But wait? Between tours? Aren’t I still serving in Malawi? Why yes, yes, I am. However, I have extended my time in Malawi yet again and am now essentially serving two consecutive tours in Lilongwe. Thus, Home Leave (HL), or rather Home Leave Return to Post. This is my third HL, but the first time my daughter and I will return to the same place we were before the HL; the first time our pets and our belongings will be able to remain in the same place while we are gone. For a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) this is rather novel.
Off C and I head to the U.S. of A to home leave with the best of them. We begin with a long trip from Lilongwe to Dulles, Virginia via Johannesburg, South Africa, and Accra, Ghana. We arrive late after weather-related delays cause flight schedule issues in Jo’burg; my one checked piece of luggage takes a detour and does not arrive with us; Customs and Border Patrol welcomes back this diplomat with a fun trip to secondary for extra scrutiny. Hooray! (no, not hooray. I jest.) My sister, who has been circling the airport pick-up area with my mother for a good hour, picks us up and whisks us off to the local IHOP to meet the bro-in-law, niece, and nephew, for a quick family breakfast. Well, I have a cheeseburger because A. who knows what time my body thinks it is? and B. I have missed a good American cheeseburger; I can get pancakes and eggs in Malawi.
I am whisked back to the airport to catch my flight to Jacksonville, FL. C stays the night with her aunt, uncle, and cousins, and then is deposited back at the airport the next morning to meet her stepmom so they may flight up to upstate New York to meet her dad and his side of the family for paternal family fun. Her dad and stepmom work jobs that are busiest on Saturdays, so we had to do it this way. Seems complicated but with a lot of help (my sister and C’s stepmom especially), we make it work.
C enjoys her time in NY — goes out on her grandparent’s boat, played with her cousins, and had oodles of family time. Me, I spent time with my aunt in and around our condo. I went shopping for consumables (a special shipment of foodstuffs and personal and/or household items that are authorized for certain Posts like Malawi) and had the movers come pack them up, had a doctor’s appointment, consumed great quantities of Mexican food (there is a dearth of such cuisine in Malawi), took walks on the beach to watch the sunrise, sunset, and moonrise, and was midly insulted by a young ticket seller who insisted on selling me the senior rate for a movie.
C and I then flew back from our respective first locations to meet again in northern Virginia, grab the rental car, and begin the road trip portion.
Being overseas in the FS life is amazing; my daughter is exposed to many different people, cultures, and traditions. However, her exposure to American history and culture is limited. Not non-existent, mind you. She watches Disney Jr, and Nick Jr on television. She discusses Five Nights at Freddy’s and Minecraft with her friends. Yet although she attends a fabulous international school, it is not an overseas American school.
I therefore planned our home leave around introducing C to some of America’s most iconic historic locations. Our first destination: Williamsburg, Virginia, home to the historic Colonial Williamsburg, part of America’s historic triangle (with Jamestown and Yorktown) and my undergraduate alma mater, the College of William and Mary, the second oldest university in the United States.
We began first with a trip to Jamestown to learn about the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, founded in 1607. There we visited the world class museum, walked through replicas of a Powhatan Indian village and the colonist’s fort, and boarded two of the three replica ships that brought the colonists across the Atlantic on their four-and-a-half month journey to their new lives in the New World. C reports she liked she liked the ships the best, but I think she enjoyed touching the animal pelts in the Indian village the most.
We spent the rest of that first day walking the grounds of Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum. Its costs nothing to stroll the streets of this extraordinary place depicting the reconstructed and restored 18th century city that served as the capital of the Colony of Virginia for 74 years (after the colonists moved from swampy Jamestown). I had wanted to come here to have American history come alive for C, but I did anticipate how the memories of my own personal history would also come back to me. We stopped at the Cheese Shop on the top of DOG (Duke of Gloucester) Street. Though the shop now had a place on Market Square (instead of the side street where it stood during my day), their signature “bread ends and house,” which provided me so many days of sustenance in my college days, was just as good as ever. We stood outside the Kimball Theater, the small movie theater, where I saw many an odd indie film back in the day. Filled with nostalgia, I bought C and I matching William & Mary shirts at the college store.
On our second day, we headed to the Busch Gardens amusement park. Here too were memories from college, as for graduation the college had rented out the park for seniors. How cool is that? I had regaled C with stories of the Loch Ness Monster coaster, once the world’s tallest and fastest coaster and still the world’s only interlocking, double-looping roller coaster. C, who hated Disney’s Space Mountain and refuses to ride the Tower of Terror, was very keen to ride the Loch Ness and we headed there first thing. Though I am too old to love coasters anymore (though truth be told, I never did), I still enjoyed the Loch Ness and C could not stop telling everyone she met how much she did too.
For our last three days, armed with a three-day pass to Colonial Williamsburg, we could explore the living museum more fully, stopping in at tours at the Capitol, the Wythe House, and the Governor’s Palace. We also lucked out getting a spot on 15 minute horse carriage ride (something I had never before done in the ‘Burg). At the Palace, we took part in a children’s tour of the building itself, presented just right for C’s age group. At the beginning, I asked the guide though, if William & Mary students still “jump the wall” as they did in the past. “Jumping the wall” was a student tradition whereby students were to make their way to the Governor’s Palace at night, haul themselves over the perimeter wall, and then run to the center of the palace’s hedge maze, and then depart the same way without being caught. I might have done it once…or twice. The guide told the group that while it is still done, security advances have caught up with the college tradition – yet now there is supposed to be a “triathlon” of jumping the wall, streaking the Sunken Garden (a grassy field located on the W&M campus), and swimming Crim Dell. This prompted C to ask what is streaking….
We then enjoyed our own exploration of the Palace gardens and of course a race through the maze. I remembered, armed with my W&M ID, which gave me free access to many Colonial Williamsburg sights, sitting in the gardens on many a sunny day eating my Cheese Shop Bread Ends and House while reading for class. I also remembered nearly peeing my pants when I thought we were caught as I raced across the gardens toward the maze on a ridiculously well moonlit night…
I tried to get C to join me on a Colonial Williamsburg ghost tour, but she refused. There was one aimed listed as good for 4 to 7 year olds that started at 5:45 PM, but no matter how I tried to sell it (“it is for 7 year olds!” “when it starts it will not even be close to dark outside.”) but she would not have it. I told her how I had joined a ghost tour when I was a student and had the beejeezus scared out of me. Although she refused to do one, she did ask me about mine and I told her of the three stories I recalled. One was of the Mistress Wythe, who after attending a ball at the Governor’s Palace had run the short way to her home with the red door, losing a shoe along the way, and then, well…she died, and her ghost is supposed to haunt the house.
So, we went to the Wythe House and I asked one of the historic interpreters for the fuller story, to see how much my brain had retained from a very scary night tour 25 years before. I remembered it pretty well, but had left out the part where Mistress Wythe hangs herself. Immediately, C latched on to that word and asked me to explain… That was unexpected. Even more unexpected was when C, playing with an 18th century wood children’s toy in the upstairs hallway of the Wythe House, patiently explained the details of the hanging to another child, and then recommended the child go over to the Governor’s Palace maze where her mom had once run through the maze naked… (I had NOT — C had conflated the maze run with the Sunken Garden streaking.) So to the mother of that other child, you are welcome!
We visited the William & Mary campus. I showed C some of my dorm and classroom buildings. We passed my sorority house (yes, I was in a sorority!). Memories flooded back. Many, I could not share with a 7-year old. We crossed Crim Dell, which my graduating class crossed many moons ago, and in the 90s Playboy magazine listed as one of the top 10 most romantic college places in the U.S. Yeah, I know. First, wtf is Playboy doing ranking romantic college locations? And second, hey, its a pretty bridge with some nice trees, but ugh, that water! I left out the Playboy connection for C. I did not want to answer anymore odd questions.
I loved that as we cross the campus, C turned to me and said “mom, it sounds like you had a really great life here.” Yeah, I did. And I had forgotten so much of it until our visit.
After educating (and sort of torturing) C with the American history lessons and walks down my memory lane, it was time to reward her with two fabulous days at Great Wolf Lodge. GWL is a chain of indoor water park and amusement hotels. My sister and her family had been a few times and I could hardly wait to bring C. I must have splurged for a Cub Club room, where we could have fit 6 people, but had forgotten I did so. What a fun surprise! I thought C would be all about the water park, but she was actually all about the indoor MagiQuest game, where she ran around with a fake wand activating sensors and solving quests. She made lots of friends doing this. We also won the rubber ducky race — kids decorate a rubber duck in the morning and then enter it into the water park race. All the ducks are dumped into one section of the lazy river and make their way to the finish line. The winner gets to sit in a special section of the water park for 24 hours. (Experienced Winner Hint: Show up on a day when only 4 people enter the contest and then be the only person to show up poolside during the activity. Yay, you win!) It also turns out C has a wicked sense of timing for the arcade claw games. Good thing I brought an extra empty suitcase….
It was hard to believe that after Williamsburg we were already nearly half way through our Home Leave. It was time to move on to the next location….