More from Washington DC

Another day in Washington. Feels like I have been here forever now. The conference proper started today. Fortunately they serve breakfast as part of the conference because I am getting tired of paying $21 for breakfast. The conference food has actually been quite good.  Nice continental breakfast this morning.  I had a bagel and cream cheese – good All American breakfast.

I spent the day at the conference. Opening session was a plenary and they had some local university band playing during the opening ceremony. Best part was when they played ‘Happy’.  Otherwise underwhelmed. Opening speaker was quite interesting as opening speakers go at actuarial conferences. After that there were elective sessions. I went to listen to two SA speakers and thereafter the conference descended into the abyss for me. Next speaker was from Benin and it reached a low point when he answered a question and went into French for about 5 minutes! In the afternoon session, the first presenter was quite good (hate to admit it as he was from a competitor) but the next two speakers went from bad into terrible.  The last speaker was a Danish academic and his talked involved mathematics terms I have never heard of and double and triple integrals. Seriously – who could possibly have been interested in that?!

My day finished off with dinner with the Europeans including the future president of the International Actuarial Association. We went to local restaurant and definitely the best one that is across the road.  Helen missed out on the best restaurant here.  Excellent food and quite an enjoyable, socialable dinner.  Overall one of those killer conference days which has resulted in me not looking forward to tomorrow!

capitol buildingMichael on the other hand got to experience the Capitol building today and enjoyed probably the best weather we have had so far in DC.  Not only did he get to have Coco Pops for breakfast from the Capitol Building cafeteria but he can now claim to have seen and done something that I have never done. He was suitably impressed by the building and surprised by the lack of security.

Michael is now an old hand on using the DC Metro system and walking around the neighborhood. The beauty of being in a place that you don’t have to worry about safety and you can walk around at 9pm in the evening.

Helen and Chloe drove from Knoxville to Johnson City TN today (from one family member to the other). Helen seems to have mastered driving on the other side of the road. Either that or Chloe has been bribed into silence. Besides knowing they arrived safely in Johnson City the only other thing I know they did today was go shopping. The only reason I know that is because Helen has been sending pictures of strange foodstuffs to us. #keepherselfamused

Here’s to hoping that tomorrow isn’t so boring …


Washington & Knoxville

We woke this morning to a rainy and cold Washington DC. It was also the day that the family split up. Helen & Chloe headed to visit family in Knoxville and Michael and I stayed in DC. I have another conference (International Congress of Actuaries) which started tonight.

tsa stickerHelen and Chloe took a cab for their flight to Knoxville.  They went early so they could have brunch at the airport. Chloe was so well behaved while going through security she got a TSA sticker.  They now have a system through security that if you are pre-cleared then you don’t have to take off your shoes, take out your laptop etc. Fortunately Helen and Chloe were pre-cleared (we still haven’t figured out why because it is meant to only be open to US citizens) but Helen said it did save significant time and effort. Of course their flight was delayed for about an hour but they did make it safely to Knoxville. Helen picked up a rent-a-car there and drove for the first time in the US (and on the wrong side of the road). They seemed to make it safely to our family.  Chloe did send a message saying ‘Pray for the drivers of Knoxville’!

This morning I had to do a filming of a congratulatory message for one of the American Actuarial societies.  It is there 100th year and they wanted actuarial leaders from all over the world to be filmed to show at their annual Congress.  After I had been powdered up and was prepped, I answered their questions and gave my congratulations. Only one or two double takes.

marriotMichael and I were also moving hotels to the Congress hotel. It is just across the road and was where the filming took place. I decided to try and check-in early. First problem, they said they had no reservation for me. They said it was from last Tuesday and they cancelled it when I didn’t show up. Unfortunately I didn’t have my confirmation with me but I knew that I did have a proper confirmation for the right dates and told them so. They eventually gave me a room and when we came back later with our luggage I showed them the proof and they were apologetic.  Not sure how they messed it up because we had an electronic confirmation. Moving over from the one hotel to the other seemed simple but given it was pelting down with rain it turned out not to be so easy.

Second problem arose when we try to find the in-room safe. Neither Michael nor I could find it. Eventually we called and they said it was in the drawer. We had looked there and it wasn’t. They sent up maintenance to come and sort it out. The maintenance guy opened the drawer and was very surprised to see no safe. He asked whether we had just come in – like we had stolen it. Someone certainly seemed to have taken it though as you could see the holes were it was meant to be mounted. They switched our room so that we could have a safe. Third issue arose when we bought two Pepsi’s from the vending machine and got Diet Pepsi’s. They bought us replacements but gave us cans instead of bottles (about hwashington monumentalf the volume). #notimpressedwithMarriot! Only upside is that it should be a nice view from the room when it clears up.

Michael and I went to watch a movie this afternoon. We watched Sabotage (new Arnie movie). Basically everyone kills everyone. Not much of a plot but entertaining. We bought a small popcorn and Sprite. Their small Sprite was about 750ml. I would hate to think what a large looks like. When we came out of the movie it was snowing outside. This is meant to be spring!

This evening we had the opening function of the Congress that was held at the National Museum of American History (one of the Smithsonian Museums). It is the same museum Helen and kids went to earlier in the week. It was ok but not a great museum. I have seen better. And the dinner was also ok – nothing spectacular. Nice to catch up with numerous people I hadn’t seen in awhile though. Conference proper starts tomorrow. I am not overly excited. I feel like I am already conferenced out.

Day 5 – Washington DC

breakfastEven though it is Saturday I was still involved in meetings today.  Fortunately it was only from lunchtime so at least I could enjoy the morning with the family. We had breakfast at a local restaurant and then headed into the centre of Washington DC by Metro. It was my first time on the Metro since we have arrived but the rest of them are skilled Metro travelers already. I just followed them around.

escalatorThe Metro station near the hotel has one of the longest escalators I have ever seen. They have timed it and it takes 2 minutes 20 seconds. Looking down it you get quite a strange disorientated feeling. Fortunately I didn’t have the urge to throw myself down (some people apparently do have that feeling) but when walking down it you do get a sense that you might topple over (and no I had not been drinking alcoholic beverages).

We went to see the Library of Congress. You can’t get into the area which houses the 150 million books and papers (they must have a great cataloging and retrieval system to find anything) but you can view the reading room from above. It did remind me of the movie National Treasure where they go to look for the President’s Secret book that is stored in the Library.

libraryThe Library was originally built by Congress funding to house Thomas Jefferson’s book collection which was bought by Congress in 1815 for $23 950. It is a collection of over 6000 books.  Jefferson (at the time) owned the largest private collection of books in the US. The books are on display in the Library but no photo’s are allowed. If one was to take a photo I am sure it would look something like the image included here. Unfortunately some of the books were destroyed in fires over the years and so they don’t have the full collection anymore but they mark the missing books with empty boxes and they are trying to procure the missing ones to complete the original collection again. Jefferson was a great reader and said “I cannot live without books”.  He read a diverse range of subjects from politics to science, religion to astronomy, fiction to history. He was selective about what he read though and understood the effect reading had on people. In that regard he once said “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”  Wise words.

gutenbergThe Library obviously houses numerous famous books but probably the most famous of what it includes is the Gutenberg Bible. It was the first books printed using moveable type and was printed in the 1450s.  There are only 42 of these Bibles still in existance and they are considered the most valuable book in the world.  None have been sold since 1978 and that one went for $2.2m.  In 1987 a copy of the Old Testament Gutenberg Bible sold for $5.4m and that was (and is) the highest price ever paid for a book.  They reckon if one were sold today it would fetch $100m. The real value of God’s Word is priceless though.

reading roomThe Library is magnificent building in it’s own right and photos can’t really do it justice. Marble abounds, stained glass windows, pressed ceiling panels, marble statues.  It doesn’t take long to visit the Library of Congress and I would recommend it for anyone visiting Washington DC.  It is worth the hour or so that you spend. Entrance is free.

As I had to be back for a lunch time meeting with the Germans (appropriate I guess after seeing the Gutenberg Bible), I headed back and fortunately Metro Guide Michael accompanied me so that I didn’t have to worry about when to change and where. Helen and Chloe stayed on and visited the National Gallery and came back to the hotel after lunch complaining about their sore feet. It was also raining the whole day so not only did they have sore feet but also wet feet.

My meetings went on until 6pm this evening and then we went out for dinner. As it was still raining we just went across the road to Mr Chen’s. It was one of the top rated Chinese restaurants in Washington DC. The food was pretty good and I particularly enjoyed eating some vegetables.  When you travel you seem to eat a lot of meat and starch and not enough vegetables. With the rain still falling it is off to bed.

capitol building

Day 4 – Washington DC

It has warmed up considerably in DC. That after yesterday broke the all-time record for the coldest temperature ever recorded on 27 March in Washington – 15 F – the previous record was 17 F.  Today though it rose to 60 F (or around 20 C).  Might more pleasant even though it was overcast. Not that it mattered to me because I had meetings starting at 8am through to 5:30pm. It started with breakfast with the Dutch followed by a 4-hour meeting on professionalism, lunch with the Americans and then another 3.5 hours of presentations/discussions.  Not my idea of a fun day.

Michael decided to go to Pentagon City because that was where the Bose store he wanted to go to was located.  Helen and Chloe had breakfast with one of the other wives from SA who is also here and then also headed to Pentagon City for some shopping. I got the updates via cellphone messages from the credit card purchases.  michael renamedMichael managed to get himself renamed at Starbucks (see photo). You get the SA accent thrown in there if you say it phonetically. Michael also managed to have the a-typical American conversation with a random lady that went like this:
“Where you from?”
“South Africa”
“Oh – Africa – I have a friend who lives in Botswana – do you know her”
I have had that sort of conversation in the past as well and I reply:
“No, but I have a friend who lives in Canada, surely you must know them”

They got back after lunch and I guess they just loafed in the hotel room this afternoon. On the other hand we were listening to the Commissioner of Social Security talking to us.  The Social Security Administration pays out over $700bn a year (yes you read that correctly). To put that in perspective, the GDP of South Africa is $400bn so this means their Social Security system is almost double the size of the SA economy! That makes the Commissioner a lot more important to the world economy than anyone in SA.  I understand who the photographer seemed so much in awe of her.  The French guy who was fast asleep while she was talking didn’t seem very impressed though.

beerWe decided to just have dinner locally (read across the road) this evening. Nothing special.  But I was impressed with the beer that I ordered though. It was called Pabst Blue Ribbon but what was really impressive was that it was selected as ‘America’s finest in 1863’ (see photo, bottom line). It hasn’t won anything since then.

We went for a walk after dinner but Helen turned back due to sore feet from other walking. Michael, Chloe and I did a tour of the neighboring suburb though.  Some really nice houses. Michael googled and we discovered the prices started at about $4m. Not particularly big properties (maybe a quarter of an acre) but really nice looking houses. What was surprising was that most of them only had a single garage and the cars parked out of front were Toyota, Kia, Chrysler etc – no luxury cars or only very few. I guess all the money went into the house.

On the way back we stopped in at Baskin Robbin’s for a quick ice cream and then back to the hotel (yes we got one for Helen too). Early to bed so that we can wake up early again …

Day 3 – Washington DC

Another work day for me.mall  Another sightseeing day for Helen and co.  My day started at 7am with breakfast with the Brits.  First time I have ever seen anyone from the UK up at 7am. Fortunately I was hungry at 7am because I had woken up at 5:30am.  At least it is getting slightly later each day. After breakfast I had a task force meeting on Ethics (for 2 hours), then another 1 hour 30 minute telecon with the UK office (#bigphonebill) followed by lunch and more networking.

H, M & C though went off sightseeing again. They covered off the American History Museum (which includes Abe’s hat though Helen said she didn’t see it … #missedthebigattraction), Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument (which is closed still from the 2011 Earthquake damage) and the Vietnam Memorial.  As you can see it was another clear day though still quite cold. Nothing in Washington is close by and so it involves a lot of walking between sights.  For instance, it is 1.1 miles from the Washington to Lincoln Memorials. When they got back after lunch (which they had at the all American must-have-at-least-once-while-in-America MacDonalds), they were all tired and ready for an afternoon nap. I was ready to get out of the hotel glincolniven that I had spent the whole day inside.

I eventually gave up and woke Helen up at 4:15pm and we headed out to Georgetown which is a short taxi trip away from the hotel. Chloe wanted to go to Georgetown Cupcakes (  It has apparently famous because it has it’s own TV show. There is a perpetual queue (or as American’s say – line) outside the store. Michael and Chloe lined up to get the famous cupcakes while Helen and I went to Dean & Deluca (a food and home store).

appleGeorgetown is very quaint.  Most of the buildings are brown brick. It is definitely an upmarket area. There are also very few overweight people. Usually I wouldn’t remark on that sort of thing but when I come to America I expect to see many obese people and so when you don’t, it is noticeable. We did some more shopping at the other-must-go-to-store – Apple. Helen bought herself a new phone because her current iPhone is pretty battered and abused and it was 30% cheaper buying an iPhone in the US than at home. They even setup the phone for her (including transferring her contacts and other info) in about 10 minutes. Hopefully she won’t lose the Yellow Submarine iPhone she now owns.

clydesWe headed for dinner and ended up at Clyde’s – same place we ate in Georgetown when we were here last as a family (with my parents – @Mom&Dad – do you remember the restaurant?). Big portions as usual, free refills of softdrinks, beer in the bottle – no glass offered. Good service, nice atmosphere, good food and excellent beer (Samuel Adams Lager – another one of my must-dos when in the US).

After dinner some more shopping. I bought a pair of jeans from Urban Outfitters. Helen was impressed because she said it is a very hip store. Not sure why she was impressed because clearly I am hip. She’s been married to me for over 20 years now and she is surprised I am hip – seriously I don’t understand women!

Cab back to the hotel so that they could enjoy their cupcakes for desert. Apparently they were amazing (I don’t eat cupcakes because I am a healthy eater) but then at R175 ($16) for 6 cupcakes they had better be the best cupcakes they have ever eaten.

Now Helen is channel flipping on the TV. Helen should not be allowed access to the remote when we travel in the US.  Her first choice is to watch the Weather channel. Failing that it is the food channel (which she is on now). If I am lucky we get CNN for a short time. American TV is worth a whole blog in itself. Actually American TV adverts are worth a blog by themselves. But I will keep that for another day. I’m just glad that the Protea’s didn’t lose to Netherlands today in their World T20 Cricket match. We have breakfast with the Dutch tomorrow and that would have been embarrassing.

Day 2 – Washington DC

omni shoreham1The day started early for us. For Michael it was 3am, I managed to get through to 4am and then dosed on and off until 5:30am and Helen was up from about 5am as well.  Chloe did the best and she was awake just before 7am. I am actually here to work and I had a breakfast at 7:30am. Usually I would be moaning about so early a start but today it felt like I had put in 2 hours of work before breakfast.  The breakfast meeting was followed by another meeting and then I had a telecon for an hour and half with my UK office. Morning gone.  Lunch with the other conference attendees (and free) and then fortunately the formal part of the day was done and I could work the rest of the afternoon in the hotel room. My view from the room is the one you can see in the photo – the snow is melting but it was pretty cold outside though (see if you can spot any famous landmarks in the picture – there is one – I promise).

Helen and the kids went out to have breakfast and do some sightseeing.  The breakfast in the hotel is $21 excluding tax and tip.  Tax is some ridiculously high rate and so after a standard 16% tip you are talking well over $25 per person for breakfast (or R275). No one person can eat that much for breakfast.  On second thoughts after seeing one women occupy the lift by herself today, there is at least one person staying in the hotel who probably could (and will).  Helen, Chloe and Michael headed into the centre of Washington on the Metro rather and had breakfast at Starbucks. They also went in search of pre-paid SIM cards and battled to find them until they found an AT&T shop.  Now they all have USA phone numbers for the duration of the time here and we can all breathe again as this essential daily need is fulfilled.

Helen is very impressed with how friendly everyone has been in Washington. She said that they were trying to figure out how the metro tickets worked and some random lady came up and offered help and showed them how to purchase the tickets. The people in the stores have also been very friendly. Americans know how to make you feel good about spending your money in their country. Michael gave up staying with Helen and Chloe as they were quickly into shopping mode.  Michael took the metro back to the hotel by himself and no doubt spent the rest of the afternoon on the WiFi.

morgan adamsAfter Helen had her afternoon nap we decided to go for a stroll around the area.  We walked up to an area called Morgan Adams which is like Washington’s Long Street. It being early afternoon it was pretty dead though.  Pretty area and nice to get some fresh air. By the time we got back to the hotel I reckon I had lost all feeling in most of my face and I was wondering whether I still had ears or whether they had frozen and dropped off at some point along the way.

Michael didn’t come with us but instead tried to go the hotel gym. They wouldn’t let him in though because you need to be 18. You can use the pool though so long as you’re 15, you can drive at 16 but you can’t use the gym until you’re 18?! Seems a bit inconsistent but those are the hotel rules.

restaurantWe had a dinner this evening in the hotel restaurant with all the other Safrican’s attending the meetings this week.  There were 11 of us for dinner and it was a relaxed and enjoyable dinner. The portions remained giant-sized but then again why would I expect anything less.  The picture is of the interior of the restaurant – quite beautiful.  The hotel really is charming in many ways. They have up in the lobby the very famous events the hotel has hosted and this included hosting many of the foreign dignitaries for JF Kennedy’s funeral (including Charles de Gaulle).  It was also the location used for the shooting of the movie ‘Pelican Brief’ starring Julia Roberts (based on the novel by John Grisham).

We have managed to make it to 10:30pm tonight but I can hear Helen yawning loudly from behind me as I type.  Bed is calling …. until tomorrow.

Arrived in Washington DC

HeathrowToday was consumed in traveling again.  We flew from London to Washington DC.  The flight left about an hour late. Some issue with no plane being on the stand and then the pilot said they had a few small technical issues which needed to be resolved. While we were waiting to board some guy abandoned his luggage for a few minutes. It was noticed by the gate staff and they made a few announcements and no one claimed the bags and then the guy just sauntered over and sat down next to his bags. Seriously – who just leaves their bags in a terminal building.

dc landingWe eventually left London just after midday and landed in Washington at 4pm (with a 4 hour time change). The flight was uneventful. Lunch + movie, sleep for a few hours, afternoon tea and then we landed. A little bit of turbulence over the mid-Atlantic but otherwise quite a smooth flight. Coming in to land though was quite interesting as it was a white-out. Chloe was trying to take a photo but you could really only see the ground just as we were about to land.  It was snowing as we landed and quite hard too. At least 3 inches on the ground and apparently there was no snow at all yesterday. 0 degrees C. Cold. Very cold.

Relatively quickly through passport control.  Very unusually for arriving in the US, the immigration official was very talkative and friendly. He was moaning about the weather (he used to live in Florida), gave us a little history lesson, a bit of sightseeing advice while he did the necessary fingerprint checks and stamping of the passport. Our one piece of checked baggage was already on the baggage belt and so we grabbed it and headed through customs and into the land of the free. Free but no place to buy a pre-paid SIM card for cellphone coverage.  Seriously – in the land of capitalism? Definite business opportunity at Dulles International Airport.  We grabbed a cab to the hotel. Another advantage of only 4 of us traveling – we fit into a single standard size cab (we are missing you though Stephen). The cab driver cleared his Islamic reading material from the front seat and I discovered he was actually from Pakistan.  We traded our mutual dislike for Australian cricketers and I watched the cab fare ticking over at about a $1 per second. It did also cross my mind if he was part of a sleeper cell in Washington DC … probably pushing the movie theme though and now those words are typed into Cyberspace I probably have the whole of the NSA surveillance centered on me now.

omni shorehamWe crossed the Potomac River, saw the Lincoln memorial.  Few sights already ticket off. We are staying at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Impressive outside facade. Nice view even from the room. Still need to get our bearings but close to the Zoo (unlikely to be going there though) and a 10-minute cab drive to Georgetown (will be going there).  As we had no desire to go anywhere tonight we simply ate at the hotel. We were given a 5-seater table … thought of you again Stephen. chicken saladWe were also very quickly reminded of the ginormous portions you get in the US. That picture is of Chloe’s chicken Caesar salad (that’s her hand on the plate so you can reference the size). After I had finished eating I asked Chloe when she was going to start. It didn’t look like she had made a dent in the salad even. For someone to eat a salad that size at Chloe’s age you would need to be at least 4-5 times bigger than Chloe. Chloe probably won’t have to eat again this week – she can just feed off the leftovers from dinner. It must have contained a whole chicken (if not two).

It is now 9:10pm and Helen is already snoring.  I am not going to be far behind her.  Just trying to keep going until 9:30pm at leastttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt