Kediler ve Köpekler (Cats and Dogs…)

I am not a cat person. Or, at least, I have spent most of my life professing not to be a cat person.

This is, in part, because I’m basically deathly allergic to cats. Within minutes of coming in contact with them my eyes start itching, I sneeze uncontrollably, and, most troubling of all, it becomes difficult to breathe. As a result, I have become pretty good at avoiding cats over the years.

However, Turkey is testing my cat avoidance resolve because, well, you just can’t avoid them. Around every corner in Istanbul you are likely to run into a cat – or several cats. Most are wild – although I hesitate to say “feral” since they are fed and cared for by pretty much everyone – and no one in particular.

There are wild dogs too – though they are HUGE and intimidating, and don’t lend themselves to “petting” and fawning over. Some of them seem friendly enough, and most just ignore me as I walk past them, but I’ve had a couple of encounters where I’ve been barked at by a street dog, and, on one occasion, I unexpectedly came face to face with an entire pack (ok, well, maybe 5 dogs…) coming out of some brush as I walked up a road. They left me alone, but I’m not going to lie when I say it took a lot of effort not to high-tail it in the opposite direction.

My observation is that the cats are better treated than the dogs, but overall they are all treated well given that they don’t belong to anyone. Mahatma Ghandi once allegedly said that the “greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” and if that is true, then Turkey can be judged pretty highly. All along the streets – both main thoroughfares and alleyways – you see bowls filled with fresh water and small piles of food. Feeding the animals from your table at a restaurant does not seem to be frowned upon and old ladies in the street always look at me fondly when I speak to the cats as I’m walking to and from work.

What’s amazing is that it is not just food and water that are provided. There are cat beds and dog houses in front of the grocery store and in nooks and crannies throughout the city. Cats lounge on the chairs set outside for guests at restaurants – and even those that are for sale outside of our local hardware store. Rather than shoo them away, people stop and pet them and offer them treats. And on our taxi rides around the city I’ve noticed that there is usually at least one ginormous dog sleeping peacefully in the middle of every sidewalk (or sometimes the middle of the street). We’ve also been told that vets do not charge to spay/neuter or take care of injured street cats, which is pretty remarkable to me.

The legends of why cats rule Istanbul (cause basically they do) are varied. One claims that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, would return as a cat. However, since no one knows which cat, they must all taken care of and well treated. Another story holds that Atatürk said “his successor would be bitten on the ankle by an odd-eyed white cat,” so everyone is on the lookout for a crazy looking white cat.

In Islamic culture cats are also highly regarded and are the only animal allowed to enter the Great Mosque of Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad, in particular, was said to be very fond of cats and, by one account, opted to cut off one of his sleeves so he could rise from his prayers, rather than disturb a cat that had fallen asleep on his robe while he was praying. Another story claims that Muhammad was saved from a snake attack by cat, and that, as a reward, he blessed cats with the ability to always land on their feet. Then again, it may just be that cats keep to themselves and kill rats and mice – a pretty decent reason to keep them around a city with 15 million people.

Even our very private, very enclosed apartment complex can’t avoid Istanbul’s “kedi” life.

When we first arrived there were three kittens (the mother was around, but very good at hiding when anyone came to call) that the children on the complex basically adopted. The kittens were all given names (Ash, Scotch and Bandit) and there were daily excursions to visit them. One of the families took it upon themselves to take all three for shots and to get them bathed/treated for fleas.

As is my habit, I avoided them as much as possible for several weeks. Then one day I met a friend of mine at the “adults only” pool (which sounds much more risqué than it is – it’s really just the quiet pool without screaming children) and one of them, Ash, came and sat in my lap.

I didn’t realize until I sat there, with this sweet, soft, purring kitten in my lap how much I missed the companionship of an animal. The quiet, uncomplicated, unconditional love – even just for that moment – that they give.

This is the first time, in almost my entire life, that I’ve been without an animal. It’s hard to believe but we’re coming up on a year since Miller died, and we’ve vowed not to get a new dog until we finish our tour here. Thinking about that empty place in our lives, in that moment, sitting in the sunshine with that happy kitten in my lap, I wanted to scoop him up and take him back to our apartment and figure out a way to make that feeling last – without the accompanying wheezing and sneezing.

And then, two days later, as I was continuing to work through the logistics of how I could convince B, and not die in the process, the kittens were gone. Their carry case, their bowls and them – gone.

I asked the guard at the gate what happened to them and he told me that some people in the complex don’t like the cats, so they had them taken to a local park. Given that this is Turkey and there a 15 million (minus apparently some scrooge in my apartment complex) cat loving inhabitants in Istanbul I truly believe that the kittens really are in a park as opposed to this being the Turkish equivalent of “we sent the dog to live on a nice farm…” But I have been unexpectedly sad about their departure.

On my many walks around the neighborhood in the last couple of weeks, I’ve insisted on popping into all the local parks and gardens to see if I could find the kittens and confirm they are ok, but so far I haven’t had any luck. Hopefully, someone else is enjoying their cuddles and treating them as Mohammed would have treated them. In the meantime, we found some other cute kittens to love on our adventures this weekend. Only time will tell whether my allergies (and B) win out, or whether we’ll have a kedi in tow when we leave Istanbul in 2023.

By the way, if you want to learn more about the cats – and dogs – of Istanbul – check out these films.

Istanbuldayim (I am in Istanbul)

I made it to Istanbul.

In even more exciting news – I have now made it out of my 14-day “self-isolation” unscathed and without COVID, so we are now free (sort of) to explore.

We still have to wear a mask everywhere we go in public (or risk a 900TL (Turkish Lira) – approximately $130 – fine), but that didn’t stop us from taking full advantage of a long weekend.

My first impressions of Istanbul were definitely tainted by our new reality – the airport was basically empty when I arrived, and B and C were not allowed to pick me up, so a Consulate driver took me straight to our residence with no sight-seeing detours (we detoured to see kangaroos when we arrived in Canberra!), and I then spent the next two weeks enjoying the view from our balcony (which, while lovely, mostly overlooks other apartments).

But since our “escape” from the balcony, we have taken full advantage of starting the process of exploring this amazing city. By Sunday morning it was clear to me that there is no way 3 years will be enough time to do Istanbul justice, but we’ll do our best to get to as many places as we can – both in the city – and throughout Turkey.

On Saturday morning we met up with a couple of Consulate folks and headed down to an area called Dolapdere in search of a butcher.

Now, there are a LOT of butchers in Istanbul. Just in the little area near us, we pass one or two “kasaps” (butchers) every block or two – so why travel 20 minutes by taxi to visit a butcher?

Because, according to an article B read, this is the last butcher in Istanbul who sells pork. In many respects, it is not hugely obvious that we are living in a Muslim country – Istanbul in particular is pretty secular, but pork is still not easy to come by, so, for us, a butcher shop with a possible bacon connection was worth the drive.

We ended up buying a couple of pork chops, some prosciutto – and, of course, some bacon. We had BLTs for dinner last night – and the bacon did not disappoint. We’ll try the pork chops later this week and see how that goes, but I have high hopes.  In the meantime, I also just placed an order with an online pork store called IstHAMbul (ha!) – and hopefully in the next couple of days we’ll have more bacon, some chorizo and some pork loin to test. Notwithstanding the ease of ordering online though, I enjoyed visiting the local store and patronizing this “last pork store standing.” 

After leaving Dolapdere, we wandered into Beyoğlu – one of the more touristy areas of Istanbul – and meandered along cobblestone streets checking out the mix of traditional places (carts selling roasted chestnuts, made-to-order fruit juice or simit (basically a Turkish bagel)) and modern stores (H&M, Pandora, Shake Shack). It’s an eclectic area and I am looking forward to going back – for more wandering and some shopping – soon.

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We also got sucked into a little antique shop on a side road and squeezed our way through tables full of silver, old Edison phonographs, and several huge gold colored busts of Ataturk. Our new friends also introduced us to a couple of art stores – where B and I conceded that our plan to *not* buy more art will likely soon be out the window.

Finally, we ended up at a restaurant called Anemon Galata that was on the 5th floor of a boutique hotel and overlooked the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus on one side, and the Galata Tower (built in 1348 – more about some of the historical things later) on the other. It was amazing to walk out and see views that are quintessential Istanbul – and the food was great too.

On Sunday we joined a group of new friends and went out into the Bosphorus on a yacht. We had a huge Turkish “kahvalti” (breakfast) and then just enjoyed the breeze, the views and – for some of us – the water. It was magical.

So it turns out I probably won’t have a problem finding things to write about during our tour in Turkey. My bigger problem may be finding the time to write in between all our exploring. Next weekend we hope to check out Taksim Square – and the Grand Bazaar (and some carpets!) – but in the meantime, we’ll enjoy the breeze from the balcony and work on planning our next “escape.”

Catching up

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What a long strange seven months it’s been.

It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I wrote the last blog post about landing back in the U.S. from Australia and how foreign and temporary it all felt. In an irony that will continue to haunt me, in late January we decided we were tired of missing Australia and our friends there, so we started making plans to visit friends, go out to restaurants, do a little traveling, and, generally, make our time in the Washington area feel more concrete and less temporary. We signed C up for skating and gymnastics, we enrolled her in several camps, and we all made some new friends, as well as spending more time with our old friends. We planned a birthday party for her with lots of visiting family, I planned a “girls weekend” with my sister and mother, we made reservations at several excellent area restaurants, and we all got excited looking forward to enjoying our time back home.

And then came March.

I know no one needs me to rehash what we’ve all been experiencing since then. Let’s just say that when I wrote that post about coming home, I never considered that life would feel even more strange and foreign six months later.  But, I can safely say, after being locked down in a pretty small corporate apartment for 5 months without seeing any family or friends (other than on Zoom, of course), that I’ll try very hard never to complain again about feeling isolated when I have the whole world to explore, and everyone I love to hug and visit whenever the mood strikes me.

 

We have been immeasurably lucky during this crazy time. We have jobs. We had somewhere to live. We had our health. Our families all had the same. And our training pretty much went on with barely a blip. We walked out of our classrooms on Friday and were right back in a virtual setting on Monday morning.

I was particularly lucky as I got to continue in Turkish training for an additional two months – enough to get a better score than I needed and, I hope, to ensure that I really can say a few words in Turkish when I arrive in Istanbul in a few weeks. I was also pretty lucky that B decided to try his hand at all kinds of interesting and delicious cooking – including Turkish manti – basically little bitty meat filled ravioli-like bundles of yumminess.

 

The language training department at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) did a really impressive job of pivoting, such that almost all the students I know – in a variety of languages – never missed a beat. I’m not going to lie and say that I preferred being virtual since, even though there are some definite benefits to it, I really missed the human interaction with both my friends and my teachers. Nevertheless, the lock-down’s effect on my learning was negligible, at best, and I’m going to Turkey better prepared than I expected to be.

B definitely got the short end of the training stick, as he had opted to test in Turkish 10 weeks early so that he could get to Post and help out as soon as possible since his position was unfilled at the time. He got the score he needed – and worked hard to get it, but then he didn’t get to leave early and ended up missing out on the extra language training many of us received.

His loss was our family’s gain, however, as he took on primary “Daddy School” duties with C, while I spent 5 hours a day on Zoom – speaking, reading and listening to Turkish. B and C developed a great schedule mixing up school and creative time, with some exercise (once a day they rode bikes to the Lincoln Memorial and back) and a little bit of Zelda playing. C’s Christmas present Nintendo Switch really came in useful during our isolation – as we all (me in particular, if I’m being honest…) spent long hours lost in the world of Zelda, exploring a place where people didn’t have to stay 6 feet away (except from monsters) and weren’t always wearing masks when you saw them.

 

In late June, I wrapped up my language training and B wrapped up his functional training and we spent three glorious weeks in Michigan and North Carolina hiking and hanging out on a beach or two. We *mostly* stayed away from people – making an exception for some family and friends – all of whom had also been in almost constant isolation since March.

 

Unfortunately for me, I still had 6 weeks of “ConGen” functional training to do before I could go to Istanbul, so in July I bid C and B goodbye (and good luck since they were the first people to go to post since March) and they headed to Istanbul. They’ve since survived their 14-day self-isolation, and have started to explore our new neighborhood.

I’ve promised myself that I really will get back to writing here a little more frequently. And, I suspect that, while Istanbul is, as C told me in one of our first calls, “more like American than I expected,” it will also, like Kinshasa, provide me with a rich and vibrant tapestry of new and different foods, people and cultural places to talk about (not to mention the literal Turkish carpet type tapestries that I am hoping to indulge in early and often…).

In the meantime, as anxious as I am to join them, I’ve got a couple of weeks left of ConGen to get through before I can leave. Once I finish learning the ins and outs of visas, passports and “special services” (intriguing, eh?), I’ll be on my way to our newest adventure with pen (or keyboard) – and, of course my mask – at the ready.

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Coming home

7xSwzdEWSa2Ij6Y0fbsT4gIt’s a cruel irony of this Foreign Service life that coming back to the U.S. – home – often seems like the hardest transition we make. I’m not gonna lie, I thought was READY to leave Australia. I felt like I was ready almost before we got there. I cried when we got the assignment and somehow managed to convince myself that my initial disappointment in the posting should translate into two years of, basically, waiting to get home.

And now, here we are and I have come to the realization that our time in Canberra came to an end without me ever noticing how good it was until it was over.

My excuse for not writing for almost the entire time we were in Australia was that I didn’t want to be a negative Nelly. I didn’t want my posts to repeatedly devolve into a list of complaints about how Australia was “just” America light, or “Southern Hemisphere Canada,” and how I couldn’t wait to get back Stateside.

And then, all of a sudden, it was over and we were winging our (long, long) way back across the Pacific. I didn’t shed a single tear when we took off from Sydney. By contrast I bawled from the moment we left our house in Kinshasa until we were well over Gabon.

But now, almost 6 months after getting my American legs back under me I find myself pining for Canberra far more often than I pined for Kinshasa.

IMG_4379I suspect part of what I’m feeling is that in retrospect I’ve realized our Australian tour was wonderful in a million different ways that I was too stubborn to acknowledge while we were in the middle of it. But, in addition to that, I am desperate to get back to feeling “settled.”

Despite my near constant desire to get “home” while we were 10,000 miles away, now that we are back it feels less like a “home” and more like a rest stop.

And, really, that is what this irest stops for us – and for all our FS compatriots who are not officially “posted” to Washington. We are technically on “TDY” (Temporary DutY) in DC. Most of our “stuff” is either in storage or waiting patiently for us in (or near) Istanbul. We are living in a furnished corporate apartment – our second since we returned in August – and we constantly have one eye on the calendar, the news and the things we need to do before we get to Turkey in the summer of 2020.

Oh yeah, in case I haven’t mentioned, our next post – starting at some point in August or September 2020 is Istanbul, Turkey.

So right now, our jobs are, quite literally, to learn Turkish. Every day B and I walk to a building in Arlington and spend 5-6 speaking, reading and listening to Turkish. It is çok iyi. But that’s a hikaye for another post.

That which does not kill us

Life in Canberra got a little more interesting last week. Spring has started springing and the magpies have started swooping.

Yeah, there was that whole other thing with the leader of the ruling party being ousted and a new prime minister being installed in the top Aussie spot, but I’m telling you the magpies are more interesting.

Feathery the Magpie

Feathery

When we arrived in Canberra last October we were given a notebook containing information about our appliances, a check-in list, and lots informational pamphlets about caring for furniture and living in our government owned house. None of this was much different than what we got when we moved into our Kinshasa house – except the sheet detailing the snakes and spiders that want us dead.

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Everyone knows that Australia is full of things that want to kill you. Sharks, crocs, box jellyfish, the deadliest snakes on the planet, many of the most deadly spiders on the planet – they are all out there, lurking behind the next bush, tree or waterhole. But, almost a year in, we haven’t see a single snake (yes, I’m knocking wood right now…). We’ve seen a few spiders, but nothing that has struck fear in our hearts. And, being as we live in the “Bush Capital” we are thankfully far away from all the water-based Down Under terrors.

But, as we round out the first half of our tour, I’m starting to suspect that the things that are really likely to kill you in Australia are things that nobody tells you about.

For instance, there is no sheet in our book for kangaroos. Kangaroos won’t bite and poison you, but there are a lot of them and they are in the middle of the roads.

All. The. Time.

Watch out!

They are basically the equivalent of deer in North America. You round a corner and there they are: kangaroo in headlights. Like deer, roos move in an unpredictable way, so all you can do is slow down and hope for the best. So far I’ve had a coupe of close calls, but I’ve been lucky enough to avoid a kangaroo collision. Still, I’m pretty sure that if I meet my end on this tour, it’ll be because I ran into a big burly kangaroo buck on the road, not because a Red Belly Black snake got me.

And then there are the magpies. At this time of year, magpies strike fear in the hearts of Australians as the males become dive bombing kamikazes attacking pedestrians and cyclists that dare venture too close to their nests. As a result, from August to October, Aussie bike helmets start sprouting zip ties in an effort to ward off attacks, and visits to the website https://www.magpiealert.com/ become more frequent as people from all over the country log on to report areas where they have been swooped.

swooping helmet

Today we received a management notice at the Embassy with safety tips for staying safe from magpies including:

· Travel in groups where possible as the birds often target individuals.

· It is important to try to stay calm, if you panic and flap then this is more likely to appear as aggressive behavior and provoke a further attack.

· Try to protect your eyes with your hands, those large beaks are very sharp and eye injuries have been previously recorded.

· Remember magpies are urban species too, so there is generally no escaping them!

Am I the only one who reads this and immediately pictures Hitchcock’s classic film The Birds?

The Aussie magpie is about the same size as a good sized crow. They’re known for learning to recognize human faces – and remember them for years. They mate for life – and can live for up to 20 years – and establish territories for whole families, which, as a group, are called a “tiding.” As a side note, I can’t decide if a “tiding of magpies” is better than a “mob of kangaroos,” but in my book they both come close to rivaling a “murder of crows” and a “mumeration of starlings” as group names go.

When we moved in last year a small tiding of magpies came to call on us. Over the course of the year our favorite magpie, who C named “Feathery,”  has found a mate and they come to our house every morning, stand on our doorstep and “carol” to us in the hopes that we’ll give them some food – which, often to B’s chagrin, I almost always do.

My hope is that the friendship I’ve built up with Feathery and her family will afford me some immuity from the murderous intent of the local male magpies this swooping season. But, since I suspect I’m in far more danger of injury from my neighborhood magpie than I am from a roaming croc, I’m going to don my zip ties, travel in groups, and check the website…just in case.

Forgetting my place

Sometimes I forget I’m in Australia. Yeah, there are those kangaroos hopping across the street in the middle of town while I walk up to the U.S. Embassy (really, this happened to me this morning…truly bizarre), but most of the time it just feels like I’m living in Somewhere Else, U.S.A., or maybe Another Place, England, since we are driving on the other side of the road.

Kangaroos at the Embassy

I know it’s not a great picture – but the U.S. Embassy is about 50 ft to the right of this pic – and the roos just hopped right by it in the center of Canberra!

Things are just very normal and predictable and orderly here. Kinshasa was a constant assault on my sense of place. I KNEW 100% every day when I stepped out of my house that I was not in Kansas, or North Carolina, any more. It’s easy to forget that here. Easy to walk through Target and Costco, take C to swimming and other after school activities, and just forget that I’m not in a familiar country that I belong to, and that belongs to me.

But, strangely, there is one aspect of living here that leaves me feeling bewildered every time I try to wrap my head around it. Something about red leaves falling from the trees and chilly mornings requiring gloves and a hat – in May – makes my brain malfunction. Kentucky Derby in the fall and Fourth of July in the dead of winter?! Whaaaaat? My mind just short circuits at the thought.

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Our neighbor’s beautiful maple tree.

It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard to comprehend, especially since I spent the last two years in a constant state of summer. But, for some reason when it’s summer during Christmas and summer during July 4th, my brain was able to adapt. Something about the complete reversal of the seasons is throwing me for a loop. It feels like I should be pulling out my Halloween decorations and starting to think about buying Christmas presents, but instead we just celebrated Cinco de Mayo and are planning Memorial Day celebrations while at the same time pulling out our sweaters and winter coats.

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May hail storm from our front door. Winter is coming…

C is equally confused by having switched things up. Just this morning after I told one of our neighbors that C was in “Year 1” (first grade), she said, “I should be in Year 2.”  I tried to explain that, no, she would still be in first grade in the U.S. (and Kinshasa) because the Northern Hemisphere school year isn’t over yet and she wouldn’t start second grade until September, but that was beyond her ability to comprehend and she just stuck to her guns about being in the wrong grade.

It’s all fine and good now – I just sound a bit stupid when I tell people we are going skiing in New Zealand this summer and they look confused and say “Ah, but you should go in July, the skiing is much better in winter.” Luckily, they can’t see that inside my head there is a little crazy person running around in circles and waving her arms in the air at this kind of comment, so I just keep smiling.

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Someone is ready for skiing in July…

Who knows what will happen when we go back to the Northern Hemisphere – my mind may just implode when it tries to reverse course and think about July as summer again, but I’ll worry about that when the time comes. Since we’ll start bidding for our third tour in the next few months that time may be sooner, rather than later, but, in the meantime, I’m headed to Costco, with my coat and gloves on in May, and maybe I’ll see some kangaroos on the way to help me know my place in the world – at least for today.

Confessions

I’ve got a confession to make. It’s not as embarrassing as telling you that I haven’t written a blog post in 3 months because I’ve been playing Candy Crush (I swear I haven’t…B says: Yes, she has.) but nevertheless I am going to have to eat some of my literal words. Almost exactly a year ago I got on my high horse here. I really meant what I said then about the State Department taking advantage of family members, and failing to recognise the amazing pool of talent it has at its disposal, but it turns out that, when push came to shove, I wasn’t quite as willing as I professed to follow through on my threats to boycott all State Department employment forever and ever, amen.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still angry about the short-sightedness of the “new” State Department when it comes to hiring family members and I stand by my rant. But, here’s the thing, finding a job on the economy in a new country is hard. Sure, being in an English-speaking country makes it easier, but unless you want to work in retail, or wait tables, it’s not that easy to convince an employer to devote time to orienting and training you when you are going to bug out in – at least for us in our second tour – two years or less.

I told B that I’d just “be a barista” when we got here, but in Australia baristas are REALLY TALENTED. Like, coffee is a religion and it is hard not to worship at its caffeinated, frothy-milked-goodness altar. Starbucks FAILED in Oz – seriously. Unlike in the U.S., where it is shocking to me when I have to walk more than two blocks to find a green mermaid to wake me up, Starbucks came to Australia and it did not conquer. There are a few stores – in purely touristy areas in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – beyond that you can keep your tall, grande and ventis to yourself. Frankly, I am no more qualified to be a barista in Australia, than I am to be a doctor. I did take a barista course – which was seriously SO much fun – but again, coffee = religion, and the priests are cool 20-somethings, not uncool 50-year-old lawyers-cum-SAHMs.

So what’s a girl to do? I considered reaching out to prior clients and lawyer friends in the U.S. and seeing if they needed overnight proof-reading, drafting, research, etc…, but that 14-hour time difference (which changes varyingly to 15-hour and then 16-hour – thanks, daylight savings) makes life complicated. I considered decorating cakes (after I took that course too), or making things to sell with all the African pagne fabric I brought back with me. But, when it comes right down to it, I know myself and I am not an entrepreneur. I am also much more likely to take the easy way out if it is available to me. I’m the person who Googles “easy” or “quick” before every recipe I’m looking for, so it’s not that shocking that I don’t want to start from scratch and build a new career here – especially one I’ll have to wave goodbye to in 24 months.

Maybe all this is even why I was SO angry about the alleged “corporate welfare” comment and the family member hiring freeze to begin with. The State Department pays a lot of lip service to all the jobs you “could” get as a family member as you uproot your family every two or three years – teach, work for an NGO, work remotely, write, work on the local economy and on and on – but the reality is that the effort, energy and time it would take to prepare for and invest in a new career every 730 days is daunting.

All of this is why, when the hiring freeze was partially lifted and several interesting jobs were posted, I got off my high horse and accepted the reality that, for an EFM who wants to work, but who also wants an employer who understands the vagaries of Foreign Service life there is really only one employer that qualifies – the U.S. Government. Applying and interviewing for a job was an interesting process – especially since the last time I did it was over 20 years ago – but ultimately I was offered the job as the Special Assistant to the United States Ambassador to Australia.

Things are complicated a bit by the fact that currently there is no Ambassador to Australia, but never fear – even without ambassadors, assistant secretaries and a myriad of other higher level State Department positions which have gone unfilled lo these many months, things continue to carry on – both here in Canberra, and in all the U.S.’s overseas missions. Foreign Service Officers, and the EFMs and local staff who work with them, know how to keep diplomacy moving – even when it feels like a rudderless ship. When no Ambassador is appointed to a country then the person who is the second in command, the “DCM” or “Deputy Chief of Mission” in DOS parlance, steps into the representative role as the “Chargé d’Affaires,” which, en anglais, means the “person charged with matters.”

For a little while we did have an ambassadorial nominee, Admiral Harry Harris, the current head of the Pacific Command (or PACOM, which sounds to me like a payday lender, but that’s another story…). A friend of mine “in the know” described Admiral Harris as “the coolest 4-star you’ll ever meet,” and I was looking forward to meeting and working with him, but as of last Wednesday he has been reassigned to be U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, and we will continue to carry on here in Oz with our fantastic chargé at the helm.  In June, assuming no one else is nominated and confirmed in the next two months, he will become my boss and I’m looking forward to working with him too.

In the meantime, things in Australia are good. As depicted in the photos below, we have continued to take advantage of the First World by traveling, enjoying the outdoors, welcoming visitors, and indulging regularly in the conspicuous consumption of food, wonderful Aussie wine, and consumer goods that can be purchased down the road, rather than requiring an Amazon Prime membership and a two-week wait. I promise I will try harder to write more often in the months of unemployment I have left, but you know that Candy Crush, she’s a jealous mistress…

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To Bee or not to Bee (or how we met Eric, the Half-a-bee-keeper)

Our house in Canberra has a fantastic back yard. Some green-thumbed former FSO took the time to plant dozens of roses, azaleas, and other assorted flowering plants and it gives a totally inaccurate picture of the current residents’ gardening skills. Frankly, I’m terrified that my slightly-less-than-green thumb will be the death of all of them.

I’ve been puttering around, watering, fertilizing and trying my best to keep our garden in the manner to which it has become accustomed, but it’s still unclear how successful I’ll be.  After being limited by extreme African temperatures for the last two years, I’ve also been tempted by just about every cooler weather loving plant I stumble across. Lavender, rosemary and blueberry plants have all made their way from Bunnings (the Australian equivalent to Home Depot) to our house. I’ve also bought every herb (pronounced like the man’s name here, not “erb” as in the U.S.) I might possibly use in my cooking. The only problem is that I’m now paralysed by the fear of killing every one of these plants when I replant them either in larger pots or in the ground – the result of which is that they are all still in the original pots and I’m finding every possible excuse to avoid relocating them to more permanent homes.

Most of my excuses relate to all the other important things I have on my daily agenda. Ready to re-plant? Nope, gotta do laundry, or make dinner, or go to the grocery store, or walk the dog. Just about anything seems to trump the terrifying prospect of prying roots from a container and relocating them.

Then, on Saturday B gave me what I consider to be not only a totally legitimate excuse, but one that so far no one has questioned: a swarm of bees living in our yard.

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I’ve long suspected that there was a hive of bees in the large gum tree on the edge of our property. I can hear a near constant buzzing when I’m outside during the day, but since I rarely see actual bees I wasn’t too worried about it. Then B came in from playing soccer with C and said, “Um, you’d better come outside and see this.”

We walked to the front of the house where, just hours earlier, I had been pooper-scooping, and B said “bend down and look under that tree.” And there, hanging off a branch about 2 1/2 feet above the ground, was a massive, vibrating bunch of bees.

They seemed totally uninterested in us, but there was a steady stream of them flying in and out of the swarm. It was misshapen, with a basic bullet shaped core, but with large lumps protruding from various places. When I made my way outside early the next morning, however, it was an almost perfect half oval hanging from the branch, buzzing and quivering, and effectively making our front yard a no-man’s land.

Bees are fascinating. They make one of the sweetest most amazing substances known to man, but they are also capable of killing a human being. But what I thought I knew about bees was nothing compared to what I learned from our new friend Eric, a local beekeeper who helps out families, like ours, when bees suddenly appear (cue Carpenter’s music and a slight change in lyrics…).

In a nod to Monty Python, Eric is really a half-a-bee keeper – since bee keeping is a hobby, – but he still managed to find time in his weekend and very kindly came to our house on Sunday morning to help us with our “little” problem.

When he arrived, Eric walked right up to the swarm and looked at it while bees flew around his head. “That’s a good sized swarm,” he said. “Um, yeah,” I thought. “Thanks Captain Obvious. Now what are you going to do about it?”

Eric returned to his Ute (that’s “utility vehicle” for our non-Australian friends), pulled out a beekeeping hat and veil, and then walked straight back to the tree, positioned his bare hands on top of the branch that held the bees, and started shaking. His BARE hands people. Inches from the bees – shaking them. B and C and I stood back, mouths agape, ready to flee for the hills, but Eric just calmly put the top on the box, poked a couple of holes in the side and top, and then sauntered over to us – totally unstung.

Eric was also not only full of interesting bee information, but was also pretty funny as he demonstrated the bee “waggle dance” and explained how it was that tens of thousands of bees came to be – literally – hanging around our backyard.

It turns out that swarms of bees are not unusual around Canberra in the spring. After a new queen is born she proceeds to steal half the hive from her mama and then she and her swarm find a “way station” – an airport lounge was Eric’s analogy – while scouts go out to find a more suitable permanent home for the new hive. Our tree was the way station in this case.

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Once Eric shook the queen into the box all the rest of the bees followed, mostly climbing in through the holes Eric had made. Eric then picked up the box, put it in the back of his Ute, and bid us adieu. In the case of our bees, no scouts will be needed as Eric will kindly provide a hive for the new swarm, and presumably the bees will kindly provide some honey for Eric. We’ll have to get our honey from the grocery store though – at least until I can convince B to let me add beekeeping to my “What will D do” list

 

Boxes of fun

We received our HHE (make sure to pronounce that “heych, heych” if you are going to be authentically Australian) yesterday, so what better time to write a blog post, right?

It’s not that nothing has been going on here, or even that I haven’t written anything, but for some reason I just can’t find the inspiration and motivation to get pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write about – or finish when I start writing about – life on our latest adventure. In part I think it’s because Australia is so “normal” after DRC that it feels like everything I write is really booooring.

Let’s be honest, I spend my days going to the gym, Costco, Ikea, and/or the grocery store, then coming home and cooking, cleaning and – once school lets out – driving C around to her activities. Sound familiar to anyone in a first world country? Every once in a while I’ll be walking around ALDI or Costco and think “Seriously? Is that what we signed up for?” For me, leaving Charlotte and following B into the Foreign Service wasn’t about getting an “easy” post and enjoying all the comforts of home – because if I wanted to do that I’d do it at…HOME – it was about exploring different and unusual places while still serving our country. Most people probably think that everyone who joins the FS wants to serve in Paris or London, or Canberra, but, while I wouldn’t say no to Paris (or London), many FS officers actually want to explore the road (or country) less travelled.

Don’t get me wrong, Australia is beautiful and we are enjoying so many things about it, but there is nothing shockingly different about it. I think that is especially true for me because Australia often feels like a Southern Hemisphere version of Canada – lots of polite people obeying rules, enjoying universal healthcare, and spending as much time as possible outdoors barbecuing and drinking beer.  Instead of moose, we see roos here, and instead of groundhogs, we see wombats, but the differences are subtle and you have to dig a bit deeper to find them. By contrast, everything about our move to Kinshasa was different and new – I had to use my imagination and creativity at every turn in order to do the simplest things (ie: eat ice cream, a bagel or bacon) – and since my imagination and creativity were in high gear writing just seemed to come a bit easier.

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SO what have we been up to since we got here?

We visited Sydney for my milestone (never you mind which…) birthday and can’t wait to go back again – though the Sydney I first visited in 2000 was, not surprisingly given that she was hosting the Olympics, a much shiner version of what it is today. We visited the “coast” and were blown away by the virtually empty beaches with gorgeous views of mountains in the distance.

We’ve made friends with some magpies who now regularly come to our door to talk to us/beg for food, and we’ve revelled in daily seeing beautiful cockatoos, galah parrots and rosellas – in our backyard, among other places.  We’ve made friends with Eric, the half-a-bee keeper, while he helped us remove a swarm of bees from our garden (more about that in another post), and we’ve been lucky enough to make friends with other families here, which has made our transition a lot easier.

We climbed the hill behind our house (a couple of times),  had a hail storm, and B and I attended the Marine Corps Ball. C has started – and almost finished – school, or at least the last term of school. As of Friday she’ll be on summer vacation AGAIN. Never let it be said that sometimes the life of a Foreign Service child isn’t pretty awesome – altogether she’ll get 5 months of holidays this year – just don’t tell her that when we leave (if we go back to the Northern Hemisphere) she won’t get much of a summer holiday at all…

All in all it’s been a good couple of months. We are feeling pretty settled and we are looking forward to planning some trips in the new year. However, it’s pretty clear to me that this adventure will definitely be on the low key end of our Foreign Service life so far, and that’s ok, cause low key is good after chaos, and good when you don’t know what will come next…

Kangaroos and Quiet

Shhhh…do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of no one yelling “MOMMA!” It’s the sound of no one watching football. It’s the sound of no one packing, or unpacking. It’s the sound of a neighborhood far from the beep, beep, beep of walk signals, and the sirens of a busy downtown. It’s the sound of my first day alone in our new house with nothing to do but sheepishly return to my blog.

I’m going to be the first to admit that I’ve struggled over the last few months. I have grieved the loss of Kinshasa, the Congo, and the people who made up our life there. The fact that I’ve been deep-in-my-core angry at the “new” State Department and the lack of respect it has shown not only to me and the other thousands of EFMs, but also to its own officers, has not helped to get me back in a writing/blogging state of mind. I’ve wanted to come back, but I have not been able to write without ranting and that’s not what this blog is about.

But today is a new day, on a new continent, in a new hemisphere and it’s time I make my way out of my funk.

It’s hard to describe to people what it was like to live in the Congo. For those who live comfortable lives in the first world, it defies description. But it has been even harder to make anyone – even B – understand how profoundly unhappy I was to leave a place that is, in all possible descriptions, a place of hardship. Even now, sitting here in my new and lovely kitchen, with every possible convenience within 10 minutes safe and beautiful walk of my door, I am teary-eyed thinking of the life we left behind.

 

Maybe it is because, as our first post, I was determined to make Kinshasa a good experience and so my attitude from day one was designed to make me as happy as possible. Maybe it was the fun I had speaking French and reviving a long dormant skill that let me use my brain in ways that are rare once you inch toward a half-century of life. And maybe it was simply the people –American, international and Congolese – and the fact that I had not prepared myself as well as I should have to leave them behind. I miss them. A lot.

Foreign Service life is designed as a revolving door. You rotate into a place, spend a few months, and then rotate back out. Just as you are headed out the door you realize where everything is, and what everyone’s name is, and how to navigate the world and streets you live in. And then, just as suddenly, you are in a place you don’t know how and you have to start all over again. This is where I am now, though admittedly learning how to navigate Canberra – a planned city designed for ease of navigation – will not be akin to learning to manage the chaos of Kinshasa.

My first impressions of Canberra are of calm. The streets are bizarrely empty and the quiet is almost deafening. The only noise is the magpies and the parrots calling from the trees. We arrived during a school break and for the first few days I drove around and rarely shared the road with more than a couple of cars. It was eerie.

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C’s school is literally a stone’s throw from the house, and just past that are a couple of great coffee shops and a small IGA. There is even a gym, so when I get inspired I can get back to working out.

We haven’t seen too many (live) kangaroos yet, though B spotted a few while we were driving around over the weekend. Apparently they are everywhere, and they are certainly common enough to be the road kill of choice, but you must have to get accustomed to seeing their brown against the brown of the end of winter grass and brush because we have been peeling our eyes to no avail.

Since we left just as fall was gearing up in Virginia, it is also odd getting adjusted to the upside down-ness of things. The dogwoods and azaleas are blooming here. There are wisteria vines everywhere, and the cherry trees are decorating the roads with their pale pink petals. It smells like my grandparents’ garden in England – rosy and fresh and spring-like. But, it’s still chilly and I want to put on my dark sweaters ready for falling leaves, rather than light jackets ready for spring showers. Lord knows I love a good heat wave, so I am not sad to be following the sun for yet one more summer season, but I am definitely going to be ready for my boots and wooly sweaters (or jumpers if you are Australian – C has already told me she needs a jumper, not a sweater!) in April (see, weird, eh?)

The fact is, no matter how beautiful and utopian Australia is compared to the Congo, I am still going to miss the life and people we had there. But, I’m ready to accept this new reality and work toward making it as joyful an experience as the last two years were for us. And when the door revolves again in 2019, I’m sure I’ll leave with sadness and grief as well. In the meantime, there are new people to meet and make “mine,” adventures to have, and kangaroos to spot.

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