Welfare Queens and Body Bags

Ok, first things first. This blog has a disclaimer page, but many of you may not have read it previously. Given what I’m about to talk about however, I’m going to repeat it here: This blog is intended to give a personal insight into our life in the U.S. Foreign Service. It is not associated in any way with the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of U.S. government, any of its agencies/departments, or employees (including B). Just keep this in mind as you read on.

A few months ago a new Secretary of State was sworn in to lead the Department of State and the Foreign Service. Notwithstanding my misgivings related to his exclusively corporate background and my worry that, having earned well over $130 million in the five years prior to being tapped to join the State Department, he would have literally no understanding of the public servants who populate the department (the highest paid of whom make in the neighborhood of 0.006 % of his salary during the same period), after listening to his welcome remarks I had relatively high hopes.

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Among other things, I liked that he promised to deploy talent and resources in “the most efficient ways possible” and to “gather information on what processes should be reformed,” and not to “change for the sake of change.”

I was comforted when he said he would “depend on the expertise of this institution… [and the] accumulated knowledge and experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else.” Finally, I was glad that he mentioned wanting to keep “all of our people safe” and he used the vernacular we all use internally referring to “our State Department family.”

There were early indicators that this lovely speech was, in fact, virtually the exact opposite of what he planned to do – longtime career diplomats (ie: people who are non-political appointees and serve whatever president is in office regardless of their party affiliation) were fired instead of consulted, he refused to talk to the press, he refused to meet with embassy employees when he visited other countries – failing to gather or depend on even the most rudimentary “accumulated knowledge and experience” of the Foreign Service corps. It seemed very much like he was instituting change entirely – and without any basis – for the sake of change.

Then came, for me, the comment that I cannot get past. He apparently told one of his deputies that he believed employing EFMs (eligible family members – ie: me) was “corporate welfare” and that it was going to stop.

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So that’s what my decision (with B) to give up our cushy private sector life to serve our country overseas in a third world country – and more importantly what the hard work I’ve done working for the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa for the last year – means to our new ultimate boss. According to him I’m nothing more than a welfare queen mooching off the federal government’s good graces.

The irony of this comment coming from a man who used to be the CEO of ExxonMobil, which by most estimates receives yearly federal tax breaks and subsidies of more than $600 million while reaping billions of dollars in profit and paying him more than a third of this amount in salary and stock options, is almost laughable. The very definition of “corporate welfare” is a government’s bestowal of money grants, tax breaks and other favorable treatments on corporations. Let’s just say that, in my opinion, it displays a shocking ignorance of what corporate welfare is and represents.

Setting that aside, the State Department isn’t a corporation. It is a government agency and it is not the job of government agencies to make a profit that can be disbursed to its shareholders – which is the only job of corporations – it is the job of government agencies to provide a service. This fundamental difference between a corporation and a government seems to be lost on more members of the current administration than just “S,” but it is a vitally important distinction.

If the government is to be run “for profit,” then we can kiss police, fire, military, libraries, postal services and public education goodbye – the government doesn’t make money in any of those arenas because that is NOT what it is there to do. We pool our money through taxes and that pooled money pays for things that, individually, we could not afford. Could you build a road from home to work with your own money? No. But if you pool your money and have the government do it with that pooled money – you – and all the other people you pooled your money with – benefit from that service.

Likewise, the Foreign Service is just what it says it is – a service. We live in Congo to provide a service to our country. When U.S. Citizens are here and need help – our consular officers (and plenty of other members of the embassy) help them. Those same officers also vet people who want to come to the U.S. to visit, live and work – the first line of defense of our borders. When a U.S. business is interested in trying to expand its market in a foreign country it is commercial officers who help them navigate foreign commerce. And what is the result of a U.S. company selling more products overseas? More jobs at home.

We promote stability in unstable places, we take American ideals and the beauty of democracy with us to every corner of the world and by doing that we allow people who might otherwise see Americans as violent and xenophobic to understand that we are actually interested in peace and the growth of all nations because most of us understand how interconnected the world is these days and how we benefit when we work with – and not against – other nations.

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So let me tell you about the EFMs I work with and you can determine for yourselves which ones can be described as accepting “welfare”: One has a masters in economics, one has a PhD in international politics, one has an MBA, another has a masters in education, more than one has a JD – and these are just the highest levels of education we have each received. We all have years of experience – both in government and in the private sector – doing a variety of jobs that the U.S. Government now gets to leverage to contribute to their missions abroad.

I have no doubt that each one of us is fully qualified to be a Foreign Service Officer, but for various reasons we’ve made the decision to “just” be EFMs. In my case it is because (a) I’ve had a full career and I’m happy to become a jack of all trades as we go from post to post; and (b) we’ve seen how hard it is to be a “tandem” couple and we’re not interested – in our “second” careers with a small child – in going through that.

EFM employees are ubiquitous – in Africa there are 1000 career FSOs and 600 EFMs employed in our missions – so more than a third of the employees at U.S. Embassies in Africa are EFMs. Eliminate those 600 “corporate welfare” jobs and the result isn’t efficiency – it’s chaos.

I’ve spent the last year working at U.S. Embassy – Kinshasa. I’ve worked my tail off keeping Washington informed about Yellow Fever, Cholera and TB outbreaks – a few diseases it might behoove us to keep track of so they don’t end up in CONUS as the next epidemic. I have helped countless U.S. businesses who are already in DRC and needed help from the Embassy, or who were looking to get into the Congolese market and turned to the Embassy for guidance and information. In short, I’ve done all the same things an FSO would be doing in my position.

For my troubles the U.S. Government has paid me – per hour – less than my clients used to pay for 3 minutes of my time. Now ask yourself who in this scenario is the one getting charity? I have, for all intents and purposes, volunteered my time and talent to the U.S. Government and what I have to show for my effort is a pitiful sum of money and the apparent scorn of the new Secretary of State who thinks I’m a welfare queen.

If the “new” State Department wants to deploy talent and resources in the most “efficient way possible” as Mr. Tillerson claims, it should be doing the exact opposite of discouraging and freezing the hiring of EFMs. First, the only additional cost to hiring us is our salary. Hiring a new FSO instead means paying for another set of travel, shipments and housing. Second, many of us already speak the languages needed to work in our host countries. Third, we are immensely talented – both individually and as a group – and we are (whether S likes it or not) ambassadors of American ideals every day.  Fourth, working for the Embassy also means working for the Federal Government – which means paying federal taxes – so we give not only our talent – for very little extra cost to the USG – but we then give some of that back in taxes. And, finally, none of this takes into account the enormous collateral benefit overseas missions get when morale is good and family members are happy at post.

When I get to Australia I’ll be finding a job “on the economy” – not only because of the hiring freeze, but because I don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t respect me. I’ll get paid better, will not be treated as a welfare recipient for my troubles, and as a little extra bonus – I won’t be required to pay federal taxes on the first $95k or so that I make as part of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (which you can be sure was NOT put into place to help EFMs). Sure seems like an efficient use of the Department’s talent and resources, right?

I’m ready to climb down off my soapbox now and get back to the business of packing up our lives here in the next 70 days. I’ll keep going to work and giving my all – not because I think Mr. Tillerson deserves it, or because I’m going to get rich doing it – but because I believe in diplomacy as the first line of defense to all that we, as Americans, hold dear, and as the best way of shaping the world. As one of my clients – a retired Brigadier General – told me: “In my line of work we believe that diplomacy is vital, because the more we spend on diplomacy, the less we spend on body bags.”

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I’m going to the garden to eat worms…

It all started with the caterpillars. We went out for a nice dinner for B’s birthday at one of our favourite restaurants in Kinshasa: RE-source. It’s a lovely setting with good food and as an added bonus the chef likes to send over little amuse-bouches which are always delicious.  As predicted, we started off with an appetizer of our own choosing, but he also sent over delicious ginger beignets and veggie fritters. As we waited for our main course he came around again with four plates setting them down in front of each of us.

We looked at the plates. We looked at each other. We looked back at the plates.

“Caterpillars, grubs and crickets,” pronounced one of our dining companions.

Hmmm…

We knew that the menu included a salad with such insect delicacies, but none of us had been brave enough to order it. Apparently, though, the chef had recognized that we might all be brave enough to try it if it was put down in front of us.

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I have to admit I bypassed the crickets on the left, but I ate everything else and, a bit to my shock, it was pretty good. I don’t think the avocado and feta cheese hurt anything as far as my appreciation for the grubs, but they definitely didn’t completely mask the taste.

This foray into insects as dinner started a chain reaction of Congolese food exploration – though for much of it I’ve done more viewing than eating.

In Kinshasa there are no “fast food” restaurants (unless you consider a 15+ minutes for your burger ‘fast’), but there is food that you can acquire and eat on the go. I’ve been fascinated by the street food since we got here, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I finally ate some.  When I first saw the “egg men” I thought they were carrying raw eggs and I lived in fear of the day I would see one of them drop their pile of egg crates, thereby losing their livelihood for the day.

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It turns out though, that those are boiled eggs with a little jar of hot sauce (pili pili) on the side. For 250 Congolese Francs (about $0.20) you can get an egg with spice either in powdered form (milder) or liquid form (hot!). The vendors carry a little knife with them and after taking an egg out with a plastic sheet (so they are not touching them) they crack it all the way around and peel the shell off revealing a perfect boiled egg (miraculously in my opinion because I always tear the egg and end up with a mess…). Then they add the spice and voila – lunch!

Other options for “fast” food include omelettes made on little stoves along the sidewalk (and I will be eating one of those one day soon because they smell AMAZING), little sausages wrapped in croissant that you can get out of the window of your car as you are stopped at a light (I’ve been sorely tempted to buy one some mornings, but we are not allowed to open our windows while we are driving so, alas, I’m out of luck on this one), and chickwangue (pronounced “chick-wang”) which is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous food in Kinshasa.

Chikwangue is a staple for most people here because it is filling and cheap. It is made from the Yuca root, also know as ‘cassava’ or ‘manioc.’ It is the tuber of a large shrub – tapioca comes from the same plant. Around here, the root is boiled, formed into a “log” of sorts and then wrapped in manioc leaves and sold on the street for about 500 CF ($0.40). In other parts of Africa the manioc is boiled and served hot, almost like polenta or oatmeal, and is called Fu-fu. The leaves are also used – they are ground up and boiled with onions and garlic to make something like creamed spinach (without the cream) called Saka-saka, ngai-ngai, or pondu.

These are the staples of many of the Congolese people, along with plantains and bananas, rice and, if they can afford it, chicken, or fish from the river. We pass stands by the side of the road with fish hanging from strings, fresh from the Congo River. One of the standard fish is called capitaine, a relatively mild white fish. The traditional way of cooking it, called maboke, is in manioc leaves (yes, them again) over a fire with peppers. You can also find fish being grilled street-side.

Unlike many places in Africa there is not really a “cuisine” as such in DRC, just a few dishes, like Maboke, Chikwangue and Pondu, that are considered Congolese (though most of them are eaten all over Africa in some form or another).

We’ve also been enjoying – quite literally – the fruits of our garden.

Last year our avocado tree produced exactly one fruit, so it was hard to appreciate it for more than the shade it provided. This year it has been so prolific I feel like I spend half my time trying to find new recipes to use all the avocados. We also have a maracuja (passion fruit) vine which has been dropping little balls of yumminess into the yard for the last month or so. Our coconut tree also gives us a nut or two every month – though most of the time I don’t have the energy to make my way through the husk, so I give them away. This week, for the first time, we also managed to get a ripe breadfruit off of the tree in our compound (they usually disappear with staff or guards before they get ripe), so last night I made breadfruit fritters. Breadfruit are actually pretty fascinating – called “ulu” in Hawaii – they are considered to be a candidate for curing hunger because they are so fruitful and have so many good health benefits. The fritters were pretty good too – potato-like and extra good with onion jam.

Finally are the foods in Congo that either make me cringe or laugh. I’ve been told that the poce and makokolo (the big fat grubs below ) are “délicieux” but I don’t think I’ll be testing them out before we go. Of course, the Congolese think it is bizarre that we eat raw vegetables, mussels and escargot, so it’s probably only a question of getting used to the idea…but I think I’ll stick to the avocados for now.

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What to do on my day off…

So here I sit watching C and a friend swim.  I have allowed them an hour before I need to return to the house and get busy with the long list of “to dos” I set for myself on my one day “off” a week.

I’m only supposed to be working 20 hours a week, but that usually turns into 25 or 27…or more. I’m finally living the warning I gave to young associates for many years who wanted to work less: part time is never really part time. It is too easy to get pulled into a project and not leave early, or to come in early because B is already going in that direction. I have no one but myself to blame for this, but the result is that I can never seem to finish all the “projects” I have around the house – not the least of which is writing blog posts.
Just thinking about starting the packing and pack-out process again in a few months is another blood pressure raising train of thought; so in this too I am making like an ostrich and ignoring the ever approaching reality of PCS (permanent change of station) season.

Added to the job is the pressure I am starting to feel to see and do as much as possible in our last five months, and so I accept every invitation for fear of missing out on something fabulous. The result, unfortunately, is a very frustrated feeling of never quite getting everything accomplished that I want.

I’ve started writing a blog post half a dozen (or more) times in the last couple of months, but I haven’t been able to focus enough to get one finished. I’ve also struggled with my posts turning into rants. I really wanted to write about my job, but somehow the frustrations I feel seem to make their way to my fingers instead of the joyful and interesting parts of the work. So, sorry folks, if you want to know about my job in the Economic Section of the Embassy you will have to wait – probably until I am no longer in it so I can appreciate it from afar!

After our “OD” (Ordered Departure) in October, things in DRC remained on high alert, but we still managed to get out and about and enjoyed plenty of time with our friends. It all started with Octoberfest which just so happened to fall on my birthday this year (and the birthday of one of our best friends in Kin) – so a beery good time was had by all.

Mere days later we got dressed up (or at least C did) and headed to the Embassy’s Halloween Trunk or Treat. It was hot, but we had a blast. Next time I’m hoping the jello “shots” are for the grown-ups though…

For Thanksgiving we went to Paris. We had a long weekend, we found cheap(ish) flights and we needed the miles to boost us to the next level (hey, we’re going to be living in Australia we need all the miles and status we can get for those long haul flights!) so why not!

Back in Congo we FINALLY made it to Lac de ma Vallee. It’s about an hour outside Kinshasa, but it’s like a whole different planet. We had a lovely walk around the lake and then clearly we had to try out the novelty paddle boats. They’re funny to look at, but darn they are hard work!

The only problem with this kind of adventure is that is comes at a price: insane traffic. On our way there we arrived at an intersection outside of the city at, apparently, the exact time that school, work and who knows what else got out.

There are no lights or any other mechanism for controlling traffic so it is a full on free for all. At one point I turned to B and said, “So what happens if we are really stuck here? Do the Marines come in with helicopters?” I only got a grimace in response, and no helicopters were necessary, but there were a tense 20 minutes or so when we were literally hemmed in on all sides and couldn’t move a millimetre in any direction.

One gentleman in the crowd took some measure of pity on us and tried to get the traffic coming down the road to our right to stop long enough to let us get by. He gestured and yelled at people in Lingala and it looked like he might be successful. Then I saw him lean over and look behind the van directly in front of us blocking our path forward (through which we couldn’t see what the road ahead looked like).  He turned back to us, shook his head, threw up his hands in the universal symbol of hopelessness and walked away.

About 20 seconds later we understood why – on the other side of the van were four lanes of cars (keeping in mind this is supposed to be a two lane road with one lane going in each direction) coming directly at us. Let’s just say C learned some new words that day.

These Gordion knots of traffic hell are one reason I am comfortable saying I’ve visited Lac de ma Vallee once and I’ll be happy with checking it off the list this once.

Our next adventure was our second – and final – R&R. First, we headed back to Canada for an amazing and VERY snow filled holiday with my family.

Then we spent a week in the Canary Islands on Tenerife enjoying the amazing water wonderland Siam Park and its “sister” zoo, Loro Parque.

The only sad part of the holiday was having to leave Miller behind in the U.S.  Australian rules on pet importation are brutally strict so Miller had to stay and start his shot and appointment regime in order to leave with us in October (and not spend 6 months in quarantine). Luckily, we have amazing friends who have taken him in and are loving him on our behalf. He has become a wise old uncle to their new puppy, Rosie, and has apparently become a much sprier old man in recent weeks while she keeps him on his toes.

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So we are now back in Kinshasa ready to take on the last 5 months in DRC. I still can’t believe we are almost at the end of our tour. I knew two years wasn’t a long time, but in so many ways it has flown by. My promise to myself of not thinking about Canberra before leaving Kinshasa has been almost impossible to keep – not because I want to wish my time away, but because of practicalities like getting C into school and scheduling our time at home over the summer. I feel a little angry at Australia, and am jealously guarding my time in Kin as much as possible, but such are the hardships of moving to a first world country where things run in an orderly fashion and you can’t just show up on the first day of school with cash in hand and expect your child to have a place.

We’ve got a few more adventures on our list before leaving Kin – and hopefully I’ll remember to make time to write about them before June…

Lost Together*

Many years ago I went for a walk along the Niagara Escarpment with a group of friends and a couple of adults. We came to a fork in the road and the children (most of us between 8 – 12 if I recall) insisted that one path led home while the adults insisted the other path was the correct direction. We ultimately decided to split up – the adults went one way and we – 5 kids and our dog Cleo – went the other. We walked a long way and eventually realized that we were not getting closer to home and it was getting darker in the woods. Rather than turn back, we decided to cut across a field and start walking down a gravel road. We had literally no idea where we were other than somewhere in Ontario. I remember that day as being an adventure – something the five of us were in together while we tried to find our way home – rather than being scared because we were lost.

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Eventually a couple with a huge dog in a very small car drove up and a man rolled down his window. “Are you the kids who are lost?” he said. “Everyone has been looking for you. Get in and we’ll take you home.” We were a little perplexed, but we squeezed in and they took us back to the start of the trail where we found our parents – and the police. It turns out that while we were on our adventure, everyone else had been out looking for five lost children.

The last several weeks have been a reminder of the difference I felt that day between being lost alone – that scary feeling of impotence and worry – and being lost together, a feeling of adventure and collective courage against the odds.

In early September I left Kinshasa to attend training.  I had two fantastic weeks, learned a lot, but was more than ready to go home on September 24. The only problem was that 5 days before September 24 there were demonstrations – followed by riots, burning of opposition buildings, and the killing of between 39 and who knows how many people – in Kinshasa. B was safe and the violence never came near the Embassy or the area where we live, but for five days the question of whether I could return – or not – was debated thousands of miles away from me. Right up until September 23 I was told that I would be staying put for at least a week or two.

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It sounds all fine and good to be offered a couple of weeks to hang out in relative civilization, except I was on the government’s dime, so without a job or training I became an unwanted guest without any support for my upkeep.  We no longer have a home that we can live in anywhere outside of Kinshasa so there was nowhere I could go that was “mine.” And, while I have fabulous friends and family who offered us (C was with me) shelter, there is only so long anyone wants to be living in a guest or hotel room out of a suitcase.

All I wanted to go was go home – to B and Miller and the crazy place we love and live in. We (and by we I mean most people in difficult posts like Kinshasa) complain a lot about the hardships of living in a third world country without all the same conveniences of the U.S., but ultimately being able to go to Target, or pick up a Chick-fil-a sandwich anytime of the day or night (except Sunday) means little when we are forcibly separated from the comforts and people we love.  For better or worse these places become our homes and we love them, even while we complain about them.

I eventually got the ok to return to Kinshasa – thanks to a lot of strong support from people on the ground here – and flying into the dusty, dirty, sparse N’Djili Airport brought tears of joy to my eyes.

The joy was short lived however as the “EFMs” (family members) of Embassy employees were ordered to depart post for a “safe haven” mere days after we returned. In DOS parlance this is an “Ordered Departure” (OD) (and whatever you do don’t call it an evacuation) which is not to be confused with an “Authorized Departure” where you actually get to chose whether you want to leave or not. We did not get to choose (guess what my choice would have been…). This is another aspect of Government work that irks and confounds me – the “ordering” – never mind that the ordering is coming from someone thousands of miles away who is not wandering the streets and seeing that nothing appears out of sorts – the sheer lack of autonomy is something I am not sure I will ever get used to.

So off C and I went again. This time though we were with all the other EFMs – and, as I learned many years ago in those woods, being together makes a big difference in how lost you feel. I still wanted to go home and be with B and Miller, but being surrounded by my “U.S. Embassy Kinshasa family” while we tried to fashion a “school” for the 50+ children we brought with us, and learn our way around a new city, with new idiosyncrasies, currency and difficulties, felt very much more like an adventure than my 5 days of lonely distraction in the U.S.

As luck would have it, we had a short vacation planned with another Embassy family during the “OD” and with a little arm twisting and ticket switching we managed to leave our “safe haven” and spend a few days in Scotland before finally getting to return to Kinshasa.

And, as much as I prefer being lost together to being lost alone, vacationing together is even better.

* A nod should also go to the (relatively unknown outside Canada) band Blue Rodeo whose song “Lost Together” has been a near constant refrain in my brain during these “lost” weeks.

 

 

Congo won today

Congo won today. I put in a good effort, but I came out on the losing end. On occasion I do win, but, frankly, not that often.

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Today, my final defeat and concession to the Congo came as I stubbed my toe on the doorstop in our pantry. It’s a heavy, metal doorstop, shaped like a seal, that is necessary because otherwise the door closes and you are trapped, usually carrying something heavy, with no way to open the door from the inside. The doorstop incident was really just a small battle in my overall day, but it is where I mentally lost the war.

My epic battle today came at the grocery store. Although Shoprite has, on many occasions, been my savior from boredom, today it picked me up and slapped me silly with Congo-ness.

We are having people over for dinner and, like I normally do, I had a general menu plan in mind: roast pork with rosemary and garlic rub, scalloped potatoes and glazed carrots. Seems simple enough right? I’d already discarded dozens of potential recipes because I knew – 100% – that I would not be able to find (or, if found, afford) the necessary ingredients. So I went happily to Shoprite expecting to be able to find the pretty basic things I needed.

I started in the produce section because that is the first place I walk past. Rosemary? Nope. Ok, next plan. I opened Google on my phone and found a new recipe: Pork with sage and greens.

Ok. Sage? Hmmm…well, there was one packet of sage, but it was kind of brown and mouldy. However, since it looked like maybe I could salvage a couple of leaves I went for it. Next stop: greens. There were probably a dozen or more bags of baby spinach, but they were all horrifying in their level of decay. I could feel the tears starting to rise as I rifled through the bags and determined there wasn’t a single one that I could serve to guests – even cooked. Ok. Fine. What else was there? Broccoli? Nope, brown and $15/head. Since I was serving 8 people I needed more than I was willing to buy given its appearance. Cauliflower? Nope, brown and $12/head. Asparagus? $12 for about 10 spears. Nope. Cabbage? It looked better than anything else, so cabbage got the nod.

Then I moved on to the pork… I had to walk along the meat aisle and so it gave me a chance to assess my other options. Goat? Not so much. Pork belly? Normally, not a bad choice, but it’s not a “quick” dinner options and beside there was only about a pound of it, not enough for 8 people. Lamb parts (unidentified, but no parts I am familiar with)? Uh…negative. Steak? It’s good stuff, but I wasn’t up for lugging out the grill, breaking up charcoal and getting it going. So I arrived at the place where the pork tenderloin and roast is normally kept and found three pitiful ¼ lb tenderloins displaying suspicious black marks, and no roast. I just stood there and stared for a while.

Cursing myself for believing I could pull off a last minute dinner here, and cursing B for suggesting we expand the group beyond the one person I had originally invited (and conveniently forgetting my happy agreement to this plan), I sidled along to the butcher counter to see if there were better options. There I found chicken gizzards (YUM, right?), ground beef and chicken breasts – one of which had a dead fly in the middle of it. Seriously. I went with the chicken breast – minus the dead fly (I carefully instructed the woman at the counter which pieces I wanted, thereby avoiding the dead fly piece even though she had, by then, removed the fly).

After all that, when I returned home and stubbed my toe I lost it for a little while, screaming my frustration to Miller and the empty house.

Sometimes around here that really is the only option.

But, as it turns out the party was actually very nice. We pulled out a good bottle of wine we had brought back from Cape Town, and the homemade ice cream I made yesterday. I made a cream leek sauce to go on the chicken and I sautéed the cabbage and carrots in butter (a fool proof option even in the Congo) and I made the scalloped potatoes as planned. The company was wonderful, we all had a great time, and the wine and dessert were delish.

So, as it turns out, maybe Congo didn’t win today after all.

But, as Scarlett O’Hara says, “Tomorrow is another day.”

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Sunset over the Congo River…waiting for another day.

Dry Season

The dry season is in full swing in Congo right now, which means cool nights and not-too-humid days. It’s been bizarre seeing people talking about the sweltering heat in the US and Canada right now while we (or at least I) need sweaters to sit out at night. Dry season also means making plans with a 100% guarantee that it will not rain on our parade, or party, or whatever.  So we, along with some friends, decided that this was the perfect time to take our first stab at camping – Congo style.

I grew up camping several times per summer, but once I got out of college I could probably count my camping trips on one hand. I’ve missed it. The smell of wood smoke in your clothes, the taste of almost burned marshmallows,  waking up to birds calling and a layer of dew coating the world.  But B has never known me as a camper, and I don’t think he really believe me when I have said on occasion over the last ten years that I wanted to go camping. You can’t blame him, really. I’m a shopping and pedicure kind of girl most of the time. Case in point, I took C this morning to get her hair cut and we had our first (of many I hope) mommy-daughter pedicures.

But I’ve never found it that difficult to juggle being a girl who likes pedicures AND getting dirty on a camping trip, so for ten years I have insisted to B that I really do like – and want to go – camping. It wasn’t until other adventurous friends of ours (the same ones who joined us on the train adventure) suggested camping at a national park outside Kinshasa that B was apparently willing to test out my assurances.

One of the worst parts of traveling anywhere to do anything around DRC is that the roads are abysmal. Think of the worst road you have ever been on in the US and then multiply that times at least 50 – and then put it right in the middle of the capital city of the country. IMG_0036 I’ve posted pictures of the roads before, but they bear reposting to emphasize my point. The picture above is the road between two U.S. Embassy compounds. Seriously.

BUT, the road between our house and Bombo-Lemene, our camping destination, was PAVED. All. The. Way. Like a miracle from above. Seriously.

It still took us about 2 hours to get from home to the park, but in DRC to drive 105 km in 2 hours is nothing short of amazing. By way of comparison, Zongo Falls, where we went last Labor Day, is 101 km from home and that took us about 4 1/2 hours to drive in whiplash inducing conditions.  Don’t get me wrong, there were still a lot of very interesting sights on the drive, but at least we could look at them without risking injury.

When we arrived at the park we drove down a long two-track path to get down to the river.  I’m not sure which river – either the Bombo, or the Lemene, since the park is named for the confluence of the two, but whichever one it was we enjoyed tubing down it (B), playing in it (C) and dipping toes gingerly at the edges of its cold depths (me). The bridge over the river made for plenty of heart-pounding back and forth as well. It was made of bamboo or rattan with random weak spots and a perilous tilt toward the water below, but after only one hand-holding crossing C was ready to tackle it on her own.

I think by the time I’d pitched the tent, B was starting to believe that I might be ok with camping, though I don’t think the full revelation came until the next morning when I made toast over the fire using a fish grilling basket. I suspect I’ll get to combine my love of shopping with my love of camping now because heaven knows we can’t be the only people on the continent of Australia in 2017 who are not fully kitted out for camping adventures.

On our way back to Kinshasa we made a fascinating detour. Scattered throughout the country are various palaces and other monuments built by the DRC’s former military dictator, Mobuto Sese Seko. The most well known is Gbadolite, the town where Mobutu was born and where he built an elaborate series of palaces and, among other things, a runway large enough to accommodate the Concorde. Gbadolite is on the border with the Central African Republic and about 1,000 miles as the crow flies from Kinshasa, so we won’t be visiting there anytime soon. Much closer to home, however, is Mobutu’s Pagoda.

The Pagoda was built in approximately 1971 as part of the Mobutu’s Presidential Domain at N’sele. Mohammed Ali allegedly stayed there when he came to Kinshasa to fight George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle.  Mobutu was overthrown in 1997, but the Pagoda seems to have started its decline long before that. Now the only human inhabitants are the guards. Camp cots covered in mosquito netting are set out along the hallways with dented tin plates beside them, evidence of the thankless task of living in, and guarding, a ruin. The guards were friendly enough when we arrived, though did make it clear that, while they had no problems with us wandering around and taking pictures, it would cost us something to do so.

I wish I could juxtapose the Pagoda now – overgrown with weeds, graffiti-covered and littered with beautiful pieces of the elaborate Chinese pottery that graced the roof, eves and columns – with the Pagoda when it was built, but I wasn’t able to find a single picture of the original structure online, so you’ll have to make do with pictures of its current state. The ghost of its former glory is there – in the paintings on every beam over the walkway surrounding what used to be a small lake – each one different from the next, and in the attention to detail evident on the carved columns and railings.  We found a dumb-waiter as we were walking around and told the guard it was for food. He laughed. In one of the most destitute countries on earth its hard to do anything but laugh about a man who needed an elevator for his food when most of his subjects didn’t have anything to eat at all.

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The rains will be coming back again in about a month, so we’ve got a few more weeks to check off some more outdoor activities without worrying about getting wet.  Of course, the flip side to avoiding rain is not being able to avoid dirt and sand, but dirty feet require pedicures, so it all works out fine for me.

Once around the sun in Congo

A year ago today we were flying across Africa for the first time, destined for our new home in DRC.  The sun has risen – and set – 365 times since then. C is contentedly eating her lunch with Romani, I’m standing at the kitchen counter eating red beans and rice with smoked sausage leftovers (yum) as Miller gazes hopefully my way. B is on his way home (hooray for half-day Friday). We are surrounded by awesome people from all corners of the world and from all walks of life who have heard our stories, our complaints, and our laughter, and have brought us moments that we will savour for the rest of our lives. We’re ready to start this round the sun journey again and can’t wait to see what it brings.

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And the winner is…

It’s taken us a couple of weeks to digest the news of our next assignment. It will be hard for many people to understand, but our initial reaction to being assigned to Canberra, Australia was disappointment.

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We made a rookie Foreign Service mistake. We got our hearts set on a particular job at a particular post. It was French speaking, in Europe (so only one flight away from home and dozens of amazing traveling opportunities), with a truly international population, relatively easy pet importation regulations, and with good school options in the Northern Hemisphere system. Instead we got an English speaking post, one of the most homogeneous places anywhere, about as far from our families as you could get on the planet, with some of the most difficult and rigorous pet importation rules in the world, on the Southern Hemisphere school system (Feb-Dec).

So, while we are FULLY aware of our luck in getting assigned to an amazing, beautiful country, we’ve had to take a few weeks to grieve our dream post, and adjust to the different kinds of difficulties built into this new reality. Perhaps most difficult for us will be determining how best to handle Miller. In order to avoid a six month quarantine in Australia (and reduce it to a 10 day quarantine) we will likely have to take Miller back to the US with us in December when we go home for our second R&R. Then, for six months our home here will be empty of his sweet face and gentle presence. I cry every time I think about it. And, at the same time, we will have to rely on family, or friends, to look after him in the US and to ensure that he goes to the vet about a dozen times during those months to have a series of tests to meet the Australian import rules.

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Then there are cars. Only right hand drive in Australia, and their import rules are strict on that front too. So we’ll be in a position to have to buy at least one, and probably two, cars when we arrive. We’ll also have to decide whether C will go ahead a grade, or stay behind a grade as we get used to “summer vacation” in December.

And finally, there is community. Kinshasa is a hard place to live and work, but we are surrounded by the most fantastic people who are making our time here amazing and wonderful. This group of people buoys us when we’re down, cheers us when we’re up, supports us when we need help and have been there from us since the moment we stepped off the plane last year.

Canberra is a tourist destination. A large international capital – the safest capital in the world, apparently. We wonder whether someone will meet us at the airport, cook a meal for us when we arrive, take us shopping, show us how to get a cell phone, cable and internet service, tell us what restaurants are good (and invite us along when they go), introduce C to other kids her age, help us navigate the schools, and explore the city with us as people have done here, or will they just assume that we can figure that out on our own in an English speaking first world country?

Maybe it is best that we are still adjusting to the idea of Canberra. I promised myself that I would not “leave” Kinshasa before it was truly time to board a plane. I don’t want to spend the next year looking out the window for the beautiful hills of Canberra and missing the less beautiful, but fascinating, streets of Kinshasa right in front of me. There is so much to see and do here. I don’t want the mirage of clean water and bounteous produce aisles to distract me from seeing the smiling woman in a blindingly colorful dress, balancing a huge basket on her head and a baby on her back, saying “bonjour” to me as we pass each other on the dusty, rutted city streets.

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So this is the last you’ll hear of Canberra for a while. This blog is about now, not about a year from now. Next July, when we leave Kinshasa, I’ll turn my attention (after enjoying a wonderful 3+ months in the US and Canada) to Australia and our new life.

Congo is not finished with the adventures it has in store for us, and we are not finished with the things we are destined to see, do and learn, deep in the heart of Africa.

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Summer changes and choices

Growing up, these last days of May always took on an otherworldly, magical quality for me. Summer was coming. The end of school, the end of snow, the end of sweaters and socks; the beginning of vacation, camp, beaches, fireworks and long warm days.

But, in a land of perpetual summer (ie: Africa just shy of the equator) it feels different. I catch glimpses of other people’s joy at the onset of summer in Facebook posts and Instagram photos, but there is a different kind of anticipation here. School is still about to end, but the weather is still hot (though not as rainy), the days still begin and end right around 6 (a.m. and p.m.) and our wardrobes are static.

No, the anticipation in this new life is about transition. Summer is “transition season” in the Foreign Service. People are transitioning in and people are transitioning out. We are bidding (more about that later) and will soon find out where we are headed next summer. It’s a lot about saying goodbye in these early days, and more about saying hello as summer wanes, and less about campfires and holidays.

I knew life in the FS would involve change, but I imagined the changes to be in two year cycles  – every two years our location would change and that is about as far as I got in thinking about change. But, as it turns out, change is perpetual in the FS. First there are all the changes when you arrive at a new post – new houses or apartments (or both if you are in temporary housing first as we were) to move into, new jobs to start, new city streets and traffic to navigate and learn, new schools to start, new friends to make, new languages to hear, new food to taste, new brand names to buy and the list goes on.

You adjust to those big early changes, but you soon realize that things are always changing. I started without anyone to hang out with – I read and wrote and played with C – which I loved. Then I made some friends and C made some friends, and I read and wrote less and explored more – which I loved. Then my friends got jobs and I explored less, but got involved in other groups and clubs outside the Embassy community more  – which I loved. Soon I’ll start my own job (when/if the State Department finally gets its act together…) and things will change again – and hopefully I’ll love that too.

A few of my adventures

In the midst of all these changes the faces that make up your life in the FS are always changing too. I started noticing those changes more and more a few months ago. I was so overwhelmed when I first arrived that I could barely remember half the names of the people I met, so when some of those people moved on it wasn’t that noticeable to me.   But, suddenly it seems, people I care about are leaving. People I enjoy spending time with, who have become part of our lives here, are suddenly vanishing before our eyes. Our next door neighbors, the first people we literally met on the African continent, left a few weeks ago and with them went Papy – their driver who was always ready with answers to my many questions. He’s moved on to work with another family, so even when the faces remain in Kinshasa your day-to-day connections with them changes. Today we are losing another friend who is headed back to the U.S. for the next phase of his life.

It’s not as if we are losing these people forever. The Foreign Service is a small world, but there will be gaps in our lives as they transition on and, as new people arrive, we have to make room for them to transition into. It’s so much about the gaps of missing faces, and the making room for new ones that our lives, already, are starting to feel like a merry-go-round of changing faces.

And, while we are saying goodbye and hello, we are also looking at a list of choices for our own ultimate transition in about 13 months. After going through bidding in A-100, where there are a limited number of posts and there is no real choice, we were excited by the prospect of second tour  bidding (“STB”). As expected, the list we received has hundreds of posts on it, but most of them got eliminated quickly due to timing or language, and we started to quickly lose the feeling of having a choice.

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The first thing we had to do is get over our initial disappointment. Certain posts in the FS have what’s called a “differential.” The differential can be for danger, hardship, or difficult to fill posts. The highest differentials are for the posts that are “unaccompanied” – places where there is war usually – and spouses and children are not allowed to live. Kinshasa is obviously not in that category, but it is a post with a relatively high differential. Usually the main import of a high differential is a pay increase (ie: if a differential is 10% then FSOs serving there get an additional 10% on top of their salary), but in STB you also get to go to the front of the line in terms of assignment. The higher the differential, the more likely you are to get your first, second or third choice. So, knowing we’d be high on the list, we’ve spent months talking about the possibilities and our “dream” posts.

But, then you get the list and Montreal isn’t on it. And, although both Paris and Ottawa are there, they don’t work because of timing, so you have to start to look a new places and give up those initial dreams and get down to the business of sorting through the list, applying the almost 25 pages of rules for STB and coming up with your own top 30 to submit.

First you have to determine your “TED” – time of estimated departure. That is, 2 years after you arrived at your current post. You are not allowed to leave a post more than a month before the end of the two years or you have an “invalid” bid (and, in our case, we would likely lose one of our “R&R’s” – not something we want to do!)  Then you have to look at the new post’s “TEA” – time of estimated arrival. You can’t arrive at a new post more than a month after the TEA, or you have an invalid bid.

To determine when you might arrive you have to factor in the Congressionally mandated “Home Leave,” any time you need for “tradecraft” training, and any time you need for language training.  For every year an FS officer serves overseas, 10 days of Home Leave is required. Up to 45 days is possible, but we are legally required to take 20 working days (not including holidays or weekends) off and spend it on U.S. soil being “re-indoctrinated” into American ways. Hard to believe we could be annoyed by being forced to take a vacation, but it can really mess with your timing in bidding. Tradecraft and language training vary by post and job.

So we had to go through every one of the posts on the list and determine if the post was perfect (we leave during our TED month, arrive during the new posts TEA and get all the required training and home leave done in between), imperfect (we either leave a month early, arrive a month late, or go over the 78 week maximum of training allowed for FSOs in their first (non-tenured) five years), or invalid (everything else).

Add the various requirements related to the maximum amount of training, the requirements of mastering at least one language, serving in higher hardship posts, filling “high priority” posts first, getting experience in your “cone” (specialty) and doing a tour as a consular officer, and the list of possible choices gets shorter and shorter.

Don’t get me wrong, our list is good and, after getting over the initial disappointments, we realize how incredibly lucky we are to have the choices we do have, particularly compared with a lot of our friends whose lists are much, much smaller than ours and whose choices are much more limited. The places in our top 10 (even our top 30) are, almost universally, first world places with clean streets, fresh water, good schools and every possible “mod-con” (as my dad would say) you could want. We’re going to be excited no matter what we get because we feel good about every one of our top posts.

Until then though, we are going to focus on and enjoy our time here; enjoy the crazy, difficult, amazing in many ways, life that we have found here in Kinshasa. We’re going to enjoy our friends – as they come and go – and we’re going to continue to enjoy every change and choice in this adventure we are on.

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America IS Great.

We just returned from three weeks in Florida and D.C. for our first “R&R.” While we were there  I kept seeing and hearing the catch phrase “Make American Great Again.” So, at the risk of making a political statement, and although I know most of my friends and family (ie: most of the people reading this) will side with me on this one, I have to point out that America is great. It has no need to be made great again.

There are lots of wonderful countries in the world, but in the DRC there is only one president emblazoned on the bread bags: President Obama (even though Justin Trudeau would make a nice looking bag…).  People here believe America IS great, so why are there so many Americans who don’t?

There were times during our R&R when I wanted to jump up and down and shout at people “LOOK around you!”

Three times I walked from my in-laws’ house in North Florida to the CVS, less than a mile one way, and not once in those six trips did I encounter another pedestrian. Every time I strolled out of the house I thought about what a privilege it was to walk somewhere without fear of a random car or motorcycle driving up on the sidewalk in order to get around the traffic. I marvelled at how clean everything was, that the road was not full of potholes (or worse, made of dirt AND full of potholes), and that the majority of people had a car and were not forced to pile on top of each other in a broken down taxi (or “Esprit de Mort”/”Spirit of Death”) like they do here. How great is that?

There was no garbage burning on the street. Young children were not walking up and down leading their blind/handicapped parents or grandparents from car to car begging for enough money to buy a loaf of bread. There were no homeless children sleeping on the sidewalks. The electricity stayed on all the time. ALL THE TIME.

And I wondered how much the people driving past (usually alone) in their cars appreciated those facts. Whether they knew how great it is to live in a country where the electricity, internet, phone, and television work all the time. Our electricity goes out at least once a day, usually way more often than that, and we are much luckier than the majority of Congolese who, when the sun goes down (pretty much every day at 6 p.m.), the lights go out until 6 a.m. the next morning when the sun comes back up again.

Something else great? Produce aisles. The produce section at Publix literally brought me to tears. I was stupefied by the options. Fresh strawberries, raspberries, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and pretty much anything and everything you want – and it will be relatively fresh, free from bugs and black or moldy bits and tasty. We have lovely fresh local vegetables and fruit here, but want anything that does not grow locally and you can either forget it or offer up your first-born to pay for it.

For me the biggest and most overwhelming difference while we were in the U.S. was the choices: Need an apple – within a 2 miles area you have dozens of options. A coffee? Starbucks is on one corner and Dunkin’ Donuts is on the next. Need lunch fast? Chick-fil-a, McDonalds, Zaxby’s, Taco Bell, Popeyes, Chipotle, Pizza Hut – and even healthy choices like Subway, Panera, Au Bon Pain, Jason’s Deli, and dozens of other places are everywhere you turn. That is great people. Seriously GREAT.

There are a couple of “copycat” fast food places here – but expect to wait 10-15 minutes minimum for your food, and don’t expect it to taste (a) consistent from visit to visit; or (b) like what you are used to if it is a burger or fried chicken. Our best options – a hamburger place called “Hunga Busta” and a Lebanese place called Al Dar  – are pretty quick, not too expensive, and pretty yummy, but how many times can you eat a “Hummus Poulet” (rotisserie chicken on a bed of hummus)? (A lot if you are B; not so often if you are me.)

And the choices are not limited to food in the U.S. Want to buy a dress? There are hundreds – literally – of places to choose from. Do you need a computer? Somewhere to wash your car? A place to take your dog or child to run/walk/play? The choices almost feel endless when you are used to living with one or two options at best.

If you get in an accident in the U.S. you call 911 – it works everywhere. If you show up at a hospital in the U.S. you are entitled to emergency treatment under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act so long as the hospital accepts payments from Medicare (which most do) regardless of citizenship, legal status, or ability to pay.

Here there are no public ambulances, and you won’t be accepted into the hospital until you have proven you can pay. If you do get in, get treated and then you don’t pay, you will remain in the hospital until you pay up. It’s a bizarre system. The daughter of our neighbor’s housekeeper had an emergency c-section then couldn’t pay the bill, so she and her baby stayed at the hospital for almost 2 months until her family could collect the money to pay. The family was also responsible for feeding her while she was there.

There is no fire station in Kinshasa – a city of more than 10 million people. There are, allegedly, three fire trucks, but they don’t carry water or pumps, so they’re not overly useful. Papy told me that if your house catches on fire the “fire police” will show up after it has burned to the ground, and even then they’ll show up without water. There is a local urban legend that the fire station itself burned down.

I could go on and on. The bottom line is that I’m sure for some people it is hard to see what is all around you, but trust me when I say that America is great.

Oh, and one more thing that is great about the U.S… Disney. It is awesome.