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.


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.





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.