Coming home

It’s a cruel irony of this Foreign Service life that coming back to the U.S. – our “home” – often seems like the hardest transition we make.

I’m not gonna lie, I thought I was READY to leave Australia. Frankly, I thought I was ready to leave almost before we got there. I stood in our kitchen in Kinshasa and cried when we got the assignment to Canberra, and somehow I 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, back in the U.S. of A. and I have come to the realization that our time in Canberra came to an end without me ever noticing how good it was – and how much it came to feel like “home” – until 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. I never even looked back. By contrast, I bawled from the moment we left our house in Kinshasa until we were well over Gabon. I somehow knew what we were uprooting when we left Africa. But now, almost 6 months after getting my American legs back under me, I find myself pining for Canberra far more often than I ever expected while I was counting down the days until we left.


I 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. We made a home in Canberra. We made wonderful, lifelong friends and we started to put down little, fragile roots.

When we left, we tore those roots up and, despite my near constant desire to get “home” while we were 10,000 miles away, now that we are back in the U.S., it feels less like “home” and more like a way station.

When I was growing up we moved a lot. First from the UK to Canada, and then from a small town to a bigger town, then to the big city – and within each of those places to multiple houses. And smack dab in the middle of all that – when I was 11 – I also went to boarding school for two years. But it never felt like any of those places were “way stations” – even when we only lived somewhere for a year or two. I was able to settle in and be a part of each place we lived in a way that made them always feel like “home.” So I’m left wondering what “home” means to me? Why doesn’t it feel like I’m “home” now that we are back in a familiar place? 

Maybe it’s because we are not officially “posted” to Washington. We are on “TDY” (Temporary DutY) here – which almost by definition prevents us from forming any kind of foothold here. It means that most of what we own is either in storage or waiting patiently for us in (or near) our next post, we are living in a furnished corporate apartment – our second since we returned in August – and we constantly have one eye on the calendar and the things we need to do before we leave in the summer of 2020.

Oh yeah, and in case I haven’t mentioned it, our next post – starting at some point in August or September 2020 – is Istanbul, Turkey. Don’t worry, I didn’t cry this time so hopefully I’ll be focused on living in – and writing about – this amazing historical city before we leave in 2023.

Turkish Flag

So right now, for 10-12 months our focus is on our new post. Our jobs, quite literally, are to learn Turkish. Every day B and I walk to a building in Arlington and spend 6 hours speaking, reading and listening to Turkish. It is çok iyi (very good). Well, sometimes it is very good. Sometimes it makes my head want to explode, but that’s another post… In April we’ll take tests to check to make sure we’ve been studying and learning, and, assuming we pass with the 2/2 (speaking/reading) score we need, we’ll finish up some more functional training and be on our way again. Maybe it’s this constant reminder of the temporariness of our time here that makes it not feel like “home.”


Maybe it is also that C has struggled mightily coming back to the place she knows and understands is her home country – but doesn’t always feel very welcoming. International schools are used to kids who move every couple of years and transition in and out, but local public schools are not. Most of the kids in her new class have been together since kindergarten. They are tight friends, with deep roots, and with little room for a new kid who will be gone by next September. She’s managing, but she asks with persistent regularity why we can’t go back to Australia, and she thinks that our lack of jobs, a house, or visas in that country should not be particularly difficult to overcome. Why? Because to C Australia is the most permanent “home” she can remember. Ultimately I’m sure she’ll be fine, but watching her struggle – and being able to see that she doesn’t feel like this is “home” either – has been hard.

The thing about the transition back to the US is that the first few weeks are like a honeymoon. Everyone is excited to see you, they make time to see you, they go out of their way to see you…and then things go back to normal for them. Everyone you know and love has a job, a home, friends – and you are normally thousands of miles away from that life. You’re like a special occasion, and once they’ve “celebrated” you, they have to go back to living their normal lives –  and you are not a part of that life on a day-to-day basis. And we’ve got jobs too – and learning a new language is, to some extent, all consuming – so we don’t have free time to travel all over and visit people either. It’s frustrating after being so far away that you can’t visit friends, to suddenly be only a few hours (or 5 minutes) away, and still be unable to find the time to catch up.

When we do visit our “settled” friends in their lovely, decorated houses, where they’ve put down strong roots and where it truly feels like a “home” to me, it is also hard not to remember that a few years ago this was us.

We recently visited our house in Charlotte – that we still own, but now rent out – and it made me palpably miss the feeling of belonging to a place. And in those moments I wonder if we made the right choice. It feels like we no longer have a place in the world that is ours – a true “home” – and that is never more obvious than when we are on TDY in the U.S., living in a small apartment with corporate art on the walls, spending all our time focused on our next transition.

In November we also lost our dear sweet Miller, who has been with us since B & I met. He lived a long and full life – and was with us in the U.S., Canada, Africa, and Australia – but that doesn’t seem to have made his loss any easier. And maybe that’s ultimately why we don’t feel like we’re home. Because for us, in this life, home has become the place where we – B, C, D – and Miller – are together. Without Miller the place we live feels less like home and more like an impersonal space where we sleep.


I know that in a few months, when we move into our new place in Istanbul, and all our boxes arrive and we unpack and put our own art and photos on the walls, our dishes in the cupboards and our books on the shelves, and we can focus on putting roots into our new community, it will feel like a ‘home’ again for at least 3 years. And I know then I will not regret our choices as I revel in our newest adventure. But, for these next few months, I’ve just got to accept that I’m not entirely sure what home is to me in this nomadic life we live, and that means “coming home” may always be just a little bit out of reach, and just a little bit harder than it feels like it should be.

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


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

not hiring

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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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…