Stuff

For the last 12 months we have lived without. Without a junk drawer. Without excess. Without clutter.

In our corporate apartment in D.C. we had the items provided by the housing company. Basically that consisted of a small frying pan, 3 pots, 6 plates, bowls, cups and glasses, six forks, spoons & knives, a kettle, and a few kitchen utensils. We supplemented those items, at least in our kitchen, with a few things that for us are “cannot live without,” including our cast iron frying pan, a Le Crueset pot, my coffee maker, our knives and a couple of my favorite wooden spoons. The rest of my kitchen went into boxes and was shipped off to storage.

There were certainly moments when I wished I had some item or other – a muffin tin, a bread pan, a rolling pin – but for the most part I made do. Admittedly I didn’t cook as much as I used to, and what I did cook was not as adventurous or experimental, but no one in the family seems to have come to any harm.

Many FS people we talk to believe that one benefit of Foreign Service life is the ability to shed “things” every couple of years. In 23 or so months we (by this I mean the “royal” USG we…) will pack up and move ourselves and our stuff somewhere else in the world (and we won’t even know where for about another year!). So, essentially, every two years or so we are forced to take stock of what we own, what we need, what we don’t need, and, ultimately, what we want to drag to the next post.

I’ve met several people in the last year who’ve told me they got rid of all their “stuff.”

“I don’t care about ‘things,'” they tell me.

I think if B had his way we would be in the “get rid of everything” camp (though I’ve been to the homes of some of those people and they still seem to have plenty of stuff…)

So I’ve been thinking a lot about why I DO care about things – at least some things.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that I care about things above people, or experiences, or just about anything else, but I do care about the things that make me feel comfortable. The things that make my ever changing “residences” into my ever changing “homes.”

On Friday we received our HHE (house hold effects). Four huge wooden crates filled with our stuff – and our mattress wrapped and sitting on top. Things, things and more things.

And I was deliriously happy.

Could I have lived here – or anywhere – without all these things? Absolutely.

Do I want to? Not particularly.

So I spent the weekend unpacking and revelling in STUFF.


MY STUFF! Our lovely blue chair that is so comfy to snuggle into and read. Our throw pillows which almost (but not quite) disguise the deplorable embassy provided “gold” couches which have seen (many) better days. Our stainless measuring cups. Our art. Our photographs. Our bed (I could almost cry thinking about the joy I will feel when we finally get rid of the embassy provided queen size bed and set up our bed…ah, King Size Bed…how I love and have missed you…).

I know it’s absurd on many levels, and if all the stuff in those crates had fallen off the boat they came on I would really only have been sad about the irreplaceable photographs and art. BUT, that doesn’t mean that I’m not happy that they didn’t fall off the boat and are now sitting in what would otherwise be a very impersonal house making it feel, smell and look like home.

  As an added bonus we will now use one of the crates to build a bed for my vegetable garden.

We did take a break from unpacking to drive out of the city for the first time to a place called “Chez Tintin.”

The draw of “Chez Tintin” has nothing to do with the random statues of the iconic Belgian cartoon “sleuth” Tintin and other characters from the books. The real draw is The River. Le Fleuve Congo. The location overlooks rapids that have stopped many a traveler from the Atlantic (though they are not the huge rapids that forced many early travellers to portage from miles below Kinshasa into the city (then called Leopoldville)).  One day I’ll attempt to describe the drive and the location a little better, but for now a picture will have to be worth 1,000 (or less) words since there are still boxes waiting for me to happily discover the “stuff” they contain.

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Food for thought

The D.R.C. (or “My Congo” as it will be henceforth known to distinguish it from the Congo on the other side of the river, the “Republic of Congo”) is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources. Most nations could only dream of possessing the vast variety and depth of resources found here. But, unlike the U.S. and Canada, the riches here have been rarely seen by the country’s own people. Instead, for hundreds of years Europeans (primarily Belgians, but the Portuguese, French and English can’t claim total innocence) pillaged this country in a way that is hard to describe and harder to accept once it is described. Add to that the history of violence that has plagued the D.R.C. since it’s independence and the images that most frequently appear beside the word Congo are, to put it mildly, bleak. But this is not a bleak place. On the contrary it is a place of light and unexpected beauty, despite its dirty and unlovely aspects. And the abundance is, even on a micro level, amazing.

Every couple of days a wizened (love that word, by the way) old man named Papa Clement shows up at my door with boxes and boxes of fresh vegetables. The bounty is overwhelming and I haven’t been able to stop myself from totally overindulging every time he shows up. The result of my inability to control my vegetable buying has been hours of wonderful time spent in our kitchen.

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In the last week I’ve made: gazpacho, eggplant parmesan, cabbage and apples with sausage, ratatouille, guacamole (twice), moussaka, zucchini-banana chocolate chip muffins (twice) and an assortment of carrot side dishes. All of it (well, except for the sausages) with produce brought to my door by Papa Clement.

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If he doesn’t have a vegetable I’m looking for, then I can go to Shoprite and buy it – it takes more effort than in the U.S. (no weighing and taking veggies on your own here – there is a dedicated person to whom you bring your produce who weighs, bags and tags it with a price in the middle of the produce section), but most of what I’ve needed I’ve been able to find.

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Some things are wildly expensive by U.S. standards. Last week I bought a bunch of asparagus (C’s favorite) for about $14. Yesterday they had strawberries – a quart was about $18. Broccoli is routinely in the $15 range for a head. But other things are cheaper since they are so readily available – an avocado here? It’ll cost you about $0.50-$1 depending on where you buy it. Fresh cilantro, mint or parsley – $0.50-$1 for a huge bunch. A pineapple? $2. A mango? $0.50. Bread is amazingly cheap – a really nice loaf of crusty multigrain or white bread– cooked onsite and daily – is somewhere in the range of $1.50-$2.

There are, not surprisingly, some things that are rare and difficult (if not impossible) to get here: “real” milk, salmon, chocolate chips, Mexican food and an assortment of very “American” items like single serving mac & cheese (which C loves and I feel decidedly guilty about ordering, but which I buy from Amazon anyway). But, most things are ultimately here and available – albeit, in some cases, at a price. You just have to decide what you’re willing to pay for.

I was going to make shrimp tacos this week – homemade tortillas (another thing difficult to find and/or expensive), fresh pineapple, slaw and avocado, but I looked at the bags of frozen shrimp and discovered that a pound cost $56 (actually probably more than that as it was 56,000 Congolese francs and, while most of us do a 1:1 exchange in our heads it is not quite that good, so it was probably more like $60…). Needless to say we will be eating chicken tacos instead.  But, on the flip side of that, I found my favorite cheese (Cambozola – a mixture of Camembert and Gorgonzola) in not one, but two stores for a pretty decent price.

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Another thing that is bizarre by U.S. standards in some of the grocery stores (City Market being the one I know) is that nothing has a price – just a number. So you find the number of the item you need, say B103, then you go to the end of the aisle and look up B103 on a long price list posted at the end of each aisle. It drives me batty.

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From what I’ve been told all the stores used to price items like City Market does, but now there are at least two large stores (Hasson et Frères and Shoprite) that put prices for each item directly in front of you rather than making you walk up and down aisles repeatedly to compare prices. Maybe it is the competition lawyer in me, but I keep wondering if City Market will be forced by competition to eventually change its ways and put prices on the shelves for each item. Only time (a lot of it knowing Kinshasa) will tell.

There have been pleasant surprises (beyond Papa Clement and the Fresh Produce (band name in my next life?)) and funny moments as well in my grocery buying time here so far. One of the bags used by some of the stores to package bread has a large picture of President Obama on it, so I have dubbed it “Obama Bread.”

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And one of the ubiquitous brands for many items, soda, mayonnaise and water included, is “Canadian Pure.” How can I go wrong with that?

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Lizards and Spiders and Beers, Oh My!

Life in Kinshasa is settling into a bit of a routine. We got into our “permanent” (in the FS this means 2 years) house last Sunday and we’ve unpacked our suitcases and the 16 boxes I sent myself from the U.S. before we left. We’ve received one Amazon Prime Pantry box of goodies and we’ve got another on the way, so the knowledge that we are only an online order and two weeks from more mac & cheese singles (C’s favorite) or dog food, is comforting.

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The house also has two major advantages. First, it has a lovely pool that not only provides endless hours of entertainment, but also makes the view from the living room that much nicer. The walls of our living/dining room are entirely windows across two full sides and look out to the pool area and the backyard. Ironically, the water is a bit cold for too much swimming, though we understand that once the wet season starts in about a month and the weather gets hotter the cold pool temperature will be a welcome relief.

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The second advantage, at least from my perspective, is the proximity to Shoprite, a South African grocery store chain. The strip mall where it is located also has a clothing/fabric store that I can’t wait to explore and an ice cream store called Nice Cream that will also be a welcome spot during hot days. As was probably clear from my earlier post, the ability to get out and MOVE is important to me… For some reason we run out of things to drink way faster than things to eat, so the ability to trot the 500 ft. over to Shoprite and pick up juice, soda and beer, makes life just that much easier. And this is my kind of place as far as beer. The most popular local beer is a lager called Primus. After enduring the last 11 months in Arlington where asking for a lager a restaurant seemed akin to asking for Spam for dinner, I am a happy lager-drinking girl.

C might disagree on the second advantage to our house. For her it is that there are about 14 other children living in this compound of 8 homes. Four of them are teenagers and might as well be adults from C’s perspective, but the rest range in age from 2 ½ to 9. On most afternoons (and many mornings) the whole lot of them can be found in the compound courtyard riding bikes in circles (thank heavens for the folks who’ve been here a while and have extra bikes), drawing with chalk or playing. During the day, at least right now when school is not in session, they rotate between houses and pools. Usually, there are also a number of additional children from other U.S.G. housing nearby.

The only thing the children share the courtyard with are the lizards – a wide variety of green, black and orange lizards sunning themselves and doing “push-ups” if any of the kids (or adults) get too close to them. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a place where there were no lizards, but I find them fascinating. B couldn’t care less about them and I chalk that up to growing up in Florida where they are not exactly a novelty.

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The only other creatures we’ve come in contact with are birds, most with beautiful songs, and one very large spider.

So here’s the deal about me: I don’t kill things (except cockroaches) unless they are a threat to my child, my husband, my dog, or me, or they are known to be dangerous. Therefore, when I walked into the bathroom yesterday and found this spider staring at me, my first instinct was not to stomp on it.

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My first instinct was to say, “Huh. That is one BIG spider. Wonder if it is dangerous?” I had my phone in my hand, so I took a picture (it had, by that time scooted over to the side of the toilet bowl) and emailed it to B with a message saying “Can you ask around and see if anyone knows whether this is dangerous?”

In my defense, I wasn’t wearing shoes (and was, in fact, still in my PJs) so it’s not like I could have stomped on it anyway, but once I’d sent along the email I backed out of the bathroom to find some shoes and wait for B’s response. B called me almost immediately.

“Kill it,” he said.

“Why?” I countered. “Is it dangerous?”

“I have no idea, but it is huge. Just kill it. I don’t want it crawling on me at night.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “It won’t crawl on you at night – our bed is covered in mosquito netting. It won’t be able to get in there.”

B was having none of it.

“Says you,” he said. “Just put on your big girl panties and go and kill it.” (as if my reluctance to kill it was because I was afraid of it rather than because I don’t think it is my place to randomly kill other creatures).

Unfortunately for B, the spider was nowhere to be seen when I returned to the bathroom. I did keep my eye out for it all day, but I (turns out wrongly) assumed that once it had met Miller it would leave the house of its own accord, just as it had unilaterally come in.

I did do some due diligence and asked the nannies in the compound whether it was dangerous – to which they said no. One of our neighbors identified it as a “huntsman” or “hunting” spider and said it killed roaches. This further justified my feeling that not killing it at first sight was the right move – anything that kills roaches so I don’t have to is a good thing in my book.

As we got ready for bed B repeated his concern that the spider might join us under the mosquito net and I poo-poo’d his worries. The netting goes all the way to the floor – surely it could not get in there (setting aside the question of why it would want to get in there in the first place). We settled down, turned off the lights and started to drift into sleep…then I happened to look up. Almost directly above my head, on the netting, I saw a long leg move.   I slipped under the net and turned on my bedside light.

The spider was inside the netting.

“Um, B,” I said. “You need to slowly get out of bed on your side of the bed.”

He was clearly almost asleep by that point and he slurred, “Why?”

“Uh, well, turns out you were right,” I replied. “The spider is on the netting. On the inside.”

He moved pretty quickly at that point, spluttering “arrrrgh, I hate you!” as he scrambled out, and we ended up both standing outside our bed, looking at the spider inside.

Needless to say the spider did not get another chance. He was summarily squished with B’s shoe. Sheets were changed and, somewhat surprisingly, we both got a really good night’s sleep. So while in Africa at least, it appears I will have to abandon my moratorium on killing first and asking questions later, and, for the rest of my life, B will never let me forget that he was right and I was wrong about spiders and mosquito netting.

Tuesdays are radio call-in days

Every Tuesday while we are in Kinshasa we will test out our U.S. Government issued radio to be sure it works in case of an emergency.   For the next 99 Tuesdays, give or take, we will call in to Post headquarters and say “this is Echo 1 Zulu,” or something like that, and they will respond, “we read you Lima Charlie, Echo 1 Zulu. Over and Out.”

So on top of my daily exercise in French, and my desire to learn some Lingala (the local language) while we are here, it turns out I’ll also be learning the military alphabet.

For reasons that have always been unclear to me these letters have evaded my best efforts to remember them. We were forced to call in on C’s call sign today because I cannot for the life of me remember what “y” is. Yellow? Yahoo? Yoda? I have no idea. In our threesome of a family, I am the “y”, B is the “x” (some slight irony for genetics geeks) and C is the “z.” The only one of the three I can remember is “Zulu,” so C is the caller on this first Tuesday of our time in Congo.

All morning long we’ve been hearing the chatter as other folks call in. B had to tell me “Lima Charlie” meant “Loud & Clear” before he left this morning so who knows what other “phrases” will also pop up that will seem as foreign to me as the Lingala spoken by most people on the streets here.

We had a hard day yesterday. C and I have now been in this apartment, almost non-stop, for 6 days. We have only the things we brought with us and the contents of two of the boxes I sent from the States. Thank Amazon one of the boxes contained Mac & Cheese and an art project, so I’ve been able to keep C relatively occupied and fed. My phone stopped working on Sunday, and the internet died sometime in the middle of the night on Monday. All we need to do is replenish the money in both accounts, but we are struggling to figure out how to do that. Luckily my phone can receive calls and texts, but I have no way of calling out.

The day yesterday was a bit cooler, with almost no sun. Overcast and hazy. Lovely in many ways with a fresh breeze blowing through the palms in the compound yard, but not really pool weather (at least for 90 degree loving me). So, we did an art project, wrote a letter (a lost art that I am thrilled C will get to know and love), and walked the dog. C played on the phone while I worked out in the handy little gym downstairs.

On Sunday we discovered that directly across the hall from us is a little girl named S who is 5 (or who “has 5 years” translated literally from the French). S is also the daughter of an American in Kinshasa and speaks English. So late in the afternoon we knocked on her door and invited her over to play. Apart from a few “that’s mine” and “I’m the winner” moments that are to be expected between any 4 and 5 year old, the play date went really well and I actually got some time to read.

Then S’s “nou-nou” (nanny) took the girls out to the play area where there is a trampoline, swing set (like no swing set you’ve ever seen – metal and more like a swinging metal couch than anything else) and play house. I went downstairs and sat by the pool to read some more, wanting to be in somewhat close proximity since Nou-nou doesn’t speak English and C doesn’t speak French. It was a great hour. I listened to the girls giggle and scream in joy while I relaxed and read.

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Then came the fall. Literally.

As we were walking back into the building, Nou-nou and the girls in front, me bringing up the rear, C tripped on the doorframe and fell hard onto the marble foyer floor. When I ran up to them she was crying that her knee hurt, so I picked her up and we went back to the apartment. I sat her down to look at her knee and she said, “Mommy, my head hurts too.” So I lifted up her mop of yellow curls and saw a huge lump right in the middle of her forehead. Yikes.

Now I’m the daughter of two doctors, so I’m not one to panic at the sight of bumps, bruises or blood. So I didn’t panic. I got a bag of rice that was conveniently in the freezer (yes, everything gets put into the fridge or freezer here to avoid any unpleasant bug surprises when you are making dinner…) and put it on her head. Then, once she had calmed down, I started to think about our circumstances.

We are in a strange city where we are restricted in movement. We have no working phone. We have no working internet. We have only a radio. The radio is for emergencies. What kind of emergency qualifies? At what point would a bump on the head qualify as an acceptable use of the radio? I have no idea. I felt the weight of that Lima Charlie.

And these are the questions that plague me on these long indolent days. I am a woman of action. I normally know where to turn when I need help (even if I am sometimes loath the ask for it). I drove across the country in the 80s, in my teens, with no phone or radio and never thought twice about it. But there is something about the addition of my child that makes me feel helpless and unnerved by my lack of knowledge here. Where is a hospital? I have no idea. A doctor? Don’t know. I don’t have a car. I can’t call a taxi. Hell, I can’t even call B. 99 Tuesdays stretch far, far ahead of me.

The booklet we got from Post when we were assigned to Kinshasa said: “The first day will be the hardest day, the first week will be the hardest week, and the first month will be the hardest month.” While it might very well be true that the first month will be the hardest month, the first day was definitely not the hardest day – the 5th day was. But I also ask myself, what if we were in China? Or Mexico? Or Brazil? I wouldn’t know where the hospital or doctors are there either, would I? And without a car, phone or internet I’d be equally at odds when facing a bump on the head and wouldn’t feel nearly as comfortable with the language. Even if you dropped me in the middle of L.A., or some other large U.S. city that I am unfamiliar with, I’d still be out of sorts without a car or communication with the outside world. So it’s not really about this particular place, it’s about the unfamiliarity of any new place – and, given the transient lifestyle we have opted for – this is obviously a feeling I’m going to have more than once.

So maybe I need to relax in the knowledge that I have this radio. This little box that sits quietly on our dresser all week except for Tuesdays when it squawks to life momentarily and the Marines at Post One confirm that all is well with the radio and perhaps, by implication, the world that we now live in.

Marines, after all, they are my lifelines to the outside if I need them; what better lifelines could I ask for? This is the bizarre reality of this new life. I don’t have a phone, a car or the Internet, but if I need them the Marines will come to my aid.

Here’s hoping that 99 Tuesdays from now I will sign on (having learned what “y” stands for…) and do my last radio check, and that in between now and then all our bumps in Kinshasa will be minor ones and we will never need to call on the Marines, or have them call on us, for anything else. Over and out.

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Freedom of Movement

The gates of our compound are guarded, day and night, by three or four uniformed men. They push open the heavy metal gates at the entrance for cars coming in, and cars going out. There is no separate gate for pedestrians, because the people who live behind our walls do not generally walk out, or walk in. If you live here the guards will open the gates and you are granted entrance to a sanctuary of calm compared to the busy movement of the outside world here.

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The guards greet me in the morning when I take the dog out with a friendly “Bonjour Madame,” tipping their hats and giving me a shallow bow. They are both fascinated and very (very) wary of Miller. They cluster in the door of the guardhouse and watch us walk by. I have told them “Il n’est pas mechant. Il est gentil, vraiment.” (he is not mean, he is nice, truly). But so far only one of them has been brave enough to come close enough to touch the dog – and after he tapped Miller lightly on the head he jumped back as if he’d touched a wild bear.

There is barbed wire covering the walls that surround the compound. Inside our apartment we have a “Safe Room,” where, if necessary, we could hunker down for any unrest to pass. It is “safe” not only because it helps keep us safe from harm, but, with its heavy metal door and large metal sheets covering the windows, it also feels like a safe in which to keep valuables. We feel protected here. But we are restless. This first weekend was eye opening for us. It gave us a glimpse of at least one hard aspect of this post: the compound we live in is our home and it is sheltered, but it is also our prison – the proverbial “gilded cage.” Part of the problem is that we do not yet have our car. There are rumors it is close – perhaps even at customs in Kinshasa, but that means nothing until we have the official word that it has been released and will be delivered back to us. Without a car we are either reliant on others, or stuck in our compound. B has been getting a ride to and from work everyday with a woman he works with, and our sponsors have very kindly taken us out for a tour of the town, lunch at a lovely patisserie and picked us up and taken us over to their place (which is right next door to our soon-to-be house) for a Sunday afternoon Happy Hour. But for C and me, once B leaves, the day stretches before us within the confines of our apartment and the guarded walls of the building.

In both Charlotte and Arlington our weekend mornings were full of conversations like this:

“What do you want to do today?”

“I dunno. Why don’t we walk down to Elizabth/Plaza-Midwood/Clarendon and take the dog to the dog park, then we can swing by the kid park and then have lunch somewhere?”

We left at our leisure. I went to Target for “a couple of things” (and left with dozens of things). B “ran” to Home Depot. We took C to the library, birthday parties, the ice cream store. This is a very real freedom of living in the U.S., Canada and other first world countries that I think most of us forget: the freedom to MOVE. Wherever and whenever we feel the urge to do so. And we can move by foot, by car (with the windows rolled down), by subway or by bike.

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That freedom is, for the most part, denied to us here. Sunday afternoon, when we joined our sponsors (and soon-to-be neighbors) for cocktails, B and I left their compound (called the GB) on foot. Immediately next door to GB is Shoprite – a large, Western-feeling grocery store. I forgot to buy ketchup and mustard when our sponsor took me shopping on Friday and in our house of chicken nuggets and sandwiches that sin had to be rectified.

The GB guards opened the big metal gates for us and B and I stepped through onto the dusty dirt “sidewalk.” We walked the 500 feet between the GB and Shoprite and I felt giddy. Just not being dependent on someone else to get me from place A to place B was freeing. We didn’t linger (though B did marvel at the relative cheapness of the alcohol and the relative expense of the broccoli), but just the knowledge that when we move into the GB I will have some small freedom of movement – even if it is just walking to the grocery store – made me happy.

When I was young we didn’t have the internet to occupy us. At my parents’ lake house we didn’t have cable, only an old VCR and a few movies. We played games. We did puzzles. We read books. I am hoping that coupled with some more freedom than we have now, we can also re-learn the art of occupation that does not involve electronic games, on-demand videos, and unnecessary trips to Target just to fight boredom.

In our shipments I’ve packed games and puzzles and crafts (though B may never be coaxed into doing to any crafts…). I have more than a dozen books I haven’t had time to read. I’d like to master the art of making a bagel, ice cream and dinner. I want to make C some clothes out of the amazing fabrics that surround us here.

And I want to learn to appreciate the freedom and privilege it is to open my front door and walk out into the world without a guard, barbed wire and a gate protecting me.

Day One

Where to start?

Kinshasa is both entirely expected, and entirely unexpected.

I’m sitting on our balcony on the tenth floor of our temporary apartment. I have a beautiful view of the Congo River (or Flueve Congo). It is wide, and brown and, frankly, given its place in literature and history, a little awe inspiring to me. I can see whitecaps along the shore, though from my distance I cannot tell whether they are from waves or rapids.

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There are flocks of crow-like birds flying around and cawing – all black, but for a wide white band about their neck and chest. It unexpectedly cool out. Much nicer than it was when we left D.C. in the sweltering and humid heat of late July. I’m sitting outside, but I have a sweater on, and my feet are a bit chilly. I’m looking at the pool in the complex and thinking I have no desire to be anywhere near it until the sun gets on this side of the building.

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Horns honk in the distance, and earlier I heard a rooster crow, but for a city of 7-12 million people (estimates are wildly divergent) it is unexpectedly quiet. Last night we could hear the odd dog bark, but the sound of traffic was almost non-existent. Not at all what I expected after our drive into town from the airport, which was expectedly chaotic. It wasn’t so much about the traffic on the drive, but about the pedestrians. The main road didn’t appear to have streetlights to speak of, so it was virtually pitch dark save the oncoming and surrounding headlights, but there were pedestrians everywhere. And they crossed this busy road (think 4 lane mid-level highway) everywhere. They’d suddenly be right in front of our car trotting across the road and pausing between gaps in the concrete median (think 12-24” of concrete barriers) before trotting across in front of the oncoming traffic. Watching, it seemed to me that there must be multiple fatalities on a given night. But, in the same way I can never believe that there aren’t dozens of head on crashes on the twisty-turny roads in the English countryside where there never seems to be room for one car, let alone two, I suspect I’d be wrong about that if I could find a way to check.

This morning I jerry-rigged a filter out of a paper towel for the supplied coffee pot (seriously DOS folks, you give me a coffee pot and no filters? Not nice) and used the bag of coffee I brought with me, and the milk and sugar supplied by our amazing “social sponsor,” and now I’m sitting outside absorbing as much of this new view as I can, and I really couldn’t ask for anything more (expect maybe internet so I could actually post this…).**

B left for work at 7 a.m. dressed in a suit and probably not only still jet lagged, but also incredibly nervous. He looked like a diplomat though. Polished and poised.

C is sleeping like she is home; the full sleep of a child who has been in transit, but now feels safe.

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And I am sitting here on this lovely balcony overlooking an abandoned building, a busy intersection and the Fleuve Congo, patting dry unexpected tears of wonder and joy that this is my life.

** Obviously we now have internet.  It is SLOW, but no slower than it was in 1994 when I moved to North Carolina!

Six days, Seven years and Fifteen hundred pounds…

In seven days C and I will wake up to our last day in D.C.  B will have left the day before, but he will only be going to New York for “consultations” (this is an oft-used word in the FS which has yet to be fully explained to me).  C and I, and Miller, the Dog, will be flying to Brussels and will wait for B there before we all travel together to Kinshasa.  Seven days loom both long and short.  We have been sure to plan lots of visits, dinners out, time with family and friends, and in the midst of all of that a pack-out, move out and a last day of school. I have no doubt that it will feel like a long time while we are in the middle of it, but I also know that seven days from now I’ll be sitting here (well, not here, but at some hotel…) and wondering how the last seven days went by so quickly.

Seven months ago I was just finishing up my year with the Firm.  I was working out my plans for telecommuting and planning all the extra time I’d have to go to the movies (the theater is across the street after all – super easy, right?!), read, write, sew and get organized.  Suddenly, here we are, at the end of July and I haven’t seen a single movie (at least during the day at the theater across the street), I’m still reading the same book I started at about that time, the shirt I’m making isn’t finished yet, and, well…organized…maybe, maybe not, depending on your definition.  Those months loomed ahead of me with days and days of promising fun, and, don’t get me wrong, they have been full of fun, but not in the way I had “planned.”

Seven years ago B and I were newly married.  We celebrated our anniversary on Sunday with a lovely dinner, some champagne and a bottle of wine that was a wedding present (which we couldn’t bear to possibly ruin by subjecting it to shipment to Africa).  Those seven years have seemed both interminably long and like we turned off the music and stopped dancing only a few hours ago.  My journalism professor, Wiley Hilburn, once wrote in my journal that “time is inexorable” and those words pop into my head unbidden at moments like this.  Moments when I am fully aware of the speed and slowness with which time moves.

Our pack-out is today, so we’ve been packing like it’s our job (well, I guess it is my job…).  Last week, B spent the week at Crashbang (so now you can take your pick as to who will tie your tourniquet).  I spent the week packing, and more importantly, completing our consumables shipment.  The total volume of our shipment was only 1,560 lbs…a mere 60 lbs past 3/4 of a ton.  Technically I did the majority of the shopping for the consumables at BJ’s, where the movers came to pack.  I arrived when the store opened with my very detailed list (honed over several months of aimless-ish wandering through the aisles) and managed to fill a flat cart and two regular carts (which, of course, are much larger than “regular” when you are shopping at BJ’s).  This was in addition to all the food and shampoo and toothpaste etc.  I’ve been hoarding for months. 

   
   
And so, in a few hours we’ll be back to the sterile corporate apartment we walked into last August and all that will be left will be to savor our last few days stateside with our family and friends while we listen for the last few notes of the fat lady’s song. 

And this time next week we’ll be beginning our final descent into Kinshasa and waiting anxiously to hear the first few notes of the new song of our lives in Africa. 

That’s a lot of food!

Ok, bear with me here – I’m trying out posting from my iPhone since I’m not sure when I’ll have access to a computer once we hit Kinshasa next Wednesday. I’ve got a much longer post coming with more details on our timeline/pack out etc…but as I’m sitting here waiting for B I figured I’d give you all a taste of what our consumables pack-out looked like last week. Our food/toiletries and other consumables (items we will consume in Kin) are on their way to Africa and they weigh…drum roll…

One thousand five hundred and forty pounds. Yup.  1,540. 

That’s a LOT of food. 
Here’s what that looks like: 

 
In words that is four personally packed containers, one full flat and two full carts from BJ’s and various and sundry personal boxes and bags from Harris Teeter, Target, Trader Joe’s and speciality stores from Charlotte to Canada. 

Now the guessing game begins as to how long it will take to get to us…and, once it does, how long it will last. 

Luckily we still have almost 1,000 pounds we can send later…

Past, present and future

Amos Bronson Alcott, who was a pretty cool dude in his own right, and was the father of Louisa May (which makes him doubly cool), once said “The less routine, the more life.”

This idea – that routine is the death knell of excitement and living – was one of the main reasons I was willing to leave our home, family and friends and set off on this great adventure.

My theory was that the reason it seems like time moves faster the older you get is that you stop having new experiences.  Life becomes routine after you’ve crossed off all the “required” experiences: going to school, going to college, getting a job, dating, marrying, having kids.  After that every day is the same: get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed – do it all over again then next day.  Once or twice a year you get to take a vacation, but, at least while your kids are young, that is more stressful than work and you long to get back to the routine when your kids sleep in their own bed and at a reasonable hour.

I figured if I shook the routine up enough (you know, move to Africa) then time would slow down again and I’d get more life by living in the moment of all these new experiences.

A funny thing seems to be happening though – the new experiences are happening at breakneck speed, but I’m spending the whole time either reminiscing about the past, or worrying about the future.  In other words, I’m living less in the moment than I think I was when I was mired in all the deadly boring “routine.”

Case in point.  In the past two months, C and I have spent a good bit of time traveling to visit friends and family.  We’ve traveled over 3,500 miles since May.  We’ve seen several dozen of B’s family members (most in the same place, but still…) and half a dozen of mine – in two different places.  I’ve done “girls” weekend in New York and have checked off a large number of visits with assorted friends both here and along the way.

IMG1098Two of my favorite places in the world were the stopping points on our most recent trip, yet I spent a good bit of time in both those places with my face pointed toward a computer screen finalizing our consumables list, scanning in our important documents, and arguing with the airlines about how to get Miller on a plane to Kinshasa.

I’ve spent a weekend in New York, a week in Maine, a week in Michigan, a week in Canada, and on our drive we stopped by the town where my parents landed in 1970 when they moved to Canada, and in the city where I went to elementary school.  We drove along streets where I got lost in the past remembering games of Red Rover and the Wonder Woman Club.  We visited several of my high school friends. We ate (or at least I ate) every “favorite” food I thought I might not get for the next two years.

So the last few months have not been particularly routine, but several times I realized that I was not really enjoying the experiences (new and old) and my life, because I was too busy worrying about how many jars of pasta sauce we should bring with us in our consumables, or thinking about how much a Coke and a candy bar used to cost at the corner store in my old neighborhood ($0.26 each).

All of this has made me realize that the danger of this new life of ours is the risk of always looking forward – to the next bid, the next post, the next shipment – or always looking back – to the last post, old friends, or to the things you can’t see, visit or eat – and not, instead, looking around – to the amazing experiences being offered to us at every turn.

We’ve lived in D.C. for 10 months now.  I swore I would see a Supreme Court argument, visit the National Archives, go up the Washington Monument – and yet I haven’t done any of it, because I’ve spent a good bit of time here – in this amazing city – thinking about “there” – Kinshasa – and what it will be like when we get there.

So what will happen when I get there? Will I spend all my time thinking about here, D.C.? About Leland and Muskoka, where I had the privilege of spending the last two weeks? About my past? Or about my future and where our next post might be?

Perhaps my goal needs to be to embrace the routine along with the adventure. Maybe a little routine gives our brains the rest they need to stop and look around.  Cause you know what another cool (and righteous) dude once said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

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Family trip in Maine

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Michigan wine tasting tour. Part IV…

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Moose anyone?

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Our first home in Canada.

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B visiting with his brothers.

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Cousins in Maine

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Girls Weekend – Sushi in NYC!

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Visit the Newseum. Check.

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Broadway Play. Check.

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Popeye’s friend chicken, red beans & rice, onion rings and Cajun sparkle. Check.

CRASH! BANG! PACK!

So, you’re walking along and suddenly you come across an AK-47 lying in front of you.  What do you do?

RUN, right?

A couple of weeks ago that is exactly the way I would have answered that question, but now that I’ve spent a week at the Foreign Affairs Counter Threat (“FACT”) training, I could, with some level of confidence, carefully pick up and “make safe” said weapon by removing the magazine and any unfired bullets all while keeping it “muzzle safe” (ie: not pointing it wildly at anything other than the ground).

All that being said, I suspect my first reaction would still be to run away. Far, far away.

In addition to my “make safe” training on guns, I can now also put on a tourniquet (in case you are bleeding profusely), and know how to look for IEDs that might be on my car. I hope I will never need any of this training, though as someone who learned to drive in Canada I have used the “skid control” lessons on more occasions that I care to count.  I’m guessing I won’t need to worry about skidding on icy roads in Kinshasa, but who knows about muddy or rainy roads…

Don’t worry – I’m not giving anything away here – this information is available freely on the web (after all the training we did on security I was VERY aware of not telling anyone more than was available publicly).  CBS also did a small segment on FACT which you can watch here.  Among other things it shows the two most exciting parts of the training: learning to ram a car and watching a car get blown up.

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By the end of the week I felt pretty bad for the cars involved in the training.  They were rammed, shot at, and, eventually, blown up – it made me feel a little like I did in Ferris Bueller when they destroyed that beautiful Ferrari (except that we were destroying the Ferrari’s poorer cousin, the Crown Victoria).  The dummies we used to practice medical training and self-defense didn’t fare much better, but at least they “lived” to see another day.  Pretty sure the cars left the training facility and were towed straight to the scrap yard.

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With my FACT training over it was back to Arlington to pack.  Lucky me, I was not only packing for our BIG move, but also for a two week trip to Michigan and Canada to visit family with C.  Since B is in the middle of “ConGen” (the general consular training that he is required to take – and not allowed to miss at all) he had to stay home. We’ll miss him, but at least he’ll get to join us over July 4th.

Packing for the trip was good practice for packing our suitcases for July 26, though I think I’ll have to cut back on the clothes I put in my carry-on bag.  Packing it to the gills when you are driving somewhere is fine, but I have a feeling the airline will not consider it “carry-on compliant” in the overstuffed state in which it entered the car.  No matter though – for now it just needs to get us through the diversity of weather from 90 degrees in Arlington to 53 degrees in Northern Michigan/Northern Ontario, not the scrutinizing gaze of a random rules obsessed flight attendant.

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Our tickets to Kin are now officially booked – including the dog (after many hours on hold with Brussels and United airlines) and our consumables pack-out is schedule for the week B is at FACT. Now we are just waiting for our final dates for pack-out of our HHE and UAB and then we’ll be all set and ready to go on July 26…we hope.