And the winner is…

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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Summer changes and choices

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

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

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

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

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

A few of my adventures

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






A few weeks ago I finalized a deal with my firm for my transition from “Partner” to “Eligible Family Member.”  I will continue to work through the end of April and then on April 30 I will officially withdraw from the firm and will cease being a partner at Parker Poe.  The finalization of the deal was a huge relief to me and I took it as a sign that I was going to have infinitely more free time to do all the things on the “What will D Do” list.  HA!

As I write this it is 11:28 p.m. on a SATURDAY night and I just logged out of the Parker Poe system, primarily because the program I was working in kept crashing.  So much for free time.

free time

I’ve really only kept work for one of my clients.  I really enjoy working with them, and the work is always interesting, so I figured it would keep me happily engaged, bring in a few dollars, but leave me plenty of free time to start working on my list.  Only I now have briefing on multiple cases for this client which, coincidentally enough, won’t end until April 30.  And as luck (or unluck for them) would have it, another lawsuit was filed against them last week, just when I was anticipating things slowing down.  The best laid plans and all that…

At the same time I have been working on my list.  My primary focus has been on laying the foundation for potentially finding employment at a later date, whether in Kin, or at our next post.  The State Department has been working over the last several years to come up with ways to help family members with overseas career development.  There has been a lot of talk lately about the programs not being very effective, but I haven’t yet experienced the results because we haven’t yet gone to our first post, so for now I can only speak to the various opportunities and possibilities that have been brought to my attention – and which I generally have found exciting.

One program is the Global Employment Initiative (GEI). One aspect of this program is the ability to work with a Global Employment Advisor (GEA) to streamline a job search in a particular region, provide job coaching and training workshops and other career services – all for free.  I have an advisor in Africa who has been responsive and has talked through several options with me, though I think at this point the main help I need is figuring out how to update my resume after 18 or so years.  Let’s just say my CV is not internet compatible.


There is also a “pilot” program to offer EFM’s the opportunity to accept consular jobs at their spouse’s post (ie: work on the visa line).  This program requires taking a written 75 minute test similar to the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) that B took – lacking only the essay portion – and then, if you pass that, taking an “Oral Assessment.”  The OA for the AEFM/CA program includes a writing section where you are given a closed universe of information and asked to write a memo or other document, and a “structured interview” which includes answering questions about yourself, your background, and trying to figure out what the appropriate answer to a bunch of “scenario” questions are.  It is missing the “group exercise” in the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA)(thank heavens because there was one REALLY obnoxious guy taking the FSOA the day I took my “fake” OA and I might not have tolerated his BS for long in a group exercise…).

I took, and passed, the written test, and then a few weeks later took, and passed, the OA.  This OA is even scored like the FSOA – out of 7 with 5.3 being a passing score.  I got a 6.3, which I’m really happy with, though I have no idea what that will mean in practice.  Now, like B had to about 2 years ago, I’m in the process of getting my security clearance and, once that is done, I’ll be put on a list for possible consular jobs, but only in the posts where I am already living with B.  There are some great advantages to this program (like being able to accrue government pension) so I’m hoping that when I’m ready the fact that I’ve jumped through all the hoops will put me in a good position to get a consular job one day.

I was going to try and take the 6-week consular class while we are in the U.S. too, figuring I could knock that out without having to figure out the logistics of possibly coming back to the states to take it when we are overseas.  I even took another written test (Government bureaucracy in action…) in order to be put on the waiting list for the class.  But, now that I’ve done all that, I look at the calendar between now and the end of July and there is no way I’m going to have a block of 6 weeks in which I do not need to work, or have not planned other things (the fun things I’ve been waiting for like spending a week with my family and a week with B’s).  It just seems that time is running out and I have (as is my tendency) booked myself so full that I’m still running around crazed despite all my great desires and plans to have tons of free time.

Amid all of this work and future job planning, I rented a sewing machine so I could work on my “go back to sewing” plan. HA again!  It has sat, covered, on the dining room (if you can call just another part of our living the dining room just because it includes a table…) since I brought it home.  Next week I’ll lug it back up to the sewing studio and, I’ll venture a guess, it won’t have been used.  I do have some really nice material to take with us to Kinshasa though.  Sigh.

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Onward with the juggling I go…

What will D do?

Soon after B took his Oral Assessment last year he sent me an email.  In it he expressed his concern about accepting an offer to join the foreign service.  Not concerns about the work, the travel or the constantly changing lifestyle, but concerns about me.

“I’m worried about what you are going to do,” he wrote.

I was at work at the time. Piles of papers on my desk, billable hours and client problems occupying my mind and my time. But I stopped when I read his email.  I put down the case I was reading and cleared a place on my desk. I put a blank piece of paper in front of me and wrote down what immediately came to my mind when I posed that question to myself.

“What will I do if I’m not a lawyer any more?”  This is the list I came up with.

1.         Raise our daughter.  Seriously, what an opportunity!  Most of my friends who are still sitting at their desks piled with paper and cases and timesheets would kill for the chance to take a sabbatical and get multiple hours of uninterrupted hands-on time with their children.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a terrifying thought as well as a joyful one, but I’m up for the challenge.

2.         Read the pile of books I have not gotten to for 15 years.  Books used to give me such pure pleasure.  I still feel it sometimes when I’m in a bookstore and see something I’ve always wanted to read, or a book I have loved in the past.  It brings a little heat to my cheeks and excitement to my heart.  Sometimes I even give in to that feeling.

“Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History! Oh Joy,” I thought to myself last week when I saw them.  “And on sale! Woo hoo!”

I bought both books and brought them home, caressing the covers and gazing longingly at the words on the first page. Then I got home and thought, “When in the heck am I going to read these?”  I hid them in the back of our bookcase along with a dozen other books that have been waiting, some for months, others for years, to be read.  No more! When we get to Kinshasa I am going to make it my mission (or at least part of my mission) to read these books.  I know I’ll need to escape sometimes (or many times) and Donna Tartt, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood and several others are going to help me.

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3.         Finally make C’s baby book.  Like many working mothers I have a box full of mementos and pictures and little “notes” to myself that deserve a place in an official baby book, but so far they haven’t gotten out of the big plastic boxes I’ve been shoving them into  since C was born in 2011.  This one is high on my list and I’m hoping to get it started before we leave so that I can get everything scanned in before we hit the heat and humidity of the Congo.FullSizeRender (3)

4.         Organize photos, albums etc.  I’ve got this friend (who shall remain nameless) who has managed to create a yearly hard copy photo album of all her family’s memories of a given year.  I dream of such an achievement.  For now I’ll accept some vague organization of our vast collection of digital photos.  Step One – take free iPhoto and iMovie classes at the Mac Store!

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5.         Write – a book, an article, a blog…for myself, or not. Ta-Da! Mission accomplished in the form of a blog…now I just have to write more than once a month…

6.         Learn to knit.  Knit.  So when making this list I didn’t know we were going to move to Africa.  I’m now rethinking how useful it will be to knit as that typically involves wool, scarves and sweaters, which are unlikely to be needed in the Congo.  Maybe I’ll save this one for when we get posted to Norway one day…

7.         Go back to sewing. Sew.  When I was living in Toronto after undergrad I did quite a bit of sewing – for myself and others, and I really enjoyed it.  But that was also a time in my life where I had so much free time that I considered the cast members of All my Children to be close friends.  I don’t anticipate having THAT much free time again, so I don’t aspire to FullSizeRender (5)Project Runway, but some cute kids clothes for C with the amazing African fabrics I’ll have access to? Yes please!  I’m taking some private lessons in D.C. at a fabulous little studio called “Bits of Thread” so hopefully I’ll be back in “top-ish” form by the time we leave.Traditional-African-fabrics

 8.         Learn a new language.  French isn’t new for me, but I’m trying to learn it better if nothing else.  The Foreign Service is pretty amazing in terms of the support and offerings they provide for helping EFM’s learn a language.  Lord knows, they could throw us all into our new environments head first with no training at all, but they’ve recognized the benefits of having family members who can converse in the countries in which they are living.  Right now I’m taking two “Distance Language Learning” classes through the Foreign Service Institute.  I’m not terribly “distant” given that I’m less than a mile from the FSI campus, but my classmates are in Madrid and Dakar and having the opportunity to converse in French three times a week is wonderful practice (though it is not so great for anyone who has to speak to me in English immediately afterwards…)

9.         Teach English as a second language. “Know Thyself” was obviously not at the top of my mind when I made this list.  While I would love to do something useful and helpful while we are in country, it may be that being a teacher (of any sort) should not be at the top of my list.  But, then again, this is at No. 9, so maybe at the very least I can do some mentoring with folks who want to practice their English.  Mentoring I can handle, but I’ll leave teaching to my awesome sister-in-law, mother-in-law and the other people who teach for a living.

10.       Work for an NGO.  Ok, I’m going to admit it, until about two months ago I didn’t actually know what an NGO was.  Hello? Private sector lawyer here…not something that was important or relevant to my life at the time.  Now, however, I’m fascinated with the number and variety of NGOs and the work they do in the Congo and elsewhere in the world.  I’m still exploring this one and there are a lot of possible options, so stay tuned.  Oh, and “Non-governmental organizations: any non-profit, voluntary citizens’ group which is organized on a local, national or international level” – in case there is anyone else in the dark!

11.       Work for a US or foreign Company doing contract legal work.  I’ve got the training, I passed the bar, why not put it all to good use? Again, lots of possible options here, so I’m slowly exploring what is out there.

12.       Work for the embassy.  In recent years the State Department has increasingly recognized the importance of helping diplomatic family members find work.  There are a lot of available resources to help family members, and I’m doing my best to take advantage of them.  I’ll save the details for another post (I promise it will come in less than 30+ days…), but there are a number of possible jobs that I might be able to get at the embassy – everything from mail sorter to working on the visa line just like B.

13.       Volunteer to do pro bono work.  After 18 years of using my law degree for “evil” (or at least for the “Man”) it is exciting to think about using it for good.  I suspect there will be no shortage of opportunities to do volunteer work in Congo, and I’m excited to find one (or more) that fits my passions.

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No more working for the Man!

14.       Eat bon bons.  A valid use of my time, non?

calmez-vous-et-manger-bonbons15.       Work out.  Clearly this will be required if I spend too much time on No. 14…  I am looking forward to having the ability to work out again in a place where it will NEVER be 10 degrees or less like it has been in D.C. for seemingly months now…


16.       Do freelance writing or editing.  I used to do freelance work, so why not try it again? There are some very specialized magazines out there that are always looking for articles.  I once wrote a story for “Forest and People” magazine, and I wrote several for “Education Today.”  Those were in the days before computers were everywhere (I’m 100% sure I must have mailed a hard copy of my piece to the magazine, but that seems impossible in this day and age) so it might be even easier to do this remotely now.

17.       Be happy and enjoy the adventure of our lives… This one I try and accomplish every day.  So far, so good.

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Swearing (in)

Ok, yes, I know, this post is a little late.  It’s probably become pretty clear in the last few months, that B did, in fact, “graduate” from his A-100 (the 6-week entry level orientation class for FSOs), get sworn-in, and move into language training.  Nevertheless, I feel that I owe him (if not his parents) a post commemorating the actual ceremony.  I really do have a good excuse for my delay – as you will see below, B got the opportunity to take a snap with his boss’s-boss’s-boss’s-boss – The Secretary, and I was waiting for a better version of that picture, but, it turns out, no one has any idea where that “better” picture is, so it’s time I gave up the wait and went ahead with this post.

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For most new foreign service officers the anticipation for A-100 is HUGE.  For us it was, truly, years in the making.  B took (and passed) his first written FS test (the FSOT) in 2009.  I remember him logging into the State Department website from a train station in Hamburg so he could register for the test.  We were on our way to Copenhagen after a week long driving excursion around Sweden, Belgium, France and the Netherlands courtesy of Volvo.  We had just dropped our new Volvo off at a port outside Hamburg so that it could be shipped back to Charlotte for us. B was anxious about getting a test date that suited him, so we found an internet cafe and I looked over his shoulder as he picked a date in October to take his first test.  It felt like an important moment, and, I suppose, you could say “the rest was history.”  But, in this case, history repeated itself (over and over again) until he was invited to the Oral Assessment in 2013 for the first time, and then again in 2014 for the “money” OA.  The oddest thing is that B never actually “failed” any test – he passed every FSOT, and he passed both his FSOAs, but in the interim he just didn’t make it passed the mysterious PNQ’s (Personal Narrative Questions).  In any case, from 2009 until June 5, 2014, all we had really hoped for was B getting into an A-100 class.  That was the prize – what happened after that was, frankly, somewhat vague and, even more frankly, something so far into the future that we never talked about it.

Similarly, once you are actually IN an A-100 class the only thing people are really focused on is Flag Day.  It’s the day everyone is worried about, anticipating with excitement and dread, and spending hours researching.  But Flag Day is not the end of A-100.  Although far more family and friends travel to D.C. for Flag Day, there is actually a “Graduation” day – where the new FSOs are sworn-in and welcomed to the State Department as official diplomats.  For B, the swearing-in took place a week after Flag Day.  B’s mom stuck around for the week (which was great fun for me and C) so we could all attend the swearing-in together.  Unlike Flag Day, which takes place at FSI, the swearing-in takes place at Main State – or the main State Department building in D.C.  This was especially nice for us since we have three friends who work in that building (two of whom are the folks we visited in Mexico and who got B interested in this life in the first place) who we’d be able to see.  One of those people happens to work directly for the Secretary of State, John Kerry, who was the speaker for the event, so I was looking out for her from the moment we walked in.

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Turns out she was the one person who I didn’t get to talk to, but she also provided B with a fabulous surprise.  The Secretary seemed genuinely excited to be welcoming these new diplomats to their new life, and he spoke for quite a while about the importance of their jobs – and the jobs of all FSOs and employees of the State Department – to aid in the diplomatic mission of the United States.  It turns out he actually spoke for a bit longer than he was originally scheduled, which meant he was late for his next phone call, which meant that B’s surprise was a bit rushed.  At the end of his speech, he stepped down, looked around to B’s class and said “Where is J’s friend from law school?”  Technically, B is not “J’s friend from law school” – I am, but B is J’s friend, so she pointed him out and the Secretary said, “Come down here so we can take a picture.”  B tried to get out of it, but Secretary Kerry was having none of that, and when your boss’s-boss’s-boss’s-boss’s-boss tells you to get to the front of the class and have your picture taken, you do it.  So B climbed down and stood with the Secretary and our friend J and had his picture taken.  Pretty. Damn. Cool.

Bizarrely, when the official photographer sent along the picture it seems that J, B and S (which is actually what he is called by many FSOs when they are not directly addressing him) were looking at someone else’s camera.  No one can figure out who took the picture or where the picture might be, so all I’ve got is the one above, but you get the idea.


C does NOT like to have her picture taken…


SO, there are several asides to this story (as there generally are with all my stories, in case you hadn’t realized).  First, yes, seriously – the trip was, pretty much, courtesy of Volvo.  In our quest for a new car we had been pointed to the Volvo Overseas Delivery program by a friend.  Turns out that, if you buy a Volvo directly from the factory, and then go to Gotteborg, Sweden to pick it up, you get a pretty awesome deal: two round-trip tickets to Sweden, a car from the airport to the factory, a personalized “introduction” to your new car, a tour of the factory (with Swedish meatball lunch included, of course) and one night at a local hotel.  If this weren’t enough, you also have the option of taking your new car and driving it wherever you can get to in Europe for 14 days with paid insurance.  You can then either return it to Gotteborg for free transport back to your local Volvo dealership in the U.S., or you can drop it off in any number of other European ports for a small fee.  Then you fly home and 4-6 weeks later, voila, your car shows up at your dealership and you drive it home.  We opted, after visiting FS friends (J and her husband, N) in Brussels, spending a day driving around Paris, and spending two days in Amsterdam, to drive to Hamburg, leave the car there and take the train to Copenhagen for a few days before flying home.  It was a fabulous trip made all the better for being basically free.


Hello Volvo factory!




Notre Dame


mmm…gaufre et glace! (a true Belgian waffle)





The second aside relates to the actual dropping off of the car.  As an English speaker with some French ability in my back pocket, most of my travels have taken me to places where one of my two languages was the official language,  where (as is the case with the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark) everyone speaks English BEAUTIFULLY, or where the language is close enough to French that I can at least  get the gist of what I’m reading or hearing (Mexico/Spain).  Germany was a whole different world for us.

The Hamburg port authority is not the bastion for English speaking Germans, that I can say with certainty.  When we arrived at the locked and guarded gate we were met by a man who clearly knew not a single word of English.  We, conversely, knew not a single word of German.  What followed was a pantomime of idiocy by me.  It’s one thing to use hand gestures to indicate a direction, or that you want to eat or drink, but I was lacking in the appropriate hand gestures for indicating that I needed to drop off my car for transport by boat to the U.S.  Much hilarity ensued (on our behalf, the German guard did not seem terribly amused).  We did eventually get in (after several phone calls by the guard to someone else – heaven knows how he described us) and drop the car off.  Then we had to navigate (via taxi and subway) back to the city center of Hamburg to catch our train which, I promised B, would be on time (it being a German train).  We made it to the train station with only minutes to spare before our scheduled departure only to find a sign in German which included the words “120 minuten spat” – which, we figured out, meant that our train was 120 minutes late.  So much for on time trains…but this 120 minute delay gave us enough time to find an internet cafe so B could sign up for the FSOT, and as they say, the rest was history…


Flag Day Recap

Flag Day!

Flag Day!

When I first started telling my friends and coworkers that we were leaving Charlotte to join the Foreign Service, the reaction I got most often was a wistful look and words that generally went like this:

“Wow. That is SO cool.  Gosh, I’m actually kind of jealous.”

Luckily for my ego this was usually followed by, “Oh, and I’m really sad you’re leaving.”

I understood the note of envy in people’s voices. After all how many people have the opportunity to live a crazy adventure after the age of about 25?  Not many.

I suspect, however, that when I sent out my blast email around 4:30 p.m. last Friday saying “And the winner is…Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo” a lot of those same people felt a lot less envious.  I know (from the emails and texts I soon started receiving) that many, in fact, left the envy behind and replaced it with worry for us, and thankfulness for their own non-African future.

B and our new flag

But, while Kinshasa is not London, or Paris, or Rome, it is exactly what we wanted – and we are very excited. We won’t be leaving until next July – which seems like an interminable time to me (when you make this kind of leap you want to leap right away!) – giving us lots of time to learn about our new home.  It also gives B lots of time to learn a new language (French) and for me to brush up on my (I hope) solid base of French from my Canadian days.

I’m sure I’ll be writing plenty about Kinshasa as I learn about it, but this post is about Flag Day.

So, when Sept. 26, 2014 started, as I mentioned in my last proper post, I wasn’t particularly worried.  Decision had been made, out of my hands…yada yada.

Fast forward about half way through Sept. 26 when, by the time I picked C up from daycare at 11:30 a.m., my heart was pounding, I was alternating between sweating and shivering and I was, in a word, petrified.  The conversation in my head went something like this: “What was I thinking being calm? This is crazy! Our future rides on a decision  that was made by bunch of people only one of whom we had a conversation with (that lasted 20 minutes) – ARRRGHHH!” (all this while picturing myself running around in circles waving my hands in the air).

What could I do though? Nothing.  So I packed up C and drove out to FSI and met up with B’s parents (who are, thankfully, more punctual than I, so prime seats were reserved when we arrived).

Keeping C busy in a hot room with lots of people and nothing to play with did, as I had feared, prove to be the most complicated part of the day, but luckily (as I had also predicted) her grandparents and the iPad came to the rescue.

Once the ceremony started, things moved quickly. Really quickly.  I was going to keep a running list of where folks that we have befriended were going, but, frankly, once B’s name was called (and all I could think was “OMS…We’re going to Kinshasa?!”) I didn’t hear a thing and I had no idea where anyone after that ended up.

B was called about 1/3 of the way in.  One of our top posts – Dakar, Sengal – had already been called and I was, at turns, ignoring the posts we had put low (because the person leading the ceremony had already told the crowd that no one (!) received a low bid), and paying attention to the posts we had put either medium (most of the posts) or high (about 6 posts).

When the DRC flag went up I didn’t recognize it (I had memorized the Cameroon and Gabon flags thinking, based on our conversation (you know, the 20 minute one…) with B’s CDO (Career Development Officer) that those were our two most likely posts), but when the presenter said “Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo” my ears did perk up a little because we had, after all, put this post high.  It was a Francophone Africa post which also fit in our “hardship” request (more about why on another day) and it was a consular rotation (ie: working on the visa line) which was another request because it is something all FSO’s have to do in one of their first two tours.

And then I heard it: B’s name.

I jumped up and took a picture (I’m notorious for blurry iPhone pics…sorry) and then sat back down, a bit stunned.  B was standing with the guy handing out the flags waving his little blue and red flag and looking a little dazed himself.

B’s parents and sister were looking at me stunned as well.  Nothing like the bright reality of your oldest child (or brother) moving to West Africa (home of war torn strife and ebola) to make you look stunned.

I think we all actually recovered pretty well, and hour-by-hour, day-by-day, we have been getting more and more excited.

I’ll also admit, however, that on Friday we needed a little of this:


and this:


to make us feel 100% American (or 98% American in my case since I reserve the right to feel 1% Canadian and 1% British as a tip to my birth and growing up…) in anticipation of maybe not seeing so much of these things in Africa.

So now we’re on to French training, “ConGen” (that’s consular training), CrashBang (exactly what it sounds like – driving fast cars and shooting guns and what B is CLEARLY looking forward to most) and the logistics of moving a B, a C, a D and a big brown dog, to Kinshasa, DR Congo in July 2015. Onward to the adventure we go!

C at FSI - happy to be going where Curious George came from!

C at FSI – happy to be going where Curious George came from!

Straddling the line

the lineYesterday I was a lawyer.

Today, I dabbled in the law.

Tomorrow? Who knows, maybe I’ll do some law stuff, maybe not.

I spent the last couple of days in Charlotte prepping witnesses and defending depositions.  It felt good.  It was familiar.   I knew what to do and how to act. I knew when to talk and when to shut up.  My desk, empty though it was, welcomed me back.  My assistant, M (which could stand for Marvelous, but doesn’t), laughed outside my door and the sound comforted me.  The other lawyers I work with sought my opinion on lawyerly things.  It was like pulling on a soft t-shirt and a favorite pair of jeans.

Last night I drove back to D.C. and today I sat down at my desk and I did some work, but I was actually wearing the t-shirt and jeans (instead of the suit), and when they tested the fire alarm in our building I took the dog for a long walk, and I did laundry and dishes and unpacked the boxes I brought back from Charlotte.  It still feels unfamiliar. And it feels solitary. And less powerful…but I like it too, this dabbling.

Tomorrow I’m going to get a pedicure. I’m going to read a deposition WHILE I get the pedicure, but still, this is a different place and a different life than I have led in a long time. It feels very much like I’m in a kind of “no-man’s land” where I’m just slowly, slowly putting down the accouterment of my lawyer life and looking around to discover what the tools of my new life will be.

So what are the tools an EFM (“Eligible Family Member”) needs in the FS? A sense of humor?  A duck-like ability to let things roll off your back? Curiosity about new things? A willingness to let go?  A cunning ability to pack a life into 600 lbs?

Turns out those are all tools I’ve needed as a lawyer too (well, maybe not the 600 lbs trick), so hopefully even as I slough off my current persona in favor of our new life I’ll be able to drag those things along with me (B cannot complain as they do not weigh a thing).

I’m incredibly grateful to have the chance to morph from “Partner in a law firm” to “B’s EFM” slowly, as I’m not sure I could have handled the jump to this new galaxy had I been forced to make it at lightspeed.  But, I feel like I spend a lot of time sort of *testing* the water in my brain in terms of how I feel about this change.  And I’m torn, I really am.

A big part of me doesn’t want to give up the rush of nailing a cross-examination, or the giddy feeling of putting the final period at the end of a great brief.  It made me cry to think I might never try a case again – the most exhausting, overwhelming, emotional, physical, mental aspect of being a litigator – but also the most fun, and rewarding and, frankly, the reason we all put up with the rest of the B.S.  The fact that I might never stand in front of a jury again makes me sad.  But the idea that I might never have to put up with an unscrupulous, game-playing opposing counsel, who files a motion at 6 p.m. on a Friday just to cause misery and havoc, that makes me happy.

So here I am, straddling the line between desperately holding on to my old life, and desperately wanting to reach with both hands into my new life.

And tomorrow I’m going to do some law stuff and I’m going to enjoy it – even if it involves unscrupulous opposing counsel – and then I’m going to have dinner at an Uzbek restaurant with new friends who will speak Russian to the waitstaff and order new and exotic dishes for B and me to try.  And somehow, in the next few months, I’m going to try and find a way to mesh those things – and all the old things I know like the back of my hands, and the new things I have yet to learn – into a D who can step over the line into a life where every step will take B and C and me to a different place and in a different direction than any place or direction we’ve been before.  A D who will embrace the joy and luck I’ve had as a lawyer, and wrap it up with the joy and luck I’ve had as a daughter, wife and mother, so I can appreciate every experience (and the joy and luck) I have as B’s EFM.

Welcome to FS and DC

IMG_0604Yesterday was B’s first day of A-100.  I’m not sure he slept much, but luckily he didn’t disturb me until about 5 a.m. when he finally gave up and got out of bed.  He put on his suit and then C and I drove him into D.C. to “HST,” “Main State”, “Mama State” or “the Mothership” for his swearing in and, apparently, about 7 hours of HR and administrative talking to.  He came home with at least one small tree in terms of paper describing insurance options, retirement savings options, and many other options (none of which I have looked at or contemplated…yet).

Once we had kissed B goodbye and sent him on his way, C and I set out to make the most of our new home and our day.  We started by spending some time in our local Harris Teeter.  It is truly local – only about 2 blocks away – and having a North Carolina staple like HT so close certainly makes Arlington seem more like “home.”

After our grocery store trip, C and I walked Miller about a mile down the road to a pretty awesome dog park.

IMG_0558 IMG_0565

Unfortunately for Miller there were no other dogs in said dog park, but he enjoyed the water feature and running around without a leash, regardless.  It would be more awesome if it was a little closer (a mile seems so close when you say it, but pushing a stroller containing 30+ lbs of child and holding a leash for a mile in two directions makes it seem less *close*).

Once we had settled Miller back into the apartment, we made our way to the Ballston Metro – another 2 block walk (in a different direction).  The convenience of everything is amazing.  I have to admit that I have sorely missed living in a city with underground transportation and an ambulatory population. Once on the metro (a treat for C in and of itself) we took it to the Smithsonian and walked along the National Mall to the Smithsonian carousel.  Not a bad view for our walk…



Carolina Parakeet

On our way we walked through one of the stunning gardens surrounding the Smithsonian buildings.  I do NOT have a green thumb, so I was amazed by the lush, healthy plants as far as the eye can see.  

I was particularly taken with a sculpture of a bird and the beautiful flowers surrounding it – and was even more taken with it when I saw that it depicted a “Carolina Parakeet,” the first of several “Carolina” references in our day.IMG_0572

Next it was on to the Merry-Go-Round (or “America Round” according to C (say it fast, you’ll get it).  C chose her horse, but while she was deciding which of the pretty little ponies she wanted to ride (or whether she wanted to ride a big blue dragon) we passed the North Carolina horse, so we couldn’t resist a quick hug on the way by.   IMG_0586 IMG_0592

We ended our first day as “locals” in D.C. enjoying ice cream on the Mall, taking the metro home and having Indian food for dinner.  

B’s day was exciting too (he copped to *almost* tearing up when he took the oath) so all in all a successful introduction to life in the Nation’s Capital. Let’s hope all our days are as lovely as this one was…



A logistical daymare…

Doc McStuffins made me cry this morning.

If you don’t know Doc McStuffins she is a small, maybe 5 year old, cartoon character who is a doctor to her stuffed animals.  C loves her some Doc McStuffins and she earned enough “points” this weekend from being good to get to watch an episode this morning (no, this has nothing to do with keeping C preoccupied while I try and get ready for work, I swear…).


This morning the episode she was watching was all about Doc getting homesick at her first sleepover.  To make her feel better, her stuffed animals sing her this song:

“When the one that you love feels so far away

Just close your eyes try to picture their face

‘Neath the night sky you can see the same stars…”

Anyone see where this is leading?  Yup, to me, standing in the bathroom trying to put on makeup while crying.  Sigh.  I’m guessing this is not going to be the first time.

Now, back to the logistics at hand.  Do they have to do with packing? Nope. We’re surprisingly on top of that so far.  Transitioning C to a new home, new daycare, new world? Nah. So far she’s all good.  These are purely D related logistics related to moving my career without rocking too many boats.


D in 1997: Career Day 1

I’ve been a lawyer at the same law firm for 17 years.  I started here as a summer clerk in 1996 and they have been kind enough to let me stay here ever since.  And, while I’m excited about our new life in the FS, I’m not ready to jettison my career quite yet, so I’m going remote.  The firm has been extremely flexible in helping me figure out how I can transition and it has all felt very easy…so far.

Until I started having to schedule things in September.  Now, all of a sudden, I’m filling up my September calendar with depositions, mediations and hearings and none of them, not surprisingly, are happening in Washington, D.C.  These sort of logistics have never been terribly difficult before because B’s job was such that he could typically leave by 5 p.m. and could always pick up C (and drop her off).  He’s been a de facto single parent on more than one occasion while I’ve been in trial or out of town in depositions.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, when I went back to work B stayed home and took 12 weeks of FMLA.  It was (in a word) AWESOME.  I’d get up, feed C, leave, stop and get a coffee, work all day, return home and find a clean, happy baby and a fully cooked (often relatively gourmet) meal waiting for me. Seriously folks, it did not suck.  About two weeks IMG_0396after I went back to work I had to go to New Jersey for 5 days for depositions.  It was a grueling trip, but other than pumping and shipping milk back to C via FedEx (yes, you really can do that), I could concentrate on my work knowing C was well cared for and loved back home.

But as of August 25 we are not in a world where B has a 8-5 job any more, Dorothy (not what D stands for, but good try).  So, besides worrying about the actual depositions/mediations/hearings, I’m also worrying about how logistically I’m going to manage.

At least a few days of B’s A-100 training will be “offsite,” meaning he will not be able to drop off, or pick up, C.  Do we know when this offsite week will be? Of course we don’t! We *think* it will be the third week of A-100, but, as with all things FS, “it depends” on a number of other factors.  So right now I’m scheduling my work commitments and hoping B will be available to put his Super Daddy mantle back on for a few days.  Add to that trying to decide if it is better to fly (more expensive), or drive (longer, but WAY more convenient in terms of having autonomy when I get back to CLT), and whether to stay in a hotel (sleep guarantee) or bunk with friends (fun guarantee), and I feel a bit like I’m living in this parallel universe where part of me is pretending things aren’t really going to change.

I really want to make this flexible, portable job work for me, but I suspect this will be another aspect of my life where I will have to let some control go until I can get my bearings in DC.

Oh, and speaking of getting bearings, we have an address! And a phone number! I haven’t had a landline in so long I feel like I’m stepping back to the dark ages a bit, but I think I can remember how to work a regular phone (of course we’ll probably have to unplug it most of the time to stop C from calling either the fire department or Australia…).

As for Doc McStuffins, tomorrow we’ll be watching an episode where she fixes some toy cars; toy cars never make me cry.