Strengths…and weaknesses

I am directionally deficient.

I’ve heard people lacking in directional ability described as “challenged,” but for me it goes way beyond that.  I can, quite literally, walk (or drive) to a location and mere hours (and sometimes only minutes) later leave said location and head in the exact opposite direction from the one that brought me there earlier.  It drive B bonkers.

I resigned myself to this disability many (many) years ago and I am totally unphased by driving miles out of my way, realizing I’m supposed to be going north, not south, and then having to turn around and go all the way back just to begin again at my original starting point.  Like most weaknesses in humans I have managed to adjust (leave earlier) or adapt (have Google maps perpetually “on”).


On the other hand, I get the law. I am totally comfortable with the direction I need to be heading when researching, writing, and arguing the fine points of most legal arguments.  I never have to backtrack (or almost never).  When I am handed a legal problem it feels like shrugging on a well worn and well loved jacket that I can trust to keep me warm on a chilly night. I know it. I understand it. I feel strong and powerful and smart and competent surrounded by it.

And then there is parenting.  Some days I feel worse than deficient. I feel totally and utterly unqualified to be parenting the remarkable human child who is CJM.  Other days (well, maybe not whole days, let’s say fleeting moments) I feel like maybe I’m getting it right, maybe I do “get” it and C might turn out pretty ok despite my lack of training and qualification as a mother.  It’s a total crapshoot as to which of these wildly divergent feelings I will have at any given parenting moment – sometimes I feel both at exactly the same time.

Two nights ago C and I watched Little Mermaid together.  She is Disney Princess obsessed (much to my chagrin), but she had never watched the movie.  On our way home she announced, “Mummy, I am not afraid of the sea witch any more so I would like to watch Ariel tonight.”

Ok by me, I love the Little Mermaid.

So we watched the whole movie and she was, true to her word, not afraid of Ursula. Then came the end of the movie – you know, Ariel and Eric get married, there is great rejoicing, everyone is happy? Everyone, that is, except C, who burst into hysterical and inconsolable sobs, tears streaming down her face as she crawled into my arms and wept.

Me (dumbfounded), “Pumpkin, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t want Ariel to have to leave her Daddy,” C replied wailing.

“But she’s grown up (aside here that for the first time I realized at the beginning of the movie that Ariel is 16!!! – so not grown up at all…but for purposes of this discussion I’ll ignore that disturbing issue…) and she found Eric who she loves and who loves her and they got married and her Daddy is happy for her.”

C shouts, “But the Sea King will be ALL ALONE without Ariel and she will MISS HIM!”

This went back and forth for quite some time until finally C threw up her hands (literally) and said “I don’t want to be a grown up EVER.”

Hmmm…me either kid, me either.

I still don’t know what the right response to all this was.  I used all the logic, reasoning and rational thinking I could muster, but C was having none of it.  So I ended that evening feeling totally incompetent.  The problem is that now I’m “retired” from the law – or at least from my firm – the opportunity to shrug myself back into feeling competent is receding from my grasp, so I went to bed still feeling incompetent.

Two weeks ago I would have gotten onto the computer and boosted my ego with a little legal work.  Instead, now I’m left with running errands all over the city in preparation for our move (7 WEEKS AWAY) which inevitably means that at least once a week I get on the Metro going the wrong direction, or walk/drive miles out of my way trying to find something I need.  And I’m left with parenting.

ego boost

It turns out that I am starting to think this will be the largest and most significant struggle of this lifestyle change for me: the percentage of time I spend feeling lacking and stupid v. the percentage of time I feel smart and competent.  Cause it also turns out that we all – even very grown up and outwardly successful people – need to feel competent a few times a day to prevent the dissolution of our egos into mush.

As I work through these feelings, I am having a lot of sympathy for B because I’m pretty sure he’s been feeling like this for the last 30 weeks.

Learning a new language is humbling. B, and the other folks he joined the Foreign Service with are smart, smart people. They are, I’m guessing, not used to feeling stupid or incompetent in very many situations. But spending 6 hours a day learning a new language from scratch is a breeding ground for feeling incapable.  For weeks now B has been warning me that he would not pass his final French test.  He swore he believed he would not get the 3/3 (oral/reading) score he needed and we would be in D.C. for another 6-8 weeks.  So I was resigning myself to a lot more time in D.C. – this time without a job – and I was a bit panicked about trying to find something to keep me occupied and not feeling incompetent. But it turns out that B was not French deficient, as he had feared.  He got his 3/3 on the first try and so all of a sudden (it feels very sudden since I had been trained to expect an extra 2 months of prep time) our departure date is looming – we are wheels up to Kinshasa on July 26.

B: Competent in French and Parenting...

B: Competent in French and Parenting…

I’m going to work on new competencies now – organizing boxes of shipments, sewing, writing, transporting 70 lb dogs 6,500 miles – but will all of those help me to feel mildly competent when my main role will be to parent – and, in seven weeks, to speak French in a country as vastly different from here as possible?  I don’t know, but I sure hope so…

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!

FullSizeRender (4)     albums

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.

working for the man

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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Making do

First things first.  I “passed” my French “test.”  My score was a S-2/R-2.

I can’t say much about the assessment since I signed a non-disclosure agreement, but suffice it to say it was a LONG couple of hours that taxed my brain more than it has been taxed in a long time.  In good news, the assessors were quite complimentary and basically told me that they thought my childhood French was trapped somewhere in my brain.  So hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to take some classes in the spring that will be able to coax the French back out again a little more fluently.

What does my score mean? Well, a “2” is generally considered to mean I have a “limited working proficiency”

I am, according to the assessors:

  • able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements
  • can handle with confidence most basic social situations including introductions and casual conversations about current events, work, family, and autobiographical information
  • can handle limited work requirements, needing help in handling any complications or difficulties; can get the gist of most conversations on non-technical subjects (i.e. topics which require no specialized knowledge), and has a speaking vocabulary sufficient to respond simply with some circumlocutions
  • has an accent which, though often quite faulty, is intelligible
  • can usually handle elementary constructions quite accurately but does not have thorough or confident control of the grammar.

In about six months B will have to take a similar test assessment and he’ll have to get a S-3/R-3.  The score B needs is that of someone with a “Professional working proficiency.”  He will be expected to:

  • able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
  • can discuss particular interests and special fields of competence with reasonable ease
  • has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
  • has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to grope for a word
  • has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker.

I know he’ll do it. He’s an annoyingly determined human being.  But, wow, my 2+ hours of “assessing” made me realize what an amazing, and difficult, feat it is to learn a language, basically from scratch, to the point that you “rarely have to grope for a word.”

Besides stressing about the French assessment, we have not been thinking much about Kinshasa in the last couple of weeks, at least C and I have not.  B has been in “area studies” learning about Africa, so he’s probably a little more focused, but C and I have been enjoying fall in D.C.

For me, with fall, comes a strange need to cook.  Something about apples and pumpkins and the feel of crispy leaves under my feet makes me want to get into the kitchen.  So C and I have been finding fun things to cook, and having fun in some unexpected ways.

We started with some banana bread.  We had a couple of browning bananas, so I found my mother’s awesome recipe (which is really Nigella Lawson’s awesome recipe – we skip the nuts, but don’t, whatever you do, skip the rum…) and set about baking.  I gathered all my ingredients and then realized that the corporate housing gods do not include a bread pan with the kitchen.  So I made do with the casserole dish we do have and tried to fashion a tin foil “basket” to keep it contained in a loaf-like form.  This is how it came out of the oven:

IMG_0622 Luckily it still tasted pretty yummy.

Then with an extra day off last weekend we decided to make some sugar cookies.  I was sad to discover that I had not packed our Halloween decorations (who knows where those are…), but my bigger problem came when we needed to roll out the dough and I discovered (not surprisingly, I suppose) that our corporate apartment also does not include a rolling pin.  So we made do again – this time with something that had the additional benefit of being drinkable.


C thought it was pretty funny with the wine sloshing around while we rolled.  And again, luckily, the cookies tasted pretty good (even though we also found we only had Christmas colored sparkles…)

I suspect these will be the first of many (many) times that we’ll be compromising in our FS life, but if the results always turn out as well as our banana bread and cookies then missing a rolling pin, a pan, the right color sparkles – or something bigger – won’t really matter.  We’ll just keep making do and enjoying the fun of finding something that will work just as well (and even better if I also get a glass of wine as part of the deal).



My French test is in less than a week.  Cue panic.


I am torn between my perfectionist desire to get a good grade and my understanding that it might, actually, be better for me if I didn’t get too good a grade.  And then there is the worry that I’m just going to fail miserably.  Des jours heureux.

Luckily, I was introduced to a wonderful little owl last week who I’ve been obsessively visiting to brush up on my passé composé.  I know I’m probably severely behind the times, but until it was mentioned by someone in the “Ready to Roll!” class (this was a full day of logistics training designed to help us figure out how to move 6,566 miles away without losing our minds) I took last week at FSI I had never heard of DuoLingo.  It’s a pretty amazing site that essentially teaches you a language through step-by-step translation lessons – from French to English and from English to French.  I’m now in what seems like a race against the clock to finish all the lessons before next Friday.

In reality the result of my French test means very little.  Whether I can say “bonjour” (correctly, incorrectly or at all) makes no difference to whether we are going to board a plane for Kinshasa about 9 months from now.  We are going to board that plane regardless.  But spouses have the opportunity to take language classes at FSI on a “space available basis” and I’m hoping that if my French is just a bit above the very beginner level (which my mother is probably thinking it better be given my 6 years at French school…) I might have more likelihood of getting into a class, rather than just spending even more time sitting in front of my computer in our apartment doing Rosetta Stone.

Languages at FSI are rated on a scale of 0 to 5.  With, as I understand it, zero being no working knowledge and 5 being sufficient knowledge to be able to hold a philosophical discussion with a bunch of PhDs in philosophy.  To give you an idea of a what a 5 means – I am pretty sure I would not get a 5 in English…at least not without a lot of studying and practicing (since I spend most of my time talking about Dora, princesses, Oliva, Umi Zoomi and the Property Brothers, not philosophy).

Most posts require one score in speaking and one score in reading.   So for most Chinese posts on the bid list the requirement was a 2/1 – a “2/5” speaking and a “1/5” in reading.  But French is a comparatively “easy” language to learn, so B has to get a 3/5 in both (as do all the people going to a Francophone country).  Again, I don’t have to get anything, but I’m pretty sure the success of our time in the DRC will be enhanced pretty significantly if I am able to converse with the locals and am not fully dependent on B, or someone else, to help me buy vegetables for dinner.

Either way, I’ve got about 5 days to cosy up to the little Owl and make my way through the program to the last “module” which is, appropriately, “Spiritual.”  I’m pretty sure I’ll be needing that one next week when I’m praying I do a good job…


Fitting in

The bid list has been submitted.

Our fate is in the hands of the CDOs (Career Development Officers).  We really only had one, relatively minor, disagreement about how to rank our posts, but that was sorted out (or, more specifically, I told B, “You rank it however you want, but be warned that if you rank it high and we end up there, C and I will be spending our summers elsewhere.”)

We went heavy on French speaking posts for our “highs” in hopes that I will get to resuscitate, revive, or resurrect (depending on how you look at it) my long dormant French speaking ability.  B has to learn a language regardless, so why not a language that I have a pretty firm foundation in thanks to my parents’ foresight and 6 years at a French school.

dialects of French

If hindsight had been 20/20 and I had guessed in college that I might embark on this adventure (anyone who knows me can laugh uproariously now – I have degrees in equine science and journalism from undergrad – not exactly “foreign policy/world adventure” type majors) I would have actually taken some additional French rather than CLEP’ing out of the 12 language credits I required.  I don’t know if they still have the CLEP program (College Level Examination Placement, I believe), but it saved my derrière, and my parents’ hard earned money, by allowing me to take exams for credit in French and (also somewhat ironically given the current circumstances) American History, rather than adding (yet another) semester to my college career.

So I’m practicing my French by reading newspapers, listening to French books on tape and playing French word games on my phone.  Which means, of course, that we’re going somewhere where the language is Spanish, or Aramaic, or Mandarin.


Either way I’m going to be excited.  It’s sometimes hard to believe that B is going to get paid to learn at least one, and possibly several, languages as an FSO.  And that I, while not being paid to do it, will likely also have the opportunity to be taught, by top notch teachers, for FREE, a new language as well.  SO. COOL.

Besides the turning in of the dreaded bid list, life in D.C. (yeah, yeah, technically we’re in Northern Virginia, but I can see the Washington Monument from my building, so close enough) is good.  We’ve attended our first dinner party, we’ve had friends over to go swimming in “C’s” pool (which sadly will close for the season this weekend – Boo), and we have been making some great new friends among B’s classmates and their spouses, partners and children.  We are fitting into this life, for the most part, like we are meant to be a part of it.

Tacoma Park Festival fun!