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.

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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.

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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.