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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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The Final Countdown…or Party ’till the Diplomats come home

In 72 hours we’ll know.

Sometime after 3:30 p.m. on Friday a flag will appear on a wall at FSI.  B’s name will be called, and we’ll know.

We’ll know where we are going. We’ll know what we (or at least B) will be doing when we arrive.  We’ll know when we are going. And we’ll know what the training schedule will look like between now and then.

I’m feeling surprisingly zen about the whole thing.  It’s out of my hands – the decision has, in fact, already been made and, somewhere out there, some State Department employee is putting together a package containing details about the post, the position, the training (language and otherwise) and many other interesting tidbits about our future.

Miller feeling zen...

Miller feeling zen…

There are definitely places I would prefer to go, and there are places I would prefer not to go, but looking at the bid list (yet again) in a futile attempt to remember which flag has the green star in the middle and which has the gold star (with the same three colors on the rest of the flag) it occurs to me that I’m ok with whatever the flag looks like when they call B’s name.  Frankly, right now I’m more worried about keeping C occupied in a room full of hyped up people for an hour or more (can you say iPad…and grandparents…) than I am about what the fates hold for us.

In the meantime, with two weeks (or less) of A-100 left, the socializing has swung into high gear.  There was a happy hour tonight, there is a Nat’s game tomorrow night, poker on Thursday, ice cream and cake after Flag Day, then drinking into the wee hours after the ice cream and cake. We’ve been to brunches, dinners, pizza parties and Oktoberfest, and it has all been a blast. Someone actually had to start a Google Doc to keep track of all the extra curricular goings-on.  Many of these are not “spouse” events, so I get to stay home while B gets to go and make small talk (happy days for me as I am not such a fan of the small talk).

These are the events where B is supposed to be cultivating his “corridor reputation” – which will, in about 4 years, be important.  After the first two tours, which are considered “directed” – FSO’s are given a limited list of posts to bid on and a group of Career Development Officers make the assignments to those posts – it’s a diplomatic free-for-all.  You get a list of ALL the open posts in the world and you not only bid, you also schmooze, lobby, cajole and, I’m guessing in some cases, beg, for the job and post that you want.  It is for this schmoozing that you need a good reputation.  You want people to like you and want to work with you.

So what better way to make people like you and want to work with you than getting sloshed with them for 6 weeks in a row?  I’m kidding, B hasn’t come home sloshed…much (no, really, I’m kidding…).

The social schedule is a bit overwhelming when you have a 3 year old, a dog and a birthday before 1990.  And add to the FSI social schedule the fact that I have a lot of friends in D.C. who I have been meeting out for lunch (all in the name of business development, thank you very much), and the fact that we’ve been trying to get out and enjoy the city (see trip to Roosevelt Island below) and B and I have been crashing hard at about the same time we put C down every night.  We’ll rally for the rest of the next two weeks though – we’ll all have a lot to talk about next week as things wrap up, since everyone will be able to talk about their actually post, rather than the theoretical one they are hoping for right now.

This A-100 thing has been a blast (and I’m not even really *in* it) and it’s sad to see it coming to an end, but I have a feeling we’ll be making the most out of the last 10 days.  And hopefully, when the flags are shown and the names are called, most people walk away happy and excited and ready to party for the next 6 months…of language training.

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B and Me (Cousin It?)

B and Me (Cousin It?)

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.

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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.

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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!

A new dishwasher

C is very into singing these days.

I’m not talking about conventional signing, with lyrics, to a tune. I’m talking about taking everyday conversation (assuming you narrate everything you do) and adding a totally out of tune warble to it so that you are, basically, singing (off key) about all of the everyday things that are happening throughout the day.

My girl is never going to win American Idol (or [insert foreign country] Idol), which is TOTALLY fine with me, but watching her put her daily life to a tune is hilarious and has been amusing B and me for a while.

Last Friday C and I headed to meet good friends at the National Zoo.  I (stupidly) opted to drive instead of take the Metro thinking (stupidly) that it would be easier.  We did fine for the first 10 minutes or so, then I missed the exit to Rock Creek Parkway and we ended up stuck in construction traffic in the middle of D.C.  Not fun.

I *might* have been providing my own non-musical running commentary on the situation, when suddenly C says to me, “Mommy, are you annoyed at the traffic?”

“Yes sweetie,” I said. “I am very annoyed because we’re stuck in traffic and I don’t know where I’m going.”

This prompted C to begin to sing “We are stuck in traaaaffic, and we don’t know where we’re go-oh-ing.”  Over. And over. And over.

It was actually pretty sweet at first, but the out of tune repetitive signing combined with the devastating stand still traffic finally got the better of me and I said, rather loudly, “Pumpkin, I really need you to stop singing and be quiet.  Mommy really needs to think!”

I felt bad.  Truly I did.  I was annoyed and angry at myself and C really had done nothing wrong, but I was at my wit’s end and I really did feel like I needed silence to contemplate my options (add my lack of movement to a fast dying phone – my only “map,” as a bonus).

I got silence.  At least for a few seconds.  Then very quietly from out of the back seat I heard a real song.

C was singing “Let it go…Let it go…” from Disney’s Frozen.

Out of the mouths of babes.

Turns out we made it to the zoo and had a fabulous time.  C was right. I needed to “Let it go.”

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What I find fascinating is that I struggle to let go of the little stuff.  The traffic.  The whining child.  The dishwasher in our new apartment that doesn’t work properly.  But I feel incredibly calm about the big stuff.  Not knowing where we will live this time next year, for instance.

I know some of my friends think we’re nuts, and can’t imagine spending a year in sub-Saharan Africa, or in the Middle East, or anywhere but the United States of America.  But no matter where we get posted – whether it is a “high,” a “medium” or a “low” on our list, the end will be in sight for us.  Two years.  Twenty-four months.  104 weeks.

Two years goes by in a blink.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years – 27! – in prison, and yet you rarely saw him without a smile.  People live in horrible conditions every day all over the world – millions of people.  I’ll be living in a government provided house or apartment, fully furnished, with clean, SAFE water and enough money to buy plenty of good food.  C’s schooling will be paid for.  We will get vacation, benefits, medical treatment from the best available physicians – and if they can’t be found at post we’ll be medevac’d to London, or Petoria, or back to the U.S.

Meanwhile, many (if not a vast majority in some places) of the people who live their entire lives in whatever country we get posted in will not have enough food, or fresh water, or medical care – not just for two years, but ever.  They won’t know what vacation and benefits are.  They can’t access Amazon Prime when they need something.  They won’t have an Embassy pool, tennis courts, or playground to entertain them, and they will probably never have the opportunity to leave.

So traffic and dishwashers make me a little crazy, but two years in a “hardship” post.  I’m ok with that.  That I can let go, maybe because it allows me to appreciate the little things as well.  Maybe it will allow me to appreciate a traffic jam because, after all, I’m on my way to a free zoo to eat ice cream and wander aimlessly with people I love.  Or appreciate my not so perfect dishwasher because, after all, I’m not having to wash all my dishes by hand in water that was previously flowing through a sewer.  Or even better, appreciate the fact that, with one call to maintenance I got a new dishwasher. Along with a note from Juan, our wonderful maintenance man, which said “I’m so sorry for the inconvenience.”

I hope C and I will sing together about our new life in our new home in a few months.  And I hope I can continue to learn the lessons she teaches me about enjoying life one minute at a time and letting go of the little things.

IMG_2396Postscript:  Everywhere we go we are reminded of North Carolina.  Check out the pig we met at the zoo…

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Drinking from the firehose

I have been oriented.

I am now the proud owner of my own overly large, mostly unread, packet of dead tree material in the form of booklets, pamphlets, handouts, PowerPoints and other information dense literature. Oh, and a bid list.

The information overload today was wonderful and overwhelming. We learned about the FS “Transition Center,” the “Overseas Briefing Center,” the Office of Medical Services (MED), how the assignment process works from the CDO (Career Development Officer) perspective, education overseas,  and the FLO (Family Liaison Office).  The speakers were great and it was incredibly informative, but the best part was getting to meet and learn about the accomplished, interesting group of “spouses” who are with us in this crazy adventure.

Of course, given that the list of places where each of us will end up was provided to us last night that was clearly the primary topic of conversation.  There are 105 “posts” on the list, which includes 51 cities in 44 countries.  There are huge posts with over 500 US personnel (this includes folks from all agencies, not just the State Department) and one post with 8 US personnel.  There are places with danger pay, and places without.  It’s probably a pretty typical list for an A-100 class with lots of consular (ie: visa line) jobs and lots of jobs in visa heavy countries.

What was amazing about the discussion with the other EFMs (Eligible Family Members) was that we all had such different ideas and priorities.  B and I rank some posts low because we don’t want to have to learn certain languages, or because of certain environmental factors, but other people can’t wait to learn a really hard language and want the excitement of exotic and difficult locales.  I’m sure some of them thought our “preferences” were bizarre too.

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Regardless, in 29 days we will all know which of these posts is ours (barring any change to the list, which we were told several times could happen at any time, and/or several times before we submit our final list).

Now our job – in between our actual jobs and caring for our 3 1/2 year old – is to research these posts and rank each of them “high,” “medium” or “low.”  We get to put 25% low, which translates to about 26 posts.  We don’t get to group the posts by country, so we can’t rank all posts in one country “low” if that number exceeds 26 (which it does for several countries), we have to rank each post – meaning each job in each city.

B and I spent last night identifying our “low” posts.   We were, thank heavens, pretty much on the same page, so we have now identified the 26 places that are our least attractive options and the ones we hope we don’t get.  However, as we were also reminded repeatedly today, the “needs of the service” come first, so on Flag Day, notwithstanding our highs, our lows and our mediums, the flag that gets handed to B could be anywhere on the list.

Now it’s on to identifying our preferences (ie: do we want to learn a language, do we care about how close we are to the U.S., does B want to fulfill his “consular” cone requirement now, or later…), and deciding on our “highs” and “mediums.”  Let’s hope that goes as smoothly as the lows…

By the way, from a blog admin perspective I have, by popular demand (ie: B told me to do it), made the “A” an “a” so people can stop asking B who “A” is…and I’ve added some pictures of our world travels before this adventure into the header.  Variety is the spice of life, after all.