Boxes of fun

We received our HHE (make sure to pronounce that “heych, heych” if you are going to be authentically Australian) yesterday, so what better time to write a blog post, right?

It’s not that nothing has been going on here, or even that I haven’t written anything, but for some reason I just can’t find the inspiration and motivation to get pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write about – or finish when I start writing about – life on our latest adventure. In part I think it’s because Australia is so “normal” after DRC that it feels like everything I write is really booooring.

Let’s be honest, I spend my days going to the gym, Costco, Ikea, and/or the grocery store, then coming home and cooking, cleaning and – once school lets out – driving C around to her activities. Sound familiar to anyone in a first world country? Every once in a while I’ll be walking around ALDI or Costco and think “Seriously? Is that what we signed up for?” For me, leaving Charlotte and following B into the Foreign Service wasn’t about getting an “easy” post and enjoying all the comforts of home – because if I wanted to do that I’d do it at…HOME – it was about exploring different and unusual places while still serving our country. Most people probably think that everyone who joins the FS wants to serve in Paris or London, or Canberra, but, while I wouldn’t say no to Paris (or London), many FS officers actually want to explore the road (or country) less travelled.

Don’t get me wrong, Australia is beautiful and we are enjoying so many things about it, but there is nothing shockingly different about it. I think that is especially true for me because Australia often feels like a Southern Hemisphere version of Canada – lots of polite people obeying rules, enjoying universal healthcare, and spending as much time as possible outdoors barbecuing and drinking beer.  Instead of moose, we see roos here, and instead of groundhogs, we see wombats, but the differences are subtle and you have to dig a bit deeper to find them. By contrast, everything about our move to Kinshasa was different and new – I had to use my imagination and creativity at every turn in order to do the simplest things (ie: eat ice cream, a bagel or bacon) – and since my imagination and creativity were in high gear writing just seemed to come a bit easier.

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SO what have we been up to since we got here?

We visited Sydney for my milestone (never you mind which…) birthday and can’t wait to go back again – though the Sydney I first visited in 2000 was, not surprisingly given that she was hosting the Olympics, a much shiner version of what it is today. We visited the “coast” and were blown away by the virtually empty beaches with gorgeous views of mountains in the distance.

We’ve made friends with some magpies who now regularly come to our door to talk to us/beg for food, and we’ve revelled in daily seeing beautiful cockatoos, galah parrots and rosellas – in our backyard, among other places.  We’ve made friends with Eric, the half-a-bee keeper, while he helped us remove a swarm of bees from our garden (more about that in another post), and we’ve been lucky enough to make friends with other families here, which has made our transition a lot easier.

We climbed the hill behind our house (a couple of times),  had a hail storm, and B and I attended the Marine Corps Ball. C has started – and almost finished – school, or at least the last term of school. As of Friday she’ll be on summer vacation AGAIN. Never let it be said that sometimes the life of a Foreign Service child isn’t pretty awesome – altogether she’ll get 5 months of holidays this year – just don’t tell her that when we leave (if we go back to the Northern Hemisphere) she won’t get much of a summer holiday at all…

All in all it’s been a good couple of months. We are feeling pretty settled and we are looking forward to planning some trips in the new year. However, it’s pretty clear to me that this adventure will definitely be on the low key end of our Foreign Service life so far, and that’s ok, cause low key is good after chaos, and good when you don’t know what will come next…

Kangaroos and Quiet

Shhhh…do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of no one yelling “MOMMA!” It’s the sound of no one watching football. It’s the sound of no one packing, or unpacking. It’s the sound of a neighborhood far from the beep, beep, beep of walk signals, and the sirens of a busy downtown. It’s the sound of my first day alone in our new house with nothing to do but sheepishly return to my blog.

I’m going to be the first to admit that I’ve struggled over the last few months. I have grieved the loss of Kinshasa, the Congo, and the people who made up our life there. The fact that I’ve been deep-in-my-core angry at the “new” State Department and the lack of respect it has shown not only to me and the other thousands of EFMs, but also to its own officers, has not helped to get me back in a writing/blogging state of mind. I’ve wanted to come back, but I have not been able to write without ranting and that’s not what this blog is about.

But today is a new day, on a new continent, in a new hemisphere and it’s time I make my way out of my funk.

It’s hard to describe to people what it was like to live in the Congo. For those who live comfortable lives in the first world, it defies description. But it has been even harder to make anyone – even B – understand how profoundly unhappy I was to leave a place that is, in all possible descriptions, a place of hardship. Even now, sitting here in my new and lovely kitchen, with every possible convenience within 10 minutes safe and beautiful walk of my door, I am teary-eyed thinking of the life we left behind.

 

Maybe it is because, as our first post, I was determined to make Kinshasa a good experience and so my attitude from day one was designed to make me as happy as possible. Maybe it was the fun I had speaking French and reviving a long dormant skill that let me use my brain in ways that are rare once you inch toward a half-century of life. And maybe it was simply the people –American, international and Congolese – and the fact that I had not prepared myself as well as I should have to leave them behind. I miss them. A lot.

Foreign Service life is designed as a revolving door. You rotate into a place, spend a few months, and then rotate back out. Just as you are headed out the door you realize where everything is, and what everyone’s name is, and how to navigate the world and streets you live in. And then, just as suddenly, you are in a place you don’t know how and you have to start all over again. This is where I am now, though admittedly learning how to navigate Canberra – a planned city designed for ease of navigation – will not be akin to learning to manage the chaos of Kinshasa.

My first impressions of Canberra are of calm. The streets are bizarrely empty and the quiet is almost deafening. The only noise is the magpies and the parrots calling from the trees. We arrived during a school break and for the first few days I drove around and rarely shared the road with more than a couple of cars. It was eerie.

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C’s school is literally a stone’s throw from the house, and just past that are a couple of great coffee shops and a small IGA. There is even a gym, so when I get inspired I can get back to working out.

We haven’t seen too many (live) kangaroos yet, though B spotted a few while we were driving around over the weekend. Apparently they are everywhere, and they are certainly common enough to be the road kill of choice, but you must have to get accustomed to seeing their brown against the brown of the end of winter grass and brush because we have been peeling our eyes to no avail.

Since we left just as fall was gearing up in Virginia, it is also odd getting adjusted to the upside down-ness of things. The dogwoods and azaleas are blooming here. There are wisteria vines everywhere, and the cherry trees are decorating the roads with their pale pink petals. It smells like my grandparents’ garden in England – rosy and fresh and spring-like. But, it’s still chilly and I want to put on my dark sweaters ready for falling leaves, rather than light jackets ready for spring showers. Lord knows I love a good heat wave, so I am not sad to be following the sun for yet one more summer season, but I am definitely going to be ready for my boots and wooly sweaters (or jumpers if you are Australian – C has already told me she needs a jumper, not a sweater!) in April (see, weird, eh?)

The fact is, no matter how beautiful and utopian Australia is compared to the Congo, I am still going to miss the life and people we had there. But, I’m ready to accept this new reality and work toward making it as joyful an experience as the last two years were for us. And when the door revolves again in 2019, I’m sure I’ll leave with sadness and grief as well. In the meantime, there are new people to meet and make “mine,” adventures to have, and kangaroos to spot.

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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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All aboard!

During the two years that I attended boarding school in Toronto, my parents lived only two hours away in a small town called London, Ontario. I went home almost every weekend, either taking a Greyhound bus or the train. I had nothing against the bus, it actually arrived in almost exactly the same time as the train (about 2 hours one way), but there was nothing magical about taking the bus. I got on, I sat down, I looked out the window and, about 2 hours later, I arrived. It was not perceptibly different than driving in a car except for a (usually disgusting) toilet in the back of the bus avoiding the need for highway rest stops. Nowadays there appear (though the windows I pass by as I haven’t actually been on a bus in many, many years) to be TVs and other entertaining accoutrement, but in the 70s I took a book with me, I sat down in my seat at the bus station in Toronto and I waited until the bus stopped in London.

But there was – and is – something magical about taking the train. Something old school and other worldly and freeing. Can you imagine if Harry Potter took the bus to Hogwarts? Not the same image, right?

I loved the train when I was in boarding school. I loved being independent enough that when I was 11 years old in my first year in boarding school I was allowed to take a taxi from school to the train station all by myself. That I was allowed to buy my ticket, find the gate and get on the train by myself and start my weekly journey home to my family. As a 40-something year old adult now, the idea of sending my 5 year old to take a train by herself in only 6 years is terrifying, but to my parents’ credit, they trusted me and believed that I could manage alone after taking my first voyage to the school with my mother (which was a doozy…).

In the years since I left boarding school I have taken the train all over Europe and once or twice up and down the “Acela” corridor in the US (Boston –  New York – Philadelphia – Washington DC) and it has never lost its magic for me. On a bus or in a car what you see is highway, but a train often puts you in the middle of a completely different landscape and allows a glimpse at a world that is perceptively different than the world you see from the road.

When we first arrived in Congo there were no passenger trains running from Kinshasa. None. It’s hard to find accurate information about when the last passenger trains ran, but it is clear that in 2006 a Chinese company (likely in exchange for mineral rights…) entered an agreement with the DRC train authority (ONATRA) to renovate the track, trains, telecommunications, signal system and electric supply. In the ten years since then they have, apparently, been working on these renovations because over Labor Day weekend when we traveled to Zongo Falls we saw a passenger train. I felt like Tattoo on Fantasy Island screaming “LOOK, B, a TRAIN, a TRAIN!”

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The tail end of the first train seen in Congo by anyone in our group

It probably seems crazy to any American, Canadian or, certainly, any European, but you just do not see trains here and our whole group was abuzz. A few weeks later when we visited the very first locomotive in Congo during our Kinshasa tour, we found out that passenger trains had started running in late August meaning that the train you can just see the back of in the picture above was one of the first passenger trains to run on these tracks in almost 10 years.

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Well, not surprisingly to anyone who knows B or me, we immediately started discussing when, and whether, we could take the train in the Congo. Luckily for us, we have friends who have a similar sense of adventure as we do, and when they asked if we might be interested in joining them on a train trip we jumped at the chance.

The train goes from Kinshasa to Matadi, the chief sea port in the D.R.C., but that trip takes 7 hours, leaving early on Saturday morning from Kinshasa, and returning early the next morning from Matadi. As we were planning to drag C and our friends’ two small children along with us, two days and 14 hours of traveling – even by train – seemed like a bit much. Luckily for us, one of the train’s five stops on its 7 hour journey is Kisantu-Inkisi, the location of the D.R.C.’s largest botanical gardens AND the Mbuela Lodge, a relatively “first world” resort. Bingo – a 2 1/2 hour train ride and a night at a nice resort.

One of our friends went down to the “Gare Centrale” (or Central Station) to pick up the tickets, and then his wife and I followed along with our passports to register with the DGM (or Directeur Générale de Migration) who was sitting at a table under a tree beside the brand new train station.  You cannot buy a round trip ticket, so we had to go to the station in Kisantu before the train’s scheduled arrival on Sunday to buy our return tickets. The tickets were not overly cheap (but nothing really is here), but they also weren’t overly expensive given the novelty and fun of getting to ride on a train in the Congo.  A one-way ticket to Kisantu was $38 for the adults and $23 for the children over 4 (only C on our trip). So not too bad for a 2 1/2 hour trip which included breakfast on the way there, lunch on the way back, lots of A/C, a movie and amazing views of the Congo countryside.

While the countryside was really lovely, the train took us far closer to the enormous slums and shantytowns that are scattered through, and on the outskirts of, Kinshasa. On the way back, I filmed several and, though it was raining, the extreme poverty is obvious and devastating to see, particularly as you sit on the luxury car of a train for a price that most Congolese don’t make in a month. Despite this, the children lined the path beside the tracks waiving and smiling and jumping up and down, proving the magic of trains for children everywhere.

  

When we arrived in Kisantu we called the lodge and, in Congo time, they picked us up and ferried us back to their property. It took a little while to get our room ready (despite the “first world” appearance of the resort the booking and confirmation process leaves a little bit to be desired and a lot of people we’ve talked to have told us that “losing” reservations is commonplace), but eventually they did find us somewhere to sleep.

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Kisantu is also home to a 7,000 acres Botanical Gardens that are, somewhat surprisingly, quite lovely. Clearly the people in charge have not let the lack of money, and the myriad of other problems the D.R.C. has experienced over the years, dull their enthusiasm for keeping the Gardens in relatively good condition. There were also two crocodiles – one huge and one tiny – and a baboon as the last vestiges of a by-gone zoo.

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Mbuela Lodge is nice, and not nearly as expensive as Zongo was, so we definitely enjoyed hanging out there by the pool, playing mini-golf and having a nice meal (though it was also brought to us in “Congo time.”) There was a great indoor play area for kids, as well as four-wheelers you could rent, and a stable with quite nice horses that you could ride for a fee. C got on her first horse (v. pony) and looked like enough of a natural up there that we may have to take her to the local riding stables now that she is five.

Oh yeah, C turned five in Congo! We had a great “Princess Unicorn” party the weekend after our train trip complete with Princess bouncy house, a unicorn cake, a crown cake and a rainbow king cake, all made by me (yes, I was channelling my inner SAHM). Unfortunately, soon after the kids came inside for a lunch break the skies opened and the “Rainy Season” lived up to its name for the next six hours short circuiting the bouncing and outdoor play but, luckily, not dulling the high spirits of the birthday girl.

At the end of this week we head out on our first “R&R” – the required time we have to take to leave the D.R.C. and experience some “first world” living for a few weeks. Over our two year tour we get to take two “R&R’s” and this is our first one. We are headed to visit B’s family in Florida, including a two day trip to Disney (heaven help us – in the middle of Spring Break/Easter…), a visit from B’s grandmother from Minnesota, and a three day get-away for B and me with a bunch of our Charlotte friends. We are VERY excited, though even with three weeks we don’t have time to see and visit half of the people we’d like to see, so our excitement is tempered with some disappointments. It’s going to be a wonderful, but bizarre three weeks as we walk and drive freely wherever we want, drink Starbucks to our hearts content, and play in the wide open green spaces available to us. But as wonderful as it will be (and I know it will) I also know we will be excited to come back to Kinshasa, to our home, to Miller and to the next adventure that awaits us here.

 

 

Running to catch up

B is shaming me into a blog post. Last night as we were watching TV he looked over and said “You know, I used to read this abcdadventure blog, but I haven’t seen a post in a long time…I wonder what happened to it?”

Sigh. What happened is life in Kinshasa. I feel like I am always running to catch up these days. I actually have three half (or almost fully) written posts that glare at me accusingly when I log onto the blog, but I can’t seem to find the time (or maybe muster up the effort) to get them finished, get photos uploaded and get them posted. Or, when I sit down to get them finished it has been long enough since I started writing that the timing is all off.

This all started in the fall when I started working on Christmas presents. I finally started sewing, but I couldn’t really blog about it because everything I was sewing was going to be sent stateside as a present, so I couldn’t show any pictures without ruining the surprise. Since I was also sewing like a crazy person I was also not writing about anything else, and so it began, the slow decline into a monthly blog post instead of a weekly one.

I’ll try harder, promise. For now, I’m going to work on finishing the three pending posts so be careful what you ask for all of you who keep wondering when the next post is coming, because there may be three or four in short order! So, without further ado, the post I started two weeks ago (and finished this morning):

It’s been a week of firsts for me in the Congo: first boat trip up the Congo River to lounge on a sandbar, first trip to the “Marble Palace” to see where Laurent Kabila was assassinated, and my first car accident.

My journalistic training would tell me to start with the most important of these firsts, but I’m hard pressed to identify which one wins that title. I’m sure most readers are thinking that an accident has to top the list. And, from a strictly journalistic perspective injury and destruction usually trumps everything else, but in this case there were no injuries (thank heavens) and, relatively speaking, little destruction, and, basically it was just like an accident anywhere. Well, other than my fleeing the scene…

It really was very bland as accidents go. I was driving down the road toward the embassy and a pick up truck backed out of a roadside parking space and hit me. We’ve been taught not to stay at the scene of an accident in Kinshasa if we can help it. Instead, we make our way immediately to one of the “safe” locations for US diplomats. For me, the embassy was very close by, so I just kept moving.

A man ran up to the window and started shouting “arrête, arrête!” but I ignored him. It didn’t actually sound that bad when it happened; it certainly looked worse than it sounded when I finally laid eyes on the damage. Once I got to the embassy and got out of the car I could see that the back panel of the car had been ripped off, so maybe he was just trying to get me to stop so I could pick up the piece of my car that was apparently lying in the road, but then again, maybe not.

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Americans = rich in Kinshasa, so even when an American driver is not at fault in an accident (as in my case) a crowd can gather quickly and tensions can escalate. We even have special cards made up that explain in French and Lingala that we will not leave the car, we will be driving away and if the person needs to contact someone about the accident they should reach out to the embassy. I didn’t even bother with the card given the circumstances of my accident, I just kept on going. The embassy guards and I drove back over to the area in their truck about 20 minutes later, but the pieces were long gone.

“Wow,” I said (in French). “That piece was pretty big, I’m surprised someone took it.”

“Ah, Madame,” the guard said to me. “Pour les Chegues rien n’est impossible.”

In other words, “for the street children (called Chegues here (pronounced shay-geys)) nothing is impossible.” One of the drivers in our compound has even suggested that if we take the car somewhere local to have it fixed we may find that we get our own part back – at a price of course. I’m just glad that the damage wasn’t worse and that no one was hurt in either car. Fingers crossed that is my first AND last accident here.

The next weekend was a four-day weekend for Americans in Kinshasa as Friday was a Congolese holiday (Heroes Day) and Monday was MLK. Heroes Day is really two days. One in honor of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister after the end of colonialism in 1960 who was assassinated on January 17, 1961, and the other in honor of Laurent Kabilia, who was President of the DRC after overthrowing the military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Kabilia was the father of the current president, Joseph Kabilia, so he is often referred to here as “Papa Kabilia.” He was assassinated on January 16, 2001. Every year on January 16 the DRC government opens the so-called “Marble Palace” where Papa Kabila was assassinated to the public. The room in which he was shot has (allegedly) not been touched since that time and you can still see bullet holes in the chair he was sitting in. We decided it was worth the wait to see the palace, though it is not much of a palace and I’m not sure what (if anything) was made of marble. Either way it was interesting and I’m glad we checked it off our list, but we won’t be going back again next year, so that’ll be a first and last for me as well.

The only first that I hope gets repeated at regular intervals was the amazing trip up the Congo River. This was our first “sandbar” outing as well as our first time on the river proper. Typically (apparently) you are only on the river for 20-30 minutes before a suitable sandbar is found for lounging. However, there has been so much rain lately that it took us almost an hour and a half to find a sandbar big enough to accommodate the 25+ of us who went out on the trip. The ride was worth it – and was amazing and beautiful in and of itself. Once on the sandbar, tents and tables were set up and the boat crew set up a grill and cooked the meat and other food we brought with us. We drank beer and ate hot dogs while the children played in the sand and the shallow water. I took my first official “swim” (more like drifting in the current) in the Congo River and if I could go back again this morning I’d be on my way.

Instead, we’re enjoying another lazy Saturday morning. C is coloring, B is watching football (“soccer” to the Americans) and I am FINALLY finishing a blog post. Certainly not our first Saturday morning like this, and I have no doubt we’ll enjoy many more such mornings while we plan the next “first” in our Congo adventure.

Game night

When I imagined life in Kinshasa I pictured the family game nights of my childhood.

On rainy and sub-sub zero temperature days at my family’s cottage (house on a lake for all the non-Canadians out there), and on many evenings, our family gathered round the dining table and played games. As we got older there was also usually a puzzle set up on a different table that two or three people would huddle over, squinting at all white tiles trying to determine whether they fit into a cloud or a snowbank. We had no cable and no internet, so the options were limited. Watch a movie on the VCR (or Beta – my Dad is an early adopter and sometimes he backed the wrong horse…), do a puzzle, or play a game. In my mind’s eye the lights are turned low, there is a fire burning and the darkness outside wraps around the house making all seem cozy and sheltered.

It’s not that I expected cozy nights around the fire in Kin – the fact that it was going to be 90 degrees in the shade many days was one of the things about the Congo that strongly appealed to me, the girl who is always cold. But, I was led to believe that internet would be spotty, or so slow it would be like returning to telephone modems, and cable would be non-existent, or full of things we didn’t want to watch, so I planned accordingly.

I packed puzzles and games and DVDs. I even bought B a beautiful wooden cribbage set for Christmas last year (with an etching of the lake where the cottage is – and where we were married). We requested puzzles for Christmas presents, we asked for recommendations on TV series and movies and we stocked up on games. I thought I’d have hours and hours to read and write and filled boxes with books accordingly.

It is all sitting, unused, in our playroom and on the bookshelves.

The reality of Kin is that most weekends are filled with so much activity that we are too exhausted to play a game or do a puzzle when we get home. Now that we are in rainy season it certainly rains – but rarely for more than an hour or two at a time, so there are no all day sit inside, noses pressed up against the glass, watching the rain and being bored moments here. Clearly there are no -22 degree days to keep us inside, and when it is 95+ we just get in the pool.

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The last month has been no exception – and has, in fact, been busier than earlier months due to the holidays.

First came Halloween. The embassy (or really the CLO (“Community Liaison Officer”)) organized a trunk-or-treat party with games and cookie decorating after the candy grabbing was over. C (and we, if truth be told) had a blast.

There was no traditional door to door trick or treating, but I realized that we have never had a “traditional” Halloween with C. In our old neighborhood in Charlotte there was a Halloween Parade with dozens of small children dressed as princesses, pirates, ghosts and Cindy Lou Who (in the case of C) trailing along behind a fire truck, getting candy from neighbors standing on the street and ending up at the community center for a pizza party.  In D.C. last year we did Halloween on the Hill and wandered around Capitol Hill with good friends. So Halloween in Kinshasa was really not that much different than in the U.S. for us.

The night of Halloween was Oktoberfest at the Symphonie Des Arts – so we left C with a babysitter and went out on the town to witness a large majority of the Kin expat community wearing dirndls and lederhosen made out of the local pagne cloth and dancing the night away to a band brought in from Germany. Schnitzel and sauerkraut – and dozens of other German dishes – were set out in a buffet and beer was flowing as it does only in October at German parties. And, to top of that night, we did the Conga in the Congo.

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The next day we headed with a large group out to see the Bonobos – apes that are only found in Congo because they don’t like to swim and won’t cross the Congo River. They are fascinating to watch – incredibly human-like – but their society, which is ruled by a female, apparently has the motto “make love, not war” and they are free to demonstrate that motto in actions rather than words. Luckily the children were more transfixed by the baby Bonobos than the “rumble in the jungle” going on at every turn and we escaped without having to answer any hard questions.

On Veterans Day the kids were in school, but the Embassy was closed, so about 40 people chartered a bus and took a tour of Kinshasa. We visited sites generally off limits, not only to us because of security, but to everyone, including the final resting place of Laurent Kabila (or “Papa Kabila” here), the father of the current president. Papa Kabila became president of the Congo in 1997 when he overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko (or just “Mobutu”), the dictator of the country for over 30 years, but Papa Kabila was assassinated only 4 years later in January 2001. His mausoleum is impressive, but is generally completely inaccessible. It was a rare insight into a city and country that is not generally a tourist destination in any sense of the word.

After that we had the Marine Corps Ball, then Thanksgiving at the Ambassador’s residence – with people in the community bringing their favorite side dishes. Two days after Thanksgiving was the “Kid Power” festival featuring almost a dozen bouncy houses which almost made C faint from excitement when she first saw them. This weekend we have a “Hail & Farewell” party on Friday (when the community welcomes the newest arrivals and says goodbye to the folks headed to their next tour) then C’s “Spectacle de Danse” on Saturday. On  Sunday, as on all Sundays, we’ll have our weekly “cocktail hour” at the compound.

Through all this we have managed to have a couple of game nights with some good friends, and they have been everything I was hoping for and expecting – laughter, mingled with competition, while darkness closes in around us and the A/C glows in the background.

 

On second thought…

Ok. Remember when I said I loved my stuff and I didn’t think I had too much of it?

I was wrong.

I (and let’s be honest here, it really is me and not B & C) have WAY too much stuff.

How did I discover this truth? I received the last of our shipments. Our HHE from Arlington, and our consumables. Four more crates full of sh…stuff.

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You might recall the 1,600 lbs of food I sent – it’s now here. A crate full of yumminess. I was excited about that, but I (for some unexplained reason) thought that the rest of the HHE from Arlington would be maybe one more crate. Nope – it was three. It did contain a queen sized mattress and three bikes, which obviously took up a lot of room, but how did our tiny little apartment fill three crates!?

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My living room on boxes…

I got the food side of the consumables unpacked and organized in the pantry pretty quickly, but the rest of it has been (really) slow going. I’ve been unpacking and finding places for things, but suddenly my nice uncluttered house is starting to look a lot more cluttered. I finished painting C’s room, so she has moved in and we have transferred most of her toys there,  but that hasn’t seemed to make a dent in the office/spare room. It is like an explosion of STUFF when you walk in. And the bathrooms, now that we have received two years worth of shampoo, soap, lotion etc…, look like a smaller version of CVS.

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But don’t be fooled into thinking that this means I not going to be buying anything else. Nope. I’ve got an Amazon Prime Pantry box in the works and I’ll be heading to the grocery store this morning to look for, of all things, chili powder. Seriously, how could I forget plain chili powder? I have a cupboard full of spices, about 6 different kinds of curry, and coriander, cardamom, cumin and cinnamon in all their various forms, but good old add-to-your-chili chili powder? Somehow that did not get included. So last night, as I’m making B’s top secret chili recipe for the Chili Contest on Saturday I had to go to my neighbors and beg for chili powder and now I’m headed out to buy a jar of my own. [Wait! News flash! Did you guys know that chili powder is actually a blend of spices? Of course you did, but I did not – until now – so hooray – I made my own chili powder and it has made my chili DELICIOUS!]

It is baffling that even with all this stuff I could still need more, but there it is.

C didn’t worry about there being too much stuff. She only had eyes for one thing – her bike. She has been asking us when the bike would arrive since we set foot in our house over two months ago.

She marched straight up to the supervisor and said “Did you bring me my bike?”

Catching my eye, he nodded. “Yes,” he said.  “It is in one of these boxes.”

“Can you please get it for me now?” C asked.

And bless him, he bypassed the boxes with the consumables and the mattresses and went straight to the crate with the bikes.

C is not always comfortable with strangers, but apparently the promise of delivering her bike made her fast friends with John. She walked up and put her arms out for him to pick her up, which he did.

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“How come your truck is so slow,” she said to him.

“My truck isn’t slow,” he answered, looking puzzled.

“But it took a LONG time to get from our house in Washington,” C responded. “So it must be slow.”

We, the adults, looked at each other for a minute and then I realized what C meant.

“She thinks this is the same truck that picked up our things in Arlington,” I told him, laughing. “She saw them load a truck with boxes and crates, and now a truck with boxes and crates has arrived in Kinshasa, so to her it must be the same truck.”

Leave it to a four year old to make sure everyone has a good laugh in 95 degree heat while unloading heavy boxes.

This has been an ongoing struggle for B and me – trying to explain to C that the four inches between Africa and North America on our map are not literal. As far as she is concerned we can swim to Canada from here, so why shouldn’t a truck drive from Arlington?

C didn’t think it was funny at all, and was not impressed by the delay in finding her bike while John told all the workers in Lingala what C had said in English.  But, eventually the bike was found, peddles were added and, from a four year old perspective, all was right with the world.

Our gardner asked during the unloading if he and our housekeeper could each keep a crate. “Of course,” I said. “What do you do with the crates?”

It’s an innocent enough question, right? I should have anticipated the response, but somehow I had not.

“We use it for our roofs, Madame,” my gardner told me. “They are not very strong and with the rains coming, this good wood helps keep the rain out.”

This “good” wood is plywood.

And so my stuff became to me, quite literally, an embarrassment of riches. I could feel my cheeks getting red as I stood there watching them unpack the crates. Box after box after box.  A bed that no one will sleep in 90% of the time. Pillows for decoration. Dozens of wine, martini, champagne, cocktail glasses that will sit in the china cabinet. China that will only be used at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Four boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorations. And the plywood crates it all came out of that will be the roof over the heads of two people who come to my house every day to my life easier.

I was standing there watching this, feeling horrified, when our neighbor’s driver, Pappy, who I turn to with lots of questions, asked me what was wrong.

“It is just so much, when so many people have so little,” I said.

“Oui Madame,” he replied. “Mais c’est comme ça partout dans le monde. Certaines personnes ont plus, d’aucuns ont moins. Vous assurez que vous appréciez ce que vous avez.”

“It is like that that over the world. Some people have more, some people have less. You make sure that you appreciate what you have.”

This truth is not lost on me. There are plenty of people in the world who have a lot more stuff than we do. And people whose sole goal is to get more stuff. Make more money, get more stuff, on and on until they die and there is no more stuff to get. And it is as true in the U.S. in many ways as it is in Kinshasa, but somehow it is just not as obvious. Maybe because I don’t know anyone sleeping under a plywood roof – and appreciating it – in the U.S.

It doesn’t make me like my stuff less, but it certainly makes me look at it differently.

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Boxes, boxes, boxes and paper, paper, paper…

So now I have the stuff put away. It is folded, arranged and stored so that there are no more boxes in my living room. The bikes are in the garage, the china is in the cabinet, and…the plywood is keeping my gardener and my housekeeper dry.

And I appreciate having our tools back, and my desktop to write at, and the spare bedroom arranged.

The question I’m asking myself is whether I appreciate it enough.

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CRASH! BANG! PACK!

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

RUN, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

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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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