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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Swearing (in)

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

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

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

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

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

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C does NOT like to have her picture taken…

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

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Hello Volvo factory!

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Smorgasbord!

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Notre Dame

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

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Amsterdam

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Copenhagen

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

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

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Dangerous assumptions

Yesterday a woman died on the D.C. Metro.  I have no idea who she was, or where she was going, but she was certainly just minding her own business on her way somewhere (or from somewhere) when the Metro car she was riding in filled with smoke and, ultimately, she lost her life.

As everyone knows, last week 12 people were sitting in their office, writing stories, drawing cartoons and, again, minding their own business, when terrorists charged into their offices and summarily executed them in Paris.  The next day four people were murdered while they went grocery shopping in Paris by another extremist terrorist.

Today people will die in car accidents in D.C., they will be shot in D.C., they will be mugged, robbed, or raped in D.C.

Yet, I’m pretty sure if I told everyone we were moving to Paris with the State Department no one would say “Aren’t you worried about the danger?”  And I know no one said that to me when we moved to Washington.  So why is everyone so worried about us moving to the D.R.C.?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% sure people will die in Kinshasa today as well, but the point is what is the difference?

I’ve been pondering this question as I do more in preparation for our move, and as I hear the terrible news both far away and close to home.  It strikes me as an odd juxtaposition against the slightly askance look I get from people when I talk about moving to DRC and one of their first questions is always about whether we are worried about the danger there.   The Congo is, to be sure, a place with a violent history, with political unrest, guerrilla groups and millions of poor and unemployed who make many areas dangerous by their sheer desperation. Statistically it is more dangerous than D.C. or Paris.  But statistics mean very little unless you look at them with a critical eye.

When I was much younger and afraid of flying my grandfather once told me that more people in the world die from being kicked by donkeys than die in plane crashes.  I’ve never checked on that statistic, and it turns out it may have been made up by an “expert,” but even if the donkey statistic is true, does it matter to me? I’m sure lots of people in un- and under- developed countries have donkeys.  However, I do not, on a daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly basis come in contact with donkeys (I can think of three donkeys I’ve come in contact with in my lifetime – none of them even kicked me, let alone tried to kill me). I do get on planes though, pretty often.  So, am I more likely to die by getting kicked by a donkey than in a plane crash? No, clearly not.

donkey

Which leads me back to the dangers of the DRC.  If we were going to live in the city proper on our own without any of the support we will have, I’ll admit it would be crazeeeee.  But we’ll have 24 hour security when we live there.  We’ll be traveling on diplomatic passports and driving cars with diplomatic plates.  We will know the places to be avoided – and will be required by the Embassy to avoid those places.  We will live in the most affluent part of the city – full of other affluent people and, no doubt, policed significantly more than anywhere else.  And, perhaps most importantly, we’ll be aware.  Aware of our surroundings, aware of who, what and where to look out for, and aware of how to get out of those places and circumstances as quickly and effectively as possible.

How will know how to do all of this? We get to take FACT training.  That’s “Foreign Affairs Counter Threat” training to you and “Crash Bang” to everyone in the Foreign Service.  We’ll learn skills to better prepare us “for living and working in critical and high threat environments overseas.”  B has to take this course, and it is “highly recommended” that I take it too.  And I will, in FACT, be taking it.   FACT training teaches emergency medical care, improvised explosive device (IED)
awareness, firearms familiarization, and how to perform defensive/counterterrorist driving maneuvers, among other things.

defensive driving

No one gave me any training to move to D.C. even though, statistically, I’m sure it is more dangerous than Charlotte.  So this is why I’m not freaked out about the “dangers” of Kinshasa. I know our friends and family who ask about the danger are only worried about us, and I love them for that, but we will be aware of our surroundings, we’ll wear sunscreen, we’ll avoid snakes, guerrillas and, I promise, donkeys.

5,892

5,892.  This, in pounds, and along with a few hundred additional pounds currently in our Arlington apartment, is what our “life” weighs.

I called the State Department warehouse in Maryland where our stuff, and the stuff of many other FS families, resides while we galavant around the world.  In my head, it looks like the last scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

the ark and our stuff

When the movers came and emptied our house in Charlotte they took everything to this warehouse.  We haven’t seen it since, though we get one opportunity to visit it before we decide what it is we want to have shipped to us in Kinshasa when we leave in a few months.  As January 1 creeps (or rushes…) up to me I decided it was time to know how much all that stuff weighed so I could start mentally thinking about what we could (and would want to) bring with us as part of our HHE.   This got me thinking about what we want to bring with us in all the categories of “shipments” we have.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are several categories of shipments that we get when we leave (or “pack out”) of Arlington and head toward Africa.  By my count there are six: carry-on luggage, checked baggage, UAB, HHE, POV and Consumables.  Each will have its own set of challenges in terms of packing and scheduling.  For now I’m just thinking in broad strokes and hoping I can narrow down what we want before July.  So here, a short description of the six types of packing we’ll be doing.

Carry-On Luggage:

The first is no different than a typical traveler: carry-on luggage.  Normally my carry-on consists of some clothes (thrown in last minute), a book (wishful thinking with a three year old as a traveling companion) and my toiletries bag (in handy see- through bag).  This time, all of our carry-on bags (one bag and one personal item each for C, B and me), will be packed with precision and much forethought.  They will include enough games, toys, coloring books, and downloaded TV shows/movies to keep C occupied for basically 24 hours of traveling.  The first flight (from the US to Europe) will be overnight, so that might be easier, but I have no idea if the level of excitement we will all be feeling will allow for sleep, so I’ll be prepared.  The second flight, from Europe to Kin (it’s time to revert to the “nickname” for our new home – typing Kinshasa is getting old…) is 8 hours long in the middle of the day.  Leaving at 10 a.m. and getting in at 5 p.m.  So I predict at least one bag will be devoted to kid-occupation.  The other bags will be carrying our “must have” “cannot lose” items – documents, money, medication etc.

busy bagChecked Baggage:

We officially get to check two 50 lbs bags each.  So that’s 300 lbs of stuff that will travel on the same plane with us.  Technically we can, on our own dime, bring more, but having looked at the cost it is not the “few extra” dollars I anticipated.  You can take up to five additional bags, each up to 50 lbs, at a cost of $146 each.  Do not put it past me to set aside $730 so that I can make sure that I have my Le Creuset, cast iron frying pan, and other “creature” comforts, but right now that is seeming like a steep cost for a few extras.

I suspect most of our checked baggage will be our clothes (but hooray for going to a hot country where clothes weigh less!) and a lot of C’s toys.  This luggage, along with our carry-ons, will be all we’ll have of our own for several months in Kin – hence my desire to have my frying pan.  We’ll have a “welcome kit” when we arrive which I’m sure will contain a frying pan, but I’m equally sure that having my own frying pan will help me feel that much more “settled” when we arrive. The remaining categories of stuff (see below) won’t arrive for between two and six months.  So what we put in our checked baggage will be “it” until possibly Christmas time.  Our dog, Miller, because he weighs over 70 lbs, will be a whole separate category of “cargo” but thankfully he will be on our plane, so I’m considering him within the “checked” category.

UAB – Unaccompanied Air Baggage:

I’ve written about our UAB before, but this time it will be a whole different world of UAB.  Last time we were driving two cars about 400 miles, so whatever didn’t go in UAB just got shoved (and I mean this fairly literally) into the car with us.  I also drove back to Charlotte for work and picked up all the stuff that wouldn’t fit in the cars on the first trip.  This time, we’re moving 6,570 miles over an ocean and to another continent.  There will be no “going back” to pick up anything we’ve left, forgotten, or couldn’t fit on the first trip.  We’ve been told by the folks in the know (the CLO (Community Liaison Officer) in Kin) that it can take 2-4 months for our UAB to arrive in Kin.  So what goes in the UAB needs to be things that we can do without for 2-4 months, but that we want more than the things that are going in our HHE (Household Effects) – since it can apparently take up to six months for that to arrive.  We get a total of 600 lbs of UAB, so, assuming most of our clothes manage to fit in our carry-on and checked luggage, I suspect this will be a lot of kitchen stuff, but I’ve got until July to figure it out (and I’ll probably need every second of the time I’ve got).

HHE – Household Effects:

So this is where the 5,892 lbs comes into play.  I wanted to know the weight of our storage so I could start thinking about what I would want to have shipped to make our new house a little homier.  I knew we wouldn’t top the 18,000 lbs career limit (the max any FSO can have – be they ambassador or lowly ELO (entry level officer)), but I was frankly shocked to find out that we didn’t even come close to the 7,200 lbs HHE limit for our post (where housing is provided fully-furnished).  Technically this means we could ask for everything that is in storage.  We won’t, because there won’t be room for all our furniture, but it’s amazing to me that our house full of stuff weighs less than the 7,200 lbs allowance.  Admittedly, we don’t have our fridge, washer/dryer, and stove in storage (our renters have those), and we sold our sectional and a couple of other pieces of furniture, but if all of this fell through – we could still furnish a four bedroom house so that it looked like grow ups lived there.

The one piece of furniture I know we’ll want to include in our HHE is our bed – I DREAM of our king sized bed…a queen just doesn’t cut it once you get used to a king.  We’ll be able to bring all our kitchen stuff too.  Hooray for no more wine bottles as rolling pins (now I can use wine bottles for their intended use – drinking!).

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Personally Operated Vehicle:

It seems to be somewhat shocking to people that the USG will ship our car to Kin for us.  Only one car, mind you, but still…our trusty 4Runner will be making the trip with us.  We strongly considered selling our other car when we left Charlotte.  We certainly don’t need two cars in DC.  We don’t even really need one car given that we have the Metro and are walking distance to pretty much everything, but we’re really glad we kept both of them since it means that we might not have to wait 6 months for our car.  Our plan right now is to ship the 4Runner early – several months before we are scheduled to leave – and *hopefully* (fingers crossed everyone) it will be there when we arrive (or soon thereafter).  Having a second car allows us the luxury of shipping one car, but still having a vehicle.  And, since I’m planning to spend some time driving around visiting friends and family before we leave, this makes me very happy.

Consumables:

This is 2,500 lbs of “commodities that are intended to be used up relatively quickly.”  Not all posts are “consumable” posts, but Kin is.  So, we’ll also be identifying the 1,250 lbs of Kraft Dinner (shout out to my Canadian peeps), coke, peanut butter, spices etc…that we want and shipping those in an entirely separate shipment.  We’ll save the second 1,250 for later in our tour to account for expiration dates and determining the things we REALLY miss, instead of the things that we think we’re going to miss.  I’ll have to write a whole separate post about the consumables – I’m already obsessing, but suffice it to say that 1,250 lbs of food/household goods could mean 2500 cans of coke, or 3,636 boxes of Mac & Cheese, or almost 84 bags of dog food (the big ones).  The combinations are endless – I’m hoping to come up with the perfect one before July.

Kraft Dinner

The grand total of our “stuff” that could come along with us – a whopping 10,750 lbs (not including the car) of clothes, furniture, toys, books, dog food, coke and mac & cheese.  I’m pretty sure that will be sufficient “stuff” to make us feel *almost* at home in Africa for two years.  Now if only I could figure out a way to pack a Starbucks store…

January in Canada

In January 1970, my parents boarded a plane in London, England and flew 3,550 miles to Toronto. They then drove another 2 1/2 hours to a town of approximately 400 people (404 when we arrived) called Arkona, Ontario.  They brought with them a 26-month old (me), a six-month old (my sister) and, according to them, not much else.  They left behind their parents, their siblings, their homes and everything they had ever known.

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Dad 70s

My mother had been born and raised just outside London.  She was 28 and had just finished medical school and her residency. She had never been to Canada, or anywhere in North America, before she carried her two girls onto that plane and set off for an unknown life.

It is cold in Canada in January. There is snow; lots of it.  When they arrived at their little (very little) house, which they had never seen before, and did not “chose,” there was probably not much to see in Arkona except snow.  By mid-January winter is also not that pretty in Ontario.  It has lost the sparkly newness of December.  Christmas is over and there is a long (long) time before the next holiday (Easter) and the next warmth (often long after Easter).  It is a difficult time.  Bitter cold and short days making everything feel lifeless and dark.

propsect winter

Our street in London, Ontario circa winter 1975 – a lot bigger than Arkona…

My Dad, who had graduated from medical school the year before my Mum, had a job at the local clinic.  When they arrived my mother did not have a job.  My parents had opted to put her brand new – and hard fought – career on pause and move to Canada for the opportunity afforded by my Dad’s new job, hoping that once they arrived she too would be able to find work.

If my Mum wanted to talk to her mother – or father, or brother, or best friend, or anyone from England – she had two options: an airmail letter carefully scripted on vellum-thin blue paper and trusted to the Canadian Postal Service, or a very expensive long distance call with awkward pauses and echoing words across the Atlantic.

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As we embark on this life of perpetual relocation, I am fascinated thinking about my parents in those early days.  Particularly thinking about my mother.  Alone in a cold, unfamiliar place with very little to do and two small children.

I don’t remember a thing about our immigration to Canada, just like, I suspect, C will not remember living in Charlotte, moving to D.C. and, in a few months, moving to Kinshasa.  But, nevertheless, I feel for my mother when C breaks down in tears and asks about her friends, or her old house, or her old bed, because, whether she remembers it or not in 20 or 30 years, right now it is a trauma for her and is, no doubt, having an effect on her.  I suspect, likewise, I was not that easy to live with right after we came to Canada.

On the days when I’m feeling particularly weepy and missing our friends and Charlotte, I wonder “how did she do it?”

I have Facebook, and Skype, and text messaging, and basically free long distance.  When I get bored in our apartment, I leave. I get on the Metro and go into one of the most fascinating and amazing cities in this country (if not the planet), with amazing restaurants and museums and an endless list of things to do, not to mention many of my dearest friends.  My child is in a daycare she loves where she is, in turn, loved and taken care of so B and I can do the things we want and need to do each day.  I know moving to the DRC will be very different – I will not have the freedom to wander around the city and explore it, but, then again, I’m going to be stepping into a fully formed community of U.S. Embassy families who will help us navigate the streets, culture, stores and newness of Kinshasa.  They have a blog that I can read right now to find out what sorts of events are going on (Happy hours, a Burger Burn and the Marine Corps Ball…to name a few), for heaven’s sake.  My mother had none of that.

And, hand in hand with my mother, I also think about all the FS families who have gone before us.  Who have stepped into the unknown of a new post without the internet, Amazon Prime, Skype and mobile phones.  And it makes me realize that hardship is a wholly inaccurate and very relative term.   What B and C and I are facing will be different, definitely, but hardship? “Severe suffering and privation”? No. It will not be that.

And so, when I look out my window at the streets of Arlington, and I’m homesick for the streets of Charlotte, I try and picture the streets of Arkona, with grey skies and lots of snow, and I remember how lucky I am, and, as well, how thankful I am that my mother (and Dad) braved the view (or lack thereof), the snow, the homesickness and sadness they felt, in order to give our family the amazing life we’ve had.  I hope one day C feels the same way.

Making a list and checking it twice

A-100 is over.

And so begins the time of the List.

lists

The list of how long it takes us to use a bottle of shampoo (or a roll of toilet paper, or a bag of dog food…whatever consumable item it is for which we might have to determine the number of items necessary to tide us over for two years in Kinshasa).

The list of what we eat, like to eat, might possibly want to eat, and that will be either wholly unavailable (think ice cream treats and other items that cannot be shipped) or exorbitantly costly (we have heard that a case of diet Coke can cost upward of $80 USD) in Kinshasa, and thus must be gorged on (or a substitute acquired, tested and approved) prior to departure.

The list of all the people we love who live all over this country, and others, and who we will want to visit, nuzzle up to, break bread with, and generally fill our minds and hearts to overflowing with, before we leave.

The list of places we want to visit – both in Washington, and in general, in the next nine or so months.

The list of books we want to read that will need to be downloaded, bought, borrowed, or shipped via Amazon (hooray for Amazon) to our new home.

The list of games, toys, entertainment, DVDs, music, and other time occupiers that we will need to buy (and pack) before July.

The list of birthday, Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Anniversary, and “just because” presents and cards we need to shop for, buy, and hide away (but in such a way that we remember where we put them when we actually need them) to cover us for two years.

The list of documents, power cords, transformers, adaptors, tags and shots we will need to safely ship our car, our dog, our electronics and our gadgets (and to get them back when they land on Congo soil).

The list of what we want to carry with us (300 lbs (two 50 lbs suitcases/person)), ship by air (600 lbs – the “UAB“), and/or ship by boat (7,200 lbs – our “HHE“) when we leave.  And yes, I get it, some may think it is a little too premature to be making this list, but I feel like if i don’t start now something vital will be forgotten or overlooked. I tend toward procrastination, so I’m trying to avoid the last minute panic and wild throwing of random items into a suitcase only to arrive somewhere and find that I have packed every shirt I own, but no underwear.

The list of what insurance we need, whether we have updated (and appropriate) wills, powers of attorney, and advance directives, and which of our 4,917 (a guesstimate) passwords go with which online accounts.

And, as they say, the lists go on and on.

I’ll get it together, I have no doubt, but right now I’m lying in bed at night thinking about my lists, worrying about my lists, planning my lists…and, apparently, turning my blog into its very own list.  So, maybe this is the list I should tackle next…

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P.S. For anyone wondering, yes, Brian was officially sworn in last Friday.  We were incredibly proud and I can’t wait to write about it, but I’m waiting for a special photo that I need to get from someone else…stay tuned.

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?)

Straddling the line

the lineYesterday I was a lawyer.

Today, I dabbled in the law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fitting in

The bid list has been submitted.

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

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

dialects of French

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

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

accent

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!

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.

bidding

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.