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.

 

 

Silence is golden

I once heard that smell is the strongest sense associated with memory.

So, according to whatever I read/saw/was told, when you catch a whiff of something familiar from your past it is more likely to trigger a memory of that event or place than something you see, touch or hear.

I consider my sense of smell to be pretty good, but when I smell something familiar I know it reminds me of something, but I usually cannot put my finger on what. It drives me a bit batty actually.  I’ll smell something and then stand there wracking my brain to come up with where or when I smelled it before. Smells for me are more likely to evoke an overall “feeling” for me. The smell of flowers like those in my Grandpa’s garden, the smell of a horse or barn , the smell after a rainstorm or a snowstorm – those scents all evoke a feeling of calm and happiness in me, but they don’t necessarily bring back a specific memory.

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Not so with music.

The first few notes of a song will bring back a flood of actual, specific memories for me. B got me a wireless speaker for Christmas (hooray B!) and I put it on shuffle and got to work in the kitchen today. I made bagels – actual real bagels – as opposed to bread circles with holes which pass for bagels in Kinshasa. They don’t look beautiful, but they have the perfect crunchy/chewy outside and the soft delicious inside that I love about a bagel more than almost any other bread. After that I made pesto. My basil is out of control in the little garden I planted (well, the gardener planted with my seeds, direction and guidance), so pesto had to be made.

And while I’ve been cooking today I’ve been listening to my own music and being flooded by memories. Right now Tragically Hip is playing. It reminds me of a concert in Chapel Hill, nights on the lake with a fire burning, sitting next to their manager at a friend’s wedding (which then leads me to think of that night being the first time I tasted good port – and it was good!) The memories just keep coming. Before that was Yaz. That took me straight back to camp, to 9th grade, to dance clubs in Toronto and later in Louisiana. I can’t even imagine a smell that could bring back a waterfall of memories like that.

After my best friend died in September 2001, it took me literally months to be able to listen to music again. Any music that I was in the least bit familiar with conjured up an obscure memory of my time with Karen. And every obscure memory caused a cascade of grief that left me bawling in my car, at my desk, in the supermarket, or anywhere else I heard it. I finally just had to avoid music altogether in order to be able to proceed through my day without swollen, bloodshot eyes. I had to ease back into music. Gradually getting back to a place where it brought me more joyous memories than sad ones most of the time.

Lately though I have been desperate for silence again. Not to avoid memories, but to avoid the sensory overload that seems to be built into this city.

Ever since the start of the holidays (and keep in mind there is no Halloween or Thanksgiving here so Christmas decorations were basically up at the beginning of October) Shoprite, the supermarché  next door, has had a DJ who starts playing around 3 p.m., and keeps playing until at least 8 p.m. every day. Some days there are also birthdays or weddings in the restaurant behind Shoprite and then the music can go – quite literally – all night.

We couldn’t understand why the parties lasted so long until Papy (our neighbor’s driver who provides me with a lot of Kin/Congo information) told us that it can be dangerous to travel late at night here, so when people host a party they keep it going all night so their guests can travel home safely the next morning. This is all very well for the guests, but for those of us who live next door it is not ideal.

Today it started raining while we were outside – C and some friends playing in the pool, me picking basil and washing the dog (not at the same time), and, apparently because of the rain, all of a sudden the DJ turned off his equipment. I almost dropped to my knees in joy.

It might not be so bad if everything wasn’t so chaotic all the time. This morning I had to drive down to the embassy to get cash (we have to cash checks here – the ATMs aren’t safe to use and this is a completely cash society) and get gas for the car. You can never relax when you drive here. Sometimes it is a lot of fun, bobbing and weaving in traffic, but other times it is just too much. Today, driving down the main boulevard, called Blvd. du 30 Juin (the day of Congo independence), as I approached a light that was flashing that it was going to turn red, it seemed that I would have room to cross, but then a large bus stopped in the intersection so I stopped – about 10 inches into the crosswalk. Half a dozen other cars went around me – several well after the light had turned red (traffic signals and traffic police are just suggestions to a lot of Kinshasa drivers), but I held my ground despite the guy behind me going to town on his horn.

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Then along comes a pedestrian. He stands in front of my car and proceeds to berate me for stopping over the crosswalk. Seriously. Never mind that cars drive on sidewalks and lawns to get around traffic routinely, almost no one obeys lights or signals – half of which don’t even work – and most of the time pedestrians are jumping barriers and running across the middle of the street in front of oncoming traffic, this guy is yelling at me because he has to walk an extra two steps. It’s these little things that start to get to you living in a city like this. Would he have yelled if I’d been a Kinois? Probably not. But the privileged diplomatic-plated white lady was, apparently in his eyes, just disregarding the pedestrians because she could. Coming home after days (and drives) like this to loud thumping music day in and day out, coupled with other sensory chaos has been taking its toll on me and the silence that descended when the turntable went off was amazing.

It makes me wonder what sounds of Kinshasa will bring back memories of these two years for me in the future. Will it be the sound of car horns and angry French/Lingala being yelled at me? Or the pounding bass of the club music blasting next door? Or, maybe, if I’m lucky, it’ll be the sounds of C and her friends playing in the pool, or the sounds of petanque balls and laughing with our friends while listening to Wilco in the background, or of Stromae in B’s car singing Papaoutai, or maybe it’ll be one more memory for Yaz, playing on my wireless speaker while I write a long overdue blog post.

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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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.

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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.

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.

Doomed…

I’m doomed today.  My work is doomed today.  My list of things to do? Yup, doomed.  So sorry Miller the Dog, you are not going to the dog park. And dry cleaning?  Yeah, you are staying in the basket.  It remains to be seen whether I will even be able to drag myself away from my desk/computer long enough to have lunch.

Why the doom?  Because this morning another FS blogger, www.subjectverbobject.com, posted a list of HUNDREDS of other FS blogs here.

Now, I have read quite a few FS blogs over the last 5 years while I have patiently waited for B to get into an A-100 class.  When you want to try and understand what life *might* be like in the Foreign Service, these blogs are a godsend.  FSOs and their EFMs are great writers and prolific bloggers, so you can learn a lot from reading their posts.  But this? This is FS blog Mecca.  The promised land of information on what other people living this amazing, crazy life are doing, feeling, seeing, wishing, hoping, eating.

Be prepared to see more of these blogs on my “Blogroll,” as I make my way through them (I’m on No. 3 right now, so I have a LONG way to go), though, it occurs to me that I have not seen my Blogroll lately…perhaps it didn’t move when I changed my theme? I’ll try and remedy that, but while you are waiting check out the link and SVO’s awesome list.