Making do

First things first.  I “passed” my French “test.”  My score was a S-2/R-2.

I can’t say much about the assessment since I signed a non-disclosure agreement, but suffice it to say it was a LONG couple of hours that taxed my brain more than it has been taxed in a long time.  In good news, the assessors were quite complimentary and basically told me that they thought my childhood French was trapped somewhere in my brain.  So hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to take some classes in the spring that will be able to coax the French back out again a little more fluently.

What does my score mean? Well, a “2” is generally considered to mean I have a “limited working proficiency”

I am, according to the assessors:

  • able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements
  • can handle with confidence most basic social situations including introductions and casual conversations about current events, work, family, and autobiographical information
  • can handle limited work requirements, needing help in handling any complications or difficulties; can get the gist of most conversations on non-technical subjects (i.e. topics which require no specialized knowledge), and has a speaking vocabulary sufficient to respond simply with some circumlocutions
  • has an accent which, though often quite faulty, is intelligible
  • can usually handle elementary constructions quite accurately but does not have thorough or confident control of the grammar.

In about six months B will have to take a similar test assessment and he’ll have to get a S-3/R-3.  The score B needs is that of someone with a “Professional working proficiency.”  He will be expected to:

  • able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
  • can discuss particular interests and special fields of competence with reasonable ease
  • has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
  • has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to grope for a word
  • has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker.

I know he’ll do it. He’s an annoyingly determined human being.  But, wow, my 2+ hours of “assessing” made me realize what an amazing, and difficult, feat it is to learn a language, basically from scratch, to the point that you “rarely have to grope for a word.”

Besides stressing about the French assessment, we have not been thinking much about Kinshasa in the last couple of weeks, at least C and I have not.  B has been in “area studies” learning about Africa, so he’s probably a little more focused, but C and I have been enjoying fall in D.C.

For me, with fall, comes a strange need to cook.  Something about apples and pumpkins and the feel of crispy leaves under my feet makes me want to get into the kitchen.  So C and I have been finding fun things to cook, and having fun in some unexpected ways.

We started with some banana bread.  We had a couple of browning bananas, so I found my mother’s awesome recipe (which is really Nigella Lawson’s awesome recipe – we skip the nuts, but don’t, whatever you do, skip the rum…) and set about baking.  I gathered all my ingredients and then realized that the corporate housing gods do not include a bread pan with the kitchen.  So I made do with the casserole dish we do have and tried to fashion a tin foil “basket” to keep it contained in a loaf-like form.  This is how it came out of the oven:

IMG_0622 Luckily it still tasted pretty yummy.

Then with an extra day off last weekend we decided to make some sugar cookies.  I was sad to discover that I had not packed our Halloween decorations (who knows where those are…), but my bigger problem came when we needed to roll out the dough and I discovered (not surprisingly, I suppose) that our corporate apartment also does not include a rolling pin.  So we made do again – this time with something that had the additional benefit of being drinkable.


C thought it was pretty funny with the wine sloshing around while we rolled.  And again, luckily, the cookies tasted pretty good (even though we also found we only had Christmas colored sparkles…)

I suspect these will be the first of many (many) times that we’ll be compromising in our FS life, but if the results always turn out as well as our banana bread and cookies then missing a rolling pin, a pan, the right color sparkles – or something bigger – won’t really matter.  We’ll just keep making do and enjoying the fun of finding something that will work just as well (and even better if I also get a glass of wine as part of the deal).



My French test is in less than a week.  Cue panic.


I am torn between my perfectionist desire to get a good grade and my understanding that it might, actually, be better for me if I didn’t get too good a grade.  And then there is the worry that I’m just going to fail miserably.  Des jours heureux.

Luckily, I was introduced to a wonderful little owl last week who I’ve been obsessively visiting to brush up on my passé composé.  I know I’m probably severely behind the times, but until it was mentioned by someone in the “Ready to Roll!” class (this was a full day of logistics training designed to help us figure out how to move 6,566 miles away without losing our minds) I took last week at FSI I had never heard of DuoLingo.  It’s a pretty amazing site that essentially teaches you a language through step-by-step translation lessons – from French to English and from English to French.  I’m now in what seems like a race against the clock to finish all the lessons before next Friday.

In reality the result of my French test means very little.  Whether I can say “bonjour” (correctly, incorrectly or at all) makes no difference to whether we are going to board a plane for Kinshasa about 9 months from now.  We are going to board that plane regardless.  But spouses have the opportunity to take language classes at FSI on a “space available basis” and I’m hoping that if my French is just a bit above the very beginner level (which my mother is probably thinking it better be given my 6 years at French school…) I might have more likelihood of getting into a class, rather than just spending even more time sitting in front of my computer in our apartment doing Rosetta Stone.

Languages at FSI are rated on a scale of 0 to 5.  With, as I understand it, zero being no working knowledge and 5 being sufficient knowledge to be able to hold a philosophical discussion with a bunch of PhDs in philosophy.  To give you an idea of a what a 5 means – I am pretty sure I would not get a 5 in English…at least not without a lot of studying and practicing (since I spend most of my time talking about Dora, princesses, Oliva, Umi Zoomi and the Property Brothers, not philosophy).

Most posts require one score in speaking and one score in reading.   So for most Chinese posts on the bid list the requirement was a 2/1 – a “2/5” speaking and a “1/5” in reading.  But French is a comparatively “easy” language to learn, so B has to get a 3/5 in both (as do all the people going to a Francophone country).  Again, I don’t have to get anything, but I’m pretty sure the success of our time in the DRC will be enhanced pretty significantly if I am able to converse with the locals and am not fully dependent on B, or someone else, to help me buy vegetables for dinner.

Either way, I’ve got about 5 days to cosy up to the little Owl and make my way through the program to the last “module” which is, appropriately, “Spiritual.”  I’m pretty sure I’ll be needing that one next week when I’m praying I do a good job…


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.


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!

Acronyms are U.S.(G)

acronyms ahead

This is the type of sentence I’ve been reading lately as we prepare for our big move:  The USG requires the EL FSO and his EFMs to identify their POV, HHE and UAB to the CDO and AO for CDA this CY for the TDY post at the FSI.

This is my reaction to this type of sentence: Huh?

Translated into English: The United States Government requires the Entry Level Foreign Service Officer and his Eligible Family Members to identify their Personally Owned Vehicle, House Hold Effects and Unaccompanied Air Baggage to the Career Development Officer and Assignment Officer for Career Development and Assignment this Calendar Year for the Temporary Duty post at the Foreign Service Institute.  Phew.

Before we embarked on this FS Odyssey my head was already swimming with the new(ish) language of acronyms on the internet: LOL, BRB, IMO, LMAO, TBH etc… And I thought I was doing pretty well given that my generation’s acronyms were pretty much limited to FYI and BTW.  I have patiently explained to my mother a woman I know that LOL means “Laugh out Loud” not “Lots of Love,” I pride myself on having some clue as to what my 13 year old niece says in her Facebook posts (though I’m still baffled by the emoticons…) and I deftly use a few of the easier combinations in my own texts.  But the acronyms of the internet are child’s play compared to the acronyms of the U.S.G.  In my view you should get language points for understanding and interpreting half of what is written in the booklets and on the web as you hop on the USG Acronym express to FS land.

There is actually a crib sheet at the Department of State (DOS, or more typically “State”) website.  A 16-page crib sheet.  Check it out here if you are curious (or want to learn a new language…).

alphabet soup

I’ve been a lawyer now for 17+ years and heaven knows we’ve got our own problems with complicated language and wording.  But acronyms are not so widely used.  And they are more about being lazy (saying TRO instead of temporary restraining order) than about inventing a whole new language.  I got all the way through law school without ever hearing the Supreme Court referred to as SCOTUS, but I guarantee every FSO inductee knows what SCOTUS, FLOTUS and POTUS mean.

B, of course, has adapted to the acronym heavy world of the FS like a fish to water.  I swear he often throws out whole sentences like the one I started this post with. I stare at him dumbly when he does this, mentally ticking through what “H” could possibly stand for in the context he has used it in.  I’m sure I’ll get it eventually, but I’m a little worried that before that happens my HHE will end up in the place my UAB is supposed to go.  I’m also going to start a “Glossary of Terms” page on this Blog and I suspect I’ll be referring to it often.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll check to see if the SNAP can help me figure it all out…