Duty Calls

Growing up, the phone in our house often rang at 2 a.m. My mother spent much of her career delivering babies, thus we spent much of our childhood hearing (and generally ignoring) middle of the night phone calls. They were as routine and unremarkable to me as any other phone call. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that calls after bedtime were out of the ordinary for most people.

My revelation came when, after getting a call from a drunk friend at 1 a.m., I found my roommate standing transfixed at the end of my bed.

“Who died?” she mouthed to me.

“What??” I said (probably too loudly and no doubt looking at her incredulously). “Why would someone have died?”

It turned out, according to my roommate, and somewhat surprisingly to me, that apparently for most people any call after 10 p.m. automatically portends some level of doom.

As the years have gone by I’ve thought a lot about how something as unremarkable as a phone call can be experienced so differently by two people. I’ve also realized that my roommate was right and middle of the night calls are not normal for most people.

But, like many things in Foreign Service life – at least overseas – what is normal for “most people” is not normal for us. I have gotten used to middle of the night calls once again, because every six months (and in some posts much more frequently) almost every officer at every post in the world gets to be The Duty Officer.

The Duty Officer is the de facto “on call” person after-hours at every U.S. Embassy and Consulate on earth. Bottom line – if you are an American citizen in trouble – no matter where you are outside of the U.S. – you can call the closest Embassy or Consulate and someone will answer the phone. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. 365 days a year. Every evening (usually after 5), every weekend and every holiday, the person who answers the phone will be the Duty Officer.

B and I had back-to-back “Duty Weeks” recently – his over a holiday weekend – so we were treated to the unmistakable duty phone ring (loud and insistent) several times every night – and multiple times, day and night, during every weekend/holiday – for two weeks. It made me not only appreciate the dedication my mother had in accepting middle of the night calls for almost 30 years, but also the State Department for providing us, and all our fellow U.S. citizens, a human being at the end of the line 24 hours a day, every day, during times of crisis, trouble or, sometimes, just inconvenience.

The calls we get range from Americans who have lost their passports, to being denied boarding on a flight (this has been especially common during COVID times), to reporting a loved one missing. Sometimes the calls are, in fact, because someone has died. Sometimes they are because someone has been arrested. Occasionally they are calls from someone in the U.S. who is traveling to Turkey next month and “is just wondering what the situation there is right now?” Needless to say, these can be particularly frustrating and it’s difficult not to say “Well, the situation here is that we are 7 hours ahead of you, so you are waking me up at 3 a.m. to ask this very much “non-emergency” question, but otherwise all is well – enjoy your trip!” Tempting as that is, however, we simply answer the question and wish the caller well.

And, while I’m pretty sure many Americans have no idea that the duty phone exists, or who is answering the line if they call the “emergency” number at a Consulate or Embassy (or what time it is there), even fewer understand how limited our ability to help can be. Because the calls we receive are generally from Americans who are in Turkey, it can take some time and effort to remind them that they are in a sovereign nation that controls its own immigration, customs, visas, and all other laws and regulations. Likewise, we don’t have control over private companies (US or Turkish), so if Turkish Airlines decides not to board a passenger, our most useful guidance is usually “continue to work with Turkish Airlines.” That sort of “non” help can be extremely annoying to our callers, but in truth it is the best we can do in most circumstances.

As anyone who has braved international travel during the pandemic knows, things can – and do – change rapidly and significantly, so these types of issues occur daily now. B and I even found ourselves at the wrong end of the head spinning travel advisory flip-flops this summer. We were supposed to fly from Spain to Bulgaria to visit friends, but, the day before our scheduled travel, Bulgaria decided that Spain’s COVID numbers were too high and Spain went from being an “orange” country to a “red” one. No Bulgaria for us! But as we learned – and as we routinely tell our duty phone callers – such is life when you choose to fly during a global pandemic.

Regular (right) and EPDP (left)

It is also eye opening to realize how many things about international travel that we take for granted are mysteries to people who are less used to customs and immigration regulations. We routinely talk to Americans who didn’t realize that American citizens are required to exit and enter the United States with a U.S. passport. Because the U.S. has no consistent exit controls (as opposed to, say, Turkey, where your passport is stamped not only every time you enter the country, but also every time you exit) many dual citizens leave the U.S. on their foreign passports (not having obtained a U.S. passport) and then find that they cannot return home without getting an emergency U.S. passport while they are overseas. Every day my colleagues and I process at least one (and sometimes as many as 5) “EPDP” (Emergency Photo Digitized Passport) for someone who has arrived in Turkey without a U.S. passport, or has had their passport lost or stolen. At least once a week we have someone who has recently been naturalized who believed they could travel with just their new Naturalization Certificate.

Sometimes the duty calls are really difficult – parents whose children have been taken by the other parent, families calling because a loved one has died in Turkey, people who are searching for friends or relatives they cannot reach and who they believe to be in trouble. Twice in the time I’ve been working in “ACS” (American Citizen Services) we’ve had elderly Americans who have been stranded in the “transit” area of the Istanbul Airport because they missed their onward flight. One woman spent almost a week lost in the airport. Her family (and I – through them) knew she was there because she was going twice a day to the same snack stand and getting herself some food and coffee with her credit card, but beyond that no one could get in touch with her. Because of COVID we are not allowed into the airport at all – and we are never allowed beyond passport control. Without knowing where this woman could be found we could not convince the Turkish airport authorities to look for her. Eventually, one of her children flew to Istanbul from the U.S., then had to buy an onward ticket to an other destination so that she could enter the transit area. She found her mother and got her home, but it was a very stressful week for everyone.

From the FTC scam information website

We also get a lot of calls from victims of scams. Most are romance scams and many are incredibly elaborate. The caller usually believes that his/her finance (even occasionally “spouse”) has been transiting Istanbul when they have been involved in an accident, or have been pulled over by security/the police/customs because they are carrying large amounts of money/gold/medical equipment. They tend to follow a similar story line – the person is believed to have been working for the UN or NATO or the U.S. Military in a war zone (Syria most often) or on an oil rig in the Black Sea – and, after being paid with cash/gold, they are on their way home to reunite and marry the caller. The victims often have copies of a passport or ID card that they send to us as “proof” that the person exists, but, inevitably, we can see at a glance that the passport has been tampered with electronically. It can be heartbreaking to try and convince someone who believes they are in love – and are often older individuals who appear to be really lonely – that the person who has been wooing them – and to whom they have often sent thousands of dollars – is not real. According to the FTC, romance scams cost people a total of $301 billion in 2020 – yes that’s a B! Sadly, often the victims have been duped so effectively that nothing we say or do seems to help and we routinely have people who continue to email us begging us to help their stranded American “fiancee” even after multiple calls and emails from us confirming that the person is not a U.S. citizen.

Being the Duty Officer is never high on anyone’s list of fun things to do, but it is one very tangible way that those of us living and serving overseas get to see how our work can directly impact – and sometimes help – American citizens. I have noticed in the weeks since B and I finished our most recent Duty Officer service that we both jump any time we are out and about and someone happens to have the same ring on their phone as is programmed into the Duty Phone. Luckily, that only happens during the day and our nights are back to being phone call free – that is, I suppose, until the next time one of us is the Duty Officer.

And the winner is…

It’s taken us a couple of weeks to digest the news of our next assignment. It will be hard for many people to understand, but our initial reaction to being assigned to Canberra, Australia was disappointment.


We made a rookie Foreign Service mistake. We got our hearts set on a particular job at a particular post. It was French speaking, in Europe (so only one flight away from home and dozens of amazing traveling opportunities), with a truly international population, relatively easy pet importation regulations, and with good school options in the Northern Hemisphere system. Instead we got an English speaking post, one of the most homogeneous places anywhere, about as far from our families as you could get on the planet, with some of the most difficult and rigorous pet importation rules in the world, on the Southern Hemisphere school system (Feb-Dec).

So, while we are FULLY aware of our luck in getting assigned to an amazing, beautiful country, we’ve had to take a few weeks to grieve our dream post, and adjust to the different kinds of difficulties built into this new reality. Perhaps most difficult for us will be determining how best to handle Miller. In order to avoid a six month quarantine in Australia (and reduce it to a 10 day quarantine) we will likely have to take Miller back to the US with us in December when we go home for our second R&R. Then, for six months our home here will be empty of his sweet face and gentle presence. I cry every time I think about it. And, at the same time, we will have to rely on family, or friends, to look after him in the US and to ensure that he goes to the vet about a dozen times during those months to have a series of tests to meet the Australian import rules.


Then there are cars. Only right hand drive in Australia, and their import rules are strict on that front too. So we’ll be in a position to have to buy at least one, and probably two, cars when we arrive. We’ll also have to decide whether C will go ahead a grade, or stay behind a grade as we get used to “summer vacation” in December.

And finally, there is community. Kinshasa is a hard place to live and work, but we are surrounded by the most fantastic people who are making our time here amazing and wonderful. This group of people buoys us when we’re down, cheers us when we’re up, supports us when we need help and have been there from us since the moment we stepped off the plane last year.

Canberra is a tourist destination. A large international capital – the safest capital in the world, apparently. We wonder whether someone will meet us at the airport, cook a meal for us when we arrive, take us shopping, show us how to get a cell phone, cable and internet service, tell us what restaurants are good (and invite us along when they go), introduce C to other kids her age, help us navigate the schools, and explore the city with us as people have done here, or will they just assume that we can figure that out on our own in an English speaking first world country?

Maybe it is best that we are still adjusting to the idea of Canberra. I promised myself that I would not “leave” Kinshasa before it was truly time to board a plane. I don’t want to spend the next year looking out the window for the beautiful hills of Canberra and missing the less beautiful, but fascinating, streets of Kinshasa right in front of me. There is so much to see and do here. I don’t want the mirage of clean water and bounteous produce aisles to distract me from seeing the smiling woman in a blindingly colorful dress, balancing a huge basket on her head and a baby on her back, saying “bonjour” to me as we pass each other on the dusty, rutted city streets.


So this is the last you’ll hear of Canberra for a while. This blog is about now, not about a year from now. Next July, when we leave Kinshasa, I’ll turn my attention (after enjoying a wonderful 3+ months in the US and Canada) to Australia and our new life.

Congo is not finished with the adventures it has in store for us, and we are not finished with the things we are destined to see, do and learn, deep in the heart of Africa.

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Summer changes and choices

Growing up, these last days of May always took on an otherworldly, magical quality for me. Summer was coming. The end of school, the end of snow, the end of sweaters and socks; the beginning of vacation, camp, beaches, fireworks and long warm days.

But, in a land of perpetual summer (ie: Africa just shy of the equator) it feels different. I catch glimpses of other people’s joy at the onset of summer in Facebook posts and Instagram photos, but there is a different kind of anticipation here. School is still about to end, but the weather is still hot (though not as rainy), the days still begin and end right around 6 (a.m. and p.m.) and our wardrobes are static.

No, the anticipation in this new life is about transition. Summer is “transition season” in the Foreign Service. People are transitioning in and people are transitioning out. We are bidding (more about that later) and will soon find out where we are headed next summer. It’s a lot about saying goodbye in these early days, and more about saying hello as summer wanes, and less about campfires and holidays.

I knew life in the FS would involve change, but I imagined the changes to be in two year cycles  – every two years our location would change and that is about as far as I got in thinking about change. But, as it turns out, change is perpetual in the FS. First there are all the changes when you arrive at a new post – new houses or apartments (or both if you are in temporary housing first as we were) to move into, new jobs to start, new city streets and traffic to navigate and learn, new schools to start, new friends to make, new languages to hear, new food to taste, new brand names to buy and the list goes on.

You adjust to those big early changes, but you soon realize that things are always changing. I started without anyone to hang out with – I read and wrote and played with C – which I loved. Then I made some friends and C made some friends, and I read and wrote less and explored more – which I loved. Then my friends got jobs and I explored less, but got involved in other groups and clubs outside the Embassy community more  – which I loved. Soon I’ll start my own job (when/if the State Department finally gets its act together…) and things will change again – and hopefully I’ll love that too.

A few of my adventures

In the midst of all these changes the faces that make up your life in the FS are always changing too. I started noticing those changes more and more a few months ago. I was so overwhelmed when I first arrived that I could barely remember half the names of the people I met, so when some of those people moved on it wasn’t that noticeable to me.   But, suddenly it seems, people I care about are leaving. People I enjoy spending time with, who have become part of our lives here, are suddenly vanishing before our eyes. Our next door neighbors, the first people we literally met on the African continent, left a few weeks ago and with them went Papy – their driver who was always ready with answers to my many questions. He’s moved on to work with another family, so even when the faces remain in Kinshasa your day-to-day connections with them changes. Today we are losing another friend who is headed back to the U.S. for the next phase of his life.

It’s not as if we are losing these people forever. The Foreign Service is a small world, but there will be gaps in our lives as they transition on and, as new people arrive, we have to make room for them to transition into. It’s so much about the gaps of missing faces, and the making room for new ones that our lives, already, are starting to feel like a merry-go-round of changing faces.

And, while we are saying goodbye and hello, we are also looking at a list of choices for our own ultimate transition in about 13 months. After going through bidding in A-100, where there are a limited number of posts and there is no real choice, we were excited by the prospect of second tour  bidding (“STB”). As expected, the list we received has hundreds of posts on it, but most of them got eliminated quickly due to timing or language, and we started to quickly lose the feeling of having a choice.


The first thing we had to do is get over our initial disappointment. Certain posts in the FS have what’s called a “differential.” The differential can be for danger, hardship, or difficult to fill posts. The highest differentials are for the posts that are “unaccompanied” – places where there is war usually – and spouses and children are not allowed to live. Kinshasa is obviously not in that category, but it is a post with a relatively high differential. Usually the main import of a high differential is a pay increase (ie: if a differential is 10% then FSOs serving there get an additional 10% on top of their salary), but in STB you also get to go to the front of the line in terms of assignment. The higher the differential, the more likely you are to get your first, second or third choice. So, knowing we’d be high on the list, we’ve spent months talking about the possibilities and our “dream” posts.

But, then you get the list and Montreal isn’t on it. And, although both Paris and Ottawa are there, they don’t work because of timing, so you have to start to look a new places and give up those initial dreams and get down to the business of sorting through the list, applying the almost 25 pages of rules for STB and coming up with your own top 30 to submit.

First you have to determine your “TED” – time of estimated departure. That is, 2 years after you arrived at your current post. You are not allowed to leave a post more than a month before the end of the two years or you have an “invalid” bid (and, in our case, we would likely lose one of our “R&R’s” – not something we want to do!)  Then you have to look at the new post’s “TEA” – time of estimated arrival. You can’t arrive at a new post more than a month after the TEA, or you have an invalid bid.

To determine when you might arrive you have to factor in the Congressionally mandated “Home Leave,” any time you need for “tradecraft” training, and any time you need for language training.  For every year an FS officer serves overseas, 10 days of Home Leave is required. Up to 45 days is possible, but we are legally required to take 20 working days (not including holidays or weekends) off and spend it on U.S. soil being “re-indoctrinated” into American ways. Hard to believe we could be annoyed by being forced to take a vacation, but it can really mess with your timing in bidding. Tradecraft and language training vary by post and job.

So we had to go through every one of the posts on the list and determine if the post was perfect (we leave during our TED month, arrive during the new posts TEA and get all the required training and home leave done in between), imperfect (we either leave a month early, arrive a month late, or go over the 78 week maximum of training allowed for FSOs in their first (non-tenured) five years), or invalid (everything else).

Add the various requirements related to the maximum amount of training, the requirements of mastering at least one language, serving in higher hardship posts, filling “high priority” posts first, getting experience in your “cone” (specialty) and doing a tour as a consular officer, and the list of possible choices gets shorter and shorter.

Don’t get me wrong, our list is good and, after getting over the initial disappointments, we realize how incredibly lucky we are to have the choices we do have, particularly compared with a lot of our friends whose lists are much, much smaller than ours and whose choices are much more limited. The places in our top 10 (even our top 30) are, almost universally, first world places with clean streets, fresh water, good schools and every possible “mod-con” (as my dad would say) you could want. We’re going to be excited no matter what we get because we feel good about every one of our top posts.

Until then though, we are going to focus on and enjoy our time here; enjoy the crazy, difficult, amazing in many ways, life that we have found here in Kinshasa. We’re going to enjoy our friends – as they come and go – and we’re going to continue to enjoy every change and choice in this adventure we are on.





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.


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.

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.


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.

air mailtelephone

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.

A new dishwasher

C is very into singing these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the mouths of babes.

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


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

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

Two years goes by in a blink.

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

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

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

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

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


I wish…

In between dog parks and carousels, C and I have been traveling Arlington and its environs visiting Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Whole Foods etc…to stock up on things for the apartment.  In the course of doing this I have mentally started a list of “I wish we had…” related to our pack out.  So here, in no particular order, in case you ever have to packout yourselves, are my current wish list:*  (* subject to change on a moment to moment basis)

  • I wish I’d brought a queen sized mattress pad, sheets, our own pillows and our duvet.  It’s been many years since I lived in corporate housing as a law student and in those days the digs seemed awesome and palatial.  Twenty odd years later the digs seem a bit dirty and less awesome (but I’m not complaining given that they are free digs!).  It would be nice (and feel slightly less yucky) to be sleeping on our own sheets.   Luckily I did bring C’s sheets, duvet, pillow and lots of things to remind her of home, so it is less yucky in her room.
    C's bed. More like home.

    C’s bed. More like home.

  • I wish I’d brought tupperware.  Not a ton of it, but the corporate housing provided tupperware consists of two small pieces.  That is not going to cut it at our house.
  • I wish I’d brought more art/photographs – nothing makes an apartment a home more than your own photos and artwork.  I brought a few things, but I wish I’d brought more.
  • I wish I’d brought a couple of bowls.  I ended up buying two nice big deep cereal-type bowls from BB&B today (for $1.98 each on clearance, so I’m not feeling too upset, but everything you buy that you can picture in a box somewhere in Hagerstown, MD is annoying…).  The bowls provided are these incredibly shallow, rimmed bowls.  The kind I picture Lady Edith using to eat her 4 spoonfuls of soup at Downton Abbey during a 15 course meal.  Let’s just say, in 2014 when the meal is ALL supposed to fit in one bowl, these bowls are not cutting it.
  • I wish I’d saved some more of the “staples” that I threw away.  I have to tell you I don’t need half the clothes or office supplies I brought, but the leftover bottle of olive oil would have been a welcome sight yesterday.
  • I wish I’d brought a bookcase.  Just a little one – the one from C’s room would have done nicely.  There is nowhere to put books in the apartment.  We didn’t bring a ton of books, but we brought some AND I’m supposed to be working from here, so my rule books (the books I basically live by as a litigator), my dictionary, my binders for my cases etc…, are all under the desk.  Not ideal.  We’ll no doubt be making a trip to IKEA for that, but again, see note above about having to annoyingly buy things you already own.
  • I wish I’d brought more skirt hangers – if you ever move into corporate housing bring hangers! Particularly any “speciality” hangers.  My skirts are all doubled up right now, but I suspect ultimately I’ll be buying some more of these hangers while picturing the ones we left behind in my head.
  • I wish I’d brought a couple of our own throw pillows.  See bullet number one about kind of yucky linens and switch to pillows on the couch.
    Corporate housing pillows. Meh.

    Corporate housing pillows. Meh.

    By the way, B’s first couple of days went really well – he came home with a ridiculously detailed schedule yesterday so that makes my control/detail oriented mind happy.  Somehow he managed to accept the job of chairing his class “Folly” skit (that is put on during the “offsite” somewhere in PA).  It’s kind of bizarre to watch him get comfortable in this new life, but it’s kind of cool too.

    And in case you care, here are a few other pictures of our new home.  IMG_0606 IMG_0607 IMG_0608 IMG_0609 IMG_0611 IMG_0612 IMG_0613

Well…How did I get here?

As I’ve told people our news a number of them have asked me what made B want to pursue a career in the Foreign Service, so I thought I’d share that story here as well.

If I had to guess, when B and I met at a little pub on 5th Street in 2006, he could never have imagined that 8 years later the two of us (and C; oh, and Miller the dog) would be packing up, leaving Charlotte and heading to an as yet unknown foreign city to serve our country.  He had just bought a house, and a puppy (which he used shamelessly to entice me into accepting a first date), and, I’m pretty sure, imagined his life proceeding in the typical dating, marriage, kids fashion.

And, I’ll admit that, while I’ve always had some wanderlust – and had no dog and a house I’d been in for 6 years – I also saw my life proceeding forward in Charlotte – even if not in the typical fashion.

Then, for Labor Day 2006 I invited B to come with me to Mexico City to visit my friend J, her husband N, and their new baby, B.  With us were two of my best girlfriends from law school, who, along with J, formed a multi-sided place where I, to this day, go to get the very power that often sustains me = Girl Power. J was an FSO, in the middle of her second tour at the embassy in Mexico City.

So we went to Mexico City and visited J & N in their fabulous condo supplied by the USG, we ate wonderful food (and drank wonderful drink), we toured the Mexican Embassy, we visited the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico’s home (at the time he was married to the heiress of Modelo, so their home was, uh, quite nice) and actually met him and shook his hand.  To say that this was pretty cool is an understatement.


Then we managed to top even that and the seven of us (four women and three men, we left Baby B at home) drove to Acapulco and rented a house for 4 days.  It was, as they say, the bombdiggity. We had a wonderful chef at the house and a young man who brought us drinks by the pool as we lounged.  Let’s just say this, too, did not suck

IMG_1068 IMG_1072







During this trip B talked a lot to J & N; he asked them a lot of questions about their lives, how they had gotten interested in the FS, and what had led them to Mexico.  And, while no one was under any illusion that the way we lived in Acapulco was in any way the way an FSO typically lives, the prospect of visiting and living in these amazing places got under B’s skin.

I didn’t have enough interest in the overall workings of the State Department and foreign policy (especially given that I was, at that time, not even a U.S. Citizen) for it to peak my interest the way it peaked B’s, but I’ve always had an interest in adventure, so I have been, and still am, B’s biggest supporter in making the dream that was born in Mexico a reality.

J and N have amazing careers in the FS – and I can only hope we get as lucky as they have been in that respect.  This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m so grateful that we have them (and our friend P) to help us along the way.

And we may find ourselves in another part of the world…

And so it begins…the long and short of getting an offer to join the Foreign Service

You know how sometimes it feels like a new celebrity has just appeared overnight, but then you read her story and it turns out she has been struggling for many years to “make it?”

I’m sympathizing with that celebrity right now as we tell people that B is joining the Foreign Service (the “FS” once you’re in the know…). While some of our friends know that it has been B’s goal for a number of years to join the FS, most people I tell have no idea.  My announcement comes as a complete shock to them given our relatively “established” lives in Charlotte.

“So, B has accepted an offer to join the Foreign Service,” I say.

“WOW.” [typical reaction] “Did you guys just decide to do this?”

Here is where I hesitate. Should I tell the long story or the short one? They are both accurate, but does anyone really need to know just how long this has been in the background of our lives? I’m really not sure, but just in case you do want to know, here they are, short and long, long and short – both with same result: on August 25 our lives change and the world, literally, becomes our oyster…

Short story: Well, B took the Foreign Service Office Test (“FSOT”) [more on the absurd number of acronyms used by the FS of the USG in a later post…], in October last year.  He passed and was invited to submit personal narratives, which he did, and then he was invited to take the FSOA (Foreign Service Oral Assessment), which he did on May 5.  He passed that too and on June 5 was extended an offer to join the August 25 Foreign Service orientation class (or A-100).  And there you have it.  Simple, right? Or not…

Long story: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…or, more specifically, the train station in Hamburg, Germany in 2009 while we waiting for a train to Copenhagen…B got online and registered to take the FSOT.  As part of that registration he had to pick a “cone.”  The FS is made up of five cones: consular, economic, public diplomacy, political and management.  Want to know what FSOs in each cone allegedly do? (I say allegedly because: (1) having not actually been part of the FS community yet, I have no idea if the descriptions are accurate; and (2) I’m a lawyer, what can I say…)

If you’re still with me and want to see the descriptions, look here. In 2009, when B took the test the first time, he registered in the political cone.  If you don’t know B he is, notwithstanding a degree in engineering, a total political junkie.  To give a recent example, we were sitting at the free breakfast at the Embassy Suites in Dublin, Ohio, when a man with an earpiece walks by.  I assumed he was security for the golf tournament going on nearby and commented as such.

B looks past me, points (subtly, which he is not always known for) and says, “Don’t you know who that is?”

I look blankly at the man sitting at the table behind us. “No,” I say.

B, with incredulity straining his voice, “It’s John Boehner, the man who is two people away from being the most powerful person in the world.”




Meh, what can I say, I will not ever be interested in the political cone.

In any case, he wanted to be in the political cone and do political things, so that is how he registered.

In October 2009 he took the test, which, he tells me, is a bunch of multiple choice questions and a short essay question, for the first time. He passed.  The congratulatory letter arrived and invited him to submit 1200 character (about 200 word) responses to 5 or 6 “personal narrative questions” (“PNQ”) which are evaluated by the Qualification Evaluation Panel (“QEP”).

The PNQ’s are supposed to give you an opportunity to describe your amazing abilities, through examples from your own life, at all things FS, like leadership, management and communication skills.  B had about 3 weeks to draft these narratives and then submit them electronically. I’m pretty sure he hit “submit” at 2 weeks, 13 days, 23 hours and 59 minutes…it took that long to edit and polish the essays to fit in the space provided – and to cover the question asked.

Then, once again, we waited.

Who knows what the man (or woman) behind the FS curtain does at that point.  I will say that, despite what some others may think, B had basically no “international” experience, so I don’t think that is necessary to getting through to the next stage.  When we met in 2006 B had never been out of the US except a brief trip to Mexico.  We’ve certainly traveled since then, but I think the most international thing B has done (so far) is marry a foreign national (that’s me), so don’t be discouraged if you are not a former Peace Corps volunteer who did an advanced degree in some exotic locale and speaks multiple languages – you’ve still got a chance.

In any case, eventually you either pass FS muster or you don’t and you get an invitation to attend the Oral Assessment (“OA”) in Washington, D.C.  In 2009 B didn’t get an invite to the OA.  In 2010 he went through it all again – this time in the Economic cone, and, again, didn’t get an invite to the OA.  In 2011, notwithstanding our attempts that year to navigate the foreign land of parenthood, he registered in the economic cone and tried again.  Still no go. In 2012, B switched to the management cone. Setting aside his political fascination, the fact is that he has been an engineer for 14 years and has a lot more practical experience “managing” things than doing anything political or economic.

In 2012 he got an invite to the OA. It was a big day. B flew up to D.C. on March 16, 2013 – missing our annual St. Patrick’s Day party – and took the OA.  I flew up to surprise him and, thankfully (’cause it would have been a sad surprise otherwise), he passed.  One day I’ll talk more about my understanding of the OA – certainly about the various sections and the 13 Dimensions that they are looking for…but for now, suffice it to say that we both breathed a huge sign of relief, and then went back to stressing about the next steps in the FS journey (odyssey more like it) about 24 hours later.

After all this, we’re barely halfway to the end of this crazy process.  The passing score for the OA is 5.25, the highest score is 7.  I’ve never seen a score over 6.1 (not to say there aren’t any, but there is a “shadow” register on Yahoo and I haven’t seen any “raw” score over 6.1).  The first time B passed he got a 5.3.

After passing you, and your immediate family members (or “eligible family members” (“EFM”)), then have to go through medical clearances (the FSO candidate has to be “worldwide available” and her/his family needs to have a level of clearance so everyone knows where they can be posted) and the FSO has to go through a security clearance to be approved for a Top Secret security clearance.

Once you get through those steps, which can take from a few months to a year or more, then you are put on a “register” for your cone.  FSO candidates are ranked on their respective registers by the score they got in the OA.  You can only stay on the register for 18 months, although there are a couple of limited exceptions, but if you don’t get an offer in those 18-months you expire off the register and you have to start all over again

So if you got a 6.1, you are likely going to be at the top of the list when you get put on the register and, basically, have your choice of when you ultimately join the FS.  If you got a 5.3, you are, at least in the current hiring climate with the current budgets, likely not going to get an offer at all and will “time off” at the end of 18 months.

Thoroughly confused yet?

Let me add to the confusion… You can also get “bonus” points for scoring at a certain level in a foreign language (lower bonus points for a “world” language like Spanish or French, higher for languages like Mandarin and Farsi), and if you are a veteran.  So someone with a 5.3 who speaks French and is a veteran would get an additional 3+ points taking them from the bottom of the register to close to the top.  B had no bonus points, so in 2013 it looked like we would probably just watch B time off the register and spend our lives talking about “what ifs.”

October 2013 rolls around and B takes the FSOT again.  He passes the PNQs again.  He gets invited to the OA again.  He schedules his OA for the same weekend as last year – St. Patrick’s Day itself this time, which falls on a Monday.  Sunday night D.C. gets 7 inches of snow and the OA for that day is cancelled.  B comes home and schedules a “make-up” OA on May 5.  He takes the OA on May 5. He passes with a 5.7.  This time we don’t have to go through medical and security clearance because our prior clearances from 2013 are still valid, so B goes on the register in mid-May and on June 5, while I am in the middle of defending a deposition, my phone vibrates with a message: “Just got an offer.”

And overnight a new FSO appears…