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Sunday, May 22, 2016

La Țară! Into the Heart of Romania

La Țară* = To/at the country! 

Țară means country (as in the country of Romania), and also country as in "let's go out to the country." 

I find this a very appropriate coincidence as about 11 million Romanians (over half the population) live in rural areas in a country slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. And according to recent figures, 40% of the nation's population rely on subsistence farming to put soup and veg on the table. This means that it doesn't take much in terms of time or distance to leave 21st century urban Bucharest and travel deep into țara, quickly rolling back time through the centuries.  

I've been waiting to see the heart of Romania since we first got our assignment 18 months ago.  We've been here nine months now and have begun to make inroads, literally and figuratively, into the country to understand our temporary home and its people a bit more and particularly to see just how the rest of the folks live.  This map (and the pink highlighted routes) shows how far we've gotten so far.  Except for our train trip to the Black Sea city of Constanța and my flight to the city of Iași - all of our travels have been in our car.  



A few weeks ago, we headed into the center of the country to Transylvania, probably the region people think of first when they hear "Romania."  We drove along the Olt River valley, with the Southern Carpathian Mountains (aka Transylvanian Alps) rising steeply on either side of the two-lane highway. We'd heard that Romanian highways are horrible, but thus far I have zero complaints. But what does make distance driving difficult is not so much the roads themselves, as what's on them.  Recent experience has taught us that there is a 100% chance of becoming wedged between a truck picking its way slowly through a mountain pass, and a mob of aggressive drivers in $75K cars, revving and flashing and trying to pass the whole convoy of equally-frustrated drivers in front of them. It freaks me out just a little as I wait for the inevitable head-on, and just hope that it's not my head they on.  The highway planners pop in a passing lane here or there for these situations, but they're almost always on the steep uphill grades, which makes it all the more difficult to zip up to passing speed for those of us driving less expensive engines. Therefore a short distance can still take a relatively long time, even on perfect pavement. 

However, when I can relax and look out the window, I love what I see.  Small towns are separated by pure greens: the yellow-green of rolling cropland, the rich dark green of conifer forests or the bright spring green of deciduous forests still carpeted in last-year's autumn.  Instead of billboards, strip malls, and hotel chains, I see chalet-style mom-and-pop guest houses, small restaurants with grills full of sausages and chicken alongside patios of umbrella'd tables. We pass stand after stand of folks selling goods along the shoulder of the road, which, depending on the season, can be fresh fruit, vegetables, massive bags of potatoes or onions, copper pots, sheepskin anythings, honey, wheels of cheese or potted plants.  Sadly (and it took us passing a few to figure it out), we also saw about a dozen individual young women in shorts and tank-tops.  My husband and I debated over whether or not they were just waiting for the mini-bus to go to their friends' houses in the next town (my hope) or if they were, well, going to work.  All doubt was erased when we saw two of them get out of said mini-bus wearing nuttin' but lingerie.  Oh dear.


Windshield tour of town along the Olt River Valley


Relying on one or two HP just 30 minutes outside of Bucharest.


Selling cheese alongside the road (with satellite TV)

Witches' carpool?

Orthodox priest oversees the reconstruction of his church. 
In the center of Transylvania is the storybook city of Sibiu, home of the current President, Klaus Iohannis.  The region was a Saxon stronghold back in the day and maintains much of the flavor, language, some very Germanic architecture and Teutonic tidiness.  We checked into our historic hotel right on the central plaza only to find that we'd be sharing this plaza with a road rally pit and race staging area.  (Note to self: check which festival is in town before booking a quiet weekend getaway.)  Later that afternoon we climbed the centuries-old bell tower for a 360 degree view over the steepled city and its red-tiled rooftops and the next morning ate breakfast in the cobbled plaza.  While my husband went to pack up the room, I couldn't resist a little Alice in Wonderland adventure and followed a stairway down into a hidden courtyard surrounded by pastel plaster houses.  It was Saturday-morning silent and as I looked at each shuttered and lace-curtained window, I tried to imagine the stories and lives behind each.  In a way, I already had an idea as I've chatted with these folks at my own window at work each day.  Often, when I ask why they want to visit the U.S., they tell me that it's been their dream to see New York, Chicago, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon or Miami.  Picturing them on their dream vacations, I wonder if they sit in the middle of a typical suburban neighborhood and just soak in the American-ness of it all as I did in their neighborhoods. Here's what I saw that day:

View up the stairs to the steeple-lined plaza.
Yeah, that's our hotel just beyond the pits...

View from the top of the bell tower of Sibiu's skyline

Tangled lanes and steep-gabled rooves

A waiter keeps an eye on his breakfast tables in the plaza.

What stories are behind each window?

An irresistible alley.
Heading out of Sibiu, we drove north towards the smaller city Sighișoara, about an hour and a half away.  But shortly out of the city limits, my husband pulled the car off the road and on an impulse, drove straight up a two-track along the uphill face of a sheep pasture.  Up, up, up under the power lines - with the little tune "the bear went over the mountain to see what he could see!" now caught in my head, we drove to the crest of the hill and found this.  

Snowy peaks in May!
Why does anyone leave this country?
I reveled in my own Sound of Music moment, taking in the uninterrupted horizon before reluctantly getting back in the car and heading northeast back on the highway.  We began to wind our way through the hills until we found the oddly-named town of Slimnic.  We'd been told already that this area is rich (as in filthy rich, they're everywhere!) with fortified churches, and inspired by our success with the first off-road adventure, we pulled off the main road again when I caught glimpse of some church ruins above us through the trees. We turned over a small bridge and drove carefully up a dirt track that wound its way up to the base of the semi-ruined structure.  It first appeared to be simply abandoned ruins, but a bit of a nosy walk revealed a small entrance where it looked like a family was living. 

Situated on a nob of a hill, the grounds gave us an incredible view over the valley and town.  Utterly peaceful, the only sounds from this purview were the chattering birds and the single horse occasionally stomping at flies.  I'm surprised I'm not still there, it was that lovely.

First view of the ruined church. 


The "garage" with horse and cart. 

Now THERE'S a job for you!
Springtime in Transylvania. 

Village of Slimnic. 

Oops, I guess someone does live here! We quickly backed out the door. 

Something I always struggle with is balancing the urge to photograph the people I see as we pass through their towns, with the fear of being the ugly tourist and having my subjects feel self-conscious, or like freaks.  I remember once in Mozambique having someone who declined my request to photograph him saying something to the effect of, "You want pictures so you can show Americans how poor we Africans are?"  His words have resonated in my head since then, but I still can't resist wanting to capture lives that are so different from what I see everyday.  I'm left with the compromise of taking quick shots from the moving car, or while pretending to shoot something behind the subject, as unobtrusively as I can.  And only sometimes does this result in a savable picture:

Roma guy, ahead of him were three friends all wearing the same hats. 

Roma women along the road near Sighisoara. 
Workin' man with the classic Romanian hat.
Sighișoara is less than one-tenth the size of Sibiu, and as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is said to be one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. We parked in the lower town and then walked up the cobbled streets to the 15th century fortress that tops the upper city.  Inside this fortress is not just ruins or partially-preserved stone walls, but rather life as we know it with stores, houses, churches and ice cream stands.  Not to mention just a few souvenir shops.  

14th Century Clock Tower presides over the upper town. 
If you want a wedding in a UNESCO World Heritage Site - book ahead.


"In this house lived between the years 1431-1435 ruler of the Romanian Country Vlad Dracul, son of Mircea the Old."
Typical antique Romanian pottery styles.


Building corner gets a 3D sign.

How could I NOT take a picture of this lane?
After poking around a bit, we vowed to return to Sighișoara over Christmas by train and decided to save some of the best sights for the next visit.  The next morning we headed south back through the countryside towards Brașov and finally home to Bucharest.  En route were, once again, more fortified churches than one can shake a stick at, so we decided to pick just one or two more to visit.  Less than an hour south of Sighișoara we followed a sign for one such church and turned off the highway onto a dirt road that made it's way about a mile to a tiny village.  Unfortunately the church grounds were locked up and apparently unexplorable, with structural damages or something noted on a sign on the gate.  Not surprising, however, as this town had a back-water, almost Mosquito Coast feel to it, with people staring at Those Who Ventured In (e.g. us) as we parked and got out of our car.  Stray dogs seemed to be in equal numbers to two-legged residents and my husband quickly summed up the place as being a Peace Corps kind of town, which immediately made me question his romantic notions of our becoming PC volunteers in our next career lives. 

In the center of town was a muddy round-about around a fountain. Alongside the fountain was parked a regular car with what appeared to be the whole town gathering around a man at the hood of the car.  We quickly realized that it was the mail delivery as the man was reading off names from red-and-blue striped air mail envelopes which were quickly snatched up by a hand in the crowd.  Ah yes, the remittances.  Now my mind jumped to Italy, Spain, England and even the U.S. and how many families were supporting these folks back home la țara as they made-do in their centuries-old pastel-colored, postcard-worthy houses, running water and electricity optional.  A large government-made sign in the center instructed residents on the dos and don'ts of living in what should probably also be a Unesco World Heritage Site village. Things like, "Don't attach satellite dishes to the 14th century plaster" written with an optimistic/please God don't ruin this town tone. 

Fortified church we couldn't visit.

Typical architecture, this house dated late 1800s.

Mail delivery saves the day.


The village store in the background no doubt does good business on mail day.
I could have stayed for hours just people-watching, but only if I could do so invisibly.  Barring that superpower, we took back to the highway and continued the drive south.  
We stopped at yet another citadel, this one well-maintained and with a tour bus unloading high schoolers into the parking lot.  Like kids anywhere, they were flirting with classmates, taking selfies and generally being happy to be out of the classroom and on a field trip.  

The well-preserved citadel at Rupea. 

Finally, we arrived back to our modern apartment in Bucharest, satisfied with having had a good look into the heart of Romania, into the faces of people living regular lives in street-side cafes, behind lace curtains, in muddy, stray-dog towns and in bucolic farm houses.  It's a country still trying to recover its rightful reputation as an intellectual, artistic and scientific European center with roots reaching into the dawn of western civilization.  Romania carries the heavy burden of trying to live up to its potential, incredible potential, which hangs over its head just out of reach as politicians are arrested for corruption, as doctors earn $1000/month and have to accept "tips" to treat patients and as its well-educated youth head to EU neighbors for better salaries.  But it's also the safest country I've ever lived in (even in the center of Bucharest), with amazing natural beauty where one can live in two or three different centuries simultaneously. Yes, Romanians are cool and distant on the outside, perhaps still carrying the defensive habit of suspicion from its Communist days, but as soon as the shell is cracked, there is țuică to go around for everyone and bunches of flowers picked from the garden for a stranger.  Everyday Romania makes me laugh at its quirky ways, its utter Romanian-ness, and it makes me sad when I see its people putting themselves down and asking me honestly "Why do you like it HERE?" while idolizing superficial brand-names and American style commercialism. This country has so much to be proud of and I look forward to seeing this realization come true, even if it means  we have to come back in 15 years to see it happen.


(In Romanian Ț = a tz sound, so it is pronounced "Tzara")

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Finding Friends in a Foreign Service Life

March brings our fifth anniversary with the State Department. Including three stints for training at FSI of about six months each, we are living in our sixth home in those five years. While this might sound like I'm about to write about packing and moving, I'm not (this time).  Instead, I've been thinking about the whole topic of friendships while living such a mobile, temporary life.  This is something my husband and I talk about quite a lot, actually.  The conversations usually take place over dinner when we start thinking about our plans for the weekend and where, when and with whom we plan to do something.  

Sounds like normal life stuff, right? Well, it's different in a Foreign Service life - a LOT different.  

After much thought on the subject, I've found that there are four general categories, if you want to call them that, of friends you can have while living abroad:
  • American work friends, 
  • Local work friends, 
  • Locals in general, 
  • Other ex-pats. 
Let's start with the obvious - American work friends:

When I first arrived at FSI as a brand-new OMS, my fellow Specialist Orientation classmates provided me with 68 new friends; folks who were exactly in the same boat I was. We had all just given up a previous job or finished an education; we had all just started a new job in a unique work culture; and most of us had just moved away from our familiar lives with friends and family.  Add the fact that the majority of us were living in temporary housing (hello Oakwood!) and the bonding was instant and easy as we all made our way through the transition. It felt just like freshman year in college moving into the dorms, but with salaries.  There were BBQs, happy hours, dinners out, museum trips etc... and I found great relief being with others who were experiencing the same thing I was and who understood how overwhelming finding one's way through the massive machinery that is a new federal career can be.  This period was probably the easiest transition in terms of friends, truly a "just add water and presto" situation.

Arriving at a first posting felt quite the same as arriving at FSI.  There were lots of new people in Bogota's massive embassy to meet. Someone was always planning some kind of activity or outing, there were game nights, dinner parties etc...  There seemed to be no lack of things to do or people to meet and over a short time we began to find our "niche" of friends naturally. 

No doubt, hanging out with other Americans can be very easy. After spending the work day communicating with limited language skills, it feels great to be able to express oneself fully in English; it's fun to share American holidays or sporting events and to laugh or commiserate about living in the new country with its inherent difficulties and pleasures.  However, after a while my husband and I started to question why we were only hanging out with other Americans.  One of the main reasons we joined the Foreign Service was to know what it was like to live immersed in another culture and out of our comfort zone.  

So now the next inevitable dilemma bubbles to the surface: How do we naturally make local friends?  "Naturally" meaning we gag at the idea of making friends mechanically, as if working through a list. "We really need to cultivate more native friends, dear." But at the same time - we do want to do just that. 

We saw the easiest source of local friends in the staff members we work with, who will always outnumber the Americans in the Embassy or Consulate. We've met so many great LES* whom we really like and want to spend more time getting to know. Besides liking them personally, they're also the perfect combination of people who understand American culture, speak English perfectly, yet can also teach us about their country, language, food, traditions etc..  So where's the catch? As in most things in life - there's always a catch. This is where we have stumbled and are still trying to find our way.

We're often the local staff's supervisors, and let's face it - it's a tricky situation being the supervisor and being the friend. And from their point of view, who wants to hang out with their boss after hours anyway?  After a few months in Bucharest, I said to a local colleague, "So when are we going to meet your family? Maybe we could all have dinner some time?"  He politely, yet clearly, responded with something to the effect of, "After you don't work here anymore."  I felt hurt at first, because after I don't work here is also after I don't live here anymore, and so... that kind of means never. I know he didn't mean that he didn't like us nor want to get to know us, he just knew what was best for the professional relationship. 

I've had some great bonding experiences with local coworkers when we've traveled together for work, which I've been fortunate to do a handful of times.  There's the laughing at the airport when we stand in the wrong lines or find ourselves so engaged in the gettin'-to-know-ya' conversation that we almost miss our planes (has happened twice). There's the fact that we are sitting next to each other on the plane or car ride, which makes personal conversation inevitable. We work together on whatever project or presentation we'll be giving, and finally we share meals before and after work as we're always staying in the same hotel - it just happens easily.  So it was in this setting that one coworker who I really like confided in me by saying what I'd always suspected: Why should the local staff invest in friendships when they know that the Americans will be moving on in two or three years, most likely never to see them again? She added frankly that she'd had her heart broken too many times to let herself fully invest in a real friendship.  Every going away party I've been to seems to involve American tears as we realize that we may see our American colleagues again somewhere - but probably not the local staff. We blubber away with promises to return to visit, and they give us a hug and then an hour later change the name plaque on our door. 

Further, particularly outside of Western Europe, Canada or Australia, there can be the awkward economic difference between local and American staff. Besides salary differences, we also don't usually live in the same areas, most notably because Embassy housing is generally in tony neighborhoods and not where the "regular folks" live. We find ourselves talking with coworkers about restaurants we've visited ("Yeah, it was great and not too expensive!") and then hear the awkward silence which means that our Thursday night pop-out-for-a-bite spot may be their only-on-a-special-occasion spot. And frankly it's embarrassing when you realize exactly what it means to accidentally say, "Oh, is it payday already?" to a local coworker. 

What about locals from outside of work?

This might be the best compromise, but it takes more effort to find them.  Last night a young American coworker who lives in our building had a gathering at her apartment. (Side note: Going to a party by taking an elevator or walking two doors down in a compound neighborhood does have its advantages.) It was really impressive to see what a range of friends she'd already made, and in talking to them I saw that it didn't happen accidentally.  There were a handful from an outdoors adventures group with whom she'd gone skiing and ice climbing, some from a German ex-pats group that meets regularly (but they were all Romanians), a handful from the local Toastmasters chapter - but only a few of us from the Embassy. We ended up staying waaay later than I normally would simply because there were new and interesting people to chat with and best of all - we weren't just talking about work. 

Sharing a passion, sport or hobby is an obvious way to make local friends. In Bogota we found a good group through our volunteer work at an animal shelter.  Each weekend when we arrived at the shelter, we'd catch up with the other volunteers while caring for the animals and were flattered to be invited to spend "novenas" (celebrations leading up to Christmas) with one family. We spoke only Spanish with them and they laughed at our mistakes and then taught us how to REALLY say things. Hence my otherwise-inexplicable ability to speak about collars, leashes, worms and the quality and quantity of a dog's poop. We learned about their lives and families while scooping litter boxes and when they came to our going-away party, the tears we shared demonstrated exactly why my Romanian coworker doesn't let herself become too close. 

In Juarez we were fortunate to live in a gated neighborhood that was 90% Mexican families. We were even luckier that these neighbors were stable, professional folks. Meeting neighbors usually just involves working in the front garden a bit, or if you have one, walking the dog in the common area and not being afraid to strike up the typical weather-condition of the roads-pets-or-kids chit-chat. We did this with the family next door and soon enough we were invited to their kids' birthday parties and in exchange, had them over for their first American Thanksgiving. Openness to strangers will naturally vary depending on the culture, but in the typically outgoing Latin American style - it wasn't too hard. (Another side note: Let's just say that some of our coworkers weren't as lucky as we were and had neighbors who kept tiger cubs as pets and had parties with Mariachi bands playing in the back yard until it was time to go to work. I'll let you guess what line of work they might just possibly be in.) 

Finally, there are the other ex-pats. 

Looking for friends from this pool is a bit new to us as in Juarez, the Americans were the only diplomatic mission in town. I imagine this could be the case in other Consulates worldwide. But now being in an embassy puts us in the capital city, and therefore in an environment with a large diplomatic community and in a city full of multinational companies and their employees. We've been invited to Scottish, English and German holiday gatherings so far, which offers another pool of potential friends who are not coworkers or only other Americans.  For the French speakers, there's usually a Alliance Francaise in any large city, and in both Bogota and (surprisingly) even in Juarez  - we'd go to their movie nights.  International schools also attract teachers from around the world, many of whom live the same transitory lifestyle we do.  Like backpackers in hostels comparing notes on the road ahead, we've learned a lot about cities and countries we've considered working in from these teachers. For example, we've now moved Togo onto our short-list of possible West African countries based on a few such positive conversations. 

We miss our friends from home and are sad to see years-long friendships dwindle to Christmas cards and Facebook updates.  (Unless you get posted to Europe or some tropical paradise, which like having a pool in the backyard, seems to bring out every long-lost cousin with designs on your spare room. A true test of friendship is when they'll still visit you in Mauritania or Vladivostok.) It seems that at each post, we end up with one couple who we really click with and enjoy spending time with. But just as with our local coworkers  - we all know that summer camp will eventually end and we'll have to say goodbye. Veteran FS families have learned to maintain these far-flung besties through vacationing at each others' posts, or by re-igniting the friendship while at FSI.  It just means that you get to see that person you really like only every two or so years, which is kind of a bummer. 

So what's the bottom line?

Even given all the above options, however, we still find that we're stuck with a life of rather superficial friendships and lots of time spent with just each other, and trust me - my husband has already heard all my best stories and would probably appreciate some new material now and again. We hope our old friends from home won't tire too much of sentences that start with, "When we were in...," but we imagine they will. The best lesson we're learning is to just put ourselves "out there" and let ourselves enjoy the people who do cross our paths, whether for one conversation or for the entire tour.  

*LES = Locally Engaged/Employed Staff.  Formerly known as FSNs = Foreign Service Nationals.  The title was changed a few years back from FSN to LES because of the presence of third-country nationals working in the posts, i.e. neither Americans nor host-country nationals.  But it didn't take too long for someone to pronounce LES as "less" and a loud, global forehead slap was heard.  So, now we either go back to saying FSNs or use the full term "LE Staff." Sigh.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Saturday Morning Bucharest

It's Saturday morning at 08:00 and I'm walking down the street in a light drizzle to the small family grocery a few blocks away for a quart of milk. This isn't my normal weekend routine; I simply forgot to buy it last night.  The neighborhood is very quiet, but by no means asleep.  Being out on the street at this hour is unusual because on the weekends we prefer slow mornings at home and on weekdays we're zipping out the door to get to work. 

Dawn breaks every morning in my neighborhood in Bucharest, near the expansive Herestrau Park, with the "commuting" of hundreds, if not thousands, of crows (or big, black crow-like birds) from the park where they perch overnight and out into the neighborhoods.  Triggered by sunrise or some other secret crow-signal, they stream out of the park like smoke from a forest fire, squawking and calling to each other with crazy sounds that have led me to nickname them the "winged monkeys."  They pause en masse on rooftops along the way, lining the edges of buildings like sentries, before dispersing into the neighborhoods to scavenge and go about their daily birdy business.  They'll make the reverse commute back to the park at sunset.



Down on the street level, I pass Alf making his rounds.  He's a little, blonde mixed-breed dog who is bigger than a Dachshund but smaller than a Corgi, with a limp most likely from being kicked by some passer-byer years ago.  He proudly patrols his garden and the stretch of sidewalk in front of his house.  Unlike too many dogs we've seen guarding houses here, Alf is a well-cared-for family member who comes in each night (we see him in the front window perched on the back of the sofa keeping watch) and has his own scaled-down dog house in the garden and mat on the front porch for him to be comfortable while on the job. 




Across from Alf's house is a building, maybe a large private home or maybe it's been sub-divided into apartments, each floor with a window opening onto a small balcony with carved-wood planters that are full of geraniums in the warmer months. I see the lady of the house watching the world go by, leaning out on crossed arms on the window sill. She always wears her grandmotherly flowered scarf and when not personally in her window, she is replaced by small carpets or duvets draped across the window sill, airing out for the day. 





Around the corner I pass a small building with a shady courtyard alongside it, hidden behind a fence covered in greenery and grapevines.  This is a local political party headquarters where members come to hang out. It's mostly, but not exclusively, men and my friend whose apartment overlooks their courtyard says that in the summer months they sit out under the arbor, smoking, drinking and boisterously chewing the fat with like-minded friends late into the evenings. 

A block further, I pass the beauty salon/spa that specializes in facial treatments. Between customers, the spa technicians sit in front of the building in the patio entrance to smoke and chat. They don't smile as I walk by or make eye contact (not unusual among Romanians, so I no longer take offense). I'm struck by the irony of the young women whose jobs are dedicated to promoting beauty who frown and chain smoke directly in front of their own spa. I can't help but be tempted to suggest the two obvious (and free) steps they could take towards greater attractiveness, but that's probably just the American in me.  

Crossing the street, I duck under heavy-gauge wires that sag from power poles and trees that suspend them. I see a few frayed ends and figure that if they were actually live electrical lines, someone would have noticed. While I'm not scared - I'm also not about to step in the puddles where the wires soak in semi-coiled jumbles either. Just in case. 



The final block brings me past a tiny coffee shop, no more than 12 feet wide where a young, bearded man is behind the counter at the espresso machine. Alongside the cafe is an equally tiny patio with simple, stackable wooden benches and side tables that in about an hour will be full of young, professional-looking people sharing coffee and conversation with friends.  This place makes me smile to pass by as I imagine the guy making the coffee as the successful entrepreneur who had an idea for a coffee shop one day... But a few months back I popped in to buy my husband a coffee and he told me that no, he was just an employee.  So today when I see him setting up for the day, I imagine him getting up an hour earlier in a little apartment somewhere across town and getting on the bus to be at work on time.  He seems so positive and happy that I hope he earns more than the $350 per month that I imagine his income to be. 



Finally, I'm at the little family grocery store for my quart of milk.  Now the sidewalk in front is empty, but this evening it will be full of skateboard kids showing off for their friends and sharing cans of soda, bags of chips and cigarettes, or men wearing dirty coats from the day's work getting a six-pack and heading home. The somewhat grumpy woman (I think she's the owner) who is always at the till is once again at the till, chatting with another woman in Romanian.  The narrow store requires me to walk one-way up one aisle, past fresh bread racks, shelves of staple goods, coolers with canned drinks and a surprisingly good variety of hot sauces, to where the store ends at the refrigerated dairy case.  I pick out a few yogurts and the milk and then walk down the other aisle to the cashier.  She's still in full monologue to the friend, describing some gastro-intestinal distress she has recently experienced and what treatments did and did not work as she rings me up, barely pausing to tell me the total.  She either imagines I don't speak Romanian, or simply doesn't care that I understand as she divulges such details out loud.  I want to ask her for a bag for the three items (bags cost a few cents, so you have to ask), but I always forget if it's "ponga" or "poncha" or something like that and I don't want to get it wrong again. So instead I choose to stack the items up against my jacket to carry them home. Naturally I drop one of the yogurts which kind of breaks open, but will still be okay for breakfast.  




Although it's only lightly raining, it's cold and feels like winter. We're expecting a big snow storm tomorrow and I get a little excited thinking about walking in the fresh snow in the park, under the barren trees and along the frozen lake.  Maybe we'll even pull the bikes out and cruise through the city on the great network of bike paths.  Besides the heavy-duty snow plows that patrol the major avenues, the city also has crews of orange-vested snow shovelers who clear the sidewalks like no other city I've seen before. 

I arrive at our building, and find our building "administrator" out front. My husband and I think his name is something like "Door" which makes me chuckle because he's essentially the doorman. We've been living here five months now, so it's too late to ask him again "What exactly is your name?" because I don't think we fully understood him the first time.  I stop to chat a moment about the coming snow and how long it's expected to last and he smiles and raises his palm towards me.  I awkwardly and kind of accidentally give him a high five, but then realize he was probably just waving goodbye to me. A little embarrassed, I smile and scoot off towards the building entrance. I punch in the code and step into the simple, tidy lobby. Home. 

It's THIS stuff: The glimpses of life and what people are really doing every day in every corner of the world that makes me happy and, outside of my work, reminds me why we're here, or there, or wherever we may be.  When it's all over and we've moved on to the next stop - I'll still be able to look at the globe and imagine exactly what's going on at 08:00 on a Saturday morning in January in a certain neighborhood in Romania.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Tenure and Commissioning

Let me start by defining some terms:

I'm an Entry Level Officer (ELO), meaning a Foreign Service Career Candidate who was appointed to this position for a limited time span, to a maximum of five years.  To quote the Foreign Affairs Manual,  "The Foreign Service Officer Career Candidate Program is a comprehensive program of appropriate training, assignment, evaluation, counseling, and review intended to enable candidates for career status as Foreign Service Officers to demonstrate through on-the-job experience, and in the shortest time practicable, whether they have the potential to serve successfully across the normal career span of a Foreign Service Officer (extending to and including class FS-01)."

Tenure: Granting of career status. 

Commissioning: Act of appointment by the President and a confirmation by Senate of a candidate who has been recommended for tenure as a Foreign Service Officer by the Commissioning and Tenure Board. 

Within the first five years, all ELOs have to become tenured or their limited appointments expire and they are separated from the Service. Fortunately, this is a very small percentage of officers, and generally the separation is mutual as the employee and Department each realize that a long-term match was not made. 

All ELOs are up for tenure review for the first time after 36 months on the job. Those who are not recommended on the first review are reviewed again at 48 months, and then for (I believe) a final time six months later. When I switched from being a Specialist to a Generalist, my 36 month clock restarted and this past autumn, my cohort was up for our first review for tenure. 

I am happy to report that I was recommended for tenure, and now it's just up to a (literal) act of Congress to grant me my commission and I'll officially be a career member of the Foreign Service. 

Sounds sweet, but there's a bitter part too that takes away a lot of the pride and satisfaction in this event.  I can think of dozens of friends and colleagues who did not make tenure and frankly in only a very few cases, can I put my finger on why.  

See, when we went through A-100, we were told that the tenure process is essentially an affirmation that the Board of Examiners who evaluated us to be hired did not make a mistake.  We were told again and again, "Don't worry about tenure - just show up, do you job, don't be a big jerk and you'll make it!"  So when I see coworkers who exceed that description by ten-times being passed over - it makes me wonder how much of the decisions are just the luck of catching the reviewers at a good time, say after a particularly good meal or restful long weekend. Which then diminishes my feeling of accomplishment.  

Frankly, I AM proud of what I accomplished in my first tour and it would have been a particular slap in the face to have been passed over.  It would have made me feel like, "Well if that wasn't good enough - what more do you want from me?"  I think it would have made me more anxious about interpersonal relationships with those who write my annual reviews, as these reviews are used in determining our tenure and promotion.  It would have made me feel bitter that after all I'd offered and how wholeheartedly I'd waved the Foreign Service flag and sang the fight song - they were still scratching their chins and saying, "Hmmm... we're not really sure we did the right thing in hiring you.  We're just going to wait and see if you can really wow us next time." 

Friends who did not make it through on the first try have expressed these same feelings of betrayal, sharp disappointment and even concern that they made the right job choice. Some are sole breadwinners of families whose spouses gave up careers to come along for the FS ride.  Most understand that once they have a second tour successfully underway with no major international incidents - they'll be just fine.  But still, it's gotta' sting and knowing that they are feeling that way diminishes my ability to be happy for myself. 

The way in which we're notified of tenure plays cruelly on the typical competitive, A-type FSO's psyche. First a cable comes out listing all those who are eligible for tenure review. Thus officially starts the waiting period.  As the months tick by with no further word, we begin asking each other: 

"Did you hear anything? I haven't heard a peep.  Should we contact someone? What's taking them so long? Does anyone remember when the news was delivered last year?"  

Someone inevitably does some kind of search to find last year's cable, and then reports back to the group something along the lines of: "Okay, last year the results came out on the third Wednesday in December, so that will either be Dec 23rd or maybe they'll wait until after Christmas because people are on vacation, or because of that bad snow storm last year maybe it will be earlier this year? And did you hear that...." ad nauseam as we wind ourselves into a frenzy of email and BlackBerry checking, of which I must admit I was most certainly a part.  Then someone remembers that they send out personal emails first to those who did NOT make tenure and request an acknowledgement of such news before sending out the official "good news" cable. Therefore as we get closer and closer to the (mythical) results date that the group decided was most likely, we realize that an empty inbox is a happy inbox.  But NOW we wait for word from those who opened their gym locker to find the dreaded red ribbon staring them in the face, informing them they hadn't made the team.  We wonder suspiciously who among our peers will self-report, and who will stay silent.  

And then it starts.  Someone breaks the silence with a humble message saying, "Best of luck to you all; it wasn't me this time."  A few more of these announcements trickle in and as the days go by, we realize (while knocking firmly on wood) that perhaps we did make it through.  We check the Spam inbox a few more times to be sure we didn't miss the "sorry" letter, and then finally the results cable comes out.  We scroll down the long list to find our name and revel for just a moment in the satisfaction and pride. 

I can't speak for the others, but a moment later when I see whose names are missing - I feel guilty and confused and figure it's all just a crap shoot anyway.  

Later a congratulatory message arrives stating that we will soon be contacted with information regarding our "transition into the mid-level Foreign Service."  And THAT'S when it hits me.  I'm going to be a mid-level officer.  I'm not just the new kid anymore. I've never had a mid-level anything kind of job, have I?  It sounds so, so, so adult.  Am I up to the additional challenge when I feel like I'm already swimming as fast as I can in the entry-level pool?  I suppose like the proverbial frog in warming water, everything will heat up around me and before I know it and I'll be boiling.  

In fact 2016 will bring a number of new professional challenges: a first review for promotion, a first open-market bidding cycle (no more directed tours) and about this time next year, knowledge of my first Mid-Level Assignment. Capitalization added for emphasis as it scares me just a bit.  But it's a good scare.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Romania: Mythbusting

They say that the first impression is always the strongest.  It is upon first glance that we notice the immediate differences between what we're used to and what is new before us. As time progresses, we become accustomed to whatever was new and soon it feels normal and we no longer perceive the peculiarities. Finally, we can't remember which was the old vs. the new normal.   

We've just passed the three-month mark living in Bucharest, Romania and so I'd like to take this time to report the pleasant, surprising and curious differences we've observed. Differences between US and Romanian culture and between life in Latin America and life in a former Soviet-controlled country.  

Let me start with what we were expecting before we even arrived.  These expectations were drawn from the usual suspect sources: movies, history, friends who'd been here, reports from our language teachers, stereotypes and rumor.  We were expecting a primarily rural country full of castles tucked into sides of mountains, small towns full of men in hats driving horse carts and women in scarves and colorful skirts. We expected Bucharest to be a gray, depressing Soviet-style city dotted with decrepit buildings of European architecture giving us a bittersweet glimpse of "how it used to be but is no longer."  We expected packs of stray dogs menacing us on the street and swarms of gypsies begging on the streets and trying to pick our pockets. We knew there was a Metro of sorts and buses, but pictured them being scary, gray and held together with rusted bolts while belching clouds of smoke. Stories of atrocious Romanian roads and grid-locked traffic kept our expectations of day trips to the countryside at a minimum and the stereotyped lawless, aggressive Romanian driver put a palpable fear in my of sitting behind the wheel. 

With all these expectations packed into our mental suitcases, we arrived in Bucharest in mid-August and were taken directly to our "bloc" in the heart of the city.  It is here that the myth-busting begins. 

Let's start with our apartment:





The building is rather plain on the outside, which was no surprise thanks to the Google Street View we memorized before arriving, but inside is modern, well-constructed, spacious and very comfortable.  We have balconies that give us a place to get outside and enjoy the urban cityscape and which let us fill our colorful Mexican pottery with plants.  

But isn't Bucharest a gray, industrial city?

Not at all.

Just half a block away from our apartment is Herastrau Park, a massive park crisscrossed with wide and meandering walking and biking paths through the dense canopy of deciduous trees all alongside a long lake.  The park is filled with tiny restaurants, bike rental stands, snack shacks, rose gardens, statues, an open-air folk museum and even a boat service that ferries people from one side of the lake to the other. In our time here we've watched the park morph from a lush green to vivid oranges to stripped-bare and ready for winter.





Autumn strolling.

Snack kiosk in the park.

Free Press Building across the lake in Park Herestrau. 

What about the Soviet architecture?
Yes, that does still exist for sure.  It can be seen in the super-wide, scale-is-no-object avenues lined with "blocs" that intersect in expansive "piața"s (plazas or traffic circles) generally with impressive statues in the center, including our own Arcul de Triumf, a replica of its Parisian namesake. 


Blocks of "blocs" line the avenues. 

Palace of the People - Second largest building in the world behind the Pentagon. 
Piata Victorei - this is ONE intersection!
  
But Bucharest is also nick-named the "Little Paris" with good reason, and that reason is the incredible architecture from the Belle Epoque:



"New Romanian" architecture. 





And the Metro system? 
I like it better than DC's, and it's far less smelly than NY's subway, for sure. No, it doesn't reach everywhere we need to go (the Embassy, for example), but it's cleaner (and they have vending machines on the platforms for snacks and drinks), has nicer trains where one can easily walk from one car to the next without having to dash onto the platform at stations to change cars, has had accurate "Next Train Coming in X Minutes" digital signs longer than DC's system has, and alerts riders to what bus connections are available at each station. It doesn't take an engineering degree to figure out how to add money on your Metro card like in DC, AND all this costs just $.50 per ride regardless of how far you go. Yes, really. Bucharest's Metro takes the prize for me. 


So far, so good - what about the countryside?
Here is where the preconceptions have proven accurate (so far). Yes, there are Alpine-like mountains with castles, lush greenery, plains more like Indiana than I'd expected and people living as they have for generations.  We've stopped along roadside fairs and farmers' markets to see what the folks have to say and sell. We've walked and driven through little towns whose streets are lined with benches where the elderly sit and watch the world go by while selling baskets of whatever is in season.


Castelul Peles, Sinaia

Brasov

Castelul Bran - outside Brasov

Baskets o' berries for sale!

Carpathian Mountains - just two hours from Bucharest




At a roadside farmers fair 


Boy with bunny for sale

Mums for sale from the back of her bicycle

Watching the day pass in Comana

We bought cheese from them and it was delicious


This is not an exaggeration - see below


View of the Black Sea from Constanta promenade

Black Sea former casino


Folkloric fair ladies



What about the people? 
While they will be very quick to point out that Romanians are Latins (the language is meant to be the closest modern language to spoken Latin), they are not the same as other Latins we've experienced.  Perhaps due to decades under communism, or who knows exactly why, Romanians are far more reserved, non-confrontational and private than the Latin culture we knew in Mexico and Colombia.  Walking down the street there is no eye-contact or greeting that is common in Mexico. The default expression is not the smile. In fact, on more than one occasion, when I've offered a "buna ziua" (good day/hello) to someone standing next to me in line or in a store, I've had them ask me if I knew them from somewhere, as in - why the heck else would you greet someone like that you daft woman?! It's not rude to simply walk by someone on the street, even when you and they are the ONLY ones around, without a nod, smile or greeting of acknowledgment of any sort.  It still feels terribly rude to me, but I'm learning to adapt so as not to be the culturally-insensitive person who "does it wrong" and makes others confused or uncomfortable.  

Once that crust is broken, however, and the setting is established for a conversation, you'll get an earful.  In fact, in casual conversations with taxi drivers (my favorite source of local information) or vendors in farmer's markets or fairs - it is with Kevin Bacon-like regularity that any conversation seems to end up mentioning Ceausescu and the bad ole' days - and not by me, for sure.  Our experience has been that everyone in Bucharest we've spoken to (coworkers, teachers, neighbors, people on the street) has distinctly negative recollections of that time and what happened to their country's trajectory with this terrible detour. They regularly speak of their frustrations with corruption robbing them and their country of its potential and possible prosperity and ruining its international reputation (more on that later).

But we have also heard (twice so far) from people who spent the communist years in the countryside tell us that it either wasn't so bad or was actually better.  The first source was our housekeeper who grew up in a very large family way out on the farm.  Her take on that time was that they were subsistence farmers before, during and afterwards and weren't witnesses to what was going on politically in the cities. Her family's friends weren't jailed for being intellectuals or church leaders - life just went on as usual with the seasons.  The second source was an older woman selling fruit alongside the highway on the slopes of the Carpathians. She expressed a general dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and stated that "It was better then - more organized." 

And what about the gypsies? 
Roma certainly exist in Romania, as in other Balkan nations, and sadly have been largely responsible for giving Romanians in general a bad name in Europe.  Their reputation as thieves, beggars and nomads paints one group with a very large and dirty brush and while it may be based on some truth, no doubt it's not a complete truth. To be honest, I have had only a few experiences with this culture and it was with the Roma "travelers" in Ireland (and I'm not even 100% sure we're talking about the same people).  The people originate from Northern India and ethnically-speaking are not the same people as Romanians.  During our language training at FSI, many of us asked, "But how will we know who are Roma?" and the only answer we were offered, repeatedly, was "Well, they're dark."  Given that oh-so-helpful description, I'm not sure I know who is and who isn't Roma. But sometimes it's clear and it's not been skin color, but rather setting, clothing and jewelry, that tipped me off.  

She sells every type of gadget and remote from the comfort of her pink fuzzy robe


I'm pretty sure my gypsy Halloween costume in junior high with its scarf, flowery skirt and hoop earrings was more accurate than not. In real life, just add more bling: Heavy gold chain necklaces, hoop earrings and large rings in particular.  This woman above also had a great smile of gold teeth which she unfortunately hid from the camera. 

Another myth busted: so far no packs of pick-pocketing gypsies, but if you need a remote control for just about anything - I can direct you to the right roadside swap meet. 

The Economy and Cost of Living
Every day I see dozens of young, well-employed IT sector employees coming in for their visa appointments to attend "kick-offs" or "knowledge transfers," or as we used to call them - meetings - with colleagues and clients in the US.  They work for Oracle, Microsoft, Adobe and Deloitte, just to name a very, very few.  There are a LOT of US companies coming to Romania for the skilled, multi-lingual and eager work force.  It's so impressive to see this growth in the country and to see job prospects for the Romanians.  What's disappointing, is that outside of this IT or multi-national company sector, the doctors, dentists, teachers and police are being paid a pittance.  Like less than $1500/month salaries in many cases and far less for the teachers.  Someone working in an office in a non-professional job is most likely earning $300-400/month.  

Correspondingly, the cost of living is also pretty low. Besides the $.50 Metro ride I mentioned earlier, you can take a bus for about $.20.  We've had lovely restaurant meals, with wine and dessert, and have paid about $13-15 a head.  The vet care I've experienced was about 5-10% the price of the same in the US.  We buy loaves of wheat bread in the supermarket for $.75 where a similar loaf in the US would easily be over $3.  The annual "vignette" subscription for our car (instead of toll booths where one is charged by distance, this is a fee for all who use the highways based on an amount of time) was $28.  This is European living at less-than-Mexico prices. 

My three months doing visa interviews has also taught me about the entrepreneurial spirit in Romania.  It seems that nearly everyone has "a firm."  This could mean anything from renting a chair in a beauty salon to an entire construction company with 100 employees on the payroll.  And many people have multiple "firms", for example an engineer who consults on pipe laying projects for the city, sells clothing from a rented storefront that his sister runs, and who grooms dogs on the weekends. 

The dark side of having a highly tech-savvy population, an entrepreneurial spirit and a weak job market is the undeniable existence of cyber-crime in Romania.  Vlad the Impaler aside, this is not a violent culture, unlike other countries where we've lived, but there's a reason why certain websites keep giving me pop-up warnings saying: "This IP address has been associated with suspicious activity" - i.e. we know you're in Romania! It's like sending an email from Nigeria. Last weekend, unbeknownst to us until after we returned, we took a day trip to a pleasant mountain town that is nicknamed "Hackerville," and ate lunch in a restaurant owned by a reported e-Bay scammer kingpin.  Oops. Good thing we paid in cash instead of plastic.

The Peculiarities 
Ah, yes. Here is the category that makes me laugh or scratch my head every day. These are the funny things about a culture that stand out when you first arrive and begin to settle in.  
Like the wiring system, which appears to just be one big work-around for getting cable and internet into old buildings:

Oh yeah, it's safe, don't worry

Hmmm.... let's just add another line... here

Or the fact that each loaf of sliced bread has a huge unsliced chunk at either end, as apparently it's impossible for the slicer to adapt to the size of the loaf.  (Perhaps I shouldn't make fun as the US still cannot manage to match the number of buns to the number of hot dogs in a pack.)  I guess that's what the extra $3 for the US loaf buys ya'?


And the perennial favorite: creative parking.
How many corners in the US are just wasted? 

Sidewalks are for sissies! (And so apparently are utility poles as this little tree affirms.)

Parallel parking on a corner is one thing, but you get extra points for perpendicular corner parking, especially if you can block the road at the same time!

The Little Things
The unforeseen niceties that will always be associated with that country long after we've left.  Like little courtyards in front of houses or alongside apartment blocs that are covered in grapevines to create a pleasant shady spot in summer to spend the afternoons and bear fruit to make your own wine in autumn:


Great bike lanes!

Painted churches, colorful windows and carved doors:



To sum it up: 
Romania is more than Dracula, gypsies and ATM skimmers. It is an incredible country packed with color and history and full of highly capable and hard-working folks -  and we've only just scratched the surface.