Saturday, September 2, 2017

Becoming Domesticated

It's Saturday of Labor Day weekend in the American capital. 
BBQs, a long lazy lakeside weekend, maybe a camping trip, still wearing shorts, a big glass pitcher of lemonade and the sound of pond frogs in the evening - right?

For some, I'm sure.  But for us, it's pouring rain and feels more like late October than early September. I have an urban view from our temporary Oakwood apartment of thousands of other peoples' apartments. Our car is still somewhere on the Atlantic mid-way between Belgium and Baltimore where hopefully the cargo ship won't get hit by Hurricane Irma, and all our BBQ stuff is in our HHE (household effects), which have arrived on US soil - but are awaiting customs clearance and then delivery to our permanent apartment in two weeks.  And I just spent an hour assembling evidence for my case against Telekom Romania proving that I did indeed cancel my account and stop using their cell service in early July and therefore shouldn't have to pay the $100 bill they're trying to stick me with because THEY failed to turn off the service when requested. 
(But at least I had a nice cup of tea while doing it.)

THIS is what I pictured when imagining returning to the US.

And this is what we got.

Hurrumph.  It's all part of becoming domesticated. 

Once the fun of home leave and the novelty of living back in the US wore off (read: I quit being on vacation and went back to work), the reality of life in a crowded, expensive, sprawling metropolitan area hit us.  With six weeks at my new assignment already in the can, it feels like we're still living in limbo.  This no-man's-land covers both personal and professional territory:

On the work front, oh sure, it's to be expected that finding one's place in a new job is accompanied by a period of unsettled adjustment. Like borrowing a friend's well-worn flip-flops - it feels like I'm trying to fit into someone else's footprint and haven't made my own yet. I'm getting to know my new co-workers and my boss, and am trying to make a good impression without it feeling forced - like when you tell all your best stories in the first half-hour of a date and then just have to smile and pick at your fries the rest of the evening. Then there's the concern about how the hell I'm going to reach the high watermark left by my beloved predecessor.  I should also mention it took 9 (count 'em NINE) work days before my computer account was transferred from EUR Bureau to WASH Bureau to CA Bureau, all the while I just sat like a decorative plant in my cubicle and read over my co-workers' shoulders.  I find myself lost in meetings chock full of updates on acronym-titled-projects with unfamiliar people whose name and spot on the org chart escape me. I keep referring to my new civil service colleagues as the Locally Employed Staff and I'm still turning the wrong way off the elevator to get to my office. Geez.  

(Sidebar: I just Googled "new job confusion" to find an image that might fit this description and nearly all the returns were pictures of medical or military workplaces. Oh dear.)

But who am I to squawk? At least I HAVE a job.  
My husband started his search about an hour after my DC assignment was confirmed. That was last November.  He began by applying for federal jobs that would utilize his four years of specialized training and experience picked up in both the Juarez and Bucharest consular sections. Then came the federal hiring freeze.  While still scraping the barrel for the few federal jobs which are sneaking in under the freeze's radar, he added a layer to his search by including any type of ESL teaching work. This makes sense as he hopes to gain more experience in a field that could be both freeze-proof and valuable at our next overseas post. Still nothing (so far), but a good volunteer gig starting in a few weeks.  Like bringing home a new baby, every well-meaning friend is full of "Well have you tried...." tidbits of advice, which at first were graciously received but now are verging on annoying because yes, he has tried that, he is signed up with that service, he does visit that website, and he has considered that angle - and still the outcome remains the same.  The reality is that it kind of sucks to be middle-age and stumping for a job in a highly competitive field in a very expensive city. Period.

The kind of advice that never makes you say, "Thanks! I hadn't thought of that!"
 On the personal front, we're taking advantage of the Department's Home Service Transfer Allowance which gives us per diem to help with the costs of a temporary apartment, meals and "incidentals" for 60 days.  During this time, we'd expected to be apartment searching, but as it turned out - while on home leave in Maryland, we found an apartment advertised online and popped over to Virginia to see it and sign a lease.  Fortunately, it seems to be an easy commute to my new office and very close to FSI in case we have language training for our next assignment (see that - always looking ahead to "But what comes next?").  The place will be ours in mid-September at which time we'll receive our HHE and re-take possession of all stuff the Department stored for us when I was hired 6.5 years ago.  All that stuff that I didn't know what to do with but couldn't bear giving away and didn't realize would come home to roost in a small apartment some day.  My husband has been looking forward to culling this assortment of treasures for years. 

With all this griping - I must admit that I do really like my work and DC is a great city to live in. In fact, the only reason we considered a domestic assignment was because the particular job seemed to fit me perfectly - and once I've feathered my nest and have asked my boss the requisite 5,476 questions about how to do everything, I imagine I'll start feeling like my old self.  They say ("they" = nearly every speaker who gave advice in nearly every Entry Level Officer training you've attend since joining the Foreign Service) that our third tour should be in DC. This is so we learn how the Department's sausage is made and can meet people on whom we will hopefully make positive impressions who can then recommend us for our next overseas tour.  

Yup, that's pretty much how it works.

In the meantime, I've decided to treat this domestic assignment like an overseas one. Instead of just putting my head down and serving my time while paying over half my salary in rent, I look forward to exploring parts of the country we've hardly seen.  Taking the train to Philly or Boston while we're so close.  Flying to Miami for a long weekend in January.  Maybe even seeing NYC at Christmas alongside thousands of Romanians I've issued visas to for the very same thing. Who knows - maybe my husband will find a wonderful and fulfilling job and we'll want to extend our DC adventure for another tour.  

But until then, I'm just going to make another cup of tea and enjoy watching my favorite American re-runs without having to log into the VPN.  

And what's not to love about free museums?!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Home Leave II - Maryland Edition

Subtitle: Greetings from  the Mosquito Coast

Just outside the door.  

We successfully made it through pack-out, pack-up and 20 hours of transit to arrive in the DC area.  My husband, Toby and I are spending two weeks near Chestertown, MD. As described in detail here, for me home leave is that delicious time to set aside the backpack of responsibility and bask in unstructured time.  From the State Department's point of view, it's our time to become "re-Americanized" after years of foreign immersion. Rather than returning to our home state(s), we've decided to spend home leave trying out new regions, seeing if there might be somewhere new we could see ourselves living after all is said and done.  Besides, our own house currently has tenants and love family as we do - weeks of uninterrupted time as house guests (with Toby) isn't quite the vacation it sounds like. Home leave 2015 was a winter month on the Florida panhandle living among the snowbirds, and this time we're learning about life in the Chesapeake Bay. 

Our first four or five days found us still under the influence of Romania's time zone, which is seven hours later than the East Coast.  This meant that were bright eyed at 3:00 am and forcing ourselves to stay in bed until the far more decent hour of 5:45 am when we were raring to go, tea and coffee poured and planning the day. Woohoo!  The flipside of this early start was that we had to nap in the afternoon to even stay awake for a 6:30 pm dinner.  Now fully acclimated on the 13th day, it's breakfast at 9:00 and out of the house by 11:00 if we really push.  

Earlier this spring, as soon as I was able to nail down a departure date from Bucharest, we searched for accommodation.  We were lucky in 2015 to be renting during low season (February), but in the height of summer - the costs are about double.  We didn't want a place where after the arduous flight, we'd then have another connecting flight or a long drive for Toby; therefore, this quiet, rural area only 90 minutes outside of DC fit the bill. We've rented a mother-in-law apartment on a large, shady lot fronting a tidal tributary of the Chester River.  I hadn't anticipated how agricultural this area would be, and combined with the charm of colonial towns - I'm finding it the perfect combination to re-immerse ourselves in Americana.  

Morning stillness.

It seem everyone has a boat here.

Americana in downtown Chestertown, MD.

Corn fields and white steeples.

Colonial architecture along the Chester River. 

Wide horizons = mental peace of mind. 

Toby on his daily constitutional. 

Fountain in Chestertown center.

Dimming of the day over the Chester River. 

Sunset over the reeds, full of Red Wing Blackbirds.
Eager to get to know our new surroundings, we filled our first week with daily outings in all directions. We were very fortunate to find hosts we really like and who have not only given us great recommendations for places to visit and eat, but who also have invited us out on their own boat and sailing as part of the crew on their friends' schooner.  Besides riding on commercial ferries, I really didn't have any prior boating experience, so this has been an education into the water life that is so much a part of the Chesapeake Bay culture. 

Log canoe races on Chesapeake Bay - a regional specialty.

The boards are slid from one side to the other as the boat changes tack.

Schooner "Martha White" where we spent a 9 hour day sailing. 

But this area is more than just boats and seafood - it's also amazing for the variety of bird watching, either from our front garden or the wildlife refuge just a short drive away.

This one needs no introduction.  

Great Blue Heron just outside the house.

Osprey are as common as park pigeons here.

Buzardly welcome.

Butterfly garden resident.

Speaking of wildlife, we also hit the Delaware/Maryland coast in search of what I had imagined were going to be towns bursting with Romanians. What? See, our Consular Section just spent the past three months issuing over 7500 J1 Summer Work and Travel exchange visitor visas to Romanian university students to work in tourist destinations from Maine to Alaska, with perhaps the highest concentration ending up in Ocean City, MD. Back in May, while I was interviewing thousands of these kids, I was pictured them seeing only other Romanians and questioning just what type of American experience they were going to have.  So we took a day to head to the coast in search of some J1s and darned if after a few hours of walking from t-shirt stand to fudge factory to souvenir shop - we found exactly four.  I expected at least a few of them to recognize me and exclaim something like, "Hey - it's that nice lady from the Embassy!" But it didn't quite go down like that. Instead, it was more like:

"Hello Romanian student! Remember me from your interview? 
No, the interview at the Embassy.  Yes, in Bucharest. 
I was one of the ladies behind the window? 
Remember - the ones asking you a bunch of questions in English? 
Maybe I altered the course of your life by issuing your visa and you said it was the happiest day and then skipped out the door to tell your friends?
Really? Still nothing?" 

But when they saw my husband they were all: 
"Hey - it's the fingerprint guy!"  

Ah well, I guess that 39 seconds of their life didn't make quite the impact I'd imagined. 
But they looked so happy in their salt water taffy shop right there on the boardwalk, surrounding themselves with other J1s from all corners of the globe (we met Ukrainians, Jamaicans, Bulgarians, Chinese, Lithuanians and a Kazakh) and living the American summer life. 

Three Romanian J1s on the job at the seashore. 

Because it's called the Summer Work and TRAVEL program!

Rehoboth Beach, DE
"You should see what Americans eat!"

As we go around visiting, I feel like we're on a first date with the region. 
Physical beauty? Yup. 
Interesting history? Check.  
Similar political beliefs? 50-50.  
Fun things to do? Definitely.  
Diversity? Indeed.
Attractive architecture? Yes.  
So far so good. But there has been one less-than-wonderful aspect of life on the water's edge: it's been perhaps the hottest, muggiest and buggiest place I've ever visited. Like waking up to the house windows already fogged up and dripping by 7 am. It's been in the mid-90s nearly every day with up to 100% humidity and all this greenery and wet means bugs bugs bugs.  I'm sure the birdies I love to hear and watch are thriving on all these creepy-crawlies, but the ongoing battle with the no-see-ems (we sure feel-ems!), ants, skeeters, spiders, ticks etc... has "dampened" the experience somewhat.  And my hair has never been wavier.  Ah well - part of the experience, right?

This weekend we move back to DC. Back into Oakwood temporary housing until we can move into a permanent apartment.  Back to work on Monday and slipping on the backpack of responsibility. 

I think I'll just enjoy the bugs a little longer. 

One more window-side cat nap.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Two Years of Life

We have spent nearly two years in Bucharest.  
This is what that time looks like. This is what happened along the way.  

Soundtrack:  CCR's "Lookin' Out My Backdoor"

Aug 20, 2015 - Arrival in Romania

Bine aţi venit!

Our modern apartment all ready to welcome the five of us.

Aug 21, 2015 - First day of work - Non-Immigrant Visa Manager 

Aug 29, 2015 - We lose "Daphne" 

There couldn't have been a worse way to start a tour.  My sweet, funny girl at 17.5 years old. 

Sept. 11, 2015 - "Dodger" suffers a debilitating blood clot 

And then it got worse.  

Late Sept. 2015 - Step-daughter visits for two weeks 

Finally getting out into the country! Castle Peleş, Sinaia.

Oct. 25, 2015 - First visit to the Danube 

Only the skies were blue at this Danube. 

Oct 31, 2015
I start chronicling the seasons through our neighbor's back garden. Thanks Şerban! 

Nov 26, 2015 - Thanksgiving spent in Sardinia, Italy

First regional trip to Sardinia.  Off-season is the way to go!

Dec 15, 2015 - Tenured!

Dec 25, 2015 - First Christmas in Bucharest

Dodger is weak in muscles but strong in spirit. 

Dec 31, 2015 - New Year's Eve in Herastrau Park.

Peaceful alongside the frozen lake.

January 9, 2016

January 16, 2016 - Still snowing. 

Feb 9, 2016 - We pull a fisherman from the icy waters of Snagov Lake

I don't recommend ice fishing on an unseasonably warm winter day.

Feb 16, 2016 - Trip to eastern city Iaşi for visa outreach.

Trei Ierhari Church, Iaşi

Valentine's Day, 2016 and the snowdrops are lining the garden paths.

 April 4, 2016 - Rotate to Immigrant Visa Section Manager as Spring hits the city

March 19, 2016 and the trees are starting to bloom, too.

April 2, 2016 and it's puffy white tree time of year!

April 15-18, 2016 - Visit the interior of Transylvania: Sibiu and Sighisoara

Transylvanian town and their backyard fortified church. 

April 30, 2016 First Romanian Easter

Park Cismigiu Easter decorations.

June 2016 - Vacation to Milos, Greece

Exploring the beautiful island of Milos.

June 27, 2016 shady backyards are the way to escape the city heat.

July 2016 - First trip back to US to sell old and buy new house

Our new house - now rented.

July 30, 2016.  Still hot, bring on the shade tents!

Aug 14, 2016 - Weekend trip up the Transfăgărășan highway

So steep I "hiked" on all fours up this mountainside. The view was worth it.

Aug 21, 2016 - Dog days of summer at Snagov Lake

Nothing says Romania like a guy with an accordion at a lakeside picnic.
The cigarettes, swimming in your skivvies and the pile of trash also, unfortunately, say "Romania."

Aug 31, 2016 - Promoted!

Sept 4, 2016 - Day trip to Târgoviște

View from Chindia Tower.

October 2016 - My good friend Rose visits.

This isn't me and Rose, it's Brasov school girls staying in at recess. 

Late October 2016 - My mother and step-father visit. 

Old Casino on the Black Sea, Constanţa. 

Nov. 13, 2016

Dec 22, 2016 - We lose "Dodger"

Good bye my dear, lovely friend after 18.5 years.

Christmas 2016 - Step-daughter visits for second time

Christmas Fair in front of the People's Palace, Bucharest

Christmas 2016

Dec 26, 2016 - Visit to the far northern county of Maramureş 

The Merry Cemetary in Săpânța

Jan 1, 2017 - Rotate to Fraud Prevention Manager

Jan. 6, 2017 

Feb. 11, 2017 Snow isn't going anywhere!

March 6, 2017 - Trip to western cities of Timișoara and Cluj-Napoca for visa outreach

                         Piața Unirii, Timișoara

March 29, 2017 Finally spring comes!

March 17, 2017 - Day trip to Câmpina

Sanford and Son Romanian style.

March 29, 2017 - Herastrau Park bursts into bloom

Japanese Garden, Herastrau Park.

April 12, 2017 - We lose my husband's father

May 5, 2017 "Toby" diagnosed with mesenteric lymphoma (i.e. cancer)

But all in all - he's doing very well.

April 2017 - Still riding after all these years!

With the lovely "Feivel" 

April 30, 2017 - Roadside fruit stand season begins

Crates of strawberries anyone?

May 2017 - Wedding season at the Botanical Gardens

We saw no fewer than eight wedding parties in the park!

May 27, 2017 Serban's cherry trees are full of fruit.

Early June 2017 - Trip to Nikiti, Greece

June 10, 2017 Toby becomes "Captain Underpants" 

A little loss of bladder control, but hey, he's 19!

June 19, 2017 Pack-out (our 7th, but who's counting?)

June 20-24, 2017 Husband takes trip to the Danube Delta

Pelican and friends in Danube Delta near Murighiol. 

July 1, 2017 Last trip into the countryside 

Dâmboviţa County sunflower fields. 

July 4, 2017  Last hurrah - Embassy Independence Day party with 3000 of our closest  friends.

Ambassador Klemm and Mrs. Klemm with the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis.
Not sure who that lady in the red jacket is. Certainly isn't me. Nope. 

July 7, 2017 We sadly head for the airport and close this Romanian chapter.

We WILL be back.

Seasons come and go and life continues for most - but not all - of us.  Days are full of the daily grind of routine and the joy of the unexpected; the incredible sadness of loss and the marvel of new found beauty; arguments and laughs; embarrassment and accomplishment.  People will inevitably ask me "How was Romania?", and the above images will flip through my mind like a deck of shuffling cards, but I will simply say it was wonderful. 

La revedere!