Sunday, April 16, 2017

55 More Get-Ups

The other day my husband declared that he had only x number of "get-ups" before we leave Bucharest. He explained that when he was a high school teacher, about this time of year with summer vacation approaching, his coworkers would start counting down not just the days, but the times they had to get up, go to work, face the students etc... These were known simply as the number of "get-ups" before the luxury of unscheduled time that is summer break.

This morning, a Sunday with typical spring time partly-cloudy skies, birdies making a racket in the neighborhood, tulips in full bloom and trees leafing out - I counted my own get-ups.  It's 55, down from 475 when we arrived. (That's working days, not counting weekends and holidays.) 
Flowering tree outside of typical house in the village of Comana.

Nothing says "You're not in Kansas anymore" like buying tulips from a Roma woman outside an Orthodox cathedral.

Wisteria-covered Bucharest house. 
That makes it sound like I'm looking forward to leaving, and that's not it at all.  Funny, I recall writing about this very same mixed bag of emotions as we were preparing to leave Juarez. Each time we move, we're not just leaving a job, but also a country, a language, a climate, a style of life, a group of friends and coworkers, AND a job.  This move is going to be harder than the others because we've become far more immersed in Romanian life than we were in Mexico or Colombia. For example: in Juarez, the morning radio alarm was set to a Texas NPR station. We watched 60 Minutes every Sunday night, had US cell phones, Washington state license plates and could pop over to Target when we needed. We were even in living in the Mountain Time zone.  Sadly we were only in Colombia for one year and were only just hitting our stride there we I was called back to DC for A-100. But here - I feel steeped in all things Romanian: the language, the funny quirks of the people, the food, the climate, the driving habits, the cost of living and even the morning radio that wakes us reminds me every day that I'm not in the U.S.  And that's why we're here - to live another life.  

Plus, being a Consular Officer is the best job to have if you really want to live another life and get to know a new country. And by "get to know," I mean understand what daily lives are like, what people do for a living, what their family dynamics are, what they do in their free time and how they view their own country. After adjudicating over 26,000 visas - I've heard a LOT of stories.  As soon as I think I've heard them all - a new one comes to the window that makes me laugh, smile or shake my head. I relish having such a detailed view into the lives of the Romanian "om de rând" (average person - or literally, "person of the line") and learning what life is like behind the lacy curtains in the "bloc" apartments, or in the little cottages alongside the road. 

But now we're going back to DC where we'll be the om de rând, or just plain ole' middle-aged Americans. Not special, not unique, not standing out because of our white tennis shoes or friendly smiles at strangers.  No more, "Wow - you speak Romanian?" astonishment by waiters and cashiers that works so nicely as an ice breaker. No more marveling at new discoveries or trying to figure out what they call whipping cream here or if buttermilk exists or not. Instead, we'll just walk into the store, grab it off the shelf, and then fully understand all questions at the check-out about bags and rewards cards with no confusion about do we/don't we pre-weigh our vegetables.  I mean what fun is that? 

I was assisting a Congressional visit last weekend and one member of the group commented that I must be so excited to be returning home for the next tour.  I don't recall the exact words, but the tone was clear when she said "coming back to AMERICA" as if my parole just came through. There was an awkward pause while my mind scrambled for the best way to respond.  I came up with something about looking forward to the work I'll be doing there (true), but really feeling that I serve the country best while stationed abroad (also true).  

But the overall truth is no, right now we'd rather be on the outside looking in. Ironically, I've learned more about my own country and culture by living elsewhere these past six years.  I've come to appreciate things I'd certainly taken for granted before, while also becoming more critical about certain aspects of American life I'd just grown accustomed to.  Seeing the country through foreign eyes and hearing people tell me it's their life dream to visit, makes me prouder of the country.  I don't think I'd have understood all that by staying at home. 

Like dating more than one person before getting married, or having a bunch of different jobs before picking a career - to know what's right for us, we have also to know what isn't. I'm not yet ready to stop gaining these insights.  I think I'm drawn to the comfort of always being slightly uncomfortable, continuing to learn and see life from different angles. 

Maybe that's what this is all about?  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A General Malaise

It's Saturday, nearly five p.m. and my husband just got out of bed.  He's been feeling puny this week, nothing serious - just a general malaise as we call it, that mildly affects all systems. Perhaps a cumulative effect due to the daily gray weather and daily gray news. I know how contagious this malady can be so just after a late breakfast this morning, I bundled up and headed out to find something in the world to make me smile.

I chose Piaţa Domenii, the open-air produce market at about five minutes' drive (or 20 minutes' walk) from our apartment.  Usually I'd walk, but we've been under about two feet of snow for over a month now and the going is a lot more complicated, especially coming home with shopping bags. While the sidewalks are usually shoveled, often it's only to a single-track path making it difficult to come head-on with someone. The street snow barely resembles snow anymore. It's a gritty, gray sand littered with cigarette butts and splashes of dog pee on the banks. This is tired, depth-of-winter snow that bears no resemble to the pristine flakes as it arrived. I decide to take the car instead. 

Piaţa Domenii is a perennial favorite spot and reliable mood lifter. In other seasons, it overflows with colors and varieties of fruit, vegetables, plants, honey and nuts. This time of year only the hearty onions, apples and root vegetables are on display on the wide wooden tables; the more fragile produce is tucked away to protect it from the sub-freezing temps. I ask for a bunch of bananas from a vendor who uncovers a box beneath two fleece blankets like I'm buying kittens. Even the butter lettuce is snuggled under cover. 


Summer fruits

September mums

Easy to guess what time of year this is!
Christmas tree trunks whittled to size.
But more than just the fresh produce for sale, the market has a tangibly friendly, welcoming atmosphere.  No bartering or randomly varying prices, no resentful cashiers - just smiles and often a "Let me just throw in an extra carrot to make it an even 3 lei"  from a vendor, or sometimes an "I'm all out, but Mihai down on the left has some great-looking raspberries today" cooperative feel. And they can always make change - something every taxi driver in the city should know actually is possible. 

Encircling the produce stands are rows of little shops selling pet supplies, coffees and teas, clothing, eggs, cheeses, furs, olives and house goods. I pop into one for a new broom handle and sponges, then to the next for cat kibble.  Going to Domenii leaves me with very little left on the list for the supermarket, which makes me happy. I also visit the frame shop with some small watercolors I'm thinking of framing. The owner picks out the mats and frames and estimates less than $20 for the pair. Boy I'm going to miss that in five months. 

Quickly I'm back home and putting away the groceries.  Toby and my husband are still crashed out in/on the bed.  Restless and with a lot of day left, I toss some bread-ends into a plastic bag, put on my knee-high snow boots and walk over to Herastrau Park, virtually across the street from our apartment building. The park is the only place left in the city with fluffy, white snow.  At 271 acres, it's easy to find solitude here, even in summer. And at just 19 degrees outside- I find that I'm sharing the wide lanes, wandering paths, lake shore and tall stands of oaks with only about a dozen people.  I head directly to a place I told my husband to look for me if he ever feared I'd had a nervous breakdown. It's the Japanese Garden, which in summer is slightly depressing as the charming foot bridges are arching over empty water features and the life-size bonzai of Japanese pine have been left unpruned. But under a blanket of white - all is forgiven. The glen of blooming cherry trees stands bare and completely silent, void of a single leaf to rustle in the breeze. I join them, standing motionless, staring at the trees like a campfire. When the rest of the world is so noisy, this is where I retreat. 

Japanese Garden

View through the cherry tree glen to the Arc de Triumf with its new flag, already beginning to shred in the winter wind.


Cherry tree glen on fire in autumn. 
reluctantly leave the garden and follow the lane about a quarter mile to the lake's edge. Clusters of seagulls, pigeons and crows sit, puffed up and still in the center of the frozen surface.  I'm not sure why it's better to be out there than on land, maybe they also just want to be undisturbed, in their own space. Alongside a hole in the ice are a few seagulls with two fish they've managed to extract from the water.  I've never heard such a disturbing, hyena-like laughing from them as they hold the carcasses down with the feet and rip at them like grizzlies.  In a little protected, narrowing area of the lake are dozens of ducks.  In other seasons, there are black and white swans here as well, but now it's just the sturdy mallards. From the bridge above them, I rip up and toss down the bread ends to them. Unfortunately, some of the greedy seagulls catch wind of this and swoop in to grab the chunks before they hit the water.  I suppose seagulls are people too, but after witnessing the fish carnage - I'm more inclined to help out the mild-mannered ducks instead. 

Seagulls on the frozen lake in Herastrau Park with the Free Press building in the background. 
Mallards about to have lunch.
With the bread gone, it's time to start for home.  I'm pleasantly surprised to find the gogosi stand open for business. While I'm not in the mood for their little fried donut bites drizzled in caramel or chocolate topping right now - a cup of hot mulled wine (vin fiert) is irresistible. $1.25 is well spent warming my hands and belly. 

Gogosi, grilled corn on the cob and hot wine - oh my!

Finally, I pass a tired-looking father pulling his two sons on a sleigh.  He stops and asks me if I know the way to the little hill, which is well across the park, unfortunately. 


I look down the long lane of bare trees and take in perhaps my last view of the park so white and still. We only have five months left in Bucharest and this snow won't last too much longer.  This time next year, maybe when I'm having trouble sleeping and want a pleasant memory to quiet my thoughts - I'll imagine what's for sale seven time zones away at Piaţa Domenii, or drift into a wintry day, nearly alone in Herastrau. 

Man, I'm REALLY going to miss this place.


Herastrau Park under a fresh snow dumping.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

No Comment

Let me introduce you to my "Bucket o' Cr@p" law. 

It's a theory I came upon years ago and have yet to find an exception.  I believe everyone has a bucket to carry with them every day and fill with their worries. Examples: My 14 year old self worried about looking dorky line dancing during recess and why she couldn't get her hair to feather back. My 50 year old self worries about climate change, aging parents, why can't I sleep at night? Is this the right career for me? Why hasn't Toby peed in 12 hours, maybe he's blocked? Why can't we all just get along? Ohh, don't even get me started on politics! Etc etc etc.



But - whether big or small, relatively frivolous or life-threatening - everyone's worries will expand to fill their bucket. Be honest, when was the last time anyone looked around the room that is their life and said, "Yup, we're good here. There's nothing to be done" and just took a nap. It simply doesn't happen; the bucket must always be full. It's the Bucket o' Cr@p law and it can't be denied. 

God I love Romania, 'cause you can BUY your own tub o' crap in the market. For real!
But lately - it's just been too much.  Given the daily barrage of things to worry, get angry, get sad, or get sentimental about - it seems my bucket now runneth over and I'm left feeling like this.


I like to manage the contents of my bucket by writing. Ideas and clarity come to me in times of quiet - like when I'm not sleeping in the middle of the night, something that has been happening a lot - and writing it all down lets me organize my thoughts and get to the heart of what's bugging me.  

So with everything that's happening - why haven't I been writing about it?  Why haven't I been clever and insightful and offer my views on how daily events are affecting a diplomat's daily life and work? (And I don't just mean in the U.S. - check out what's going on blocks away from our apartment, too!) 

First, even if I were to try to keep up with the torrent of world topics to respond to, there's also this:

Blogs and Social Media: In addition to following the Hatch Act, employees are required to clear personal communication, including blogs and social media postings, through Public Affairs if said communication pertains to current U.S. foreign policy. 3 FAM 4173, 3 FAM 4174, and 3 FAM 4176 go into much greater detail on this requirement. The bottom line, though, is that if you wish to post something pertaining to current U.S. foreign policy (such as the January 27, 2017 Executive Order titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”) on your personal social media account or blog, then you must have the post cleared. The appropriate reviewing office then has two business days to get back to you with any objections regarding a social media post or five days for a blog post. If the Department has no objections or does not respond within the allotted time, you can publish the post but still must ensure that it contains no classified material and that it does not claim to represent the official position of the Department or the USG.

Hmmm... that sounds like a lot of work and I probably shouldn't add, "Find new job" to my bucket. 

That's why I haven't written in a while.

This all leaves me wanting to enjoy only the really simple, like watching the pigeons on my balcony or the snow melt off the neighbor's roof and go plop! into his back yard. Just anything that doesn't require a reaction, an action, a response, an emotion. 

I simply can't outrage anymore. 

I don't think this is just me, either.  I've noticed lately that Facebook is filling up even more than usual with videos of a rabbit eating a dandelion, a dwarf goat jumping in place. In the Bucharest Metro stations, which have TV screens for those waiting on the platform, they're showing "A moment of fresh air for your eyes" followed by a minute long video of a breeze waving through a field of high grass, fish in a river, a guy powder skiing through a glade.  Ahhh...

That's about all I'm capable of processing about now. Something REAL, something lasting. The bucket just needs to be let be for a while.