Saturday, March 02, 2019

Eight Years In Movement

This month marks our eighth year in the Foreign Service.  
Sure, anniversaries tend to make us all a bit sentimental, but perhaps it's more than just an anniversary that has me thinking about the passing of time, and especially HOW we've passed that time. This time it's also the ending of one assignment and the preparations for the next. Another departure, another arrival. 

This is how I picture my life since 2011:

Yeah, it's essentially a continuous structure: one life, one career, one family.  But each segment is more than just a different color; each segment is also a different country, language, set of coworkers, job, climate, time zone, cuisine, favorite evening news, and distance from "home."  I put home in quotes because that's feeling like an increasingly misty spot on the map. This is an actual conversation from our living room:

Is 425 the area code where we lived? 
No, it's the highway.  
Are you sure? I really think it's the area code.  
Yeah, okay. But then what's the highway called? 415? 
No, that's the area code in San Francisco.  
405? Is that the highway? That doesn't sound right. Just a second... let me look it up. 

Town and road names sound familiar, but we can't place from where we know them.  Favorite restaurants, leafy parks, a nice drive - they're all blurring together until I find myself with the memory of a lovely weekend I'd swear is accurate that has us waking up in a Bogota apartment, going for a Washington hike, and finishing the day with a nice meal at a Bucharest restaurant. And don't even start me on trying to figure out if that beach we visited - you remember, the one with that long pier - was in Maine, New Brunswick or Maryland. Sure we own a house in our "home state," but we've never slept in it. In true bureaucratic fashion, the Department refers to this as our "home of record."  Of record.  Sounds cozy, eh? This designation has nothing to do with roots, one's family, holidays spent, or neighborhood cookouts. It's all business. Keep yer' memories to yourself, lil' lady. This if just for tax purposes and we gotta' know where to ship your stuff when you retire. The term "our house" has been replaced by "our investment property."  

So what do folks do when they find their anchors slipping? 

Last night my husband and I went out for an evening of dinner and music at an Italian restaurant nearby.  Sounds pretty straightforward, certainly nothing worth writing a blog post about.  But this place is more to us than just a Friday night out. I'm not going to tell you that it's because the food is among the best we've ever tasted, or the wine list unparalleled. Simply put, our forays to Pistone's have become a familiar routine, somewhere we can go where we know what we'll find.  What we find is a real Dean Martin-ambiance: a crew of career waiters - older gentlemen with accents (Italian, Albanian), wood paneling, colored-glass lamps lighting the raised semi-circular booths upholstered in overstuffed Naugahyde, a menu of Italian standards where they know how to put together a proper antipasto, and best of all - the attached lounge bar where every Friday night a two-man band belts out classic country/rock favorites until midnight. This has been their regular gig for the past 13 years, taking requests and playing guitar (acoustic, electric and steel) for their faithful crowd of middle-aged-plus date-nighters. The bartender, holding court from the horseshoe-shaped bar, has been there for 25 years and likely many of the patrons, too. After dinner, we saunter into the lounge, order a Jameson or glass of wine, and soak up the cozy familiarity.  Sometimes the band recognizes us, and sometimes they thank us for coming out as if it's our first time. It's okay - we recognize them and especially their playlist, not only from our many previous visits, but also from our whole lives. They take us from Little Feat's "Willin' " to Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer," and end up with a beautiful version with full guitar solo of Garth Brooks' "The Dance."  The singer's wife joins in from a stool at the bar with her tambourine and suggestions for the sound mix.  Couples take turns on the tiny dance floor and folks shout out requests.

Routines like dinner at Pistone's with Eddie Pockey and Brint playing in the lounge are more than just pleasant evenings to us. They've become threads that hold our scatter-shot experiences together.  In a life of many-colored LEGO bricks, these little pieces of reliable familiarity, where we can walk in and it's just like we never left (even though it's been two years) make us feel as if we have a home.  We know what it looks, tastes and sounds like - and it's always there for us. 

Foreign Service families hear thanks for our service and appreciation for serving in foreign countries. I used to think they were just thanking us for the difficulties of living outside the U.S. (i.e. more than 10 miles from a Target), or for putting ourselves in danger - which is undoubtedly true in some places. But beyond that, it's clear that what we really are in danger of losing, or missing out on, is this:

Which is why simple things like an Italian restaurant and a great lounge band have become so important to us. They remind us that some things don't change every two years. Some things have roots that keep growing while everything else is in movement.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Fee-Funded Life

Greetings from 2019! It's 11:00 am and I'm still at the kitchen table in my jammies, full belly of french toast and a pot of tea. Outside on the balcony are a mob of sparrows at the feeder and beyond that, puffed-up doves perched on the equally puffy snow-covered branches.

You're likely thinking that this is going to be one of hundreds of thousands of government shutdown furlough stories, but actually - this is just Sunday at our house.

See, as a Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) employee, I'm very fortunate to be living a fee-funded life.  Which means that consular employees worldwide are still at work and still receiving our regular payroll. The bureau is supported by passport and visa fees which continue to roll in so long as consular sections overseas keep adjudicating visas and domestic passport agencies keep taking in applications.  

I'm very fortunate to be able to report this as other State Department employees in non-fee funded jobs, whose positions have been identified as "not-excepted" (not necessary for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, national security or foreign affairs essential to national security) are now furloughed.  This includes many friends in other sections of our embassies and consulates (for example political, economic, public diplomacy), domestically at the Department itself and in language training at the Foreign Service Institute.  

I'm not going to weigh in on the whole subject of the lapse of appropriations. First, it's not really my style to enter the political debate, but mostly because heaven knows there are already enough opinions out there on the subject. But it IS my style to give one person's experience, one slim slice of this complicated pie.

So while I am working (almost) business as usual, this is not to say I've been unaffected.  For example:

  • A major component of my job is to teach consular-related classes at FSI - which is closed. 
  • I have not yet been officially assigned to my onward post ("paneled") as my Career Development Officer has been furloughed.  This means I have no orders to let post know of our official assignment to make their staffing plans or to plan for our housing assignment. And without orders, we can't begin to arrange travel, which with pets - needs to be done as early as possible. 
  • I can't register for my required training because my Assignments Officer is also furloughed. 
  • I'm organizing workshops for later this Spring, but it's unclear if travel will be approved to invite our overseas participants.
  • On a kind of funny note, I've been plagued with spam robocalls lately and when I tried to register my number on I got this message instead: "Due to the government shutdown, we are unable to offer this website service at this time."
Honestly, on the scale of posing real life difficulties, this list ranks in the "inconvenience/pain in the butt" range compared to folks who are looking for part-time jobs or applying for unemployment or mortgage assistance programs to keep the roof over their heads.  Again, I count my lucky stars to be working for the awesome Consular Affairs bureau. 

However, it seems some folks have been making the best of this crummy situation. I've been amazed by what my furloughed friends have been doing with their free time, particularly the creativity that has been unleashed when someone is given (so far) three unexpected weeks off work. For example:
  • Constructing a playhouse out of cardboard shipping boxes for you toddler.
  • Digitizing that CD collection - finally.
  • Making a cart to organize the kids' Legos.
  • Cleaning out your closet and giving away extra clothing to friends and charity. 
  • Designing a display system for your kids' artwork
  • Cross stitching the D&D alphabet

Meanwhile, the DC Metro area has just had the first major snow dump of the winter, with at least 8-10 inches outside our doors.  Which brings up a conundrum: Can they shut the government for snow when the government is already shut down? If so, is there anyone around to send out the message?

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Flag Day Number Five: Also Known as Handshake Day Number Two

One month ago I introduced our two new kitties, but what gave us the green-light to adopt again was knowing where we'd be heading next summer.  There were a few posts I'd bid on that would have made bringing cats more difficult, so we held off on the big decision until I'd received a job offer, called a handshake. (For those just joining me, I describe the whole mid-level bidding and handshake process here.)

That handshake was offered just before Halloween, and I'm now happy to announce that sometime next summer, we'll be boarding a plane for:

Plaza Libertad
 Not looking familar?  Okay, how about this:

Volcanic backdrop to the city
 Still not sure?  Yeah, I get it. Volcanoes tend to look kind of alike.  Okay, let's try this:

We'll have nice beaches, too!

Care to hike to a volcanic lake?
 Okay, so we're narrowing it down: coastal country, and somewhere on the Ring of Fire.  Well, that could still be a lot of places.  You'll certainly get it now:

Just slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts
Oh fercrissake, just give them the flag!

That's right - EL SALVADOR!  Please make your vacation plans to come visit us in the capital city of San Salvador!

We're very excited about this assignment as it was our number one pick for a number of reasons:

Besides the natural beauty you've gotten a glimpse of above, how would you like a few years of temps going from 80s to low 60s EVERY DAY? For me, that sounds pretty good.  Okay, if I have to be super honest, I love four seasons, but if I had to pick just one of those seasons - and I don't think the trees can sustain Fall year 'round - it would be summer.  But not a muggy, buggy Virginia summer:  at 2159 feet, San Salvador's altitude keeps things a bit less swampy.  Although you may want to plan your visit to avoid the rainy season June to September when the temps are closer to 90 and the city gets about a foot of rain per month delivered via near-daily afternoon showers.  Aim for the dry season from December to March when we'll enjoy dry months in the 70s.  Now we're talking!

We currently live in a neighborhood with lots of Central American restaurants and really enjoy the food and the openly friendly and warm Salvadorans we've met over the years.  We're looking forward to getting to know the culture more from folks still living in their home country, and also exploring the whole region of Central America. 

My job will be very interesting and challenging - which is good. Plus, we already know (and like!) a handful of my future colleagues, including one of my A-100 classmates. The mission seems to be large enough to offer a good variety of jobs that my husband will be looking to snag, and it's a language we've already tackled.  Plus, we've heard only great things about the morale at post - which can make-or-break both the cushiest and the ickiest of assignments. As one of my friends who served his second tour in San Salvador said, "For as much as I loved post - my wife loved it even more."  Considering they were there with three school-age children, that says a lot. 

Oh yeah, about the language thing... My required 3/3 Spanish score expired earlier this year, which means that FSI wants about three months of my time to get back up to that level.  Therefore this assignment comes with a bit of training beforehand at good ole' FSI, and then another torture session known as the language exam.  You'll hear more on this topic this summer, no doubt. 

Finally, El Salvador is pretty darn close to the U.S.  This normally isn't an important criteria for us, but let's face it - no one is getting any younger, and I'd like to be able to get to the West Coast in less than a day to visit family.  It's not Juarez-close, but better than Buenos Aires or certainly Nairobi - two other posts we were considering. 

So there you have it!  We now know where we'll live for the next handful of years.

C'mon down!