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!

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Four for the Road

I'd like to introduce two new characters to our story.  

It's been just over a year since we lost Toby. We felt not only his personal absence from our lives, but as the last of the Tabbies - we were suddenly without any fur friends after close to two decades. After caring for geriatric cats for the previous two years, I felt guilty admitting that a life less complicated was okay. We've appreciated the simplicity of a lock-and-leave life where last minute plans involve no more thought than choosing the appropriate jacket. But as with anything in life, there is a price for that luxury.  No one greets us walking through the door at the end of the day and there's no one making figure-eights through my legs as I make breakfast. I've longed for the comfort of having a kitty on my lap or stretched out alongside me, letting myself fall asleep hearing their purr and feeling their warm softness.  And I've missed caring for something more than my flower boxes and our gold fish.

My husband and I agreed we wouldn't adopt again for a while, and at least until we knew where our next assignment would take us.  We now know where we're going (more on that soon) and I've been feeling little by little more ready to consider letting new friends into our lives and hearts.  I started watching a few shelter websites and about six weeks ago, I found a pair that seemed to have personalities to match our lives: bold not timid, affectionate not aloof, outgoing not shy, and definitely people-focused instead of catishly independent. The two aren't siblings, but a "bonded pair" of the same age, one girl and one boy, one fluffy and one sleek. They seemed to be a perfect match to each other and to us, but final decisions still had to wait until we knew where we were headed.  The shelter certainly couldn't hold a pair like these two for so many weeks, so I told them that should they be available at the end of October - we'd be very interested in adopting. 

That day came last Sunday.

My I introduce our two new family members:

This is Bridget.  She is a 6 1/2 month old tortoiseshell girl with a chatty, chirping voice and a strong curiosity drive.  She is sharp, learns quickly and is very affectionate.  When we adopted her from King Street Cats, she'd been in a wonderful foster home since she was found alone as a tiny kitten under the Wilson Bridge near Rosslyn, Virginia.  Her foster mother named her "Noreen."  When my mother suggested the name Bridget to acknowledge where she was found - it seemed a good match. 

And this is Puff.  He is also just over six months old, and was found in Prince George's County, Maryland in a county shelter.  King Street Cats found him there as a tiny kitten, so young his eyes were still blue, and brought him to the same foster home with (then) Noreen. They bonded instantly.  I knew he was for us the first time I picked him up and he felt bonelessly relaxed in my arms and instantly started purring, even though we were out in a public pet store. Since bringing him home, we have tried to give him a new name, without much success.  First of all, the name fits him. He is an incorrigible flirt, making vets tech and clinic receptionist swoon upon meeting him.  He's fastidiously tidy when it comes to caring for his silky, soft black and white tuxedo, but he's also a guy's-guy who head-butts his acquaintances and nuzzles faces shamelessly.  Taking him to vet appointments the staff exclaim, "Oh, it's PUFF!!!" and it became clear that his name and reputation have already been set. Not to mention that my favorite Romanian word is "pufoasa" which means fluffy. So far he's been called "Pufoasa cea Frumoasa" (Fluffy the Beautiful), Puffers, Puff-n-Stuff, and Puffin.  We're still considering other options, but I'm not sure if we'll be able to call him anything other than Puff - it just fits.  

They look like big kitties in these pictures, but trust me - they're still kittens.  They run full-tilt throughout the apartment, skidding out on the wood floors and banking off furniture. Followed by a comatose-like crash that makes me check the rise and fall of their chests.  Because we missed their tiny months, their foster mother sent us baby pictures:

Now you see why they called him Puff?

Bridget and Puff - welcome to the family. Welcome to the adventure. Bring your frequent flier cards.  We hope to have two decades with you two. 

You're technically not Tabbies, but I think Dodger, Daphne and Toby would approve anyway.