Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Airing of Grievances

Sub-Title: More Realities of Life in Long-Term Training

Boy, I bet that title is going to garner a lot of enthusiasm! Hey, let's read about somebody else's whining and moaning - woo hoo! But the time comes when even the ugly side of just about anything should be revealed so that when it happens again - or for some of you, for the first time - you can see that you're not the only one and that it will pass; that life will cycle through to the highs again. As a fortune cookie once told me, "You must taste the bitter to recognize the sweet." (But it also gave me a bunch of lottery numbers that turned out NOT to be so lucky, thus casting doubt upon the wisdom of the fortune itself.)

Anyway - greeting from FSI and la semana muerta

That's right, the dead week, and yes - that's what it's called in the Spanish Department. Nice way to describe the holidays, eh? What it means is that during the week of Christmas up until January 2nd, no classes shall progress. With so many students and teachers away for the holidays, FSI figured that it wouldn't be fair if the classes continued with their curriculum while the other students were away. But they also couldn't force us all to take vacation time, and with so many of the instructors being contractors, that would equate to a forced furlough without pay. So, this was their compromise: all students who are not taking annual leave will come to FSI every day like normal, but instead of heading for class, they will develop a self-study plan and work on their own. We have to sign in each morning and again eight hours later before heading home. We see our teachers in the hallways (those who haven't headed to Peru, Guatemala or Colombia to see their families), but we're forbidden to exchange more than pleasantries with them to avoid the appearance that they're helping us and therefore are giving one student an advantage of extra instruction over another.  My most recent teacher warned that she could be fired on the spot for doing this during la semana muerta. I don't know if that's true or not, but I'm not about to risk it by chatting with her. 

So teachers are holed up in the offices and students are wandering the halls like ghosts coming back to haunt the place, looking for a good spot to spread out to read, review their text books, nap, practice conjugating verbs or watch CNN on the classroom SmartBoard - you name it. I've been reading articles online, watching movies in Spanish (and reading the English subtitles), going through units in my Consular Spanish course, chatting with classmates in the cafeteria and generally just  burning time. 

Where's the frustrating part, you say? Because for those of us with precious few weeks left before we take our exam, this time feels like a big backslide. While my classmates and I often make the effort to chat together in Spanish, none of us is really going to correct the other in casual conversation. I mean really, who likes a friend who says, "habia, not hubo, remember you're giving background information here." right? So we end up speaking a version of Spanish like twinspeak, the language that some twins develop among themselves that is based mostly on, "well, you know what I mean!" 

Just before the holidays, I was moved from my usual class to a group of more advanced students. My previous class was breaking apart with people completing their training and taking their tests, so I wasn't surprised to receive a new assignment. This new class is working above the level of my previous one, and it is a real stretch to keep up with them. The classroom dynamic is tangibly different too, with two clear pet students who have been with the teacher quite a while. Then ole' "what's your name again?" joined the group. Yes, that was me up until Thursday when the teacher was finally able to come up with my name without doing the "It's on the tip of my tongue, don't tell me!" gesture with her index finger. I think it was the combination of the stress of the new group, the holidays and all the pressure that brings and probably a good dose of hormones that put me into a real funk and took me to the ladies room to dry my eyes and make sure my mascara wasn't trickling down my cheeks more than once. For any of you headed to language training: get ready. You'll either feel or witness this, believe me. Yes, it's a stereotype, but many women students will cry at least once during their training, and I've seen the guys get ranting, swearing, and fist-slamming-on-desk frustrated. It just happens. That's why I'm writing this: to let y'all know that this stuff just happens. It's not all deep thoughts and the glow that comes with internal growth and greater knowledge to better the world. It's also feeling like an idiot, feeling embarrassed, feeling proud, feeling sharp and clever, feeling superior to others who are still struggling and then crying in the ladies room. 

The above is just the gripes of my life as a student, as the employee. Let me turn the  spotlight a moment to what the spouses/families are going through during long-term training, too:

There are the lucky ones who manage to find work, or keep former jobs from a distance, and can lead a more "normal" existence is this land of limbo. And many get to visit the land of their own peaks and valleys that is language training. While most of the kids are in school, they're also having to make new friends, or feel the pain of not doing so. But there are many spouses who can't work because "we'll only be here three months," or who had to leave behind good jobs in wherever they came from. They are now hostage to this life, cooped up in a small apartment for four, five, seven, nine, even twelve months. Many watch their spouses head purposefully off to training each day, hear about it over dinner, but don't get to take part themselves. My husband was fortunate to have had eight weeks of training in various courses this year, and has been working on his own Spanish training online, but that still leaves four months of "unscheduled time" for him. The first month may feel like a vacation, but the last three are anything but. 

When we arrived it was summer, and days exploring museums or poolside with paperbacks kept him happily busy. But now it gets light at 7:30 and dark just after 5:00. Big, wet flakes are drifting to the ground in one of our first snowfalls and there's only so many classic movies on AMC one can watch. Many carefully, professionally worded e-mails (with attached updated resumes, for your review) have gone unanswered as he tries to be proactive about finding work at our new post. Like bank robbers promising themselves that it will all be better when they make "just one last score, Bobby!", we find ourselves thinking that as soon as we get to Juarez, it will all be better. But without saying it, I'm certain we're also both worrying that Juarez might be a replay of the first six months in Bogota (lest we forget the lessons learned and described here). With young kids to raise, a husband or wife can be exhausted and starving for adult conversation at the end of the day. Without children, the same spouse is simply bored, frustrated and waiting. Waiting for the chance to feel engaged, productive and useful, or simply just to be not waiting anymore.

Every week or so, my A-100 class gets updates from classmates who have reached post and are already DOING what we're still learning about. In words and photos, we see and hear about their work: meeting with local NGOs, writing cables, researching companies in their host countries to assist US businesses, flying with the Ambassador to various parts of the country, volunteering to teach English to local adults or simply putting into action our six weeks of Consular training by adjudicating visas in Chinese, Bengali, Spanish and French.  Meanwhile... we're still here, trundling down to catch the shuttle each morning, sitting at the same cafeteria table and chatting over our same repertoire of frozen lunches or left-overs. 

I got out of bed at 9:00 this morning, more than three hours later than I usually do. The Tabbies had been screaming at us for two hours already and my playing deaf wasn't working. They tag-team pounced on the bed and my head in turns, begging for their overdue breakfast. When I begrudgingly gave in to their tactics, Toby then scarfed it down so quickly that he promptly barfed it all up on the carpet. Not on the tile, where it's easy to wipe up, but in the middle of the living room. Thank God for light brown, cat-food-colored carpets, is all I can say. I wiped it up, sprayed that great stuff I always have on hand on the spots and bundled up to go out and care for a friend's cat in the next building over. Walking in the wet snowfall, past the now-vacant kids' play area where someone had forgotten their little down jacket under the bench, now limply wet and useless, I thought of the excitement I'd felt arriving here over five months ago. It was summer, there were new friends to meet, assignments to imagine, the world was possibilities and sunny horizons. Now it's gray, damp and feels like we're still in the trenches, trudging along and trying to make it through. Besides that, someone gave me a nasty cold/sinus infection and my head has become a disgustingly unending supply of.. well, I don't need to pain that graphic of a picture for you. I fed and snuggled my friend's little gray kitty, promising her that her family would return soon, and took a while to look out their 6th-floor window, overlooking the now-closed pool and hot tub area of the apartment complex. It really isn't so bad, I had to remind myself. In fact, it's not bad at all.

It's just that sometimes it's hard to lift your chin up to see the horizon and be reminded that all the frustrations, roadblocks and seemingly dead-ended corridors will eventually have doors or turns that lead to new adventures, new times of excitement and growth. 


Friday, December 21, 2012

Oh Tannenbaum...

Christmastime in my growing up always meant bringing home a real Christmas tree. There were the traditional family fights about exactly which tree was the best in the lot, and I remember watching my father scale a four-story evergreen to take "just a bit off the top" and then drag that topping home to the living room. Let me not forget the time when he scaled a particularly sappy pine, saw tucked under his arm as he struggled upwards through the branches, and just out of earshot of the family below - madly gestured that he was ascending the wrong tree. 

But now that we're in the foreign service, we're adapting to different definitions of what a Christmas tree is, or can be. 

Without further ado, I'd like to offer a gallery of our foreign service Christmas trees... thus far:
The Oakwood Apartment's standard-issue fake-ficus-of-Navidad. I added piney aroma sticks to make it seem more Christmasy. I'm not sure anyone's buying it and the leaves keep hiding the ornaments.

FSI's two-story tree covered in the flags of the world - just my style!
ConGen's "Country of Z" traditional purple tree! ("Z" is the  mythical country  we use  in our training.)
"Arbusto de Navidad" (Christmas bush) from Bogota. Actually just a juniper with generally the right shape. For $30 we got it potted and delivered to the door - and it was live!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

From the Fur Family

We've all seen the commercial for the SPCA featuring Sarah McLachlan and her song, "In The Arms of An Angel." Even though it was on TV for quite a while, I never got dulled to the song, the faces or the message and it just about made me cry each and every time. 

Well now they've gone and done it again. But this time it's Roberta Flack and "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." 

Oh geez, are they trying to KILL me here? The shivering Corgi, rheumy-eyed kitten and abandoned Lhasa Apso - it's just too much. But I hope it catches someone's attention. 

I've spent years volunteering in shelters, refuges and adoption centers. During this time, I've had to watch sick kittens die; I've been the recipient of a nervous dog's bite, I've had to break up a nasty dog fight rather than watch one kill the other; I've hoisted crippled donkeys to their feet; I've spent my weekends elbow-deep in bleach after an outbreak of something or other; I've sat in a pet store all day with antlers on my head, taking photos as Santa's Helper for fundraisers; I've scrubbed out wounds on mistreated horses; I've hauled tons of hay in wheelbarrows and scooped exactly one jillion litter boxes. 

But I've also seen these cats, kittens, dogs, puppies and even horses leave the shelters for good to move on to stable (pun intended), loving homes. I've left my shift at the end of the day imagining them sleeping in their new beds, or grazing in their own pastures instead of standing in cement stalls. 

And it's always worth it. 

If you're considering a gift for someone who shares a love of animals, please consider donating time or money to a local animal shelter or national organization, in whichever country you're reading this. It will never go unnoticed. 

Besides a local organization, please also consider my good friends at: 

Purrfect Pals, Arlington, WA

Sathya Sai Donkey Sanctuary, Sligo, Ireland

Asosiacion Defensora de Animales, Bogota, Colombia

And watch out for those ASPCA commercials...