Saturday, December 31, 2016


Just days before Christmas, we lost our Dodger. 

He was 18.5 years old and a member of the family since I brought him (and his nearly identical sister Daphne) home in a basket at six weeks old.  In re-reading my post from last year (read here) when Daphne died, I see that I can't explain any differently the pain of such a loss nor the additional difficulty of having it happen while living abroad. Therefore I'd simply like to write about my buddy. 

Dodger and I had grown very close over the past few years. Partly due to his age and partly because since joining the State Department, he settled into the life of an indoor cat with far less independent time outside. I've seen him successfully through radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, and in Bogota five years ago, during a routine vet visit, he had an anaphylactic reaction to an injection and I watched what I feared were his last yowl and gasp for breath. Clearly they weren't, thanks to the fast actions of my vet and a veterinary ICU hospital just minutes away. (Trust me, I still relive those "what-if" horrors in my mind.)  Then last September he suffered a blood clot that reduced his control over his hindquarters greatly. Fortunately, he was able to re-gain a lot of strength and mobility over time and moved around the apartment as "Wobbles the Cat," even getting up onto the bed and couch, first with help of steps and then a ramp of cushions. However, he began to depend on us more and more. 

On Halloween, he had another set-back, reducing his mobility even more. Finally, on December 23rd, I came into the living room in the morning to feed the boys and start the day only to find Dodgy on his couch crying and crying.  He was unable to sit or stand on his own and for the first time - he seemed to be in pain. The vet came into the clinic an hour before opening hours to see him and after her exam, gave us various options for tests, possible MRIs or ultrasounds of his heart, and various medications we could try to keep him going through Christmas. Only when pushed to be brutally honest did she acknowledge that the very best result we could hope for would be that he returned to how he was the night before. And that chance was slim. Her best guess was that he had a stroke, perhaps caused by another clot. 

I remembered a time about seven or eight years ago when my beautiful black mare "Babe" was worsening with a chronic disease.  I'd be caring for her through her decline for over two years and in a conversation with my husband about when it might be "time" for her, I defended her by noting that she still had a few good days each week.  When my husband asked me if I wanted to wait until she only had bad days, I realized that she would never become a new blossom again. I was only watering a brown plant. She was never going to GET BETTER, and instead of preserving her life, I was only prolonging her inevitable death out of my own reluctance to say goodbye, out of guilt, and out of fear of my own pain and sadness.  These weren't the right reasons.

So instead of exploring all the options and their accompanying false hopes - I remembered Babe's lesson. The vet gave Dodger a pain reliever and sedative to help him feel more comfortable, told us to take him home and just be with him and then come back mid-day with our decision.  He spent his last hours on our bed with us and with Toby, the sun streaming through the window from a blue-sky winter day to warm his fur and old bones. I talked to him, we looked each other straight in the eyes and I just petted him and petted him and petted him. He was relaxed and breathing easily, but the pain reliever had only slightly muted his cries. With that, we knew our decision.

It seemed impossible to know when to stand up, when to put him in his carrier, when to point the car back towards the clinic. It just seemed easier to sit there and stroke him for one last minute. But eventually we did move. My husband and step-daughter were there with me as the vet talked us through the procedure. When he took his last breath, he was already in a deep sleep and felt nothing. The people he knew, loved and trusted were right with him until the end, which is the most any of us can hope for. For the second time in just over a year, I said goodbye and asked for the forgiveness from someone I loved as much as any human family member.  

I will leave you with pictures spanning nearly two decades of memories. He was our Dodger, Dodgy, D-Man, Dodger-Gee (after we watched "Slumdog Millionaire"), Heavy-D, and briefly for an unexplained reason after watching the History Channel, Robert E. Lee. The man in the gray striped pajamas. 
Our friend. 

With Nutmeg in his favorite spot.

Always the mom-cat of the family, Daphne seeing to Dodger's hard to reach spots.

Dodger (left) and Daphne learning how to heat the house.

The only kind of mouse he ever caught. 

Cool-cat at Christmas years ago with his luxurious ruff. 

Spring time under our blooming plum tree. We sprinkled Daphne's ashes in this garden this summer.  

After a good BBQ, the grill-licking and napping commenced. 

All an old guy needs is a basket and a sunny spot in Mexico. 
I never thought Toby would be the last one standing. The tiny kitten adopted from a teenage girl with a box in front of the grocery store late one night on the way home from work. The one I was "Just going to foster until I find the right owner because, well, I already have two kittens."  


Signing off for now,

Tabby in Tow

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Handshake Day: The Day Formerly Known as Flag Day

I often  joke that I joined the Foreign Service so that I could finally live in a house with more than one bathroom.  Another reason is because I always need something on the horizon to look forward to, to wonder about, to plan for.  I endlessly spin the "What If?" wheel and try different lives on for size.  This is why the State Department's world map of our overseas posts is hung in front of our treadmill.  Therefore, while bidding season is certainly an anxiety-inducing process, it's the kind of anxiety that comes with a toy surprise at the end. 

Our first two tours were announced with an exciting Flag Day ceremony. I learned of our third tour (my second as an FSO), through an email that simultaneously was sent to thousands of officers worldwide who were bidding at that time.  In Juarez, with its crew of 48 entry-level officers, this made for yelps, gasps, smiles (no tears that I saw) and a lot of leaving our interview window (and some perplexed applicants) to hug each other.  But the mid-level process of informing bidders of their assignments is a horse of a different color. Although 2016 debuted the improved and abbreviated bidding season, it still d r a g g e d   o u t  over a week leading up to "Handshake Day" as bureaus made decisions of their top candidate(s), checked in with candidates to confirm interest and then re-shuffled their decks as needed. Prohibited from offering a final handshake (read: JOB) until October 31st this year, many bidders were pre-informed of their Most Favorite Bidder status for certain jobs in the week prior to Halloween.   

The "street view" of this process, however, was that day by day I heard from friends worldwide who had/had not gotten these "air kiss" emails (see this post for what that means).  Monday became Tuesday became Thursday without receiving any word from Consular Affairs, despite staring at my BlackBerry's little red New Message notification light and calculating and then re-calculating the time difference between Eastern and Eastern European Time.  Finally, just before going to bed on Thursday, the email arrived. It said that my bid for a particular position was being most favorably viewed (or something like that). 

Therefore, in keeping with the Flag Day tradition, I'd like to announce that we will be heading to....

The Netherlands Antilles?

Let me give you another clue:

Yup - back to the Mother Ship in Washington, DC. 

So now let's talk about some difficult stuff. Where to start?

First, when that BlackBerry red light blinked and I furiously typed in my password, saw a message from Consular Bidders and quickly scanned it, I was in our living room, winding down the evening and watching a bit of TV with my husband and my visiting mother and step father.  We'd just seen something - I don't remember what - that prompted my husband to start joking around and singing "Vamos a la playa!" because first on our bid list was a job in a popular island tourist destination in the Caribbean. This is a busy post with a huge need for consular officers, for which I already have the required the language score and for which the timing of our departure from Bucharest coincided nicely with the job's start date.  Meaning: I thought I had a very good shot at it. 

As I read the short message and saw that instead I was the top candidate for a domestic job ranked second on my list, I knew I had only a moment before I had to break his heart. 

You would now be correct in thinking, "Well then why did you bid on this job if you really wanted to go elsewhere?"  Because I had to list ten viable options. Because it's a great job. Because the position description, the conversations I had with the chief of the unit, the second in charge and the incumbent currently occupying the chair all made it sound like it was designed for me, my professional background and my personal interests. Because back in 2012 when I first saw someone who was doing this job - I thought to myself, "I want to do THAT!" 

That's why.  

The rest of the message said something like, "Where does this position rank on your bid list?" meaning, "And do you like us, too, or should we move on?"  I read it out loud to my husband and family and then in private conversation in our bedroom, my husband and I agonized over how to word my reply. I didn't want to lose this opportunity, but also wanted to let them know that, ahem, we really wanted to stay abroad. Essentially, this is a game of The Price is Right.  You contestant can have this beautiful washer-dryer set in front of you - OR - what's behind Curtain Number Two!  Because I certainly could have at that moment responded by saying, ehhhh - no thanks.  

Would this have endeared myself to the folks in Consular Affairs after selling myself so confidently for this position?  (I think that answer is obvious.)  

Would I have then been re-shuffled into the deck to become one of the unassigned on Handshake Day?  Possibly.  

Would I then be assigned to somewhere we really would prefer not to go at this time? Also possible. 

Did I swear to be worldwide available when I was hired? Yes. 

Had my husband and I discussed the eventual reality of going back to DC? Yes.  

So - what is it?

Let me now go back to the top of my posting.  Besides the jokes about joining the FS to have a house with more than one bathroom, I really joined so that we could live abroad and do really cool work at the same time. This was our plan from the day we met: to have an ex-pat life of fresh experiences and adventures, of feeling alive when faced with the joys and difficulties that come with living in new environments. But going back to the States, we'll just be regular ole' Americans. My husband will be a middle-aged guy looking for a job in a very competitive market with six years away from his usual profession and a desire not to return to that line of work anyway. One person's salary would barely cover our expenses in DC and drain all savings. More important - my husband has his own sense of pride and value that is very much tied to his being a productive member of society, having meaningful daily activities and the ability to carry his own financial burden. 

Further, moving to DC comes with some icky logistics. Not only does it mean we pay for our own housing in one of the most expensive U.S. cities, but also all the belongings and furniture the State Department kindly stored for us when we joined nearly six years ago will be delivered to our apartment within 90 days of our arrival. Please picture us in 600 square feet with cardboard boxes of text books, high school yearbooks and gardening equipment draped in colorful blankets. And paying 60% of our salary for the pleasure. 
I'm thinking...


Just add a litter box and two geriatric cats to the picture.

Please read this not as First World Whining, but as a real Foreign Service life tale with tentacles that reach out to zap sensitive nerves involving family member lives and difficult marital/family decisions.  (And we're not even a family of five trying to do the same thing - I can't even imagine what that'd be like.)

In the end, I am naturally an optimistic person who trusts that every turn in the road will bring unexpected pleasures.  We have always loved living in DC, a city that offers everything one could want (so long as they can pay for it and don't mind sharing it with millions of others).  I am excited about the actual job I will be doing and trust that when one does what they're passionate about - good things come.  I also have faith in my husband that he will have a more independent life and will be able to feel like an individual in his own right as opposed to the Trailing Spouse.  And maybe after all, it will really be like this:

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Bidding Mid-Level - May the Hunger Games Begin

Image result for signposts for far destinations

Ahhh yes, it's that time of year again! 

The trees are mellowing from vibrant greens to muted browns with yellow highlights. The sunlight has a softer, less brilliant feel and the morning commute requires a jacket.

No, no - not autumn - it's BIDDING time of year! 

The time of year that affects whole swathes of the Embassy at once, regardless of rank.  The time of year when we all have to start jockeying for our next job. Bumping into a coworker from another section in the hallway about now and the conversation is likely to go something like this: 

"Urgh... I'm bidding now..." to which you must offer a sympathetic nod.

"What's looking good to you? Where're you thinking of heading?" 

A list of continents, countries, specific jobs or simply, "Probably DC" comes next, which then will generally prompt: "Hey, my former boss/coworker/A-100 classmate is now chief of the whichever section there, at least I think she's still there. Let's see we were together in Ottawa in 2010, transferred in 2013, then language- yup, she'd still be there. I'd be happy to put in a good word for you." 

And so it goes - welcome to the world of Mid-Level Bidding!

Let me back up just a bit for you.  As an FSO or an FSS, the first two tours are directed. This doesn't mean we don't bid - we certainly do (full description here)  but from the third tour onward, and once tenured, we're considered to be mid-level and therefore the process is completely different. 

I'll walk you through the step-by-step, but be warned that it's as simple as this:

It all begins when the bid list comes out. 

Hahahaha! Almost fooled you!  
See, actually it starts well before the "official" bidding season (and for the more compulsive among us, this was like a year ago) with a scroll through the Department's Projected Vacancies street of dreams and nightmares. This is a list of all positions that are projected to be vacant (hence the name) during a particular transfer season. In my case, this is summer 2017.  In the FS we have only two seasons: summer and winter. There is no such thing as spring or fall bidding.  The summer season has the vast majority of jobs as anyone with school-aged children wants to move while the kids are on break to not interrupt the school year.  (Come to think of it, I don't know how this fares for kids in the Southern Hemisphere, but that's something for another time.)  From this list we can see what may, probably, possibly be available when we'll be leaving our current posts.  Why all the qualifiers? Because so many things can change. People leave their post early (curtail); people request to stay longer (extend); jobs are moved from one job classification to another (ceded); jobs are eliminated and jobs are created. Therefore the Projected Vacancies list is considered very fluid, and nothing is set until the official start of the bidding season, which just happened a few weeks ago. Therefore, the Projected Vacancies list just gives you an IDEA of what MIGHT be available. For me, sometimes it's the carrot that keeps me going. 
Finally, they wave the green flag for the official start to the budding season, the real bid list is active, and we're off to the Lobbying and Bidding races!  

Lobbying essentially means "applying" for a position you like, but naturally it is a multi-faceted process involving many sub-steps and side roads.  The object of the game is to submit a list of five to 10 jobs which are appropriate for your job level, language skills, timing of arrival, required experience and - of course - somewhere you might actually WANT to go and where your family won't leave you if you get sent there.  A senior officer once told me, "When you start your career - all you care about is where you're going. Later on, it's about the job you'll be doing. And finally, you just care about who you'll work with."  So, keeping ALL this in mind, this first elimination round will take your list from perhaps hundreds of possibilities (at my level at least), down to about 20 you could stomach.  
We start like this:

Image result for flickr salmon swimming upstream

With this shortened list, the next step is to contact the people who currently have the jobs you like (the incumbent) and ask them what it's like. You'll want to know not only about the work itself, but also the rest of the package: job opportunities for family members, pet importation, the city, the country, the work atmosphere, available schools, the medical situation etc... You'll bug the incumbent for some of these details, but the rest you'll research on your own either through the Department's resources, word of mouth over lunch table conversations, or through online resources, like Talesmag. If after all that, the spot sounds like it might be a fit, you'll also ask the incumbent who the decision maker is/will be as you'll need this for the next step.

Next, you'll have to contact the decision maker(s) to actually lobby for the position. Here is where the process goes in a million different directions, because this now depends on whether the bureau in Washington (which could be a regional bureau or one broken out by a special purpose, called a "functional bureau"), or the actual post have a say in who gets selected for the job.  Frequently it means contacting BOTH the bureau and the post.  As a first timer to lobbying, there is all sorts of awkwardness about just HOW to go about this. Is it just an email? A cold-call? How formal? How casual? Do I attach resume and list of references or wait to be asked? What if they don't respond - when do I bug them again? Do we have anyone in common I can refer to as an ice-breaker? If so - did that person get along well with this person or would I be shooting myself in the foot to lobby Santa Claus by telling him that my good friend Mr. Scrouge thought I'd be a great fit for this job?

In the meanwhile, don't forget to request your 360s. 
Your 360s - or in the Consular Affairs Bureau, the "CBAT" Consular Bidding and Assessment Tool - are references from peers, supervisors and subordinates with whom you've worked and who can honestly judge your ability to do the job and whether or not you play nice with others.  Things like: Is she detail-oriented or big-picture? Is she better in a team or working alone? Does she contribute to a positive work environment? And finally... Would you work with this person again?  

Okay, fair enough. So these 360s are sent to a central repository where all decision makers can access them right?  Nice try pal, but it ain't that easy. 

Depending on which/how many bureaus one is lobbying, you may have to request multiple DIFFERENT types of 360s from all your colleagues, bosses and supervisees, each with different types of questions and methods of submission. Some are multiple choice, some want narrative, some use comparisons and some all of the above. And remember, not only are you going through bidding yourself, you're also writing these things again and again for others.  It's just the way it is. 

Okay, so now we've narrowed down the bid list to five to ten jobs that meet all the criteria.  Now we're looking something like this:
Image result for flickr salmon swimming upstream

I'm learning that one should really only lobby hard for jobs they really want.  Because besides feeling like a two-faced liar selling yourself by listing reasons why you are perfect for the job and why they should pick YOU YOU YOU, you don't want to get the decision makers all excited about you if frankly, you're just not that into them.  So you throw you hat in the ring for up to ten jobs, but maybe you only lay on the charm for your top few picks.  

As the bidding season progresses, you'll begin to interview for some of the spots. This is a bit like speed-dating over the phone and across the time zones and it's awkward as each party tries to read the other to determine if they're a good match in both skills and personality for the job.  But at the same time, you want to know if you stand a chance or whether the job is out of your league.  The closer all get to the decision-making wire (aka "Handshake Day"), the more the decision makers and the applicants start to feel each other out (not UP!) about how serious they are. Something informally called an "air kiss" may be offered to let the #1 pick know that they are #1 and if it is reciprocal, they could expect to be offered the job.

Which brings us to Handshake Day.

Yes, it is actually called that.  This year, it will fall on Halloween, which I find quite ironic as truly some of us will get treats and some of us will get a rock.

Or, to continue my prior analogy:

Image result for bear and salmon flick

Only now, being caught by the bear is a GOOD thing and not the end of life as you know it.

Unfortunately, Handshake Day is not a happy day for everyone, and there will be a great many (great) people who are NOT eaten by the bear and who will just slide back down into the pool below to try again with another bear.  You see, there are far more salmon than there are bears, particularly at my level.  

If one is not a "successful bidder" as it's called, they get to continue bidding, but now the list has been scraped down to the bones.  Only bad posts? No, it's not that at all. It just means that we bidders have to "be flexible" as they say, and look at jobs that might not have caught our eye the first time.  Consider regions previously unconsidered, consider learning languages never heard of or countries you'll have to explain to your parents.  This process can, and does, continue well into the new year!  However, as people are shuffled into spots - it's very possible that positions will open that are really awesome which the original selectee, for any number of reasons, has abandoned.  And before you know it - you're going to a place that you didn't even know was originally available. 

So that's mid-level bidding in a very large nutshell.

Now, if you're part of a tandem couple (two employees in the same family), you can expect your bidding strategy to go from this:

Tic Tac Toe Clip ArtTo something more like this:

Image result for rubik's cube

Next up:  Stay tuned to see what handshake day reveals!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Oh Romania! Sometimes you make...

Oh Romania! Sometimes you make me smile!

Have you ever come across something that so completely exemplifies the essence of something else - a person, place, thing - that it strikes you all at once and all you can do is conclude, "Yup, that is it EXACTLY!" An example so perfect from all angles that when presented to others, no further explanation is required? Here's what I mean: I had a close friend in college who read ferociously and collected books to the point of possibly needing an intervention.  One day, when asked how she liked a recent visit to a mid-western state known more for corn than for literature, she wrinkled her nose and said simply, "I went into a book store and there was nothing I wanted to buy."  With that one image - I knew all I needed to know about the place.

I had this very experience recently that summed up my experience of Romania thus far. 

Last weekend, my husband and I took advantage of a Romanian holiday on Monday for an overnight trip into the mountains. Specifically, to the Făgăraş mountains via highway 7C, called the Transfăgărăşan, that climbs steeply up the southern side of the Transylvanian Alps and then drops into the heart of Transylvania. Started in the 1970s under Ceauşescu, this two-lane "highway" winds to a summit of 6600 ft in a series of curves and switchbacks which were clearly constructed to mimic Christmas tree lights still in their packaging. Here, see for yourself this snapshot of the highway map:

But don't take just my word for it, the guys at Top Gear also declared it one of the most spectacular roads in the world a few years back. You should see for yourself here

We got an early start from Bucharest, driving across the plains carpeted in corn and sunflowers, skirting the industrial city of Piteşti with its cooling towers on the horizon, through Curtea de Arges that just the day before had hosted the royal funeral for Queen Anne, and up into a series of foothill towns. Here the road was lined with small farms and mom-and-pop pensions offering beds to the hordes of travelers coming from all over Europe to tackle the Transfăgărăşan.  The scenery was worthy of Van Gogh, with hand-scythed haystacks in the fields and in front of every farm, small stands offering whatever is in season and manned by the weathered land owner.  At this time of year, it's melons, peppers, apples and pears, and with each farm having seemingly identical harvests, I wondered how one would choose where to stop and buy?  Is it the most attractive display? The most colorful shade umbrella? Perhaps just the easiest place to pull the car off the road? (Note to self to never buy a farm on a dangerous curve.) 

Just after clearing the foothill towns, the road began to get serious in the gorge below the Vidraru Dam. Which, as someone with a phobic reaction to dams, looked as massive as Hoover Dam but turns out to be "only" the 20th largest dam in the world. Still.

We passed under a triumphant Prometheus as the highway wound along the shaded shore of Lake Vidraru. We had peeks through the trees to the expansive surface of smooth, blue water without a speed or houseboat in sight and only a few lazy sightseeing ferries cruising the circumference.

See that peak in the background here, above the tree line? That's where we're headed. And to get there, we'll go through some (see below) "particularly dangerous curves."  I love that - not just dangerous, or very dangerous, but particularly dangerous. They say that the average speed over the Transfăgărăşan is 25 mph.  Clearly Top Gear had the road closed for their filming as they exceeded that average velocity just a wee bit.

Just past the lake the highway climbs, climbs to an unmistakably Alpine altitude. The traffic begins crawl and bunch up here as people pull off to wonder at the views, taking pictures and buying sausages and cheese.



This is where I had my first realization of something that so perfectly encapsulated Romania that I could only smile and shake my head.  See, given the vertical topography, it's only natural that waterfalls will dot the vistas.  One such waterfall, and not a particularly awesome one but pretty enough and earning points for accessibility to the roadside, brought all forward vehicular movement to a standstill.  Probably without exception (us included), every car stopped to park along the shoulder, and then as that filled up - in the lane, and then in both lanes, to discharge all passengers for a spree of unadulterated selfie-taking beside the waterfall, IN the waterfall and at the edge of the cliff.  But also, directly In front of the waterfall on the shoulder were umbrella'd tables of sausages, cheeses, jars of honey and other treats for sale by enterprising locals. My husband surmised that probably years ago some folks, upon noticing the irresistible attraction of the waterfall, said to themselves, "You know, people really like this spot. I bet they'd like some sausages while they're here. Or cheese, or even honey."  So now, with a shoulder about three feet wide, along with the natural attraction, there is thriving commerce that brings - and keeps - the entire highway at a halt.

After satiating their picture-taking urges, the visitors then plunk themselves down in the gravel just feet from the road's edge for a family picnic. Sure, why not? After all, we've just bought all this lovely sausage! And later, after leaving their lunch wrappings in piles on the ground, with bellies and cameras full, they get back in the car and muscle their way back up/down the highway using whatever road space they can find.  Naturally, it's no problem for the motorcycles, who don't even downshift as they whiz their way through this quagmire. 

We (somewhat guiltily) parked on the dangerous shoulder, got out to take our own pictures, bought zero sausages (although tempted) and dashed across the highway between cars to see the view because, well, because we could and everyone else was doing it.  

Which brings me to the second example in my story, a snapshot that embodied an essential aspect of this country, which sadly must be acknowledged - the feeling that the adults aren't watching and so the kids get to do what they want, even while knowing it's not what they're supposed to be doing.  I present to you camping in Romania: in the heart of this natural beauty we find families and groups of friends sharing full meals on proper tables and chairs they've brought from home, complete with tablecloths, plates and cutlery. This isn't grab-a-hot-dog-and-eat-while-standing American style, no sir. There are circles of conversation over the tables; someone erects the tricolor above a tent; there's an impromptu game of badminton over in the clearing... how civilized indeed!  

And then the camera pans out and we see MOUNDS of garbage piled meters from the dinner table.  Plus, behind every bush or tree, a semi-circle of toilet paper "flowers," or wet-wipes in various states of disintegration marking makeshift bathrooms. Frequently including diapers, feminine products and condoms.  Nice, eh? 

ALL of this is Romania to me.

Incredible natural beauty. That entrepreneurial spirit.  Engineering marvels such as the Transfăgărăşan highway and Vidraru Dam.  But combined with more than a pinch of childlike silliness of people doing whatever they want, when they feel like it, without regard for the long term or the effect on others. Complaining about political corruption spoiling their country and then throwing their garbage in some of the most beautiful environments you'll find and parking in the middle of the road.

Oh Romania, so often you make me smile.  

And other times you've taught me to turn down the corners of my mouth, shrug, and say "Ce să fac?"*

*Roughly translated as: What can I do? The frequent response to difficult situation. 

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Adventures in Real Estate Investing

It's a common Foreign Service life dilemma: to keep or not to keep a house/condo/apartment when hired into a job that will keep you abroad and will provide housing for you.  (Yes, truly a first-world dilemma, this is clear.) It's also a lunch room topic that attracts folks from other tables slide their chairs over and join the discussion, as there are very few of us who have no opinion or who haven't really thought about it much. In fact, there may be only seven people like that and I haven't met them yet.  Nearly everyone falls into one of the following categories:
  1. Owns some form or shape of real estate and rents it out while living overseas.
  2. Owns, but keeps it for their own use and doesn't want the headache of managing rental tenants.
  3. Doesn't yet own, but is considering it in the near future, especially if a DC tour is imminent or if they're looking to invest the portion of their salary that would normally be going towards a mortgage but is now being spent on less, shall we say, durable goods (i.e. weekend travel, dinners, cars, student loans). 
My husband and I owned a small house in our home state and when we packed our bags five years ago, we signed up with a local realtor/property management company in our town and handed over the keys.  We were very fortunate in that our first tenant moved in just days after the house was vacated and stayed until earlier this year.  We were doubly lucky as this tenant took excellent care of the house and garden all those years.  

Sounds good so far, so why then did we just spend every day of our only two-week R & R traveling half way around the world to sell this house and buy a new one, just to turn around and rent the new one? That can't be fun! (It wasn't.)

Here's our not-so-short story, and this is by no means meant to be proper real estate investing advice on the topic, but rather one couple's experience so far that may give others some ideas.  

We'd owned our "old" house for 13 years when we joined the FS. At that time, we'd decided that if things didn't go well in our new life, while we really didn't want to move back into this little house, it would still be a good back-up plan - just-in-case. We also wanted to maintain our residency in our home state and figured that being home owners would be a very strong proof of that continued residency*. We chose to rent instead of selling.  Also, should we have sold it then, we'd have had a pile of equity to then re-invest when we didn't yet have the time, motivation or idea of where to put that income. Frankly, we wanted one less huge decision to make; therefore, renting the house felt like a solid plan that also gave us some time to figure out what we wanted to do with the house without having to rush the decision. 

Our first home together. We owned it for 18 years!

My beloved spring tulips where I learned to love gardening.

Before heading to Colombia, my husband made the house as "bullet proof" as he could for the future tenant. This involved repainting the interior in neutral tones (covering my favorite lavender which not everyone would be so fond of); making the landscaping as simple as possible (including taking down a troublesome tree in the yard that needed a lot of maintenance and dropped branches in winter); replacing or servicing appliances to avoid having to make a large purchase decision by phone with the property manager should one of them fail; and repainting the house's exterior.  As this was all done as part of preparing a rental property, I believe we were able to deduct many of these big expenses, too.  

Next, we interviewed a few property managers and selected one to handle all the details. Each real estate market will have different norms for what these companies charge.  We were charged 50% of the first month's rent to find and place a tenant, including all the requisite credit checking and advertising of the house, and then a monthly fee of 10% of the rent to collect rent and deposit it to our account, to handle any maintenance issues that would (will!) come up, and to do occasional walk-throughs with the tenant to ensure that it was not being beat up.  

At this time, we also hired a landscaping company to take care of the trees, bushes and lawn 2-3 times per month.  The realtor thought this was going above and beyond for the tenant, but my husband had been mowing our particularly steep yard for many years and knew what a bear it could be. We decided that the cost of this yard service would give us the peace of mind that the house was not becoming that trashy rental in the neighborhood that isn't cared for and would help attract tenants who might not be able to handle the mowing themselves.  Five years later, when we walked through the house and yard - it looked exactly as it did when we left.  This small investment ($140-180 monthly) - which could be factored into the rental price - really paid off.  Plus, the property management company handled paying the landscaping company and then this cost was included in our year-end statement of income and expenses which made preparing our taxes much easier. 

So if everything was running so well - why did we choose to sell?

After about four years of distance from the house, sentimentally-speaking, we were able to evaluate it more objectively.  For me, the house had gone from being a beloved first home to purely an investment. And as an investment, it was doing quite well with our low mortgage and steady tenant. But we took a good look at the neighborhood: at the neighbor who was continuing to collect junk cars that were now parked alongside OUR curb (don't get me started), at the neighbor's chicken coop and unrestrained chickens that were still digging in our garden and pooping on our deck (don't get my husband started), at the house across the street's still peeling paint, and we were just was ready to move on.  This decision came to me later than to my husband as I'm the more sentimental of the two of us and those chickens had been pissing him off for years. So when I said, "I'm ready to sell," there was no need to convince him further.

But then we came to a very common real estate investing stumbling block: were we selecting a house for US to someday live in, or to be purely a rental?  For many years we'd tossed around ideas of where we'd like to retire, and the list of possible places ranged from one corner of the country to the other and included some favorite spots we'd visited abroad.  We just kept spinning the "what-if" wheel and finding places that we liked, but then we'd find a problem with that area, then we'd find another location etc... and we were just not making a decision. 

Enter a coworker from our last post who was about one year from FS retirement.  She mentioned off-hand one day that she'd been doing some real estate investing and had done a lot of research on the topic.  As I said in the beginning of this story, about ten heads turned when she said this at lunch one day and the next thing we knew, she had organized all her research into a "brown bag" lunch on the topic for a sizable group of us. She included how to evaluate a rental market, how to select a property manager, how to see if the figures add up to a worthwhile investment etc... It changed my mind completely about our decision. Forget finding the dream property for our dotage - we just needed a new place to park the equity from our house that had a good chance of increasing in value. Pure, simple and non-sentimental.  We added a proviso that we also had to like the place enough that should I cause an international incident and have to leave the FS earlier than expected - we wouldn't hate to live there. 

Our criteria for selecting a place went something like this:
  • The location had to have a stable base of employment for our tenants, i.e. not a one-company town, but rather with a variety of industry from military, to higher education, to high-tech, to medical (for example).
  • The location should be near a major international airport so that we could get to it easily from abroad without changing planes twice and then driving three hours. 
  • The property itself couldn't be too fussy. Meaning no hot tub that could be a liability and a maintenance headache. 
  • No Master Gardner garden that would just go to waste with an uninterested tenant or that would really limit the tenant field to finding the perfect person to care for it. 
  • No houses that had been "re-muddled" by the prior owner and now had to be explained to a perspective tenant. "The spacious master bedroom is here, but to make room for this beautiful walk-in closet, you'll use the downstairs bathroom off the dining room."
  • No septic systems for the tenant to mess up, 'cause when septics go bad - they can really cause a stink!
  • Good commuting distance to the above-mentioned employment centers or decent access to public transportation.
  • Area for a pet as we learned that approximately 75% of renters have animal family members and we didn't want to limit our tenant population so severely. 
  • Good schools, again as this makes for attractive rentals for families.
  • But not TOO many bedrooms, which may attract that family of seven and all their crayons to be ground into carpets and scribbled onto walls.  
  • Low/no condo or HOA fees that eat directly into our profit and generally increase each year without our being around to have a vote in the matter.
Soooo.... after two weeks of intense looking, we finally found a place.  Through this process, my husband and I each developed crushes on a few houses that we eventually, and sadly, had to cross off our list.  For me, it was the perfectly maintained mid-century rambler on the golf course on that quiet dead-end street with the immaculate back yard. But it had a very special heating system that would need pricey maintenance and a Martha Stewart garden that would be expensive to keep up or a damn shame if it wasn't. DANG! Then it was the single-level, family-friendly, great schools house with that huge back yard that was hiding an undisclosed failed septic system my husband had suspected and discovered with some open-source research.  NEXT! And finally, the 1905 awesomely-restored house that my husband really wanted to sink his teeth into someday.  But there was the little matter of the den of level III registered sex offenders (count 'em six!) just one block away from this beautiful Craftsman bungalow**.  Sigh.  

Finally, we walked into a house we never thought we'd buy.  It's pass-the-sugar close to the neighbors; it's in a development that I'm certain years ago we tsk-tsked when they cut down the forest to excavate the building sites, and it's just very Americana cookie-cutter. But the neighborhood is so peaceful and friendly. And kids can walk up a little shady path to a huge county park with wooded off-leash dog areas, a water park, summertime movie nights and two Little League fields. It's high on a hill to get the sunshine and will be away from the flooding river valley below. There's a small yard that's easy for a tenant to maintain and would make a cat or dog happy.  And there are five schools within five minutes' drive. Sold.

Our new investment house.
We bought this house because we reminded ourselves that it's not for US - it's an investment - and that was the whole point of this exercise.  What remains to be seen is how quickly we can rent it and whether or not the house increases in value as an investment should - but that's all crystal ball stuff that nobody can fully predict until after-the-fact.  But with our diligence beforehand, we can sleep at night knowing that we made an educated decision.  I hope that our experience may prove helpful to others in this situation, or at least be a starting point for more lunch table discussions.

*We are very fortunate that our state of residence does not have state income taxes. Because even though someone is posted to Bujumbura - we are still liable for paying state income taxes as a declared resident of that state. This is one reason why we were very protective of maintaining our residency.  To be honest, we didn't investigate the actual criteria for maintaining state residency, but we feel very above-board and honest keeping it through property ownership, voter's registration and driver's licensing there. 

**I strongly advise buyers to contact local police or sheriff's departments to request through public disclosure a listing of all 911 calls made to a certain radius around a prospective house. This is how we discovered the half-way house and the volume of registered sex offenders just one block from a property that we'd already made an offer on and had to subsequently rescind.  This particular information can also be found through online open sources, but the incidence of car break-ins, burglaries, drug arrests etc... can be obtained through local law enforcement agencies. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

La Țară! Into the Heart of Romania

La Țară* = To/at the country! 

Țară means country (as in the country of Romania), and also country as in "let's go out to the country." 

I find this a very appropriate coincidence as about 11 million Romanians (over half the population) live in rural areas in a country slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. And according to recent figures, 40% of the nation's population rely on subsistence farming to put soup and veg on the table. This means that it doesn't take much in terms of time or distance to leave 21st century urban Bucharest and travel deep into țara, quickly rolling back time through the centuries.  

I've been waiting to see the heart of Romania since we first got our assignment 18 months ago.  We've been here nine months now and have begun to make inroads, literally and figuratively, into the country to understand our temporary home and its people a bit more and particularly to see just how the rest of the folks live.  This map (and the pink highlighted routes) shows how far we've gotten so far.  Except for our train trip to the Black Sea city of Constanța and my flight to the city of Iași - all of our travels have been in our car.  

A few weeks ago, we headed into the center of the country to Transylvania, probably the region people think of first when they hear "Romania."  We drove along the Olt River valley, with the Southern Carpathian Mountains (aka Transylvanian Alps) rising steeply on either side of the two-lane highway. We'd heard that Romanian highways are horrible, but thus far I have zero complaints. But what does make distance driving difficult is not so much the roads themselves, as what's on them.  Recent experience has taught us that there is a 100% chance of becoming wedged between a truck picking its way slowly through a mountain pass, and a mob of aggressive drivers in $75K cars, revving and flashing and trying to pass the whole convoy of equally-frustrated drivers in front of them. It freaks me out just a little as I wait for the inevitable head-on, and just hope that it's not my head they on.  The highway planners pop in a passing lane here or there for these situations, but they're almost always on the steep uphill grades, which makes it all the more difficult to zip up to passing speed for those of us driving less expensive engines. Therefore a short distance can still take a relatively long time, even on perfect pavement. 

However, when I can relax and look out the window, I love what I see.  Small towns are separated by pure greens: the yellow-green of rolling cropland, the rich dark green of conifer forests or the bright spring green of deciduous forests still carpeted in last-year's autumn.  Instead of billboards, strip malls, and hotel chains, I see chalet-style mom-and-pop guest houses, small restaurants with grills full of sausages and chicken alongside patios of umbrella'd tables. We pass stand after stand of folks selling goods along the shoulder of the road, which, depending on the season, can be fresh fruit, vegetables, massive bags of potatoes or onions, copper pots, sheepskin anythings, honey, wheels of cheese or potted plants.  Sadly (and it took us passing a few to figure it out), we also saw about a dozen individual young women in shorts and tank-tops.  My husband and I debated over whether or not they were just waiting for the mini-bus to go to their friends' houses in the next town (my hope) or if they were, well, going to work.  All doubt was erased when we saw two of them get out of said mini-bus wearing nuttin' but lingerie.  Oh dear.

Windshield tour of town along the Olt River Valley

Relying on one or two HP just 30 minutes outside of Bucharest.

Selling cheese alongside the road (with satellite TV)

Witches' carpool?

Orthodox priest oversees the reconstruction of his church. 
In the center of Transylvania is the storybook city of Sibiu, home of the current President, Klaus Iohannis.  The region was a Saxon stronghold back in the day and maintains much of the flavor, language, some very Germanic architecture and Teutonic tidiness.  We checked into our historic hotel right on the central plaza only to find that we'd be sharing this plaza with a road rally pit and race staging area.  (Note to self: check which festival is in town before booking a quiet weekend getaway.)  Later that afternoon we climbed the centuries-old bell tower for a 360 degree view over the steepled city and its red-tiled rooftops and the next morning ate breakfast in the cobbled plaza.  While my husband went to pack up the room, I couldn't resist a little Alice in Wonderland adventure and followed a stairway down into a hidden courtyard surrounded by pastel plaster houses.  It was Saturday-morning silent and as I looked at each shuttered and lace-curtained window, I tried to imagine the stories and lives behind each.  In a way, I already had an idea as I've chatted with these folks at my own window at work each day.  Often, when I ask why they want to visit the U.S., they tell me that it's been their dream to see New York, Chicago, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon or Miami.  Picturing them on their dream vacations, I wonder if they sit in the middle of a typical suburban neighborhood and just soak in the American-ness of it all as I did in their neighborhoods. Here's what I saw that day:

View up the stairs to the steeple-lined plaza.
Yeah, that's our hotel just beyond the pits...

View from the top of the bell tower of Sibiu's skyline

Tangled lanes and steep-gabled rooves

A waiter keeps an eye on his breakfast tables in the plaza.

What stories are behind each window?

An irresistible alley.
Heading out of Sibiu, we drove north towards the smaller city Sighișoara, about an hour and a half away.  But shortly out of the city limits, my husband pulled the car off the road and on an impulse, drove straight up a two-track along the uphill face of a sheep pasture.  Up, up, up under the power lines - with the little tune "the bear went over the mountain to see what he could see!" now caught in my head, we drove to the crest of the hill and found this.  

Snowy peaks in May!
Why does anyone leave this country?
I reveled in my own Sound of Music moment, taking in the uninterrupted horizon before reluctantly getting back in the car and heading northeast back on the highway.  We began to wind our way through the hills until we found the oddly-named town of Slimnic.  We'd been told already that this area is rich (as in filthy rich, they're everywhere!) with fortified churches, and inspired by our success with the first off-road adventure, we pulled off the main road again when I caught glimpse of some church ruins above us through the trees. We turned over a small bridge and drove carefully up a dirt track that wound its way up to the base of the semi-ruined structure.  It first appeared to be simply abandoned ruins, but a bit of a nosy walk revealed a small entrance where it looked like a family was living. 

Situated on a nob of a hill, the grounds gave us an incredible view over the valley and town.  Utterly peaceful, the only sounds from this purview were the chattering birds and the single horse occasionally stomping at flies.  I'm surprised I'm not still there, it was that lovely.

First view of the ruined church. 

The "garage" with horse and cart. 

Now THERE'S a job for you!
Springtime in Transylvania. 

Village of Slimnic. 

Oops, I guess someone does live here! We quickly backed out the door. 

Something I always struggle with is balancing the urge to photograph the people I see as we pass through their towns, with the fear of being the ugly tourist and having my subjects feel self-conscious, or like freaks.  I remember once in Mozambique having someone who declined my request to photograph him saying something to the effect of, "You want pictures so you can show Americans how poor we Africans are?"  His words have resonated in my head since then, but I still can't resist wanting to capture lives that are so different from what I see everyday.  I'm left with the compromise of taking quick shots from the moving car, or while pretending to shoot something behind the subject, as unobtrusively as I can.  And only sometimes does this result in a savable picture:

Roma guy, ahead of him were three friends all wearing the same hats. 

Roma women along the road near Sighisoara. 
Workin' man with the classic Romanian hat.
Sighișoara is less than one-tenth the size of Sibiu, and as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is said to be one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. We parked in the lower town and then walked up the cobbled streets to the 15th century fortress that tops the upper city.  Inside this fortress is not just ruins or partially-preserved stone walls, but rather life as we know it with stores, houses, churches and ice cream stands.  Not to mention just a few souvenir shops.  

14th Century Clock Tower presides over the upper town. 
If you want a wedding in a UNESCO World Heritage Site - book ahead.

"In this house lived between the years 1431-1435 ruler of the Romanian Country Vlad Dracul, son of Mircea the Old."
Typical antique Romanian pottery styles.

Building corner gets a 3D sign.

How could I NOT take a picture of this lane?
After poking around a bit, we vowed to return to Sighișoara over Christmas by train and decided to save some of the best sights for the next visit.  The next morning we headed south back through the countryside towards Brașov and finally home to Bucharest.  En route were, once again, more fortified churches than one can shake a stick at, so we decided to pick just one or two more to visit.  Less than an hour south of Sighișoara we followed a sign for one such church and turned off the highway onto a dirt road that made it's way about a mile to a tiny village.  Unfortunately the church grounds were locked up and apparently unexplorable, with structural damages or something noted on a sign on the gate.  Not surprising, however, as this town had a back-water, almost Mosquito Coast feel to it, with people staring at Those Who Ventured In (e.g. us) as we parked and got out of our car.  Stray dogs seemed to be in equal numbers to two-legged residents and my husband quickly summed up the place as being a Peace Corps kind of town, which immediately made me question his romantic notions of our becoming PC volunteers in our next career lives. 

In the center of town was a muddy round-about around a fountain. Alongside the fountain was parked a regular car with what appeared to be the whole town gathering around a man at the hood of the car.  We quickly realized that it was the mail delivery as the man was reading off names from red-and-blue striped air mail envelopes which were quickly snatched up by a hand in the crowd.  Ah yes, the remittances.  Now my mind jumped to Italy, Spain, England and even the U.S. and how many families were supporting these folks back home la țara as they made-do in their centuries-old pastel-colored, postcard-worthy houses, running water and electricity optional.  A large government-made sign in the center instructed residents on the dos and don'ts of living in what should probably also be a Unesco World Heritage Site village. Things like, "Don't attach satellite dishes to the 14th century plaster" written with an optimistic/please God don't ruin this town tone. 

Fortified church we couldn't visit.

Typical architecture, this house dated late 1800s.

Mail delivery saves the day.

The village store in the background no doubt does good business on mail day.
I could have stayed for hours just people-watching, but only if I could do so invisibly.  Barring that superpower, we took back to the highway and continued the drive south.  
We stopped at yet another citadel, this one well-maintained and with a tour bus unloading high schoolers into the parking lot.  Like kids anywhere, they were flirting with classmates, taking selfies and generally being happy to be out of the classroom and on a field trip.  

The well-preserved citadel at Rupea. 

Finally, we arrived back to our modern apartment in Bucharest, satisfied with having had a good look into the heart of Romania, into the faces of people living regular lives in street-side cafes, behind lace curtains, in muddy, stray-dog towns and in bucolic farm houses.  It's a country still trying to recover its rightful reputation as an intellectual, artistic and scientific European center with roots reaching into the dawn of western civilization.  Romania carries the heavy burden of trying to live up to its potential, incredible potential, which hangs over its head just out of reach as politicians are arrested for corruption, as doctors earn $1000/month and have to accept "tips" to treat patients and as its well-educated youth head to EU neighbors for better salaries.  But it's also the safest country I've ever lived in (even in the center of Bucharest), with amazing natural beauty where one can live in two or three different centuries simultaneously. Yes, Romanians are cool and distant on the outside, perhaps still carrying the defensive habit of suspicion from its Communist days, but as soon as the shell is cracked, there is țuică to go around for everyone and bunches of flowers picked from the garden for a stranger.  Everyday Romania makes me laugh at its quirky ways, its utter Romanian-ness, and it makes me sad when I see its people putting themselves down and asking me honestly "Why do you like it HERE?" while idolizing superficial brand-names and American style commercialism. This country has so much to be proud of and I look forward to seeing this realization come true, even if it means  we have to come back in 15 years to see it happen.

(In Romanian Ț = a tz sound, so it is pronounced "Tzara")