Pakistan – Discovering our New Home in Islamabad

Choosing the Foreign Service, especially after a first career in the private sector usually means earning much less money – especially for the non-diplomat spouse. However you need to account for all elements of your earnings and they are not all cash in your pocket but cash you don’t need to take out of your pocket. For example children’s education in private international schools, some medical acts and interventions, or housing. Let’s focus on housing today.

When we are sent overseas housing is provided to us, usually in the best and safest area of the capital – or large cities in case of consultates. Depending on the country there is a choice between an apartment or a house, usually fairly large. Of course it all depends. In Africa or the Middle East your house will be, in general, much larger than in Europe. If you are a single person, you will usually be in an over sized apartment or house, if you have a family of four or six, depending on the country, you might be a bit cramped.

The motto of the Foreign Service – almost a mantra – is “it depends”. Despite the fact that the Foreign Service is governed by many rules summarized in the Foreign Affairs Manual and the Foreign Affairs Handbook, known respectively as the FAM and the FAH, in many areas when you ask a question, the answer is the ominous and predictable “it depends”. This is one of the very first thing to learn, the second being “it shall pass” to overcome any difficult or uncomfortable situation.

We had a large house in Senegal (four bedrooms, an office, a family room, a huge living room and a dining room) with a nice garden in an area near the school and the Embassy club with a swimming pool. The commute was under half an hour. Some colleagues were in large apartments on the third floor without elevator of a modern building with a much longer commute and no garden – not as nice.

We had a much smaller apartment in Mexico City (only three bedrooms which meant none for guests since we have two children, no office) but it was a trade-off for our children to have a 10-minute walk to school and us a half-an-hour commute versus having a house with a one-hour commute for parents and children alike.

The situation in Pakistan is diverse: live on the Embassy compound or outside and if outside live alone in a house or share a house between two or three families. It depends on your job, your rank, a bit of luck and especially your date of arrival.

We discovered our new house in Islamabad in the wee hours of the night – or very early morning since it was about 3:00 am. Even if not completely awake, we could tell it was a very large house with a garden, and it was all for us! A large lobby with marble floors and checkerboard patterns in the center leading to living room, dining room, kitchen, master bedroom and bathroom, and stairs up and down. The railing of the staircase was made of black wrought iron and golden oak leaves. Downstairs there was a large L-shaped room, unfurnished but tiled, perfect for parties. Upstairs there were three bedrooms and their respective bathrooms, all different: grey, beige, blue.

Let’s go back to the ground floor. The kitchen had a triangular shape and all cupboards were salmon pink – all 26 of them! Sounds obvious? Not so much since in Senegal we had three different styles (white plastic, clear wood, dark wood) in the kitchen. 26 cupboards and not a single drawer. I thought it was a Pakistani specialty but all our colleagues had drawers in their kitchen so it was only our landlord who didn’t think about it. And there was no shelves in the lower cupboards so pots would be de facto on the floor. The higher cupboards were mounted so high that I could not see inside (and I’m 5’6), I had to touch and recognize if it was a knife or a fork…remember no drawers so where do you place your silverware?

From the kitchen we could go to the back garden after opening four bolts, one lock and a locked mosquito door. The tiny window of the kitchen was decorated with bars and the view from it was barbed wire… Next to it was the master bedroom but our colleague explained that we could not use it! This is Pakistan and it was not safe to sleep on the ground floor, we had to adopt the bedroom upstairs which had been transformed into Fort Knox with an armored door, zillion bolts, bars and locks and we had to keep at all times two massive water containers in case we had to find refuge in our bedroom for a lapse of time. The interior was lovely, cream-eggshell walls with white moldings on the high ceiling.

As a side note for those of you not in the Foreign Service, we usually have all our walls painted ONLY white. If you wish to paint them just cream, not even purple, you do so at your own expense (until then why not) but then you have to re-paint them white before your departure – even if the colleague after you would love to inherit cream instead of white!

The fourth level of the house was very small inside; it is where they had installed the washing machine and the dryer. This room gave access to the flat roof-terrace from which we had fantastic views on the Margalla hills.

Discovering life in the United States – First Month

If you have been American all your life, living in the United States, culture shock will come only when you move out. For me, it hit me when I moved in since I had lived in France all my life. I had traveled many times to the U.S. but there is a huge difference between the superficial view of the tourist or the business traveler and the view of the expat. So here we come Virginia, my number one ‘overseas’ post!

When I landed with the kids in May to join new diplomat hubby who had been in training for several months we went from 20 degrees Celsius (68F) in Paris to 33C (92F) in Arlington this day. Temperature shock!

Television boasted 600 channels! Even if you only kept the free ones you still got 300 – no wonder Americans invented the term ‘couch potatoes’. The kids only cared about number 44: the Disney Channel. I found eight Spanish networks, two Chinese, two Russian, and zero French!

We were in temporary housing; I discovered the common laundry room. The machine was massive, almost twice as large as a European machine. It did not spin much and pretended to be finished in 30 minutes. Where I come from it takes over an hour to wash a load.

Kids are encouraged to work early in the U.S. As soon as I printed business cards for my 12-year-old daughter, she found a pet sitter’s job! She needed to feed cats Mishu and Pasha for three days.

We toured DC to show the kids the principal sights. Our nine-year-old son found the White House too small. He liked the Capitol better.

I had an Arizona driver’s license. For $9 I received my Virginian version of it. I had broken my back just before we moved (indeed joining the Foreign Service was too simple, I had to spice it up!), so I flew in a cast that I needed to keep for several months so we also got a handicapped person placard – this felt weird!

We went to register the kids to school for the one month remaining of class. Despite being in North Arlington, we were in a very Hispanic neighborhood. When we entered the primary school with our white-blond-haired son, a kid exclaimed: ‘Oh! A white kid!’ I had never felt like a minority before. France is a true melting pot, marriages between people of different colors are common, much more so than in the U.S. so I had never heard anything like this nor its opposite. Also in France Hispanics are considered white, I discovered that it is a brand new ‘color’ here. In our son’s school there were about 70% Hispanics and at least 15% Blacks, Chinese, Nepalese, Indians, etc. In middle school, our daughter was assigned a Swedish school sponsor. Actually the Arlington school system caters to about 128 nationalities. A good start for the Foreign Service!

I was surprised to see so many bilingual English-Spanish signs everywhere: schools, supermarkets, bus, metro, department stores. I had not noticed this in Arizona which is much closer to Mexico.

Since the family was reunited again we needed much more furniture than when my husband was a ‘bachelor’ so I discovered Craigslist and FreeCycle. We did not want to buy anything new since our furniture was on a boat on its way. The beauty of Craigslist is that anything we bought there we sold for the same price or more three months later!

When you join the Foreign Service there is two important numbers to remember: 18,000 and 7,200. 18,000 pounds is the maximum belongings the Department of State will take care of for you for free whether in your house overseas or in storage and 7,200 pounds is the maximum you are allowed to ship overseas for free.

My jobs in the Foreign Service – Part IV – Islamabad

About family employment, this link http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say. I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics. See Parts I, II and III for a full picture.

After learning in Virginia, working for the Commercial Service in Dakar, the Department of State in Dakar and Mexico, Narcotics in Mexico, I joined USAID in Pakistan. For a curious person like me, avid to learn every day more and more, joining yet a different agency was thrilling.

When diplomats are deployed to sensitive countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, the family either cannot or doesn’t want to follow. If the children are young chances are that the remaining spouse will stay in the U.S. with them. Even without children some spouses just don’t want to move to certain countries. If the spouse does want to follow they have to work full time, this way they are protected inside the Embassy at least 40 hours instead of being in the streets.

When my husband received his orders for Pakistan, the kids decided that they wanted to go to boarding school and I would try to follow my husband. I immediately applied for jobs, got interviewed and was offered a very interesting position as Grants Administrator for small grants and ambassador’s grants within USAID. Small meant $70,000 to $250,000 as opposed to my colleagues working on million-dollar deals in Energy or Health. Big deals can take years to see the light and a normal tour here is one year. With my ‘small’ grants I could see, feel and touch the projects. I could meet the impacted people, and it was deeply moving.

We approved projects to build a classroom or renovate a school, to build and furnish a library, to bring water to villages, electricity to homes, to teach women how to make preserves to become bread-winners, to install composting devices, to operate poor women from blindness to full sight. In Pakistan 85% of blind persons can see again with a surgery that costs less than $100! This is mind blowing.

My first boss took me on a trip to Karachi within my first two months. I immediately met the people managing the grants and the people benefiting from them. It tremendously helped me understand the impact of my job when I got back to my daily routine.

The difference was striking between what we read in the press about the ‘bad Americans and their forbidden drones’ and the spontaneous and generous welcome we received in the villages. Women used to walk everyday six miles – one way – to fetch water for their families and could only carry a gallon or two at best. We helped divert a clean river stream to bring water to the village. In another village there was no electricity which meant less time to work (sew, knit, or make baskets for example) or study, or worse: getting bitten by snakes when they went outside the perimeter of the huts and houses to do their bodily needs in the evening. I saw how they lived. Even the ‘rich’ ones with a concrete house rather than a wooden hut only had one single room to share. Less than 200 f2 for a family of 7 to 10. Mattresses were piled up high during the day and laid out at night. Life happened mostly outside the house. One old toothless lady called me her daughter and kept caressing my hand.

I was very touched when I was asked to plant my own tree to celebrate the end of a successful project. I was a drop in the ocean of that project but as a representative of USAID I was treated like royalty. Another teary moment was when I entered a class room and they activated the fan where they had laid rose petals on the blades.

In this job I was also involved with a Gender Equity Program and you can only imagine how busy this kind of activity is in Pakistan where fathers and brothers kill their daughters and sisters to ‘wash’ their honor…when husband throw acid at their wives’ face…

Chopped heads in Mexico were far from me; misery in Pakistan was awfully close. Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time in Islamabad and met great Pakistani colleagues and vendors. We had more fun than we could have ever imagined. I’ll tell you later!

Next on EFM Employment: My jobs in Hungary (CLO and EPAP Green Coordinator).

What being a TCK means to me

I like my daughter’s perspective on this because she was a teen when we joined the Foreign Service which is a tough age to be uprooted!

Life as a Third Culture Kid

The very first thing about being a TCK: it’s complicated. Many people will ask you questions that are so hard to answer. “Where did you grow up? ” “What’s your hometown?” “Which high school did you go to?” “Who is your best friend?”, and this is just a sample, to which we, TCKs answer in this manner : “A bit everywhere” ” Ummm, I’m not exactly sure” “I don’t think you know of it” “My best friend in which country?”.

Being in college means meeting new people, and meeting new people means that they will ask you questions about your life, and sometimes, you don’t feel like answering, because simple questions turn into really long answers. 

Living all over the world is very different from just being a tourist. When you are a tourist, you get to take pictures, and visit places that should be visited when going to that…

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My jobs in the Foreign Service – Part III – Mexico

About family employment, this link http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say. I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics. See Part I and II for a full picture.

When I left my demanding private sector job in IT in France (marketing director for Europe) I told my colleagues I was retiring. They laughed – I was still a bit young for retirement – but I truly believed what I told them. After all isn’t it the perfect cliché ‘the wife of a diplomat drinking tea and chatting by the pool’?

I spent a school year (e.g. ten months) in Arlington, Virginia educating myself about the Foreign Service. Online, in class, one-hour presentation, full day seminar, three-month course… I attended everything I physically could that the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) had to offer. You can learn everything at FSI, they offer more than 600 courses: languages, cultures, finance, human resources, protocol, retirement planning, leadership, pet shipping, resilience, how to raise bilingual kids…

After this, instead of retiring, I found a job before arriving at the Embassy in Senegal (see previous post) and worked from the first day to the last. I was thus ready for a big long holiday.

We arrived in Mexico City in September; I had decided to enjoy this beautiful city first and not look for a job before the New Year. I found a job immediately thereafter in the Consular section but it seemed that my clearance could take a while so I accepted an interim job in the procurement service of the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS). When it can easily take State three months to hire you, it took them less than three days – they needed me so they speeded up! They knew I could leave anytime for my job at State.

I enjoyed working for another section than State because, despite being all under the same roof, different agencies have different characteristics and usages. For a curious person like me it is fascinating. At State, all we could hear was how to save money, spend less, cuts expenses. At NAS, we were being criticized for not spending enough and not fast enough! What a change of paradigm.

Eventually my clearance came through and I became Staff Aide for the Minister Counselor of Consular Affairs (MCCA) for the country of Mexico (one Embassy, 10 consulates) and the General Consul of Mexico City. This job was usually performed by an officer but for budgetary constraints had been transformed into an EFM position – just my luck. Among many other tasks, I was the editor of the mission-wide monthly consular newsletter and in charge of VIP referrals for the deliverance of visas. The process to obtain a visa is much faster if you are considered a VIP by an American employee – it has to further the interest of the United States – you can’t just pretend your hairdresser is a VIP. We received the visit of the top three Mexican film directors, many government or military high ranking employees and the most known of all was the singer Seal. A British national, he was touring in Latin America and had lost his passport therefore his visa. He had painted his nails (toes and hands) brown.

Then I went to work for a less known service of the Consular Affairs and became a Fraud Prevention Unit (FPU) investigator. They needed a cleared American with a good level in Spanish since the interviews had to take place in Spanish. FPU is a very busy service in Mexico! Besides interviewing people in Spanish I also had to read the press (paper and online) to register all the ‘bad guys’ in our database. We are talking Mexico where heads are chopped left and right. Sometimes colleagues would send gory reports mentioning – be careful, terrible photos inside. I would then keep these reports for the afternoon – didn’t want to spoil my breakfast. As a side note, despite all the violence reported in the press, we never felt threatened during our two years in Mexico because violence was highly targeted and occurring in very specific places.

More about jobs in Pakistan and Hungary later.

My jobs in the Foreign Service – Part II – Dakar

About family employment, this link http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say. I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics. See Part I published yesterday for a full picture.

When my husband applied for the Foreign Service we lived in France and knew one person, in a different section, in the Foreign Service. We were not inundated with tips, we had no clue what or where we were getting into. When he applied we had very little chances that he would be selected because I was foreign-born. I had a full time job (60+ hours per week and my 4-hour per day commute, except when I was travelling one to two weeks per month) as marketing director for Europe so I did not look for any information about what might potentially happen … or not. Once my husband received his offer, he had two weeks to pack and leave (the email had been sitting in his inbox for another three weeks but we had no connection during our holidays in Africa) after a clearance/decision process which took three years. He had to leave without me and the kids. We were not prepared. Once he left, I used all my lonely nights to do some research. I learned the many acronyms, the few jobs for spouses, the housing and schools situation; I educated myself. I understood I would have to fight to get a job but sometimes it just depends on your date of arrival, and that I might work only one year out of two or not at all. After eight months, we were ready to join my husband in Virginia.

Commercial Specialist – I had a great start in the Foreign Service since, as soon as I landed in Senegal, I began as a Commercial Specialist for the Department of Commerce U.S. Foreign Commercial Service (a sister agency to State within the Foreign Affairs)! I had applied in April, received the offer promptly after my interview and only moved to Senegal three months later, ahead of my husband actually. Being francophone with a background in sales and marketing were the key skills which helped me seize this amazing job.

Based in Dakar, I was in charge of all West Africa and part of Central Africa.  On one hand my customers were in the U.S. and I had to advise them about the best strategies to enter the West African markets, which sectors were in demand for U.S. products, which importers were solvent. On the other hand I had African importers who wanted to know who they could import from, which companies were reliable and used to do business overseas. The big thrill of this job was organizing and leading delegation of West Africans to trade fairs in Las Vegas or New York on various topics such as building materials or cosmetics.

Community Liaison Office Coordinator – For ‘needs of service’ I also became a CLO in Dakar, a fascinating job which is considered the Rolls Royce of jobs for EFMs (eligible family members) within the Department of State. There is a long definition for CLO that you can check on the link at the top of the page. The short definition is: ‘in charge of good morale’ of everybody in the mission. If officers have good morale they will work better. If their EFMs are happy, the officer will be able to concentrate on his job. It sounds simple but it is a complex job since it encompasses eight areas of intervention and involves a lot of un-rooted people. Some happy to be there, some grinding their teeth. And this complex job changes with every continent and every country because hardships come from different elements.

I will continue later on my jobs in Mexico City, Islamabad and Budapest.

My Jobs in the Foreign Service – Part I

My husband joined the Foreign Service as a second career. I followed, reinventing myself in each country. This post might help people who think about the Foreign Service to determine whether it is for them or not, depending on aspirations of their better half.

First of all the following spouse needs to be at peace with their own career. In most cases your past career as a lawyer or a dentist or an engineer will just have to stop. If you were a contracts writer you might be able to become a teleworker. If you were a teacher, there are usually openings at the international schools. If your past career in the U.S. was stay-at-home parent, it will not change much but will still require some adaptation. Note that I didn’t say ‘stay-at-home mom’. There is a ratio of 80% female and 20% male spouse following the diplomat spouse. The male number is growing slowly but steadily.

There was a time (40 years ago?) when the following spouse just followed. Nowadays the spouse wants to work whether this wish is driven by the need of a second income or the need to fill an entire day outside the house, and socialize. So the Family Liaison Office (FLO) was created. “FLO’s mission is to improve the quality of life of all demographics we serve by identifying issues and advocating for programs and solutions, providing a variety of client services, and extending services to overseas communities through the management of the worldwide Community Liaison Office (CLO) program.” About family employment, this link http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/flo/c1959.htm will lead you to information far more complete than anything I can say.

I just want to bring some personal touches beyond the statistics and let you know that it is possible to work as long as you do not expect to either match your past salary if you were an executive or use as much brain since the majority of jobs offered to following spouses are clerical in nature. Actually following spouses and children have an acronym: EFM for Eligible Family Member. Eligible to be on the Diplomat’s order, get a plane ticket, medical clearances and eventually eligible to get a job in an Embassy.

I’ll make a difference between the official jobs where I had a paycheck and the other jobs that were just as demanding or more but did not receive a monetary compensation.

Official Jobs

  • Commercial Specialist for the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service (a sister agency to State within the Foreign Affairs). Serving West Africa from Dakar, Senegal.
  • Community Liaison Officer in Dakar, Senegal
  • Procurement agent for the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) in Mexico City
  • Staff Aide for the Minister Counselor of Consular Affairs for Mexico
  • Fraud Prevention Unit investigator in Mexico City
  • Grants administrator for USAID in Pakistan
  • Community Liaison Office Assistant and Newsletter Editor in Budapest
  • Green Team Leader – EPAP* – in Budapest

Ad-Hoc Jobs – in between Official Jobs or also overlapping

  • Packing and move coordinator (do not underestimate this very important role)
  • “Declutterer”: organizing yard sales and advertising through Craig list and FreeCycle
  • French teacher
  • Volunteer: docent, financial adviser, working women’s group coordinator, newsletter editor for the Diplomatic Spouses Association in Mexico (ACD), parent delegate at school, demolisher-constructor for Habitat for Humanity, …
  • Social agenda organizer
  • Travel and Holiday Guru

I will go in more details about them in a future post.
*EPAP: Expanded Professional Associate Program, in layman’s term the best job an EFM can get (about 186 in the world in 2015).

24 hours in a day is not enough to write!

Let’s see why according to some common statistics that are very accurate in my case.

Personal time: 10 hours

Personal time includes sleeping, eating and every personal task around it: getting cleaned up and prepared. If you count eight hours of sleeping time, it leaves only two hours in the bathroom and to have three meals a day – not much. I usually don’t sleep all eight hours.

Work: 10 hours

I would distribute this as eight hours of work per day and two hours of commute, one hour each way. That is if you are lucky. An executive works 10-12 hours on average and at some point in my life I had to commute four hours per day, five days a week.

Chores: 4 hours

Statistics say that on a weekly average working women still spend three to four hours per day doing chores. Stay-at-home parents do more. An average means that some do only one hour (not my case), some do five or six hours. I’m in the average. Some chores are not disagreeable: cooking, gardening, gourmet food shopping. But others are more annoying: staple food shopping, watering or mowing large areas, cleaning, doing the laundry and above all ironing – I hate ironing! Other chores not happening daily but that do take time include sewing/mending clothes or repairing things in the house or bringing clothes to the dry cleaner’s or shoes to the shoemaker’s or coordinating for someone to come and repair them. At this rate even men do a weekly average of 2h30 per day in chores.

Doing the math

We are already at 24 hours and I did not mention taking care of a child (or children), a parent (potentially a sick parent – even more time), a pet (several pets, different species), let alone socialize with friends or neighbors. Oh – and what about reading, learning, doing sports, traveling? Am I missing something? Television and social media? Volunteering?

The unplanned

All my calculations don’t even come close to reality since you have to add all the unplanned events. They don’t need to be big events (tornado, bomb, etc.), just things that get in your way and make you waste your precious time. A car is poorly parked and blocks the tram which cannot deviate from its rails. 5-15 minutes. Rain makes the garden muddy and the dog comes back leaving a trail of mud everywhere: clean the floor + clean the dog. 10-15 minutes. A bottle of spices loses its distributing top and suddenly you have to scoop up all the unwanted thyme from your dish to avoid ruining it – I’m not inventing this, it just happened to me – which is why usually it’s my husband who cooks! A minute before I was also putting hot peppers in my dish, I’m glad that top stayed on …5-8 minutes. Does this sound familiar?

My sad conclusion

All this explains why I’ve missed publishing a post yesterday. When do I have time to write? Become a real writer? I write since age six: novels, poems, essays. So I am de facto a writer. What makes it more real?

Being read and appreciated – so don’t spare the comments!

First Day in Pakistan

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 – At two o’clock in the morning, one half-hour ahead of schedule, our plane landed in Islamabad. We immediately spotted our ‘facilitator’ – an unknown stranger to whom we entrusted our lives for the next hours…

Not that we are cowards – after all nobody ordered us to Pakistan, we chose it on our own, with eyes wide open – but for those of you who don’t read the press relative to this part of the world, let me summarize a bit so that you understand in which context we arrived in Pakistan.

2011 had been the annus horribilis of the relations between the United States and Pakistan. In January a certain Raymond Davis killed two civilians in Lahore and, while rescuing him, his American colleagues unintentionally killed a bicyclist. In May the Seals killed Ben Laden which lead the media to two embarrassing conclusions: either the Pakistani were accomplices or they were incompetent since Abottabad is pretty much in the suburbs of Islamabad, not exactly a remote place. Several other incidents followed and finally in November, NATO (therefore the U.S.) killed 24 civilians near Salala. Despite proofs that miscommunications were more numerous on the U.S. side, the president refused to apologize forgetting the need to save face in Asian cultures. Because of this it took us months to receive our visas.

More recently, two weeks prior to our arrival, on June 4th, 2012, U.S. drones killed 15 people – while Pakistan has forbidden the use of drones. The same day they managed to eliminate the number 2 of Al-Qaeda. June 6th kamikaze Talibans activated 3 bombs killing 22 people. June 7th a bomb blasted in front of a school in Quetta, Baluchistan (South West) killing 15 people. June 8th, near Peshawar (North West), a bomb killed 18 government workers. Following a speech by Leon Panetta, the press wrote on June 10th ‘The United States and Pakistan are growing as stronger enemies day after day.’

As we were gently directed to the long queue for ‘foreign diplomats’, a second facilitator lead us to yet an even faster queue. We collected our luggage and pet quickly, and jumped in an armored car with such a large survival kit in the trunk that we had trouble fitting all our luggage. It was still dark so I did not see much of the road from the airport to the house.

We arrived at our house hidden behind a large metal door, guarded by a Pakistani guard armed with a Kalashnikov. High walls and barbed wires everywhere. That’s what I call a welcoming house!

Roughly speaking the house was about 190m2 (2,000 ft2), distributed on four levels, two large main floors, a lower small floor and an upper small floor for laundry and access to the terrace. At 4:30 am the sun started to rise as we discovered that we had a tiny garden planted with zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, a small fig tree and a young orange tree.

We unpacked as much as we could until exhaustion wiped us from 6:00 am to 9:00 am. Then we were driven to our gigantic Embassy compound in the Diplomatic Enclave, checked in with general services (GSO), the community liaison coordinator (CLO) and human resources (HRO). We had a quick lunch, visited our respective sections and were brought back in our neighborhood for basic food shopping

Home by 5:00 pm, sound asleep by 7:00 pm. This concluded our first day in Pakistan where we stayed one thrilling year (details to come).

Three Days to Pakistan …

In hours it did not take us 72 hours to reach Pakistan but date wise, our journey spanned three days. When one grows up in the Western world, one doesn’t dream to make Pakistan their home, especially not after 9/11, but one day you join the Foreign Service and the next thing you know you have a one-way ticket to Islamabad.

Sunday, June 17th – That day in 1885, the ship Isère delivered the Statue of Liberty to New York City. France should ask for royalties: what would New York be without this statue? And this day in 1963 the Supreme Court voted to abolish Bible reading in public schools in the United States. But for us, June 17th is when we took our first flight to Pakistan. One day I’ll tell what crooked path led us to choose this mission.

We had to check out of the hotel at noon. In order to pass the time we went to the pool, then to the movies, and then it was finally time to go to the airport to start a new adventure. We have to fly American companies, or companies which have a code-share with American companies. It happens that United Airlines is paired with Qatar Airlines, which was great for us because Qatar is one of the best companies in the Middle East.

We chose the smallest Italian greyhound of the litter so that she would always travel in-cabin with us. Except that Qatar doesn’t accept any pet in-cabin, of any size. Except falcons. Falcons are not pets though, they are emirs’ best friends. Who wants to lose the emirs’ business?

So for the first time of her life, poor minuscule Venus was in a crate and I was even more worried than her when I handed the crate to the special pet staff. What if she doesn’t make the second flight? What if they forget to feed her, give her water? We are finally all in the plane. The flight attendant checked – or not, but then she lies well!

Monday, June 18th – In Western India, a father angry with his daughter for her ‘shameful’ (in his eyes) attitude beheaded her with a sword and showed her head to people in his village. She was 20 years old. Are we really going to live next door?

When we travel we promptly set our watches to the destination country. On this basis, we were served dinner at 7:00 am and breakfast at 4:30 pm. We arrived in Doha at 6:25 pm. 40 degrees Celsius (104F)! When I travel I like to wear comfortable velvet pants. At this temperature though velvet becomes very uncomfortable and sticky. Qatar is a tiny country, a little peninsula in the Persian Gulf, home to only 1.7 million people, yet it has a first-class airline. The Doha airport is very modern but they have already planned a brand new airport for the year to come. Oddly there are no signs in Arabic, everything is written in English.

There was a time, just the year in which my husband became a diplomat, where any one assigned to a new mission that required over 14 hours of travel would benefit from a business class ticket. Knowing that we need to work immediately upon arrival, it seemed reasonable to allow us to sleep. Congress believes that diplomats are spoiled brats so it decided otherwise in 2006. Nowadays, whatever the grueling length of the flight, we must take the economy class. Productivity is so overrated!

We took off at 11:40 pm.

Tuesday, June 19 – At two o’clock in the morning the captain announced that it was already 27 degrees Celsius (81F) in Islamabad. A half-hour ahead of schedule, our plane landed on Pakistani soil. We descended on the tarmac and immediately spotted our ‘facilitator’ – an unknown stranger to whom we entrusted our lives for the next hours.

Life in Pakistan to be continued …