The Foreign Service Institute, a big part of our lives

FSI is 70*

When my spouse joined the Foreign Service (FS) in 2006 as a second career, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) became my new home.  I do not say this lightly; I used to spend more awake time at FSI than in my real home, haunting the campus for training or just for lunch to meet future colleagues.  I learned and benefited from FSI for 10 years as a spouse (technically an Eligible Family Member – EFM in our jargon) and now I have returned to FSI as a Civil Service employee.  Most EFMs only know the Transition Center (TC) at FSI; it actually regroups four other schools providing training in different aspects of a profession and in foreign languages.  I have been an eager learner of all five, and this is my tribute to FSI, turning 70 this year.

FSI70

As most EFMs, my first steps in this new life led me to the Overseas Briefing Center (OBC, a division of TC), where I was able to browse through numerous documentation on all potential posts, watch videos, and register for many interesting classes: Realities of Foreign Service Life, Protocol, Explaining America, EFM Employment, Security Overseas, Logistics, etc. Even our children participated in a Security Overseas seminar where they were encouraged to kick and scream on top of their lungs if they were tentatively kidnapped – imagine us, the parents, in the adjacent room hearing the screams!  We paid it back when our kids produced a quality video on Dakar which won first prize. I am also grateful for TC to invite me regularly as a panel member to help other EFMs, sharing with them my candid experience on FS topics.

During one of the TC workshop, I learned that EFMs could join the Direct Hires (the spouse who has a permanent contract in the Foreign Service) in the professional studies curricula.  To increase my chances to get an EFM position in an embassy overseas, I immediately enrolled in the General Services Officer (GSO) class in the School of Professional and Area Studies (SPAS).  Once completed, I began the Consular training.  As a result of being so well informed and trained, I started at my first embassy in Dakar with a job waiting for me, well-armed to understand my surroundings and act appropriately. Actually, colleagues thought I was a Direct Hire!  Many years later, I attended the CLO training in Frankfurt where I met many neighboring colleagues. This allowed me to build inter-mission partnerships beneficial to our Commissary and share cultural and entertainment information.

The SPAS Pakistan Familiarization course became the key to our fantastic tour in a country reputed to be difficult.  I understood the generic “Islam” label covered many different faiths, learned about tribes and ethnicities, the political landscape shaped by a tumultuous history, and why it took ten months for my husband to get his visa … This allowed us to better understand and communicate with people of Pakistan, friendly strangers in stores, streets, and even children in the mountains.

In the Margalla Hills

Young Villagers in the Margalla Hills

After Dakar, we were assigned to Mexico City and the School of Language Studies (SLS) helped me brush up on my Spanish with distance learning classes followed by a mentor. This allowed me to fill a vacant position where a cleared American with a 3-3 level was sought – I was the only one qualified in the pool of 100+ EFMs! Before going to Pakistan, I took Urdu classes, which facilitated my integration with local colleagues at USAID and with our local implementers. I realized that learning to write the beautiful alphabet helped me learn faster because I could read signs around me and practice outside the classroom.

Between earthquakes in Mexico and a rather unstable situation in Pakistan, I became a natural student of the Leadership and Management School (LMS), learning about Crisis Management Overseas and the No FEAR Act.  While never subject to a real crisis – besides regular earthquakes in Mexico City, coups in all countries surrounding Senegal during our tour, and lock-down in Islamabad, I always felt more secure and less prone to panic knowing that I knew how to act during a dire situation.

In my previous career I have designed many websites but a technical person would eventually code and create them.  With the School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT), I learned SharePoint and was able to create a SharePoint site to advocate for environmental matters at Embassy Budapest.

After eight years overseas we are now back in the United States, and I became a Civil Service employee, starting my learning “series” again.  First, I learned to defend myself in perilous situations during a Basic Defense course (TC); then I participated in the Civil Service Orientation course (SPAS); and later in the Knowledge Management Foundations course (SAIT).

FSI just opened this year a new division: the Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience (CEFAR), and with the general context, domestically and overseas, we sure do need a lot of resilience in the Foreign Service!  FSI also provides Distance Learning classes and SkillSoft classes that anyone from the foreign affairs agencies can follow from the comfort of their home, one hour at a time. I cannot encourage enough EFMs to look at the impressive catalog and take a class or two from home or join a class on campus.  FSI has made a permanent positive mark on the lives our entire family, preparing us well for this strange new adventure in the Foreign Service.

*The complete FSI history is available on Amazon: FSI at 70: Future Forward: A History of the Foreign Service Institute.

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Weight Loss in the Foreign Service

Gallery

This gallery contains 8 photos.

How to turn a negative feeling into a positive result Joining the Foreign Service is similar to joining the army: you go where you are told to go.  Refusing a mission is resigning.  We have always been lucky to get … Continue reading

What I Like About China: More Pros than Cons

  1. PROs
    1. Great metro
      Lines are well described, color-coded. Tiny lights show you your location on the journey, a voice tells you in Chinese and English where you are, where you will be, whether you can change to another line or not. In addition, there is an animated screen, with pictures and the written text of what is spoken.
    In the metro

    Handle to steady yourself in the metro, while learning Shakespeare.

    1. Descriptive signs
      Chinese people use cardinal directions – the four points of the compass – in the metro and in everyday life. Metro exits are always well described with cardinal signs; a simple stop with four exits (People Square has 22!) will be signed A for northwest, B northeast, C southeast, and D southwest. Major landmarks are associated with a particular exit.  In Paris, metro signs give you the name of an adjacent street, depending on the chosen exit, but if you don’t know the area, the name of this unknown side street doesn’t help at all.
    1. Inspiring names
      In the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and other monuments, the places are not only beautiful, they have very Zen and inspiring names: Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Hall of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Hall of Abstinence, Hall of Eternal Protection, Hall of Ten Thousand Happinesses, Hall of Eternal Harmony, Hall of Heavenly Kings, Longevity Hill, Garden of Virtue and Harmony, Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, Hall of Happiness and Longevity, Temple of Heavenly Tranquility, etc. It brings internal peace just to read these names.

     

    1. Helpful people
      Structurally, the tactile paving on the sidewalks or in the metro is very common to help visually impaired people follow a street or be warned of an intersection. They are more prevalent than in most large cities in the world. Even when the sidewalk is in marble, there are tiles with long lines to follow and dots at intersections and before crossing a street.  Culturally, people are kind and helpful.  Even with complete ignorance of the Chinese language and no English language on their side, we managed to communicate with signs or pictures.  On several occasions, a person even accompanied me half way to make sure I would not get lost again.
    1. Extreme multi-tasking
      Dexterity in millennials is known. In China, I have noticed it also in older generations. Chinese people read on their tablet, play games on their phones, or watch TV while walking extremely quickly in the packed corridors of the metro. In Hong Kong (the New York of China for speed) I even witnessed people eating with chopsticks while walking – a far more difficult feat than eating a sandwich in the street! I admire the agility, while not necessarily condoning the simultaneous practice of these, especially eating mindlessly.

     

    1. High-speed train
      I knew the high-speed train in France, so I did not expect to be wowed. Beyond the high speed, China has excellent customer service. High-speed stations are designed like airports with enhanced security, modern well-lit facilities, and uniformed hostesses.  Train tickets bear your name and a passport check is performed many times before you are allowed to board the train.  Luggage is x-rayed.  Once on the train, there is much more leg room even in economy class than in any plane, even domestic business class.  Hot water is everywhere to be found at the station, not only for tea but also the ubiquitous Ramen noodles.  On the train, there is also a hot water faucet but why would you only eat noodles?  Every ten minutes a hostess passes with a little cart loaded with different choices:  cooked chicken, cut fruits, cut vegetables, drinks, cookies, etc.

     

    1. Consular team spirit
      Now for U.S. diplomats only. Consular sections usually have the best team spirit – I had noticed it in Mexico. In Beijing, and even more so in Shanghai, the team spirit was at its best. Consular management welcomed us, temporary employees, upon arrival with a private meeting, and thanked us at the end with personalized certificates and a party.  A teacher advised us to ensure our accent was understandable.  Managers assigned us special projects to make us shine beyond the tiring biometrics. We felt truly appreciated.  I would love the opportunity to serve again because, whether they say thank you or not, we are absolutely needed in large missions at peak season.

     

    CONs

    1. Air quality
      On the majority of days, the air quality is very unhealthy in Beijing or Shanghai. Beijing’s air is worse than Shanghai’s on average. Immediately upon arrival at the embassy, besides giving you a badge, managers brief you on what website you should consult to check the air quality, and advise you to stick it in your favorites.  I was shocked to see American families with young kids in these cities.  I believe it should be an ‘unaccompanied under 16’ post.
    1. Cuisine
      Are you surprised it’s a con? I was. When I told people I was going to China, the very first thing they exclaimed was “oh, you will eat so well there.” Exactly what I thought.  I love Chinese cuisine so I was thrilled to discover the real thing.  What I really discovered is the outrageous amount of oil they use to cook.  I tried the cart-street food, the small-no English-sign restaurant, the fancy restaurant, and each time I had to fish my food delicately with my chopsticks out of an ocean of oil. After a few times, I stuck to the Marriott or Ritz food – with international clientele they had learned to temper their natural oily inclination.  Or I simply went to the Korean or Vietnamese restaurants.  In Hong Kong, I had a delicious fondue, with food cooked by myself in lean broth.

     

    BOTTOM LINE
    I also loved the variety of landscapes, the amazing Great Wall, the bargain shopping, the great museums, the customized clothing, and so much more.  I would love to go back but not for more than six months – out of consideration for my lungs.

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A rugged part of the Great Wall

The New Diplomat’s Wife has More Pros and Cons posts.

Raising Bilingual Kids

While growing up in France, I developed a surprising love for the English language. I don’t know when it began. I officially started to learn it in 6th grade at age 10. To compensate for the only three hours per week of English I received at school, and for the abominable accent most French people – yes even graduated English teachers – have in English, I started to go to the movies a lot, two to three times per week, to see American movies in their original English version. I learned at least as much from the cinema subtitles and accents than formally. Before my twenties, I had determined to raise my future kids in English. The father would probably understand. And then by a twist of fate, I ended up marrying an American.

When I met hubby, he did not speak French. Therefore English was the home language, which was perfect. Once pregnant, we researched best practices to raise bilingual kids. Linguists and psychologists had a clear theory. I was supposed to speak French, and hubby was supposed to speak English. Yet, I wanted more than theory. I wrote to the two most prominent French baby magazines and asked real parents for their advice. They advised to take into consideration the ‘weight’ of the country in which you live. If you live in a third country, you may follow the rule of one parent-one language, and the kid will also speak the country language, becoming trilingual. There is some balance in this solution. On the other hand, if you live in a country where one of the languages is spoken, you create a large unbalance. To remedy, we were advised to both speak English since we lived in France.

Along came guinea pig number one.  English was the home language; French was the outside language (nanny, grandma). I had to warn French family and friends not to give our daughter any Disney movies or books, since home was English-only territory. At age one, our daughter started to speak well in both languages. When she was three, two events occurred at the same time. Guinea pig number two arrived, and our daughter began school.

Instead of having two parents who spoke English and one nanny and one grandma who spoke French, which seems fairly balanced, she found that the entire school population spoke French – we were greatly outnumbered. And she spoke more. Learned more. In French. Meanwhile hubby’s French was getting very good, to the point where it was natural for him to respond in French when first addressed in French. Back from school, our daughter started to tell about her day, in French. Little brother heard a lot more French than she did during his first three years. This muted him for almost three years. At age two, he was not speaking and we were worried. We tried rationalizing, putting this lack of language on account of being bilingual and a boy. When he finally spoke, instead of a few words, he pronounced entire grammatically correct sentences! In French only of course.

When we visited the American grandparents, our kids clearly understood them but did not speak English to them. We redoubled our efforts. We could not go back to the U.S. as often as needed for language immersion, so we went to England where we would fill our children’s brain with television. Imagine! Parents insisting that their kids ‘gobble’ television programs all day. [This obviously dates us because today one can get English-language programs without actually going to an English-speaking country.] We continued our life speaking English (parents) and French (kids), occasionally mixing some sentences (the four of us).

After few years, we joined the Foreign Service, and all of a sudden they arrived in their new house in Virginia in May. They were enrolled at school immediately in 5th and 7th grade. We were a bit worried that they would understand but not be able to express themselves. Once they realized that the new normal was to speak English, they simply spoke English. It just flowed naturally. Their accent was light and gradually disappeared. Our efforts were rewarded! Yet, since we were now in English-speaking country, we had to reverse our approach and make home a French speaking territory.

We later moved to a Spanish speaking country. By this time, our children mastered equally well both English and French languages. They joked, mixing them all the time, mid-sentence, or just inserting one French word in an English sentence or vice-versa. They even started a game to conjugate English verbs in French!!! We had just developed our own family dialect.

In summary, raising bilingual kids is possible – and of great benefit to them, but it is a hard job that requires dedication, consistency, and perseverance even when you don’t see immediate results. The rewards in time are well worth the sacrifice.

Back in the U.S. – Crazy Fast Food!

We are still on home leave, I have not settled yet in our permanent quarters (note the use of the word quarters because I don’t know if it is going to be a house or an apartment and the term residence seems a bit posh for what we will actually be able to afford back in DC), but I am already re-americanizing myself at full speed.

Ah – a little context for newbies. Home leave is a period of vacation mandated by Congress for diplomats after a certain time spend abroad. Every three years maximum. You gain three weeks every year and however well it may be described in the official text [Codified in Sections 901 and 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980] its purpose is to make sure that even if you have “gone local” (not loco although it could apply sometimes), you have not forgotten to be an American and you keep up with American values. In summary, it is to re-americanize oneself or to have a ‘re-learning Americana holiday’.

When we are posted to a new country, since our residence is usually within U.S. standards and offices at the Embassy could also be in the U.S. look-wise, what usually strikes us most, besides weather or smells, are different foods. We are foodies. Back in the U.S., for the first time after three years overseas, everything looks the same as in my memories except the food offering at fast food restaurants. Let’s cover a few novelties.

  • On the Dunkin Donuts cup, among the many choices to tick, the weirdest ones are for sweeteners. They don’t name them by their brands or by their poisonous ingredients (saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, maltodextrin…) but by their colors: the pink sweetener, the blue sweetener, the yellow sweetener – how sweet – no pun intended.
  • Jalapeño poppers. CheddaPeño. Different names depending on the restaurants. From a healthy jalapeno the Mexicans have made it less healthy (but sooo good) by stuffing it full of cheese. Then, the Americans have covered it in batter. Calories times ten at least!
  • MacNCheetos. Take about three or four Mac&Cheese macaronis and hold them together with a giant Cheetos all around. Your kids dreamt it, they made it!
  • Crunchy wrap. Double or triple at Taco Bell. Wrap a hard tostada in a flour tortilla – hello carbs! Some tacos even have a shell that tastes like Dorito chips.
  • If you are from the East Coast, you may have not heard of the In-N-Out fast food place which is mostly implanted in the West. For a non-connoisseur it could be weird when you first walk in such a fast food restaurant to discover that they only sell a simple burger, a simple cheese burger, and fries. No fancy names, no colorful Photoshop’ed photos. In fact they have a ‘not-so-secret menu’ which tells you (online) that you can have many variations of the above. You may double the meat & cheese, triple it or even quadruple it (they call it the 4×4). For a really good sauce – they say mustard but it does not taste like mustard, more like the secret sauce of the Big Mac – ask ‘Animal Style’ with a choice of tomatoes, pickles, grilled onions, special sauce, or all of the above. Like many of their competitors now, they are also proposing a healthy* choice by replacing the bun by lettuce leaves; it is called the ‘Protein Style’. Animal & Protein Styles are compatible!
  • Recently, Burger King has invented the whopperito – whooper + burrito. Replace the bun by a tortilla, the ketchup by some melted cheese, and wrap the ingredients of a whopper in a tortilla.
  • The burrito is the new fad here. In August Taco Bell released the cheesy core burrito, either crunchy or spicy. Take a perfectly healthy burrito and add, in its center, artery-clogging orange-plastic-like-cheese. They call it three-cheese blend but it is the sort that movies theaters smother your nachos with – sorry as a French native I cannot call it cheese.
P1140171

OK – Not that crazy – this was in China!

I’d better post this before they invent any more of these weird combination foods. I am sorry that I will not be your guinea pig anymore; I have shipped my teenage boy off to college (yeah- there was a reason I was haunting the fast food joints this summer, his giant bucket list) and now I have a waist line to watch!

*healthy = messy. I love burgers in lettuce wrap but there is no bun to absorb the sauce so it is extremely slippery. Extra napkins required.

Welcome Kit

When a regular person moves, it usually takes place in one day. You may pack for several days but eventually in one day you are across town or state. Upon arrival you unpack the basics and voilà!

With the Foreign Service when you pack, you move across countries, continents, oceans. You never – never – get your stuff the same day. Heck, you usually don’t even land in your new country the same day. How do you manage in your previous house, after packing for two to four days, and supervising packers and movers for two to four days? Your house is bare except for the timeless Drexel furniture we all cherish.

Our General Services Office (GSO) puts together a Welcome Kit which may slightly vary from post to post. In some places the welcome kit is given for good. Stuff in it is so cheap, it cost less to give it to the families for a one-time use than to have people collect it back, inspect it, inventory it, store it, and lend again. Actually a two-time use: once you arrive and your own belongings are not there yet, and later when you depart. Then you have a happy housekeeper inheriting all!

In general the Welcome Kit is well thought with the basics: sheets and blankets (don’t ask me about quality or allergy to acrylic!), pillows, towels, plates, glasses, silverware, pots and pans, coffee machine. The devil is in the details. In Budapest we have only ‘whisky’ type glasses, no wine glass – then again better than to only have long cocktail glasses I suppose. This is minor. But no kettle! An appliance I use (need) ten times a day. Yet we have a mixer, so it was not a question of space in the Welcome Kit. I have never used a mixer in my life – I am not a baker. No place mat or table cloth! No bath mat! Two slotted serving spoons but no ladle? Worse: no broom, no mop, no bucket – yet the place needs to be spotless clean when we depart – at 3 a.m. Pans are tiny, good for a single person, not a family of four. And we definitely need to travel with our own knives.

As I go through the Welcome Kit I re-create my own because for the first time in this second career we are not going to a welcoming overseas Post with free rent, free maintenance, and nice GSO to welcome us. Did you guess yet? We are going back to the mother ship. Washington, DC. The first few days we will be in a hotel room but when we move to our permanent residence, there will be no Welcome Kit. Only that box that I am putting together, aptly marked “Welcome Kit – UAB DC – Open first”!

Another major thing that will be missing in our future residence is furniture. In our first overseas house we had our UAB (airfreight of about 600 lbs) upon landing and then I had ample time to play around the given furniture, change it to my liking before being invaded by 300+ boxes of HHE (slow freight three months later). I am dreading the day when we ask to receive our HHE the day we move in – otherwise we’ll sleep on the floor!

Habitat for Humanity in Budapest

Habitat for Humanity is an international NGO dedicated to improving housing conditions for poor people, fighting for a fair housing policy and decent homes for everyone. It was founded in 1976 in the U.S. and in 1996 in Hungary. It has affiliates in more than 70 countries and can count on thousands of volunteers. The organization has built or renovated over 800, 000 houses, and provided simple and affordable homes for over a million families. In Hungary, Habitat has helped 2,000 families.

Among the many programs that Habitat develops in Hungary, this Saturday we participated in the Housing First program where Habitat renovates vacant social rental housing units for homeless people, and support them with social work in order to help them keep their homes after moving in.

At 8:30 a.m. sharp we all gather in front of a house in Ujpest, in the 4th district of Budapest. We are nine including Sandor, the foreman, and Betty the representative from Saint Gobain, the sponsoring company. Proudly representing the Embassy there is Chris, Edward and Catherine.

Sandor gives us some background. In Hungary there are 383,000 empty houses or apartments and 300,000 families in need of decent affordable housing. 170 000 children live in a home with no indoor toilet, almost 200,000 in a home with no electricity, and 620 000 children (30% of all children) live in damp, moldy, unhealthy homes.

Above the porch it says ‘Tiszta Udvar, Rendes Haz’, which is a plaque you receive when all houses are in order and the garden is neatly arranged. A plaque they would never receive today!  After the entrance door and a short corridor there is an open air corridor leading to small houses with tiny weedy gardens on both sides and at the very end there is a piece of abandoned grassy and weedy land. The house we are going to renovate is the third one on the right. Sandor started yesterday and already removed all belongings and the old shower. Despite the open windows the stench of mold and mildew is strong. I wonder what had been stacked there and for how long. This house belongs to the municipality which is too poor to renovate it, therefore it has been abandoned. Once renovated, this house will be rented at lower-than-market price.

Sandor tells us: ‘you came here to build, well today is demolition day!’ He explains that when people are poor, they don’t try to renovate well because it costs too much and/or they lack the skills. So they just hide what is wrong instead of fixing the problem at its root. For example there was a leak here; it made the lower walls humid. Previous tenants just covered it with a carpet which prevented the water from evaporating so it traveled upwards until the entire wall, all the way up to the high ceiling, was damp. They did the same with the flooring. Yesterday Sandor and his volunteers removed the carpet and the flooring. Now we even need to remove the tiles, the stucco and the base floor completely and let the bricks breathe and dry. This is why Sandor works on two projects at the same time: to let enough time to dry when needed.

Besides destruction, there are also three truck-loads of aggregate for concrete that has been dumped on the sidewalk and needs to be brought to the end garden where it will be mixed with cement. About 30 fine cement bags are also stacked on the sidewalk, 55 pounds each, and about twenty 88-pound bags of mortar also wait in the truck.

Sandor gives us legal papers to sign. Everyone does so without reading much but a mention catches my eye. We have to ‘destroy’ our tee-shirt, the Habitat volunteer tee-shirt! Sandor explains that if we don’t, it has to be taxed!!! We all sign the paper … for the government. Then he hands us protection gloves, masks and goggles. I know goggles will fog with the mask and I might faint standing still all day hammering a wall not to mention my legendary clumsiness with a chisel and a hammer. When Sandor asks for wheelbarrow volunteers for the cement, aggregate for concrete and mortar I immediately raise my hand. Nobody else does. Then Edward joins me and then András. Chris will be on destruction duty with the others.

All day Edward, András and I fill wheelbarrows and carry them to the end garden where we build a neat, new pile. Since we only have two wheelbarrows for three, we rest in turn and when I rest, I garden or more exactly I weed! I discover a lot of purslane which most people don’t know about, or if they do they think it is a weed and don’t know how to name it. My grandfather taught me it was comestible, quite a delicacy even. Since it is a succulent, you find it in arid places, often between old stones or pavement.  Only in Mexico did I find it in supermarkets between lettuce and parsley! Quick recipe: blanch it, and then add your favorite sauce, for me a mixture of crushed garlic, mustard, Maggi (a specific wheat protein sauce, a bit similar to soy sauce), balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Let it cool and eat as a salad.

Our arms are aching but our legs are doing a big job too. I finish the day at over 17,000 steps!  At the end of the day Chris comes to help us with the cement bags that he loads on each shoulder. We leave just in time before Edward breaks his back. We ache all over but we feel good and will sleep like babies.  Till the next time!

Ode to Summer in Budapest

We came back from holiday missing part of the summer in Budapest. We missed the worse flood ever: something like one month of rain in two hours, and we missed the historical record of temperature at over 40 degrees Celsius. People complain about the heat but I can’t get enough of it! And what is 40 when you come from Islamabad with 48 every day for three months?!

I also missed my jogging around the cemetery of the wolf, a perfect 25-minute loop jog route from home in the Buda hills. So today I took little Venus – an Italian greyhound is always little even at adult age, a mere eight pounds – and off we went to see the seasonal changes to our neighborhood. Everywhere the leaves and grass were overgrown and wild. I was especially looking for ‘my’ plum spots. There are many fruit trees in the neighborhood and for some reasons Hungarians let fruits fall and rot on the road. This must be a rich-neighborhood in the city trend; I doubt they do this in the country side. First, I found the Reine Claude plum tree, a dark purple variety. There were some left on the tree, and many squashed on the road. I reaped a small kilo and walk to the second yummy tree, the Mirabelle tree – the tiny yellow variety. It seems that the season was over earlier as there were none left on the tree, only a few on the road.

There are many florists around the cemetery, three to five vendors at every entrance. I always chose the closest ones to home to be able to jog as much as possible before carrying loads of flowers and plants. Today I made a huge bouquet with irises and different kind of daisies for the ridiculously cheap amount of 6 euros, which mean 4.80€ after we get the VAT back. Together with high quality-cheap bill restaurants, this is one of the greatest pleasures of Hungary: live like a king for a fraction of the cost, yet being in the heart of Europe.

My day got even brighter when I arrived back home and was greeted by our red apple tree whose branches bend under the weight of a myriad of tiny red apples. They need another few weeks to be ripe. Then I went around the house to discover that the peaches on the tree are already ripe. I was also greeted by some old sad Russian songs coming from the neighbor on the south side and the new neighbor on the north side introduced himself: a Brit married to a Hungarian lady; they just purchased a house who had been on sale for over two years.

When we lived in Dakar, we were lucky enough to have a house with multiple fruit trees: mango, bananas and oranges. I also planted two papaya trees – too late for us but our colleagues who inhabited the house after us thanked us for them. In Islamabad, I planted two papaya trees immediately upon arrival, to have time to taste them before departure – alas a sudden frost killed them both before I had time to protect them for the winter. We had figs, tomatoes and basil to console ourselves!

This afternoon I planted oregano and mint in the garden, gift of a fortunate colleague who has too much in his garden to supply a pizzeria and a Moroccan tea room. I also added yellow pansies to pink carnations and geraniums to beautify the terrace. I had a thought for all my colleagues PCSing this summer, fighting twisted regulations, nasty airlines, and Drexel atrocities …

Today it is 35 degrees Celsius, the sun is high, and the sky is deep blue – I love Budapest!

Pros and Cons of Living in Budapest

Pros

Cost of living
The best restaurants cost a fraction of what you would pay in DC. You can have lunch at a Michelin-star restaurant for under $20. Fruits and vegetables cost much less than in the U.S., for example apples are 60 cents a kilo, oranges $1/kg. A kilo of pork is about $4. A maid costs less than $7/hour and she does more than vacuuming and dusting. She cleans windows, irons, cooks, etc.  Gas looks expensive but you get all the taxes back so it costs no more than in the U.S.

Endless travel opportunities
Hungary is so small you can reach most cities in two hours, perfect for a day trip or a weekend. Seven countries are neighbors (Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia) and four more don’t have common borders but are very close: Czech Republic, Poland, Bosnia, Moldova. There are endless possibility for weekends or three-day trips. Wizzair has also many connections from Budapest so you may fly to Italy or Spain for $50!

Food & Wine
Being foodies we are so happy to be posted here where food is delicious and abundant. Hungarian specialties are tasty (Goulash, grey cow, Mangalica pork, paprika, foie gras, beef cheeks, lecso, etc.). Hungarian wines can easily compete with French or California wines. Hungarians are also the best at making freshly squeezed lemonade, simple or with ginger, etc.

Public transportation
Being able to go everywhere by foot, sometimes with the help of a tram, bus or metro is bliss. No more car to park. We use our car only to travel outside the city. Public transportation is plentiful, regular, very safe, and decently priced – about $40/month. Budapest is bliss for teenagers who can go see their friends without needing their parents to taxi them around.

People & culture
From festivals in Mohacs (end of February) to Easter in Hollokö to many beer & wine festivals to music festivals (Sziget, Sopron), occasions are endless to share the Hungarian culture and meet friendly people. They also love dogs – you can take them to restaurants (they also have a ‘cat’ bar for cat owners).

Good  Schools
One American school, two British, 2 Christian, 1 French schools are used by the community at present but there are more international schools available. They are all very good.

Cons
It is hard for me to find real cons particular to Budapest.

Embassy community
Not as tight as what you get in Africa because there is so much to do here that people are constantly out of the city or the country.

Language
One of the hardest to learn after Chinese and Arabic. Extremely few cognates and rules that exist just to be broken on your next sentence. Illogical rules like using the singular when you use a number or ‘lots of’ in front of a name – obviously in English the name and the verb would be in plural form. Imagine that instead of saying ‘These five books are old’  you need to say  ‘This five book is old’.

VAT
The highest in Europe at 27%. Even food gets taxed that high. Few items like bread are taxed at ‘only’ 15%. By doing lengthy paperwork we are able to recuperate it in most cases though – so the con becomes a pro!

Weather forecast
While in most cities you can trust the forecast about one week in advance, in Budapest, even two days in advance it will not be accurate. Weather changes all the time. Yet we have more sunny days than in Barcelona so that is great.

Tons of work
Coming from Pakistan where it was common to work 50 to 70 hours a week we could not believe our colleagues when they said that Budapest was overly busy. Yet after two years we can attest to a level of work that is simply insane compared to other places. It is a small 10-million inhabitant’s country, yet it is in NATO between the West and Russia so it has more share of mind than its size might suggest. Also if you have a regional function and no direct flights to go to your destination due to historical Balkan reasons, travel time adds up.  I wish we could have time to produce better quality instead of always feeling we are running behind.

Five Pros and Cons of Living in Islamabad

A few other bloggers in the Foreign Service are posting their Pros and Cons for their current Post.  I am re-visiting my four different posts to write my lists.

Five Pros

Endless shopping opportunities
Some will tell you that you can save a lot of money when you get 35% danger and 35% hardship – well Islamabad doesn’t get the maximum 70%, I think when we were there the figure was more like 60%. You can also spend a lot of money on expensive items: jewelry (lots of stones), furniture, and carpets to name a few.

Customize everything
Because labor is cheap and artisans are very skilled, you can buy unique pieces or even design them to your taste. We designed: a 100 plus-year-old carved door into a magnificent bed, an armchair, a chaise longue, about 80 outfits from day-to-day woman ensemble to silk dresses, from dressed men shirts to cashmere coat, and many pairs of shoes.

Cost of living
Food costs a fraction of the price in DC. House help costs about $300 a month for a full time person – and at that rate they are in the top 10% earners in the country!

Food
Being foodies we are so happy to have been posted here where food is so good and varied. It is similar to Indian food with some variations (replace pork by beef for example). One beautiful thing to look for: boxes of cherries, presented like rubies in a shrine. One tip: the fish store in F7, Rana Market, is the best. We had sushi from this place several times, never got sick.

Fitness
I have never been so fit in my life. There is an Olympic size pool, a large gym, biking around the diplomatic enclave, hiking the Margalla hills. I even participated in my first Triathlon ever!

Five Cons

Security
Islamabad feels like Fort Knox so you do not feel unsecure at all. RSO wants to keep you on your toes and forbids many things to various degrees depending on RSO personality and real country context. For one year we were able to hike the Margalla hills every weekend, the RSO changed, it got forbidden.

It is very hard to visit the country. Even when RSO tells you it is OK, then Pakistani authorities step in and require extensive paperwork to be processed a month before (Lahore) or three months before (Karachi) – even for work purposes. This definitely hampers travels and tourism.

Embassy community
Tons of singles and faux-singles, more male than female so when you come as a couple, it feels odd. No families so parties never really start until 11 pm even when advertised at 9pm. In the Chancery people dress as if they were in DC and look at you funny if you dress like your Pakistani colleagues – which is much more comfortable considering the weather.

Heat
I like hot weather but for at least two months, you pass 100 F so the difference between inside the office and outside can be uncomfortable.

Hygiene
Or the lack there of … Latrines don’t exist in many places. Flies are everywhere on fruits, vegetable, fish or the hanging in 100 F degree piece of beef. Get used to it. Bring sanitizer!

Tons of work
Many people don’t come as a couple so for fear of getting bored they stay at the office. Many people stay at the office to get overtime even if they don’t really work. Some people really have tons of work because Washington wants constant updates. Visas are an issue so you often end up doing 2 jobs because the incumbent has not arrived yet. Whether you really have a lot of work or not, people make you feel crappy if you dare leave at 5.