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.

Escaping in Budapest

A typical Mother’s Day might involve a nice brunch or lunch, flowers, and a family gathering. While in Budapest, here is an idea for a very different celebration: a room-escape game! We surprised my husband with such game on Father’s Day last year and had a fabulous time.

It took only a few minutes after the door locked behind us for the atmosphere in the cramped room filled with odd items to turn tense. A hasty note, left behind on a battered table, warned us that we had only an hour to escape, and it soon became clear that our route forward was beyond a second door.

This was not a spy movie, but downtown Budapest.  When we arrived in 2013, we discovered that the top attraction on Trip Advisor for Budapest was not the Széchenyi baths, the Var, the Parliament, nor the Basilica, but “Claustrophilia,” a room-escape game.

We had the choice between the Voodoo Tales and The Wickelwood Heritage which is one of the city’s more imaginative games. It is also one of its more difficult: only 30 percent of players make it out in time. It takes place in what was supposedly the home of a 19th-century explorer and treasure hunter, and the three-room apartment is filled with such travel-related antiques as maps and trunks. Escaping requires uncovering a clue that will help you find a key to the next room. Each clue requires different types of mind and different part of the brain to succeed.

We were remotely monitored to encourage our progress and ensure we were still having fun. They gave us just the right amount of advice to help us until the next step.

It is a team game. Each room stretched our brains in various ways. We also had to stretch physically. We were four and physically needed to be four to escape that first room. One had to push a button to generate light for a few seconds so that we could read parchment scrolls. One person had to advance them with a mechanism at the other end of the room. Two of us attempted to break the code.

I’m happy to report that we were among the successful 30 percent to escape, and well within our allotted hour. When we had solved the last puzzle and found the key that would let us out of the apartment, a lady came out from behind her hidden control room. “Not all the teams work so well together,” she said. “But you did well.”

There are now over 20 room-escape games in Budapest. The quality and settings vary dramatically, but all share a common premise. Lock a small group in rooms filled with clues and obstacles, and see if, through deductive logic, teamwork and a bit of luck, they can figure their way out. In other words, it is like a live video game.

Claustrophilia is the city’s top-ranked room-escape game on TripAdvisor but there are many others. Most games last an hour, cost around $40 for a group of two to five, and are as popular with locals as with visitors.

Challenge your family and friends for this Mother’s Day … or Father’s Day!

www.Claustrophilia.hu

www.escaper.hu

https://szabadulos-jatek.hu/ (E-Exit Games)

www.Lockedescape.hu

A Perfect Weekend in Sine Saloum

Summary: 1 night in a baobab tree and 1 night in a refined B&B to discover Palmarin and Joal-Fadiouth, the heart of Sine Saloum.

Day 1 – leave at 6:00 am from Dakar. This little sacrifice ensures you arrive in Joal (75 miles – 120 km) in about 2 hours, instead of 4 or 5. The road is well paved and it is straight after Saly and Mbour.

After Joal, you are on a dirt road for 20 miles where 20 mph is about the maximum speed you want to submit your wheels to. Take the direction of Fadial and Samba Dia. About 5 miles after Joal is the oldest and biggest baobab in Senegal:  over 850 years. You can climb inside … to see the bats and the open sky. Note: on the photo is a ‘baby’ baobab, I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the biggest one in Senegal.

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After Samba Dia, turn right (South) to reach Palmarin Ngallou. The Lodge des Collines de Niassam is well marked – sharp turn on the left and dirt road for less than a mile to reach the reception. They propose several types of accommodation and since we needed 3 rooms we tried them all: the baobab room (big bed), the Berber tent room (3 small beds), and the Laguna room (big bed) where your suite is on the water, on stilts. This place also has a small swimming pool and more details can be found on their beautiful bilingual website, www.niassam.com.

Tip: when you make reservation, be sure to let them know if you are a resident, since they have different prices.

After some rest, we drove to Djiffer, the end of the peninsula. There you can rent a pirogue to go up the Saloum river and into the mangrove. It is hard to get the price under 40,000 francs but it is for a tour of 2 to 3 hours for as many people as the pirogue can fit (10 comfortably). We reached the village of Falia where we took smaller pirogues to go into the mangrove. They rarely see “toubabs” (white people) in this village and were very excited and friendly.

There are only a few restaurants in Djiffer and they are extremely simple – you eat the take of the day basically. Between the hotel and Djiffer sits the Royal Lodge where you can indulge in Western comfort, if need be.

Day 2 – After exploring the small island in front of the hotel, reachable by foot or private pirogue, we left this charming place and went back to Joal.

We stayed at the romantic B&B Keur Seynabou, very well marked and on the beach with view on the ocean. The hostess offers 3 very well decorated big rooms (sleep 2 to 4) and a swimming pool surrounded by bougainvillea of all colors.

They organize trips in the mangrove, fishing trips, visit of Fadiouth, etc. In the afternoon we took a trip to the mangrove with their boat.

Day 3 – We went to Fadiouth (nice walk from the B&B). The catholic mass with djembe and chorus starts at 9h30. Even for non-Catholics it is a marvelous show. At the end of the mass you have hundreds of colorful people coming out, all with great dresses and assorted hats. This tiny island only accessible by a long wooden bridge or by boat boasts the tranquility of a no-car island where you walk on white seashells in the streets. We visited the market and went back to the B&B.

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Then we headed back. After 25 miles, we were in Saly for lunch. The restaurant Chez Marie has an innovative menu with reasonable prices. On the main road to Saly it is before the roundabout, just after Bicis and a big karaoke disco, on the left.

You may do it differently but this is how we did it and enjoyed it tremendously. To explore more of Sine Saloum if you have more time you could also go to N’Dangane (East after Joal and Samba Dia) to reach Mar Lodge by boat.

Diplomatic Fair Budapest 2014

A very specific event that is usually unknown outside the diplomatic circle is the ‘diplomatic fair’ – although most of them are open to the public but generally poorly advertised outside this circle. Before joining the Foreign Service I had never heard of this type of event.

A Diplomatic Fair, as I had the pleasure to witness it four times already, is a fun giant bazaar recreating a mini world in one given place. It can take place in a big field in Africa or Mexico or a large venue in an international hotel. Imagine your school fair at the end of the year and multiply by 50 or 80 nationalities!

The association of the diplomatic spouses is the organizer of this event which is a fund raising event supporting one or several vetted charities among the ones that have more needs in a given country: children’s education, women shelters, orphanage or even a training center for dogs which will be placed with blind people.

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These fairs have at least two components: national booths selling specialties from a given country and a food corner either common or again divided by countries. The Diplomatic Fair organized by the Diplomatic Spouses of Budapest is by far the most complete of the fairs I have witnessed so far since it adds many more components to please and entertain longer a more diverse public:

  • All-day performances. Today it started by dances from India with four gracious ladies in colorful outfits; then there was a children’s choir; a folk dance from Europe; an energetic flamenco dance performed by mother and daughter; three muscular dancers from Nigeria who fired up the dance floor inviting people to dance with them at the tune of the drums; a folk dance from the Middle East which got everybody clapping; rock and roll and caroling from the United States (yes this was our team!) and many others that I missed because the place was extremely crowded
  • There was an instant raffle where you knew immediately if you had won a small prize from about $5 to $30 and then at the end of the day there were the results for the big tombola with dozens of big prizes which value was considerably above $200 sometimes even $1,000.
  • Second-hand corner. Used clothes, jewelry, DVDs, books, stuffed animals…
  • Kid corner. This is a great idea both for the child and the parent. Kid doesn’t like to be dragged, parent likes to shop in peace – perfect win-win situation.

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It was interesting to discover the empty room this morning at 7:00 AM. Some booths were entirely set up and decorated (which had to have occurred between 9:00 PM and 11:00 PM yesterday) and some were bare and some remained bare until 15 minutes prior to the grand opening. Different nationalities, different habits. Where it is truly a diplomatic event is that all countries exist, whether they have been recognized officially or not yet.

Soon the diplomatic spouses will gather and see who made the largest contribution. It is a matter of national pride to be among the top donors. I have a rather competitive spirit but for this occasion I would say: we all won because everyone who participated in this great even is already a winner, no need to count anything when it comes from the heart!

Foreign Service – Expect the unexpected!

Life in the Foreign Service brings many unexpected moments and crazy memories and this is the way I like it.

Nobody told me I would …

  • Pilot a Cessna over the Sine Saloum Delta in Senegal – I don’t even have a pilot’s license!
  • Glide from baobab to baobab like Tarzan near the reserve of Bandia.
  • Eat ‘yassa’ chicken with my hands, sitting on the floor in a tiny village near Joal.
  • Take West African businessmen and women to a trade show in Las Vegas and be their nanny 24/7.
  • Drive from Dakar to Bamako on the side of the road, in the sand, because it was safer than dealing with the potholes on the road.
  • Meet Madeleine Albright at breakfast during an American Chamber of Commerce event in Mexico City.
  • Take the kids to Acapulco and learn that, just near us, the narco-traffickers had chopped a dozen heads.
  • Meet and kiss Margarita Zavala, a federal deputy, wife of then president of Mexico Felipe Calderón.
  • Welcome musician and singer Seal at the consulate, chitchat and take photos.
  • Enjoy a lucha libre show with its masked warriors. Lucha libre is a very well-choreographed wrestling competition with heroes and villains. The fun was also among the spectators, for example grandmothers gesturing and yelling chinga tu madre and all other kind of nondescript foul language.
  • Meet and kiss vice-president Biden after his speech at the Embassy in Mexico City, and later receive a letter of appreciation in Pakistan, letter forwarded from Mexico even though it had a wrong address for the Embassy in Mexico.
  • Be car-chased by a crazy man in Chiapas where hubby had to remember and apply all his classes of Crash & Bang defensive driving.
  • Eat powdered ants in a wonderful Mexican dish.
  • Participate and rank top 2 in the first ever triathlon of my life in Islamabad at an age when some of us are grandmothers.
  • Climb the full size brass antelope in the Karachi airport on a dare given by my female boss – who did it too!
  • Be called daughter by a toothless Pakistani villager, thankful that via USAID we brought her electricity.
  • Hike the Margalla hills every week and befriend Pakistani girls in the mountains.
  • Become a designer and invent many unique dresses and shirts thanks to the sewing skills of my Pakistani tailor.
  • 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.
  • Feeling like a rock star or the Queen of England when I entered a classroom and was “showered” in rose petals Pakistani hosts had laid on the blades of the fan.
  • Sleep on the floor of the hut of unknown Thai mountain villagers.
  • Buy a beautiful and unique piece of embroidery in Thailand that the embroiderer consented to sell only because I was married.
  • Eat in bamboo plates from bamboo dishes with bamboo chopsticks that had all been carved in front of my eyes a few minutes before the meal.
  • Taste savory dishes of the curly-haired Mangalica pig during the Mangalica festival in Budapest.
  • Celebrate Valentine’s day in Bosnia (usually more synonym of war than love, unfortunately).
  • Visit an exhibition in total darkness, led by a blind guide and experience like a blind person what life is like, dinner included.
  • Hike to the top of Mount Triglav, the highest mountain of Slovenia at 2864 meters (9,400 feet).
  • Eat foie gras in a special ‘Magyar’ McDonald burger, the libamajjal, where liba means goose, maj liver and the –al suffix with.
  • Climb a Via Ferrata for the first time in my life: the steep via Ferrata Hans-von-Haid-Steig trail to reach Mount Rax in Styria, Austria at 2 000 meters.
  • Learn a few words of Chinese because I am working as a TDYer in Beijing, China, in the middle of the summer – yet the weather is not as hot as in Budapest or Paris.
  • Three years after doing a TDY in Beijing, being assigned to Beijing and invited to model a qipao dress (also called cheongsam) at a fashion and culture show in the Silk Market.

Some friends tell me ‘I didn’t know you were doing these kinds of thing’ and I answer ‘me neither’!

Discovering the US – Identity, Metric System, Driving.

I am not myself anymore.

I almost became schizophrenic. My husband’s former roommate was named Smith. The cable TV and phone subscriptions were in his name. The caller ID that appeared to others announced ‘Smith’. Therefore all the cold calls from telemarketing companies were easily identifiable. They would always start by ‘Hello Mrs. Smith”. After the first few calls which surprised me, I would just play around with them and take all kinds of heavy accents pretending that I didn’t speak English well enough to understand their annoying speech.

More permanent is the fact that one of my many given names is Minh. In Europe it is common in some families to have two or three middle names. When the consulate gave me my immigrant visa, they had no space to write Minh since the space is planned for a typical American person who has only one middle name. The last letter, the H, was truncated and all you could read was ‘Mini’. When the driving license service established my license in Virginia, instead of looking at the first page of my passport where my name is well written in full, they copied the visa page. My very official driving license, valid for ten years, bears the wrong name! Calling me ‘mini’ is nice but after breaking my back one week before the move and gaining a good 16 pounds due to the lack of exercise, I was not exactly ‘mini’ when I arrived in Virginia.

Metric system

When I shop, to find the price per kilo, which is my reference, I have to double every price because everything is stated in pounds. But the pound is no half a kilo here, it would be too easy, it only 450 grams. Once doubled, prices seem very expensive.

I have to remember a few basics: 1 gallon (3.78 liters) = 4 quarters (1 quart = almost 1 liter) and there are 2 pints in a quarter and 2 cups (cups) in a pint. So for those who have followed a “cup” is a little less than 250 grams and there are 16 ounces per pound. Instead of pinch, ounce, pound, quart, gallon, etc. it is so much easier to go 10, 100, 1000 grams or liters. The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world (others are Liberia and Burma) who has not adopted the metric system – why?!

And what about Celsius versus Fahrenheit? This is a tricky matter, not only for the climate but more importantly for bakers. When we travel with the Foreign Service sometimes the house is equipped with American appliances in Fahrenheit and sometimes not! We all need a conversion table near the oven.

Driving everywhere

We kept Anna and Lisa two friends of ours kids overnight. Anna was surprised to not find our daughter at 7:00 AM the next morning.

– “Where is she?” she asked with great concern.

– “Gone to school!” I replied.

– “On foot?!? ” she exclaimed indignantly.

I explained that her middle school bus was less than 100 meters (300 feet) away. This did not seem to convince her – a good mom would have driven her child and polluted the air to avoid the poor little girl a mere 2-minute walk.

Around 7:30 AM, when it was time for Anna, her little sister Lisa, and our son to leave for primary school, I started to walk with them. Anna thought we were probably going to get The Car. We had not walked for a minute yet when Anna exclaimed “you do not have a car?!” I replied that I had one but not for 500 meters (about 1/3 of a mile), thus less than ten minutes by foot.

“But my satchel is very heavy,” she grimaced. Without playing her game, I told her that it was the end of the school year and that teachers did not ask satchels to be full therefore they should not be heavy. I concluded by something like ‘a small walk is good for your health’. I think that these friends will not want to sleep at our home the night before a school day again!

Discovering the US – School matters

Arlington is a county and not a city (some counties are re-divided into cities) which has about 200,000 inhabitants (57% white, 21% Hispanic, 10% Asian, 9% Black) from of 128 countries speaking 105 languages. This is a true “melting pot”, perfect for a Foreign Service kid.

When we arrived in Arlington, there were 18,200 students, including about 4,000 who followed the English for Speakers of Other Languages/High Intensity Language Training (ESOL/HILT). Our daughter and son were raised in English but in the French system so they were first placed in ESOL/HILT. The integration efforts and many resources deployed are so intense that the Arlington county schools rate in the top 1% of the country.

Middle School Matters

Our daughter commented that it was great to learn in Virginia because the pupils were disciplined, more so than in France, and respected their teachers. I discovered that an elementary school teacher started his/her career at about $ 40,000 in the Arlington County while in France it is barely $ 27,000 (about 22,000 euros). Low pay for teachers is a well-known fact in France and does not help them earn the respect they deserve.

Another difference is that if a student performs well s/he will get into advanced classes, potentially even following 8th grade level math for example while being in 7th grade. It is a great idea until it becomes too much pressure and competition and discrimination. In 6th grade the math program was very similar than in France and our daughter was following so well that the teacher recommended her for an advanced level, even 8th grade level when she passed in 7th grade. Then she changed school (we moved after the summer) and the program changed. It was all about fractions which are not at all taught the same on either side of the Atlantic. In France we use decimals which reads easier than fractions (0.5 versus ½ and this one is very easy). Just like when someone who has an accent is often looked upon as if they were not that clever, the math teacher started to treat our daughter as a retarded person because she could not be in advanced math, even less in 8th grade level but had to settle for 7th grade level while in 7th grade and it was probably bad for her statistics!

I was surprised to learn that my daughter had cooking and sewing classes, known as Family And Consumer Science (FACS) in middle school since these classes have been dropped from the French curriculum in the 1970s. They have been dropped from the general curriculum followed by students who are supposed to graduate and study further. These classes are still given to students following a more manual or technical curriculum.

I was even more surprised when in ‘sex’ class, instead of talking about genitals, menstruation or other needed topics they dared make that hour about fellatio!!! In 7th grade! I was out of breath. I ran to my knowledgeable neighbor and asked who I was supposed to complain to: teacher, headmaster? She frowned and flatly answered ‘Bill Clinton’. Whaaat?! Apparently, according to the survey made after the annoying facts happened, A-student middle school girls had been talked into performing fellatio on their classmates because, you see ‘it’s not sex’. The school had thus decided to advance the class a few grades to prevent this from happening again.

Primary School Matters

Our son’s first teacher was called Ms. Brat in a school called Barrett – like the hair accessory. He felt weird about this. Then the school had fun games and a show where they brought reptiles at school, big long snakes that they could put around their necks so the school became a cool place again.

One day he had an anatomy course with focus on reproduction. The girls were in another room so everyone could ask questions without embarrassment. On his return, he seemed surprised to have discovered that his penis had other functions in addition to urinating.

Whenever they do a school picnic, they go for easy things like chips, buns and hot dogs. Balanced meal??? Unfortunately our son has never liked sausages of any kind, plastic-like nor gourmet. For him picnic meant a dry bun. About school picnics my husband had a sort of opposite discovery when he proposed to chaperon one of the school picnics in France. At lunch time, the teachers pulled a bottle of red wine and offered him some. When he told me this anecdote he was expecting me to gasp and me for him to give the punch line – it was such a common thing to see teachers drink wine at lunch!

Our daughter talked more and more English at home and our son, having forgotten the French word for apple sauce exclaimed, “that’s it, I’m losing my French!” He wanted to know if we returned to France on our next holiday. Our daughter, however, thought that everything was better in Arlington.

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).