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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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).

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).

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 …

So many addresses …

I had promised to count the exact number of physical addresses I have lived in so far. I had mentioned making a comparison between home number 17 and number 21. My husband has reached 27 actually. Not me. No such “luck”. I have only lived in 16 houses but since 8 of them happened in only 7 years… I got carried away!

Seven years ago I joined my husband starting his second career. We lived in a small apartment in Virginia which was house number 9 for me and number 20 for him. We had to learn the different neighborhoods to pick the right one for school purposes. After three months there we found a little brick house (#10) in a great neighborhood with very good schools and fantastic neighbors. It was my first time living in the United States for real (I had had summer jobs in Florida when I was a student) and it felt unreal, like in a movie from the 1950s. Kids running, playing in the street, basketball, hide and seek, no worrying parents. Neighbors bringing you welcome carrot cakes and chocolate chip cookies. One day my son came back, amazed, from his new friend’s house describing how the cookies were in a glass jar because the mom had cooked them herself – shame on me buying them at the supermarket! Christmas caroling from house to house.  Sycamores in the fall.

Alas less than a year later we were assigned to our first tour overseas. I say alas because we were leaving our fantastic neighbors but we were obviously also happy to finally start our big adventure. We landed in West Africa and a huge white house welcomed us (#11). White outside, white inside floors, walls, ceilings. No cookies from neighbors here but the call of the muezzin five times a day and a stray dog who adopted us, named Roxy by my daughter. Senegal is a francophone country so it was very easy for us to settle and we welcomed the warmer climate.

After two years we came back to the United States and lived in Arizona (#12) a few months before our next assignment to Mexico City (#13). We lived in an apartment because the choice was an apartment in the Polanco area (my favorite place in the city) or a house in the hills, which meant horrendous commute and much colder weather. After almost two years in Mexico we moved to the greenest city of this part of the world: Islamabad (#14). It is funny how you don’t grow up fantasizing about making Pakistan your home country … and yet we had a great time there, much better than anticipated.

After one year in Islamabad we moved to Budapest in a nice house (#15) but for technical reasons we had to move again after six weeks and finally settle in house #16.

I now need to explain why I wrote physical address and not just address, why each time we move we are actually juggling with seven snail-mail addresses!!!

1 – our permanent address in the United States (use for banking & retirement)

2 – our permanent address in France (use for banking & retirement)

3 – our official address in Washington (use for official mail)

4 – our personal address in Dulles (use for online shopping with sites who refuse to ship to DPO)

5 – our DPO address in the U.S. (the most used for online shopping)

6 – our address at the Embassy (our official response when asked where we live; also for invoices for example)

7 – our real address (we only give it to friends and the school shuttle)

Yes, you need to be organized when you become a Foreign Service Officer.

Culture shock – the reason behind the title

I just started this blog. Four days ago. It almost failed to be published because I didn’t know how to call it. Any excuse is good when you are a writer at heart who doesn’t write. I have been thinking about this blog for a year at least, since I have always written and wanted to update myself to a new age of communication.

How to capture everything I want to publish in a title? Especially when I don’t even know exactly what I will publish. Procrastination is evil. So I thought about what would be in that blog, what would make it interesting. Seven years ago I started a second career, following my husband also starting his second career. Why did we join the Foreign Service? He joined, I followed, reinventing myself in each country.

Note to self: in a future post, describe all my different jobs paid and unpaid ever since we joined the Department of State – it might help the spouses debating whether or not to give up their career to become a ‘follower’.

So, why did we join the Foreign Service? The short answer is:

  • all our money was used to travel anyways, so why not get paid to travel?
  • we love to learn about different cultures and living in a country would help us live a culture instead of just touching the surface of it
  • we are foodies, my husband is a great cook so living in different countries sounded very appealing from this perspective as well
  • we are raising two kids; with the globalization of the world they would be stronger, more accepting of differences and integrate better if they had this experience under their belts

In the end it was all about Culture. But when you move to a different country, even next door, you receive a Culture Shock. The online Oxford Dictionary defines culture shock as ‘disorientation experienced when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way of life.’  Indeed moving to a new country confronts you to different everything: people, language, landscape, food, weather, dress codes, public transport, religion, customs, smells, sounds, animals … Depending on past experience and character it could lead to homesickness, misunderstanding, dependence feeling, boredom, anger … or exhilaration and creativity!

Cultural orientation experts will tell you that your culture shock will develop in four phases: Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, and Mastery.

In the Honeymoon phase the differences are not a challenge, you thrive on them, you love your new country, and you are fascinated by all your discoveries. Depending on the country and the person, this phase lasts one to four months.

In the Frustration phase differences become a problem and cause anxiety and anger. At work you have passed the 100-day grace period where you could find excuses for not knowing things. Two months could be a holiday, after this you may become homesick or friend sick.

In the Adjustment phase reason speaks to your heart. You have moved to this new country for one year, four years or more – you can’t spend this big chunk of your life miserable! What made you angry for six months could have its advantages too. You push your paradigms to ‘new normal.’ Perhaps you have learned the language and this has helped you better understand the culture and be more welcome among locals.

In the Mastery phase, without being completely assimilated you act like a local, almost feel like one. You embrace the differences and you adopt part of the host culture. If you are very successful at this phase you might experience a reverse culture shock when you return to your home land.

Hence the subtitle under my blog name: Culture Shock – Staying in the Honeymoon Phase. This is a second career, it needs to be all fun by adopting a positive attitude at all times. We may reach the Mastery Phase but we have pledged to skip the frustration and adjustment phases. Have you noticed? These two phases don’t deserve cap letters!

This is over 660 words, more than I need for my 500 words-a-day challenge. More on this at http://goinswriter.com/.