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’!

Pakistan – Islamabad Particularities: Green & Safe

I had read that Islamabad was the greenest city in Asia. Indeed, it almost felt like Northern Europe! Maybe it is one of the reasons I liked it so much there. I come from Paris which is a very green capital and France, also a very green country. In my street and all the streets of my neighborhood F7 there were trees and flowers. Less than a kilometer away there was the National Park of the Margalla Hills– we would hike every week in the hills and we still miss them a lot. I had never lived so close to nature and wilderness. We saw monkeys and boars besides beautiful birds in these rocky hills.

Islamabad has a very mathematical way of dividing its square neighborhoods because it is a very modern city, planned and built in the 1960s and settled only in the 1970s next to its much older sister city Rawalpindi. In the tiny village of Saidpur, between Islamabad and the hills, there is a very interesting photo exhibit showing Islamabad before it was developed. When Pakistan gained independence in 1947, Karachi was its capital. Planners have named the neighborhoods in Islamabad by letters from E to I – why not start by A is beyond me – and numbers from 5 to 18 – again, why not start at 1??? After 11 all the letters do not exist because it is still inhabited. Each square is divided into four smaller squares. When you gave your address it felt like playing naval battle: “I live in F7-2, one block from F8-3 … sunk!” Beyond Constitution Avenue, towards the north east, the area could be number 4, it comprises most of the public buildings: presidential palace, parliament, court of justice, etc. Beyond this, which could be number 3, is the diplomatic enclave, a little Fort Knox for embassies.

What is definitely a specificity of the Pakistani capital that I had never experienced before are the road blocks on every major roads: security check points that make cars zigzag and stop, show papers or car plate to a police officer, get approved and go on. It is like a permanent war and indeed when you think about it, the Taliban are definitely having a war. Someone had said something like ‘most countries have an army – the Pakistani army has a country’. While in Senegal everyone had diplomatic plates displayed where car plates are supposed to and Senegalese knew all the numbers by heart – number one for France, number eight for the United States and so on – here the plates are unmarked and it is not until arriving at a check point or entering the diplomatic enclave that the driver places the red diplomatic plate on the windshield, and promptly hides it again. Diplomats are targets.

Another very Pakistani specialty is the No Objection Certificate (NOC). Whenever we wanted to go anywhere outside the city boundaries, past I18, we had to receive a NOC first. The government had to issue a certificate stating that it did not object to our visit somewhere. We had to fill a bunch of papers explaining where we wanted to go and how, whether it was for a tourist or business purpose. If we rented a car we had to list the plate number and if we had a driver he had to give copy of his papers as well so if you had to fill the papers a month before the trip and he got sick, you were out of luck! Or if the listed car got in an accident prior to your rental and the rental company changed it … Indeed where it got complicated is that there were a NOC for ‘open’ places and a NOC for ‘closed’ places. The ruins of Taxila are ‘open’ so the NOC needed to be requested only 48 hours in advance; however the Murree brewery is a ‘closed’ place, so the NOC papers had to be processed at least 15 days in advance.

And yes there is a brewery which makes beer in a Muslim country, and whiskey, vodka, gin, etc.

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.