Thursday, January 28, 2010

Things Are Happening

Once you finally get an assignment, things start moving at a blistering pace. We were just HR-paneled, which means we were officially approved for our new assignment to Jordan. When that happened, a cable was generated welcoming us to post and giving us information on applying for visas, shipping cars, shipping pets, shipping household effects and so on. Then a housing cable arrived, instructing us to fill out a questionnaire listing our housing preferences in order (close to Embassy or far? Ground-floor apartment or higher up? Covered parking? Close to shops? Residential?). Based on our preferences, our rank and our family size, we'll be assigned something the next time the housing board meets. It'll likely be an apartment, as most of the housing in Jordan is composed of apartments. It will also likely be within a 10-minute drive of the Embassy, possibly even walking distance - such a welcome change from our current commute!

I've already contacted the school we're planning on using for the boys, and I'm busy filling out forms, pulling report cards and test records, asking for teacher recommendations, etc. We also have to choose a pre-school for Kyra, sight unseen, because they fill up fast. I'm looking into sending her to the same school as the boys if we can afford it - the only problem is, she won't learn Arabic in pre-school at that school, and I was kind of hoping for a bilingual pre-school. So we'll see.

We can't make summer travel plans yet, because the gaining post (Amman), the losing post (Beijing) and the Bureau all have to argue it out and decide who gets my husband, when. Unfortunately, the person he's replacing doesn't have an onward assignment yet, so we have to wait for his assignment to fall in place before those negotiations can begin. But I think we're planning on leaving here just as soon as school ends in June, doing a month of home leave and two weeks of training/consulations in DC, and then heading to Amman in early August, just in time for school to start. That's what we hope will happen, anyway. So much of this is still out of our hands.

But it's real, people, and it feels a little bit scary, a little bit sad and a little bit exciting, all in turn. Only 4 and a half months to go in Beijing....

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sad News From Haiti

Just dropping in to report that I heard through Diplopundit that an entire foreign service family was lost in Haiti. State Department employee Andrew Wyllie lost his wife (on her birthday) and his two sons, aged 7 and 5, in the quake. This in addition to foreign service officer Victoria DeLong, who died in her home that day.

Unknown numbers of people have died in Haiti, I know. But I'm thinking especially hard of the Wyllie family because, well, they could've been any foreign service family. You move to a post, and you accept that you are taking on many risks. There are all sorts of ways you can die in a foreign country - car accidents take a lot of foreign service members, for example, and these accidents would often have been survivable in a place where better medical care was available.

This family moved to Haiti knowing it would be hard, knowing they would hate some aspects of the place, knowing they would face all manner of unknown health and safety risks. They went, though, to serve the U.S. in a hard place. This wife agreed to pack up and move her whole family because of her husband's job. That's a big, scary decision, for all of us spouses, and I really hope she was happy with the life she was building for her family in Haiti before she died.

My prayers go out to the family.

Friday, January 15, 2010

What's Next For Us?

Can it be? I started this blog back in June, 2007, with a post about the mechanics of packing up and moving to Beijing. Back then, Shay was getting ready to start the 2nd grade, and he was none too happy about moving to China. Aidan was a pre-schooler. Kyra wasn't walking or talking yet - she was younger than Ainsley is now. And Ainsley - well, we had no idea she'd soon be joining us.

But here it is, 2010 already. We have just five months left in Beijing before it's time to pack the house up once again and move.

To Amman, Jordan.

That's our onward assignment. Amman, Jordan. If anyone out there has been and can offer up some info (Connie?), I'm all ears.

A quick recap, for those of you who are just joining us. Our Foreign Service trail looks like this: Moscow, Armenia, Kazakhstan, DC, Beijing... and now, Amman.

It's a strange and wonderful life we're living. Remind me of that, please, in August, when I'm once again lost and friendless in a strange land.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Guess What I Saw on My Way to Work Today?

I was driving down the Airport Expressway when I was distracted from the task at hand by the most amazing sight. I immediately took my eyes off the road in order to dig through my purse for my cell phone, just so I could document this most amazing invention. Yes, folks, there it was, in all its glory: a snowplow.

Never mind that the snow is long since cleared from most roads in the city. The one and only snowplow has arrived, at last.

I snapped a few photos for proof. And yes, you'll note that in the third photo, I'm turning backwards to snap the picture out of the rear passenger window. What, is that dangerous?

As long as I had the camera out, I decided to continue with this photo exhibit of my commute. Don't worry, mom and dad - I was mostly just holding the phone on the steering wheel and snapping away without looking, hoping for a good shot or two.

And so here, for your entertainment, created at great risk of life and limb, is a photo essay of my Beijing commute. Ready? Let's get started, shall we? First off, you're going to need to climb in your freezer to really get a good picture of my commute.

Are you in there? Are you freezing? Are your feet going numb yet? Okay, that's pretty much what it felt like inside my car this morning. Now we're ready.

Here's the infamous plow that started me down the path of automotive recklessness. As I approached it, traffic slowed. Apparently I wasn't the only one intrigued by this strange sight. Either that or my fellow travelers saw what I was doing and were trying to get out of the way of the strange foreign lady who was attempting to drive and take pictures simultaneously. I doubt that, though: considering all the strange things one sees on the Airport Expressway, I doubt anyone even noticed me.





And here we have a blurry shot of a Chinese road sign. Note the crazy arrows pointing in every direction on the sign to the right? Yeah, I've been here long enough that I know what those arrows mean. The first few times I tried to drive, though, those signs were harder to interpret than actual Chinese characters.



Here I am, getting off at the 3rd Ring Road. Just me and a few million Chinese people, all merging at once. And taking pictures. Hmmm... now that I think about it, maybe this wasn't the safest thing to be doing...



That's the sun in my eyes. Really hard to see anything. Quick, swerve away from the taxi.



Of course, pedestrians don't care that the sun is in my eyes. They keep running out in the street, dodging cars.



See that red door? That's the entrance to Bellagio, a really good Cantonese restaurant down the street from the Embassy. One more right turn and I'll be there. But the red door beckons... dragon beans, yum.



Oh, hey, I never noticed that huge smokestack behind Bellagio. Cough, cough. Maybe it's a cadmium jewelry factory?



Okay, we're here at the Embassy. What's that? You expected pictures of the Embassy? Sorry, I don't want to get chewed out by RSO. No pictures.

But, in the spirit of finishing my commute, I took a few more photos to finish out the day. The car was filthy, so I stopped at the carwash by my house. They cleaned the car for 20 RMB - about $3.



While I waited I watched the parking lot guards marching and drilling. I don't know why they have to do this, but it's a fairly common sight here (unlike snow plows). The guards all line up and march in place for awhile, then listen to a lecture from a senior guard, and then off they go.



One final picture to make you smile. This little guy lives at the car wash with his parents. Every time I go there, he's outside running around in his split pants. As he gets older (he's the same age as Ainsley), he's getting more rambunctious. Today, for example, he took off his hat and threw it in the water. Then he ran around my car while they were washing it, and he giggled as the adults all chased him around the car, shouting. It makes me a little sad to see him - it's so cold out there, and the family doesn't appear to own much more than their little car wash. I've seen only one toy for him - a little ride-on car. But the baby is so cute, and his mom is so attentive, that he makes me smile every time. I keep thinking I need to bring him some toys, but I never remember to stash them in my car.



And that was my commute. Now, it's time to clean up the dinner dishes, pack the lunches and get four kids ready for bed. My real work begins!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sergeant Baxter’s Big Day




We took the kids to the Embassy this weekend to take part in a ceremony they likely wouldn’t see in the States.

Sergeant Baxter, one of the Marines responsible for guarding the Embassy, was getting promoted to Staff Sergeant, which is a very big deal for an enlisted Marine. Two higher-ups flew in from Bangkok to promote him, and all of the Marines turned out.

It was a short ceremony, very simple. All of the kids stood quietly and watched as the Marines stood in formation and Sergeant Baxter became a Staff Sergeant. After the ceremony, the kids all shook his hand and congratulated him. Then they played basketball and soccer in the Embassy gym while the adults stood in line to congratulate the new Staff Sergeant.

Sometimes, at events such as this, you feel the weight of what it means to be an American. America is so young still, in comparison with the other countries in which we’ve lived and served. But what we have, well – it’s amazing. It’s easy to take it all for granted, back home in the States, where we can say what we want, worship where we want, do what we want to do, without undue interference from the government. It’s easy to forget that these freedoms were won for us at great cost. It’s easy to forget that many other countries around the world don’t guarantee such rights to their citizens. But there, in the company of diplomats and Marines, I remembered. Because every one of the people in that gym has devoted his life to protecting and defending our country, often at great personal cost.

Folks back home, hang on to this knowledge. Lots of us – myself included - complain about certain aspects of our government. But the government is made up of people. And from what I can tell, from the people I saw gathered in that Embassy gymnasium in Beijing, we’re in good hands.

There we were: a whole group of patriotic Americans, all choosing to live in China, each serving America as best he can, gathered together despite differences in politics, religion and education, to celebrate the promotion of one hard-working Marine.

Congratulations, Staff Sergeant Baxter.

(And for those of you who know us in real life: Sunday was the ten-year anniversary of the day Bart and the Marines had to take some very decisive action against an Embassy intruder at another post. We learned first-hand that day that people really do put their lives on the line for their government every day overseas.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

On the plus side, when they don't have any plows and the weather refuses to warm up, a single decent snow fall can stick around for over a week, providing loads of entertainment.

Shay went to Jack's for a sleepover, so he's not around. This morning I sent Aidan and Kyra into the front yard to dig for awhile. You can see there's still lots of snow piled everywhere. In fact, I took the first picture from inside the snow fort the kids built in the front yard. You can see Kyra off in the distance, digging up the neighbor's yard.




And what did Ainsley think of the morning's fun? Well, she was less than happy at being left behind.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Rising Superpower?

They don't have snowplows in Beijing. Why should they? It hardly ever snows.

That means that when it does snow half a foot in one day, it's gonna have to sit there. For days. It makes for a killer snowfort in the front yard. But driving? Not so fun.

Driving has been treacherous. It's still icy and sleety and slushy and dangerous on the roads around our house. They've dug out the parking lots in most places, and the major roads. But the small roads - not so much. Our little street was just dug out, by shovel, this afternoon.

No, Beijing does not have snowplows. What Beijing does have is people. Lots and lots of people. And so yesterday, when I loaded up the still-on-winter-break kids and drove them to a nearby restaurant for milkshakes, we had to make our way around a crowd of 100 local farmers and migrant workers, all bearing shovels, getting ready to dig out the bike lane along the highway.

That, my friends, is a Chinese snowplow. And they've appeared all over the roads in the last couple of days. Hordes of workers with shovels, some without gloves, in single-digit temperatures.

If you gave an average American a shovel and told him to go dig out the streets for a couple of dollars, I think he'd refuse. I certainly couldn't survive more than an hour out there, gloveless, hacking away at chunks of ice on the side of a highway.

We don't have the manpower to shovel out an entire city by hand.

But then, we have snowplows.

Who wins this battle of the superpowers?

It's supposed to snow again tomorrow. Maybe this time I'll remember to bring my camera and catch a shot of the shovel brigade.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

And the Winner Is...

And the winner in the category of "First Visit to the Doctor in 2010" is....

Ainsley!

She went all-out to win, with a fever over 103, a double ear infection AND tonsillitis!

Congratulations to Ainsley, who is now the proud owner of an entire pharmacy's worth of medicine!

Can anyone top that?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Today in Beijing

It snowed today. And snowed, and snowed, and snowed. The only person in all of Beijing who owns a snow shovel is me, so the streets did not get plowed and the sidewalks were not shovelled, but the kids were able to make a snow fort in the front yard with our fabulous shovel.

We bought the shovel when we lived in Virginia. Before that, we lived in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where it regularly snowed at least a foot a week all winter long. At the time, we bought a locally-made snow shovel, which consisted of a thick piece of wood nailed to a wooden handle, with a small sheet of metal nailed to the end of the shovel side to help it scrape better. This 10 pound shovel was our only defense against the snow, and we had a narrow, curvy, downhill driveway that absolutely had to be shoveled if you wanted to get in or out. So I often used that wooden monstrosity to scoop up great piles of snow and hurl them 8-10 feet in the air, trying to get the snow off the driveway and onto the front lawn above.

I had amazing biceps.

Here, we have a nearly-level driveway and it seldom snows. But no way was I leaving my lightweight aluminum shovel in storage. Besides, I've made friends because of that shovel. When it does snow, I always get visits from ayis and guards hoping to borrow it. It disappears with them for awhile, then reappears at our doorstep for the next needy soul.

So, we have a shovel. What we lack are snow boots. That didn't stop the kids, though. They spent hours out there digging and scooping and throwing. Every, oh, ten minutes or so, they'd dash in, rip off wet clothes, socks, gloves and hats, dump them in a pile, change into dry clothes, and dash back out. Wet laundry piled up everywhere, driving my Type A husband nearly out of his mind.

I didn't leave the house once - I'm not a fan of cold weather, and I believe snow is best admired from the other side of the window, preferably while seated next to a roaring fire. Lucky for me, my husband braved the elements to go out in search of some coffee for me - did I marry well or what? I stayed inside and made whole wheat pita bread for lunch, green monster pasta for dinner (you might know it by its proper name, pesto), and chocolate cookies for dessert. In between times, I mixed up hot cocoa by the gallon.

That's the best kind of snow day, in my opinion: husband takes kids outside while I stay inside and carb-load.

I also spent loads o time on the internet, looking at houses for sale in case we get posted back in the U.S. Pretty depressing. I think I found my dream house, for the low, low price of $849,000. Time to monetize the blog; maybe I can pick up a half a million between now and June?

Sigh. Oh, well. No dream house in this lifetime. But I still have some warm cookies on the kitchen counter. So that's something.

Enjoy the pictures, and stay warm whereever you are.





(No, I didn't take these pictures myself. That would've involved going outside, and if you'd been paying close attention to this story, well, you wouldn't even have to ask that question...)
Please. Write your own stuff.