Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Post Housing: A Personal History

It seems like all I ever do these days is link to Shannon. But once again, she is hosting the RoundUp. This week's topic is housing in the Foreign Service: the good, the bad, the downright peculiar.

So I'm going to start with our second post, Armenia, where we had a beee-yew-tiful house. Hand-laid parquet floors, crystal chandeliers - I seriously worried when I saw it that they thought maybe we were the Ambassador or something.

But then I looked closer.

For starters, the kitchen was about the size of a large desk. It had a sink and a stove. About two feet of counter space. No dishwasher. No garbage disposal. Also: no refrigerator. There wasn't room for a refrigerator in the kitchen, so we had to put it in the entry way. It wasn't the most efficient kitchen space I've ever been in.

Also, there was the little matter of the sauna. Yes: the landlord installed a dry sauna in the basement. It looked like the real deal. But GSO warned us never to try to use it, because it wasn't properly grounded, and was therefore an electrocution risk.

The best thing of all in this house? Well, if you went in the basement, you'd discover a gigantic stone fireplace - useless in the empty basement. Beyond that there was a wooden bookcase. And get this: if you pushed on the corner of the bookcase, it would swing around to reveal a secret room. Just like an old episode of Scooby Doo.

I loved that bizarre house, with its gigantic generator in the front yard and the boarded up fountain/pool/whatever in the back. We had a pomegranate tree, grape vines and the most wonderful Armenian neighbors you could imagine.

On to Kazakhstan, where we landed and were told we'd be in temporary housing because our house "wasn't built yet." I expected a loooong wait in the temporary apartment, but the house went up fairly quickly - and shoddily, too. Again, the landlord went to great lengths to fancy it up, with heated floors in the kitchen and entry. But he skimped on the pieces that no one could see, which is why one fine day the drain in the upstairs shower failed, sending water cascading inside the walls until it reached the circuit breaker, which broke. There was a gigantic exploding POP! before the lights went out. And we were without a shower for some time, as it had to be removed and re-worked.

But the view from the kitchen window made up for all of that. If I looked past the Korean Ambassador's residence - he lived directly across the street - past his gigantic Korean flag, past the trash burning in the vacant lot beside his house, I had a direct view to the snow-capped Alatau mountain range. I didn't even mind washing dishes when I could watch the sun make its way across that range.

And then there was Beijing. The paint was white, locally produced, and if you scrubbed at a handprint on the wall, the paint would come off, but the handprint remained. The ceiling in the garage fell on me one afternoon when I was folding laundry and a pipe in the ceiling burst. I didn't find out until I'd been there for two years that the windows in the sunroom didn't actually lock (so that's how they got in!). My master bathroom had TWO baths, one of which grew black mold at a feverish pace, while the other wasn't tiled over, so was just for show. Bonus: there was a chandelier directly over my bed that consisted entirely of naked brass mermaids holding fishing rods. Why, oh why, did I not take a picture of that chandelier? No one believes me now. (But I can't wait to see the google searches that bring people to this post...)

To be entirely fair, the house was big and comfy, and the neighborhood was terrific, if you didn't mind having guards watching your every move and writing it all down in their little books every time you stepped in or out of your own house.

I won't complain about our apartment in Amman. Sure, there are things I would change if I could. But I'm happy here, and my family is happy here, so even though I don't have a secret room tucked behind a bookcase, or a view from my kitchen window, or a naked mermaid chandelier (not one naked mermaid in the entire house! I've searched high and low!), I can't complain.

Through all of these moves, we continue to make payments on our oh-so-small townhouse in Virginia, so that the kids have a place to call "home," even if we never return to it.

I wonder if I can find a secret-bookcase-installer in Virginia?


Betsy said... [Reply]

We saw a show on the Discovery Channel about secret rooms. As soon as it was over my children announced that they wanted a secret room for their birthday presents. Um, no!

I can always find something I don't like about a place, but I try to be positive. The house we are in right now is a brand new set of quarters; it is by far the nicest we have ever had.

I hope you have lots of pictures of these wonderful houses. I have taken many pictures of each place we have lived. I figure some day my children will want to look back on the many homes of their military brat careers.

Shannon said... [Reply]

OK What are the chances that if I go to Armenia I will get the house with the Scooby room? I have ALWAYS wanted something like that. How fun. Dave wants the Mermaid chandelier. LOL!

Love this post and thinks for linking to me.

Just US said... [Reply]

Mermaid chandelier and secret passageways - that is very cool! I better not tell my kids or they will be coming to visit you :)

Smallbits said... [Reply]

The moving wall is just cool! I hope someone did a haunted house there one year. I linked to you here:

MeAndYou said... [Reply]

I'm curious about these guards tracking your coming and going. Were they working for the local government? What do you suppose they thought would turn up in your traffic pattern?

Kristen said... [Reply]

Ohhhh, my interest is so piqued at what our housing in Armenia will be like. We should be finding out more details about it in the next few weeks. Here's hoping for secret passageways, but I'd love a bit more counter space... although, what's that old saying "FSO's (oops I mean beggars) can't be choosers.

Jen Ambrose said... [Reply]

This circulated on twitter this morning and I thought of you. Check all that apply

Penni said... [Reply]

Hi! I've been reading your blog for a while now. My boyfriend is planning on becoming a German diplomat, so your experiences interest me.

On the topic of housing, what kind of electrical outlets do you have in your houses? Do they install American outlets for you, so you can keep your lamps and other electronics, or did you have to invest in lots and lots and lots of converters?

I find it irritating enough having both German and American devices, and I'm always searching for a converter, no matter where I am!

Shannon said... [Reply]

It is time for the Weekly State Department Blog Round Up and you are on it!

It is found here:

If you would like the links to your site removed (or corrections are needed) please contact me. Thanks!

Connie said... [Reply]

I want a secret room! We do have a room in the basement, but it is well-lit and has regular doors and laundry stuff. Boring. We've always joked that all this moving will make buying a retirement home in future difficult... we'll have such a huge list of 'must haves' and 'no ways'!

Ruth Anne said... [Reply]

Donna, you've got to head to Berlin. Our Corps of Engineers-built house there (former base housing in West Berlin) had been renovated by a German firm, losing some nice American features like dual-voltage in the kitchen with US and Euro outlets. (My house in Tel Aviv had this and it was awesome.) But secret room? Sure. Our houses used to all be connected via a tunnel system - since bricked off, though colleagues who served in Berlin years ago remember amazing multi-house games of hide and seek with their kids. But the door is still there, and we kept a spare flashlight in the basement to regale our guests with this favorite feature of the house.

We can't wait to get to Morocco to see what our housing is like!

Please. Write your own stuff.