Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dante Never Said So, Exactly, But I'm Pretty Sure His Seventh Circle of Hell is Populated by Furbys.

Santa brought both of the girls Furbys for Christmas.

Because Santa is an asshole.

Ainsley's Furby is pink, obviously, because there is no other color in her vocabulary. Kyra's is white. They looked innocent enough in their boxes, those Furbys.  But when we took them out and shoved multiple batteries into their backsides, their eyes popped open, and it's been a living hell ever since.

I don't know how much you know about Furbys, but apparently they are interactive. In marketing-to-gullible-parents speak,  interactive means that they learn from you. (A learning toy! What could be better!) In reality, interactive means that they Never Shut Up. (Quick! Bring me the rest of the sweet tea vodka! No, I don't need a glass!)

They giggle maniacally, which of course causes much glee and laughter, which is cute for a few minutes. And if you turn on music, they dance. The more obnoxious the music, the dancier they get. Bing Crosby Christmas carols? Meh, not so much. But give them a good inappropriate rap song, or maybe some Ke$ha, and they start grooving. You haven't lived til you've seen your 4-year-old, pink Furby clutched passionately to chest, rocking out to "Your Love is my Drug."

Even that, though, I could handle. It wasn't until the Furbys started talking back that I realized what a terrible, terrible mistake Santa had made.

On Christmas evening, I was skyping with the in-laws, who somehow, to this day, have not started custody proceedings against me, despite the fact that they can see my children misbehaving on camera every single week, while I chat away, oblivious, and you just know that after they hang up, they cling to each other and sob, "what in the heck was our son thinking, marrying that woman instead of Super Nanny? Or at least a nice young lady from the same town as us?"

The kids were running around grabbing their new toys and thrusting them at the camera in order to show their grandparents every last thing that had been unwrapped that morning. The main point of this exercise was apparently to make as much noise as possible and get as many items in view of the camera as possible. The Barbies waved at the camera. The princess books almost took my eye out. The Star Wars toy made several fly-bys. Both Furbys made an appearance, cackling and dancing for the camera.

At some point, though, the kids ran out of toys to show off, and they ran into another room, leaving a pile of toys on the chair next to me. The Furbys sat in the pile, cackling and babbling in whatever language it is that Furbys speak.

I tried to ignore them, really I did, but they were too loud. So I called to the girls and asked them to for the love of gawd come get these Furbys out of here.

The girls didn't hear me. But the Furbys did. And one of them distinctly said, in the rudest of rude voices: Oh-Em-Geeee!

I looked at the pile of toys. Both Furbys were laughing and waving their plastic ears, making it was impossible to tell which was the rude one. "Which one of you just said OMG?" I asked them both, astonished. They laughed, but neither confessed.

So I called again for the girls to come get the Furbys. To which one of the Furbys responded "blah blah blah blah BLAAHHHH." And the Furbys laughed again. I'm pretty sure the white one rolled her eyes.

Seriously. Furby back talk. It isn't enough that I have to deal with real-live kids who talk back; now I have two battery-powered little monsters to contend with as well. And in front of the in-laws at that, right there on Skype.

I put the Furbys in time out. Unlike the kids, who constantly emerge from time out to plead their cases, the Furbys muttered for a few minutes and then went to sleep.

I'm wondering: how long do I have to wait before I can hide them under a bed somewhere and leave them to sleep until pack-out?

Awww. So cute. When they're sleeping.

Plotting something rude. And loud. Rude and loud.

Gratuitous shot of Santa and me, at an ugly sweater party, just days before the Furbys drove me to drink.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Twelve in Twelve

Well, folks, if you spend any time at all in the blogosphere, then you know it's that time of year again. Apparently we're all supposed to be writing our "Top 12 in 2012" posts. The problem is, how do you pick your top twelve highlights from an entire year? In my case, because I have no memory cells whatsoever, the only way to accomplish this task is to go back through the blog archives and figure out what, exactly, I've been doing all year.

1.) 2012 started out with a visit from my in-laws, who travelled to Jordan and Jerusalem because every last one of their grandkids lives in the region. Let that be a lesson to you: if you raise your kids to be curious world travellers, as my in-laws did, you might find yourself having to travel to strange places someday if you want to see those grandkids of yours. I wonder where my kids are going to make me go someday? Or perhaps we'll cure them of the travel bug by forcing them to spend their childhood in all of these remote locations?

2.) I passed the Foreign Service Exam, way back in March. I made my way slowly through the whole security clearance/MED clearance/Russian exam thing, and  by summer's end I was on the hiring list - at which point, I promptly requested to be taken off the list. My candidacy is on hold at this point, and I'll have to decide some time next year if I want to get back on it again. I'm sort of waiting to see where we're going to go after Baghdad.

3.) In April, we had more visitors! My brother, his wife and their two kids came to visit, along with my sister and her daughter. We don't see each other very often, given this foreign service livelihood of ours, so it was fun to get the chance to hang out with them and act goofy together. While they were here, we:

4.) Went to Wadi Rum - a first for us. We brought a zillion of our closest friends with us and had way more fun than you can imagine. Open-air jeep rides in the desert! Sand dune surfing! Moonlight soccer matches! Terrifying, bug-filled bathrooms!

5.) While my bro and sis were here, we also sorta went to Egypt. That is, we took a boat from Aqaba to Egypt for some snorkelling. Although, technically, I did not snorkel. I am too lacking in blubber to find cold water appealing, so I stayed on board the boat despite being teased mercilessly.

6.) We bought a house! What were we thinking? (Of course, if my husband wrote this blog, that last sentence would've read "what were you thinking?" But in my defense, it really is a lovely house. And perhaps some day we'll get a chance to live in it!)

7.) We took our R&R and went to Long Beach, California.  Life changing trip, that was. Okay, so maybe not life changing, exactly, but it was a great trip, and it made me look at the future just a little bit differently. I grew up in California, see, and Long Beach was the last place we lived before the whole Foreign Service thing happened to us. So being back there started me thinking about what is next for me in this life of mine - and I'm still thinking on the topic. Probably a little too much.

8.) While there, we went to Disneyland. Of course. It didn't change my life, but it did alter my credit card balance rather significantly.

9.) I started a new job. And I've managed to keep it thus far. I even still like it. But I'm definitely realizing that I can't have it all. Also: the kids are growing weary of pizza. They pine for the days of yore, when their mom cooked everything from scratch. I, too, pine for those days.

10.) Dead Sea, Dead Sea, Dead Sea.... Okay, well, I know we went there at least twice, in July and November, and I blogged about it at least once. But I think we might have gone more than just two times. I can't remember. See what I mean? My head is completely lacking in memory cells.

11.) What else? I'm running out of highlights here, people. We went to the Marine Ball, so there's that. But we do that every year, so I kind of feel as if I shouldn't count that.

12. And I guess twelve needs to be the fact that we finally got an onward assignment. In December. After turning in the first of our bids back in June. Well, June-ish, anyway. I can't remember (see "lack of memory cells," above).

As an added bonus, for those of you who have read this far (hi, Dad!), I'll include a link to my most-read post of all time. I wrote this post in early February of 2011 - almost two years ago - and yet it gets more hits some weeks than any other post I write. I guess it hits a nerve.

And that's it! My twelve in twelve! If you write yours, let me know in the comments so I can visit.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Life, Divided

The thing is, I'm never actually living where my head is. I can't say for sure if this is me, or if this is the Foreign Service, but I suspect it's a combination of the two.

This morning, I went to the gym - in my French workout gear, purchased in China and shipped to Jordan in my UAB - and then ran around town trying to get my holiday errands done. Yes, tomorrow is Christmas, but I haven't yet purchased stocking stuffers, or wrapped presents, or even bought tape and paper! As I type, I'm still not quite sure what manner of meal I'll be preparing tonight for Christmas Eve dinner.

So I ran around to various stores, still in my gym clothes, still with my iPod in my one good ear. Errands done, I decided to stop in at Starbucks for a much-needed coffee. I stood in line behind a kid in an Abercrombie sweatshirt and a big, disheveled man in a dirty suit coat. Nelly Furtado blaring in my ear (don't tell my deaf doctor - I'm not supposed to do that), I tried to figure out whether they were Jordanian, American or some third nationality without being able to hear them.

I decided on American, but I might have been influenced by the Americana all around me: the "holiday blend" coffee, the Starbucks-branded lollipops, the green mermaid on the wall, the Starbucks coffee mugs on the display rack...

The disheveled man pulled out a stack of coupons or something similar. I watched as Nelly sang in my ear, and I tried to figure out what the man was saying to Khalil the barista. Khalil looked puzzled too. He was looking first at the coupons and then at the man, head cocked to one side like a puppy. Khalil's long black eyelashes, combined with his confused but polite expression, made him look about 15 years old. He kept blinking those eyelashes at the disheveled guy, who was by now looking quite passionate about his small slips of paper.

Intrigued, I pulled the headphones out and tried to eavesdrop, but to no avail. They were speaking Arabic. Most of the coupons were printed in Arabic. For the first time, I became aware that they were playing Arabic music in the cafe, and the Starbucks coffee mugs on display were splashed with the word "Jordan."

Just like that, I slipped out of America and back into Jordan.

Disheveled man gave a stack of his coupons to Khalil and left, looking pleased with himself. Khalil carefully stacked the papers next to the cash register, out of sight, before looking up from under his eyelashes to take my order.

I ordered, partly in Arabic but mostly in English, then turned to find disheveled guy standing directly behind me, frowning. He looked at me, then reached behind the cash register to retrieve one of his coupons. He handed it to me before scolding Khalil - presumably for not giving me the coupon himself.

It wasn't a coupon. It was, I suppose, a Christmas message:

I left the Starbucks, happy with my coffee but utterly confused, somehow, by the whole experience. I drove home through dense workday traffic, weaving relatively easily through the tangled mess of Jordanian cement mixers, Land Rovers with Kuwaiti and Iraqi license plates and cars with diplomatic plates. I cut off a woman in a hijab who was crawling along too slowly in her Mercedes, and I didn't roll down my window for the beggar boy at the stop light even as he pleaded and refused to leave me alone.

I was struck with a sense that I belong here now. I know that beggar kid; I see him every day. I know when to cut off a cement mixer and when to let him go ahead. I know if I have time enough to make it through the green light, or if I'm going to be stuck there until the next change. This is where I live.

But then, you know, I got home and realized I was out of butter. Butter: why do I always forget the one thing I need the most? Story of my life.

I wasn't in the mood to drive all the way back to the store just for butter, so I walked instead to the tiny corner market next to the mosque. Not a word of English is spoken in there, and they were doing some sort of construction that blocked their one tiny aisle. I couldn't remember the word for butter, so instead of asking the construction guys to hand me a few packs of butter, I pantomimed squeezing past their work site until they moved their boards and saws and electrical cords to let me by. Butter in hand, I dodged taxis and cars as I made my way easily through the traffic circle and back home.

Behind me, the call to prayer sounded from the mosque. It's a haunting sound, I think: beautiful and mysterious and unintelligible. I could see my apartment building just ahead, with its familiar bushes and gate, and I walked that way confidently even as men in thobes walked the other way, headed to the mosque.

There is a beautiful purple flowering vine growing up the building next to mine, and today it was framed perfectly against the bluest of blue skies and the off-white stone of the building. I stopped to watch as the clouds moved behind the vine, above the building, eastward across the sky. The call to prayer still sounded. I could hear my dog barking inside my house. And I could see those clouds moving across that huge expanse of sky - the same sky that floats above my parents in Seattle, above my friends vacationing in Barcelona, above my own small house in Virginia, the one I've never lived in. I stood there, in front of my house, the one I've lived in for almost two-and-a-half years now, and the homesickness hit me hard. The sky, the clouds, the strange purple vines: all of it mixed together with the prayer coupon in my pocket and the long, long eyelashes of Khalil the barista, and I felt that odd sense of not-belonging, of needing to be somewhere else right now, even as I knew that I was home, really home, in the truest sense of the word.

There is nowhere else I am supposed to be. And yet, this is not me. This is not where I belong. Everything and everyone important to me is scattered across the globe, somewhere under that blue sky, unreachable.

Home, and homesick, all at once. Tell me: is this just me? Or is this all part of the Foreign Service experience?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me!

My birthday came and went last week, and as usual, I wasn't really excited about it. I was trying to explain my birthday weirdness to some friends over lunch not long ago, but I think the takeaway for them was that I'm slightly nuts. More-than-slightly, even.

So. Maybe.

I distinctly remember that when I was fourteen, I couldn't wait to be fifteen. Because fifteen was gonna be my year. I was going to be cute. And popular. And smart. And whatever else it is that fourteen-year-old girls wish they were. That's what I was going to be! I just had to get to fifteen.

On my fifteenth birthday, then, imagine my dismay when I looked in the mirror and I was still the same nerdy, skinny, awkward thing that I'd been the day before. It was an epiphany of sorts for me. I was going to be me, always, and no birthday was going to change who I was. I was just going to have to learn to deal with it.

Ever since then, I don't know, I just don't like my birthday. It's a reminder, not only of the fact that I'm still me, only one year older, but also of the way I felt all of those skazillion years ago, when I just didn't like myself all that much. (I know, I know: you're not supposed to like your teenaged self. But do I have to remember her with such disdain? She wasn't that bad, as teenagers go. She did have an annoying habit of drinking straight half-and-half in a desperate attempt to break the 100-pound barrier, but you know, there are grosser things she could've been doing, right?)

This year, my birthday fell on a work day, so I arranged several strategic out-of-office meetings, because I know my office likes to do birthday cake celebrations in the mornings, and I just didn't want to do it. Also, I was pleased because the night of my birthday, there was a family holiday event planned at the Embassy, so I wasn't going to have to cook dinner or anything like that. I could just sort of forget the whole thing. I deliberately booked myself a weekend-after facial, so I could celebrate by myself on another less momentous day.

I had it all figured out. And I knew it would work, because it worked last year: I got through almost the whole day last year with no birthday wishes coming my way.


My office was on to me, and they waited until almost the end of the afternoon to spring their cake on me. Just when I was about to sneak out, I was summoned to the conference room, and there they all were, waiting for me. It was okay, though. We cracked a few "who's the oldest?" jokes (I'm perilously close to winning that title) and joked around for a bit before we all went back to our offices to lock up for the day.

Back in my office, I got an instant message from a friend who is currently posted in Panama. We call her, in the fondest of ways, the Minister of Sarcasm. I'm not going to tell you her real name because her mother reads this blog, and as far as her mother knows, the Minister has never once gotten a shout out on this blog. We're going to keep it that way, just to annoy the Minister. Anyway, last year, the Minister was angry with me for keeping my birthday a secret until it was too late for her to buy me a cookie, and this year, I noted somewhat gleefully, she was out-of-cookie range. Minister of Sarcasm - 0. Donna - 1.

We were typing back and forth, me teasing her for her lack of cookie-sendability, when who should walk in but the Ambassador's special assistant. He tossed a Snickers Bar on my desk, and on the Snickers was a note: "Happy Birthday From Her Excellency, the Minister of Sarcasm."

"It was supposed to be a cookie," he shrugged, "but I forgot to buy one at lunch time." And I swear I could hear the Minister laughing, all the way from Panama.

Revised Score: Minister of Sarcasm - 1. Donna - 0.

Snickers in hand (thanks, Minister! and hello, Minister's mother!), I headed home to pick up the kids and bring them in to the holiday party. My friend J had already reserved a table, so all that was required of me was to sit there and drink.

(Side note: Why doesn't J have a nickname? "J" seems so non-descript somehow; local readers who know J need to send their nickname suggestions to my in-box, please. I'm thinking it might be time to go all Afghan Plan on you and adopt a nickname-only policy, because if sitemeter is to be believed, there are waaay too many people at post reading this blog some days.)

So J and I sat with a few other equally un-nicknamed folks, drinking and chatting and watching our kids do arts n crafts, and I tried really, really hard to forget that it was my birthday and I'm still gawky and nerdy and skinny even though I am clearly nowhere near fifteen anymore. But I must have been failing miserably, because everyone kept asking me why I was so sad. Subterfuge is apparently not my thing.

Before long, I was just so ready to go home and curl up and wait it out, just me and my Snickers bar. Everyone else seemed to be leaving early, too, no doubt because I wasn't exactly the best company that evening. But whatever. Who needs them when I have a perfectly good Snickers bar? Anyway, I assumed that somehow Bart would have made a cake or something, because he is the opposite-of-me, and he is always ready to celebrate my birthday in style, whether I want to or not.

(Side note, again: Last year, my birthday fell on the same day as my school board meeting, and I told him emphatically that I did not want to celebrate on the day of. I would rather wait until another day, when we had time to go out to dinner or something. But waiting until another day to celebrate is totally illegal in his birthday playbook, so I knew he wouldn't be able to resist marking the day, even if it killed us both. Sure enough, the board meeting ran late, and I was terribly late getting home, but there he was with a cake, and none too happy that it was way past everyone's bedtime and we hadn't done the birthday thing right, not at all, but dammit we were going to eat that cake and hurry up about it because hello? bedtime, people!)

Where was I? Oh, yes, so we went home, and I was vaguely suspicious that something was up, because Shay had gone home with Chicken Little, and since when do Bart and Chicken Little arrange sleepovers for their kids without consulting their wives? Since never, that's when. And on my birthday, no less.

So I was only a little surprised when I opened the door and a bajillion people jumped out from behind a Syrian wooden bench that was apparently my husband's gift to me (and is completely awesome and beautiful; thanks, z, I love you) and yelled "surprise!"

Surprise, indeed. I snapped myself out of my bad mood because look at all of these people who had showed up to celebrate with me! Chicken Little and J, and the GlobeHoppers, and Andy and Katie, and Stephanie and Chief, and Amy, and Major Winerack and her husband. We all ate cake and drank champagne and told consular war stories until Major Winerack brought out a birthday gift for me that pretty much shut the party down. I can't even tell you what she gave me, except to say that it was the perfect gift for a skinny, gawky girl, and given her nickname, it made perfect sense that she chose it for me. Some people are easy to nickname; what can I say?

Anyway, there was much merriment and laughter, mostly at my expense, and no: there will be no photos. Major Winerack took some photos of course, but I haven't seen any yet, and I simply can't imagine that any of them will work on this here family-style blog.

And that, my friends, was my birthday. Though I'll admit that perhaps calling my birthday a "March Toward Death" was a tad melodramatic, I still maintain that I don't have to like getting older. But you know? All in all, I had a nice day. I have a great group of friends here, and they make me laugh every day, and they remind me that I really ought not take myself so damned seriously all of the time. Really. It's just a birthday, after all, just one day out of the year. So why not use it to laugh at yourself instead of criticizing, right? And that's just what we did.

So thanks to my husband, and to all of my friends, both the nicknamed and the un-nicknamed, for not letting me slouch around feeling sorry for myself. I am getting older, it's true. But with each passing year, I acquire more and more friends, all across the globe, the way some people add to their shiny coin collections. These wrinkles of mine? Well, they're mostly laugh lines, because I have some seriously fun and funny friends, and every single day they give me a new reason to smile.

Thanks, my friends, for making me feel special. Same time next year?


I'm in an odd place right now. I'm writing a lot, and I'm doing a ton, but somehow the words and the events aren't quite coming together for the blog.

I'm spinning. So, since I can't quite find my writing feet, here are a few photos for the grandparents instead.

Shay and his friend S drinking cider and supervising the tree trimming.

Ainsley. Over-the-moon with decorating excitement.

No pictures of Kyra - she was upset most of the evening because she has been so bad (her words) that Santa isn't going to bring her any presents. (Believe me, Kyra, believe me - Santa is tempted to do just that.) No pictures of Aidan, either - I forgot that it was tree decorating night and let him go on a sleepover. My bad.

Back with a real post once the world settles down a bit for me.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Two Days of Religion

Once again, I am flirting with danger and choosing to write about work. What can I say, people? I live on the edge.

First, a little background. One of the programs that I manage here at post is the Arabic Book Program. Through this program, we translate a few select American books into Arabic each year and then distribute them regionally to a targeted audience. We run book clubs with them, and donate them to children’s libraries, and do storytelling programs in hospitals. We bring in speakers to discuss them at universities and government institutions, and we ship them to other posts in the region so they can run the same sorts of programs. We do all sorts of cool and interesting things with these books, all to give people in the region a sense of American culture, history, politics and literature. (A quick shout out to my argumentative friend “Chicken Little,” as he shall heretofore be known on this blog – this is a real and a really important program. So don’t go making fun of my books or I’ll make fun of your airplane collection.)

We’ve translated everything from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to the Steve Jobs biography to Bridge to Terabithia, and as a book lover, I couldn’t have found a more perfect program to run if I tried. Seriously. I love books, and I love reading, and I love the idea that I get to help choose what sorts of books people in the region are going to be reading over the next few years.

Right about the time I started this new job of mine, we got a brand new shipment of a book we'd had translated called Unity in Diversity: Interfaith Dialogue in the Middle East. It’s never going to be a best seller in the States in the way that The Joy Luck Club was. But as you can guess from the title, it’s a book with profound implications here in the region. So we invited the author, who is a professor at American University in Washington DC, to come to Jordan for a week and talk to religious scholars and students across the country about his ideas on religious tolerance.

There were several of us working on the program, which took place last week, so I only covered two days of programming. But it was the craziest two days you can imagine.

I spent the first day at a sharia college a few short miles down the road from the Syrian border. A sharia college is for Muslim students who are majoring in religion, so it was a natural place to bring our author, but it sure felt like an odd place to me.

For starters, the university seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't, not really, because we were just outside the city of Mafraq. But you couldn't see the city - just miles of desert in every direction. You couldn't see the Syrian refugee camp either, the big one that is featured in the news every day around these parts, but it was right around the corner. Just knowing it was there - I don't know. I almost felt like I could see the prayers of all of those homeless, stateless, sad and frightened people in the camp as they floated skyward. It all felt a bit bleak.

That red tab is about where I was. Amman to the south. Syria to the north. Weird.

And then there was the college itself. In my entire day there, I spotted exactly one uncovered woman. One. Which meant that as I walked the corridors, people gawked at me, open-mouthed. Not only was I waving around a head full of hair, but I was walking around with the men who run the place. Crazy. I definitely felt like a fish out of water. And it didn't help that no one was speaking English. I spent a lot of time smiling and nodding, trying to pick out the words I knew, wondering why none of the other women in the place were talking.

But you know what was cool? The students and the professors really responded to our author, who was talking about the commonalities between religions, and the ways in which various religious groups need to work together. I was expecting - I don't know, perhaps a bit more overt hostility? This was after all, a group of seriously devoted and devout Muslims. There were a few anti-American folks there - there always are. But I was impressed with the message of moderation and tolerance that their professors were delivering. And I found myself wishing that we could run the exact same program in the States. Because frankly, I think there are an awful lot of Americans who need this message of religious tolerance more than we need it here in Jordan, where even devout Muslims wish me a Merry Christmas at this time of year.

The second day of the program was even stranger and more interesting. We went to the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies to meet with some of the people who run the place. In deference to me, they conducted much of the meeting in English. And it was fascinating. I mean, I was sitting there with two experts on the Muslim faith and on religion in general, getting a graduate level primer on different laws within different religions: on Hebrew vs. Arabic, on the Bible and the Quran.

I was taking it all in, kind of fascinated with the level of dialogue that was going on, when who should walk in but two priests, straight from the Vatican, along with a former Foreign Minister. The company I keep, honestly. It was quite surreal, sitting there eavesdropping on the conversations swirling around me and over my head.

This week, I'm back in the office, planning future programming on everything from journalism, to civil rights, to resume writing. Really, it's hard to get bored around here, because from one day to the next I find myself working on completely different things. From a sharia college to a journalism school, to a library, to a hospital. From writing a speech to reading a Newbery Award-winning novel. Every day something different. So far, I think I like it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Best Practices for Foreign Service Bloggers

Awhile back, I was asked by AAFSW (Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide) to write an article for their newsletter - they were looking for blogging advice tailored specifically to the FS community.

I wrote it and then promptly forgot about it. Today, while running one of those fun searches to find out how people are getting to my blog, I discovered that another blogger had linked to my article.

So here it is, for your reading pleasure. It was based on an old blog post of mine, so it might sound vaguely familiar to some of you, but I don't think I've ever linked to the actual newsletter. It's still an important topic - more so, now that rumors of impending social media rule changes are flying around the FS blogging community.

I still stand by all of my advice. If you're one of the State people who has been tasked with rewriting the rules, give me a call - I'm happy to provide boots-on-the-ground input.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Finding Humor

Between my junior and senior years in college, I flew to Moscow one summer and moved into a tiny Moscow flat that belonged to friends of a friend. What possessed Lena and Misha to suggest that we move in with them and their daughter for an entire summer, I'll never know. Really, I'll never know, because my Russian was so bad at the time that I pretty much never knew what was going on around me at any given moment.

(Also, as I re-read the paragraph above, I wonder what inspired my parents to consent to this crazy scheme. Perhaps I simply told them I was going to the movies and they never realized I was gone for the entire summer? I can't quite imagine how I convinced them to let me do such a crazy thing.)

It was a fun summer, but a frustrating one, because I was pretty much on my own in the city with not enough language skills to keep me afloat. I learned some odd words that summer. One day, for example, I bought some of my favorite, hard-to-find ice cream bars from a street vendor and then started running for home with them, trying to get back before they melted. I had six bars, three in each hand, enough for my whole family, and when I tripped on a broken curb, instead of trying to protect myself from falling hard, I tried desperately to keep those precious bars aloft. I flew through the air and landed hard, peeling the skin off of both knees, both elbows and one cheek. As I lay on the sidewalk, bleeding and stunned - but with ice cream intact - three little babushki started clucking at me. "Ay, lapochka," one said, and while it sounded sympathetic, I had no idea what a lapochka was.

I half-limped, half-jogged back to the apartment, where I looked it up as I ate my ice cream. It turns out lapochka means "little paw." It has since become one of my more favorite terms of endearment.

I also learned the word for "coup" that summer, because a coup started on my second-to-last day in Moscow, knocking the Communists out of power and eventually bringing an end to the Soviet Union. When I woke up that morning, Lena was in a panic and Misha was nowhere to be found. Lena kept pointing at the television, which was full of static and nothing else, repeating the word "perevorot." I thought maybe there was no electricity? It took a long, long time to understand that there were tanks on the streets, and the government was gone, and no one knew what would be coming next. It was a scary time to be without a language, trying to understand what sort of trouble lurked just outside the front door.

There was one other day that summer that stands out for me. We were invited, the friend and I, to spend the night with some other friends of his at their dacha - basically, a rustic country house. We took a train, and a bus, and maybe a taxi, too? until we finally reached their middle-of-nowhere village, where we proceeded to have a stereotypical Russian night. The friends brought sausages, and pickles, and potato salad, and enough vodka for everyone to down their own bottle. Seriously. Think on that, my friends. One bottle of vodka per person.

Everyone proceeded to get happily, sloppily drunk. Even I had a couple of shots in solidarity, though vodka has never been my thing and I'm not much for middle-of-nowhere drunkenness with strangers.

They were all good drunks, these new friends of mine: cheerful and happy and full of jokes.

And herein lies the problem.

As the night progressed, the jokes got funnier and funnier. Everyone was rolling on the floor, tears streaming, knee-slapping, as joke after joke flew across the table.

Everyone, that is, except me.

I couldn't understand a single joke. They were all in Russian, you see, and even when I understood the words, I simply didn't get the humor. After awhile, the friends realized that I couldn't understand what was funny, and they made it their mission to find a joke I could understand. One of them would tell a joke, everyone would laugh, and then they'd try to explain. "He was at the Kremlin," they would say, by way of explanation, "do you understand?" (I didn't.) Or, "that's funny because it's a play on that famous Pushkin poem, you know it?" (I didn't.)

It went on for hours and hours and hours before they slowly began dropping, too intoxicated to find their way to their beds. And I was absolutely, unutterably miserable. I don't think I'd ever before felt so completely alone.

I awoke the the next morning when the sun rose. Everyone else snored drunkenly while I sat outside and watched the mist creeping around the village of painted dachas, wishing myself anywhere but there, wishing myself somewhere where I understood what was so funny, where maybe I could crack a joke or two myself, to feel part of instead of just apart.

That party was more than 20 years ago, but I still remember how lonely I felt that night. All these years later, vodka still tastes like loneliness to me.

I thought of that long-ago night on Wednesday evening, when I was asked to attend an event at the National Library. Not only was I asked to attend, but I was required to open the event, to introduce the guest speakers.

I did it, in English, translator by my side, staring out into a sea of faces and stumbling through my introductory remarks. When I finished, the director of the library indicated that I was to sit beside him, front and center. I sat and listened as the guests of honor began their speeches, in Arabic, from the dais. There were four chairs up there, with four bottles of water and four name placards, but only three men sat up there. The fourth seat was empty.

About ten minutes in, my colleague from the Embassy leaned over and pointed to the fourth name placard. "That's your name on the placard," she whispered. "I think you were supposed to be sitting up there."

Oops. I didn't even recognize my own name and title, and of course it never occurred to me that I needed to be up there. So I stayed where I was, in the front row, and listened as the first man gave his speech. He was funny. Hilarious, even, judging by the laughter all around me in the audience. He gestured broadly, waving his watch and looking down at the crowd in such a way that even I almost thought I was going to get the joke.

But no. The humor was lost on me. So I sat, right there in the middle of the front row, unable to even sneak a peek at my email to distract myself. I pretended I could understand everything he said. I laughed when they laughed. I nodded when they nodded. I clapped when they clapped. The woman next to me said "he's very funny!" and I agreed.

But the whole time, I was thinking back to that long ago night in the Russian countryside, when I felt so stupid and un-bilingual and lacking in humor.

This time, though, instead of feeling down, I got out my notebook and started writing notes to myself in Russian. I guess I probably just wanted to prove to myself that I might not understand everything, but I understand some things just fine - some things that no one else in that audience could possibly know, even.

It made me feel better. And it whiled away the time - two whole hours of speeches in Arabic before we even got to the reception!


I was giving a talk a few weeks back, to some university students who are here in Jordan and wanted information on working for the government overseas. One of them asked me if I had a defining moment when I knew I wanted to live overseas, or when I knew I could survive it. I didn't even have to stop to think about it. For me, that moment came in the spring of 2002, one year into our second overseas tour, when I was driving around town in Yerevan, Armenia, with a carload of local friends. We were laughing and joking, all in Russian, and I cracked a few jokes that made the whole carload of people bust out laughing. And I felt, back then, like I belonged, because we could understand each other and laugh with each other. It was the first time when I felt like I could really, at long last, speak Russian, like those years of hard work had paid off. It was the opposite of the dacha experience for me. It was belonging and friendship and laughter. Sitting there in the front row on Wednesday, I tuned out the speeches for awhile and I wrote, in Russian, about that moment.

It got me through.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Breakfast With Santa

I was driving to the radio station with a couple of colleagues the other day. This time, I wasn't the one destined for fame and fortune - I was merely the facilitator, bringing them to be interviewed on air.

I don't quite remember how the subject of my husband came up, but one of them confessed that "your husband scares me." The other one agreed. "He's so serious," she said, "and whenever he shows up, I think I'm about to get in trouble."

I had to confess that sometimes he scares me a little bit at work, too. Because nobody wants to get summoned to the RSO's office, including me. The last time I was called over, I found him standing there with my boss, and my immediate thought was "what have I done and does my own husband really think he's going to fire me?" (Because he would soooo not be getting dinner for many long months if that happened. Just sayin'.) Turns out it was just a coincidence and we all had a good laugh about it, but seriously. Warn a girl, would you?

So anyway: Husband. Scary. Settled.

Which is why people were so startled when they brought their kids to Breakfast With Santa at the Embassy and found none other than our frightening RSO dressed in the big ole Santa suit. That's right: my husband was the Embassy Santa Claus this year.

And he loved it.

Truth be told, he was only Santa for the first shift. He would have happily done it for the whole day, but I was adamant that I did not want Ainsley sitting on his lap, so I made him pass the job to someone else before I brought the kids to the Embassy. I was afraid Ainsley would figure it out, and I didn't want to ruin the Santa magic for her.

As it turns out, I was wrong. I went to the breakfast early, just to get my very own picture with my very own Santa, and I must say: he was rather convincing. I don't think Ainsley would have figured it out. But too late: Santa #2 was already waiting in the wings, ready to swoop in and take over.

In the pictures below, then, you'll see me sitting with RSO Santa. The kids, however, are posing with Stranger Santa. Can you tell the difference?

Next week the Marines are going to distribute their Toys For Tots gifts - and if you're a local reader, know that they are still about 95 presents short of their goal, so please stop by with a gift this week. Bart has been asked to go with the Marines to play Santa for this group of kids. Something tells me he's going to clear his schedule for this.

Friday, December 7, 2012

December Blues

We're one week into the month already, so there's no point trying to avoid it anymore.

It's solidly December.

And I hate December.

For starters, it's my birth month, and I'm not a fan of my birthday. Every year I set goals for my next year, and every year, I fail to reach those goals. And yet, year after year, I trick myself into thinking this will be the year! This will most definitely be the year!

It never is.

Here I stand, in December 2012, already setting my unreachable, unreasonable goals for next year, and already annoyed with myself because I know I'm not going to reach them. I spend an inordinate amount of time on my birthday looking back at the previous year, trying to figure out what I learned in the preceding 364 days, to decide where I failed and where I succeeded. This used to be a fun exercise, back in the day. But now - meh.

Then of course there's New Years, the light at the end of my December tunnel, the holy grail for goal setters like me. I've been making the same resolution every year for the past, oh, 20 years, maybe? Really, people: am I ever gonna get there? I think we both know the answer. Yet year after year I struggle against the tide, refusing to give up on future me.

So it's sort of the season of futility, for me.

Add to that the never-ending of list of things to be done and people to be seen and parties to be had and it all gets to be a bit much for me.

I am better than I used to be, before I had kids. Because now there is Santa! And presents! And cookies! And I'll admit my kids' enthusiasm is infectious. Then again, is it just me, or do you notice that your children turn especially nutty around the holidays? Too much excitement and anticipation to contain.

So between the kids' enthusiasm and my lack thereof, it's a strange season indeed.

Today we haul the boxes out of storage and start decorating the trees. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ummm…. Congratulations?

Looking at my Facebook feed, you can easily tell which of my friends are Foreign Service moms and which are regular-job moms, just by the way they respond to my posts.

So, for example, when I recently posted about the celebratory gunfire in our Jordanian neighborhood that resulted in a bullet through the hood of our next door neighbor’s car, my Foreign Service mom friends started responding with their own “why do they do that?” stories of crazy goings-on at their posts, whereas my regular-job mom friends were advising me to be careful and take cover.

When I posted about the rioting that was going on here in Amman a few weeks back in response to the government’s decision to raise the price of gas, again, my Foreign Service pals seemed to think it was crazy, but not crazyscary. Meanwhile, my regular friends were asking when the U.S. government was going to evacuate me and my kids (my answer – not gonna happen – didn’t make them feel better).

And so it was just two days ago, when I typed as my Facebook status “Baghdad. Summer 2013.”

My husband just received word that his next Foreign Service assignment, beginning this summer, will be to Baghdad. The kids and I will stay here in Jordan while he moves on, because Baghdad is not an accompanied post.

My Foreign Service mom friends, many of whom have already done, or are currently doing, the unaccompanied post thing, responded with cheers. “Yay! Yay! Yay!” posted one girlfriend, “You got what you wanted!” Another wrote “Happy for you! Now you can cross it off the list.” Whereas my regular-job girlfriends posted their “so sorry” condolences.

The truth is somewhere in between. I’m not in “yay yay yay” mode over this assignment; neither am I grieving.

It will be hard, of course, to split the family for a year. But it isn’t as strange as it sounds. It’s all too typical amongst my Foreign Service pals that we split up for these kinds of assignments, and this is especially true for Diplomatic Security families. When the military pulled out of Iraq, the State Department stayed in – indeed, we increased our presence, and now federal agents with the Diplomatic Security Service are doing the jobs formerly covered by the military. There are a ton of DS agents serving in the region, which means there are a ton of lonely families left behind.

So it happens that my DS-spouse friends Mary and Jen and Jennifer and Jill and JennD all currently have spouses serving somewhere in the AIP triangle – that area encompassing Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan – while they stay behind raising the kids. For Jen and Jill, it’s a second unaccompanied tour, even. And with that as a backdrop, you can see why it’s no big deal to these friends that we are preparing to embark on the same unaccompanied adventure. They know it’ll be hard, on me and the kids and the husband. But it is what it is: you sign up to serve, and you know, if you work for Diplomatic Security, that you’re going to have to go to an AIP post at least once during your career. What you do is try to time it carefully, based on schools and current posts and health issues, so that you do it when it is the least disruptive to the family.

In our case, that meant now. The kids and I can stay in Jordan – just an hour or so away from Baghdad by plane, and in the same time zone, even. The kids can stay with their friends, and in their school, and in their house, for an extra year. Their dad will fly home a few times during the year. He’ll miss birthdays and holidays, most likely. He’ll miss school concerts and baseball season. He’ll miss sick kids and orthodontist visits and parent teacher conferences. But he’ll be close, as close as he can be during an unaccompanied tour, so we know he can get back to us quickly in an emergency. And I have good friends here who can help out when needed, and a job, and a nanny who works so that I can go to that job.

They sound strange, these congratulatory words from friends who hear that our family is splitting up for a year. But really, this is the best way to manage this necessary evil. And I have so many role models (a shout out to Tiffany, and Laura, and Melissa and Zoe) who have all rocked the UT tour, along with the friends I mentioned above – they’ve made it work and proved to me that it can be done. I know it’ll get ugly and teary at times – and I’m not talking about the kids here. But we’ll muddle through.

We’ll make it work, I’m sure of it, with the help of both my super-excited-for-you Foreign Service mom friends and my oh-no-praying-for-you regular mom friends. It’ll make for some interesting times, on my Facebook feed and in real life.

I’ll keep you posted as we work out the details. And you can decide for yourself: are condolences in order, or congratulations? I think perhaps both.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Nobody's Perfect

Did you know that yesterday was No Judgment Day? No? Kind of fitting in light of a recent post of mine, I thought.

The Foreign Service is a very small, tight-knit community, in which everyone knows, or knows of, everyone else. The effect of this smallness is made greater in the Internet age, when we're all currently interacting, regardless of our geographical locations, via blogs and Facebook. Name me a spouse, quick: chances are good I can tell you whether that person is going to be the freak show at your next post or your new best friend. If I can't tell you instantly, I can hop on the Internet and find someone else who can tell us both within minutes.

Which is why smart spouses guard their reputations pretty zealously. I usually find a small group of people whom I trust enough to complain to when things get rough, but for everyone else, it's smile-and-wave.

I don't think, however, that the smile-and-wave approach is the best for the community, even if it's the best for me, personally. Because it can lead newcomers to the impression that everyone else is handling the hard stuff with grace, and that it's only you that can't handle this whole thing. So when a family is faced with the Big Issues, like divorce, or abuse, or maybe just a really sucky bidding cycle, they instantly feel all alone because everyone else is floating through this foreign service life full of smiles and cheer. The reality is, everyone in the Foreign Service, like everyone everywhere in the big wide world, is facing some hard things. All of us put on that public face, but we all have that ugly inside stuff tangled up inside, too, leaving us with scars and bruises and broken hearts. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.

Not long ago, on a day that was feeling particularly horrible (and if you ask my closest 2-3 friends here, you'll know that when I say horrible, I mean it), I stopped to chat with a smile-and-wave colleague. We were having a deeper-than-passing conversation, and I mentioned the fact that Bart and I were a bit, shall I say, stressed, about the current bidding cycle.

My colleague kind of turned her head sideways and gave me a quizzical smile. "You know," she said, "everyone here thinks you're the perfect couple."

I was sort of stunned.

First off, the comment didn't exactly segue properly, given the context of our conversation. Second, does anyone here even think of my husband and me at all? And third, perfect? When it was likely that just that morning we were arguing about how to properly cut the crusts off of peanut butter sandwiches, or something equally inane?

And then, as if she'd been waiting all week to say it, she launched into a whole list of everything that is perfect about me, and about my husband, and about our relationship, as viewed from an outsider's perspective.

I mean, she had a whole list. And while - I can't lie - it cheered me up immensely to hear an almost-stranger tell me everything that is specifically fabulous about wonderful me, it also left me feeling intensely uncomfortable. Part of me wanted to correct her: not true, I wanted to tell her. That's not me, and it's not my husband, and it's certainly not our relationship.

Of course I said nothing, because who doesn't want to be seen as perfect?

But I've been thinking about it ever since. I sort of feel like I did her a disservice by smiling and letting her false words stand. Because she was facing some hard issues herself at the time, and maybe it would've been better for both of us if I'd let my guard down just a little and admitted a few of my imperfections?

We all construct these elaborate models of who we want to be, of how we want to be seen. To an extent, I think it's good, even healthy, because in the process of constructing these castles, we discover what we aspire to become. We learn who it is we're trying to be. So if I'm modeling the perfect housekeeper, or the perfect writer, or the perfect mom, or the perfect employee, it might all be an elaborate lie, but it's a lie that tells me where I'm trying to get. I've picked what I'm trying to be, and I'm aiming in that general direction, knowing as I do that I'm not supposed to get there.

I guess that's why I like the idea of No Judgment Day. It reminds me not to judge myself when I fall short. It reminds me not to compare myself to the rest of the world, assuming they've achieved their ideals. I know, more or less, where I'm trying to go, but I know for a fact that I'm never going to get there. Even when I'm fooling the passersby, I'm not fooling my friends, and I'm certainly not fooling myself.

So, hey. It's 1:30 in the afternoon. I'm still in my gym clothes because I can't be bothered to take a shower. My daughters are watching their second movie of the day while I blog. I suppose I should probably clean up and get started on dinner prep, but then again, there's always take out. That's just for starters.

Nobody's perfect. And that's a good thing.

Please. Write your own stuff.