Sunday, September 30, 2012

Changes Afoot

It has been blue-sky sunny in Amman since, oh, I don't know - April?

Every day here is opposite-of-Beijing, and maybe it's possible for some people to get bored of a blue sky with two teensy white clouds skittering toward the horizon, but I wouldn't know about that, because I've been here for over two years now, and every morning I turn my face to the sun and give thanks for that boring expanse of blue.

Today, though, was different. Oh, the sky was still blue, but there was a tinge of yellowish sandstorm on the horizon. And just now, when I opened the back door to let the dog out, I was hit in the face with a sandy gust of wind. The olive tree in the yard was snapping, and the rose bushes - those poor dry things, they miss the boab almost as much as I do, because he's been in Egypt for two months now - the rose bushes were shedding petals and dried leaves skyward.

I checked the weather on my phone, and instead of showing a round yellow sun, it showed a cloud with a lightning bolt on it. I had to check, to make sure I was looking at Amman weather, because I haven't seen anything but that yellow orb for so, so long.


But it was Amman. This is Amman. And so, even though it is still warm enough for t-shirts and shorts and weekends at the pool, I know fall is going to be here in the blink of an eye.

Herein lies the problem. Fall is coming. But I don't yet know: did I just spend my last summer in Amman? Or do I have one more blue sky season ahead of me still? Because while normal people call this season "fall," in the foreign service, people call it "bidding season."

That's right. We're in the throes of bidding, even though it seems to me that we just got here 3 weeks ago. And I'm not ready to leave. Not when I have Jenna, and Brett, and Michele, and Shawn, and Kellan, and Barbara, and all of those other people that I've grown to love already. How can we be leaving?

We do have an AIP job or two on the list, and if we (he) got one of those, I'd stay right here. But if we don't, then we're moving on next summer, to parts unknown.

This is what I hate. Wasn't I just bidding only moments ago, getting ready to leave friends in Beijing? Yet here we sit again, at the kitchen table, poring over lists and looking up posts on talesmag, and calling in favors, and quizzing the people who've been there already.

I. Hate. It.

Just tell me what the future holds already. Don't keep me hanging.

So the weather is getting ready to turn, and I wonder: am I supposed to be on the downslide, where everything about this place begins to bug me? Or am I still in the honeymoon phase, where I love it all and want to stay forever?

Somebody just tell me already.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Two Companies That Are Doing It Right

Posted to Facebook by a friend still on the ground at Embassy Tunis:

"Some of you may know that our mailroom facility was burned to the ground. Everything inside was lost. Passing along a shout-out from an Embassy friend: Amazon and Old Navy replaced, without question, items that were in the Embassy mail room, which was destroyed during the attack. THANK YOU to these two great companies, and please support them with our business."

There are so many complaints out on the interwebs about companies like United Airlines that consistently get it wrong when dealing with their Foreign Service clients. I thought it would be nice to pass along kudos to the companies that are getting it right.

Work, Part Two

Busy week. But then, I say that every week, don't I?

I got a few comments on my last post, and a couple in particular are sticking with me. One reader commented, in part: "I think that it is great that you have one of the Professional Associate jobs at the Embassy, but I was taken aback by your comment 'It's probably the best paying job you can get at the Embassy, and it's a 'real' job - not typing, filing, shredding, or escorting visitors around the building.' For a spouse any job he/she can find overseas is a "real job" even if it is escorting a visitor or an electrician around the Embassy."

First off, apologies if I offended anyone out there. Point taken: any job you can get overseas is a real job, in that you show up every morning and do the work you are paid to do. But truthfully, I do feel that some jobs are "realer" than others. And this is going to become a bigger and bigger problem in the future, as spouses begin to demand access to these real jobs.

Here's the problem. Take a person like me. I have more than one degree hanging on my wall. I speak two languages well and have studied five others. I had a serious pre-foreign service job, managing teams and managing money and managing words on paper. I've been published in some rather well-known news outlets. In other words, I've got a pretty damn good resume. 

But that doesn't matter when I show up at an Embassy. I can compete, of course, for a lot of the advertised jobs. But many of those jobs, frankly, aren't at all challenging to me, and I don't want them. Or I'm competing for the job I want against scores of other equally over-qualified spouses.

Some spouses disagree. I had a friend at another post who absolutely loved her job. She worked in the mailroom of a large post, and her job was to stamp packages and send them down the line. But, as she told me, she got to chat with friends who showed up at her window, and at the end of the day, she went home and she didn't give her job another thought. She was thrilled to have it.

Lots of other spouses are more like me. If we're going to leave our kids and go to work, we want it to be worthwhile, intellectually, financially, some way, somehow. And while we all weigh our options differently, the truth is, it's hard for an educated spouse to find meaningful work overseas. It really is. 

I have friends who are doctors and lawyers who can't find anything remotely suitable, so they stay home instead. Friends who made six-figure incomes in the States and are now working for close to minimum wage.

It's hard out there for a spouse. And I know the State Department is looking at ways to remedy the situation, through programs like the professional associates program. But there simply aren't enough of those jobs to go around. And that's why I was so pleased to snag one of them.

I don't mean to insult those who have the other jobs: the security escorts, and the shredders and the data entry clerks. Believe me, I've been there too, many times over. But I personally believe that smart, educated spouses deserve to have more options. 

Which leads me to a second comment I got: "Why doesn't DOS make more of an effort to put qualified spouses/EFMs into jobs that are currently held by local hires? I get that an EFM is going to have to be replaced in 2 years and a local hire has more longevity potential. But it seems backwards to me that they give more opportunity to local hires than the very citizens who are there serving their country..."

Good question. But it has a good answer.

At every post, the local staff is the actual backbone of the Embassy. The local staff in my current office, for example, or the one I was in previously, can do things I couldn't begin to do, and they have a knowledge base I can never acquire. They know how to get people on the phone, and what to say when they've got 'em there. They know how to read the newspaper to find the underlying meaning. They know how to read the street. They can tell us all sorts of things that would otherwise fly right over our heads, because they are part of the culture, whereas as we are just skimming the surface.

Without its local staff, an Embassy would literally collapse. And in many cases, the jobs they do simply aren't doable by an American EFM. We don't have the lifelong connections, and can't make those connections in our time on the ground. Even if we speak the local language, we're not going to be able to communicate on the same level as them. 

So while I'd agree that there are always a few jobs out there that are taken by a local that could be encumbered by an EFM instead, I'd argue that in most cases, this isn't true.

So there you have it. You all gave me some interesting things to ponder, and I appreciate the comments and questions. Keep them coming: I'll try to answer them if I have a decent answer. 

I'll be back soon with a less serious post. But for now: I'm off to work!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Work

Right around the time the middle east imploded, I started a new job at the Embassy. I don't mean to imply that those two events are connected, but there you have it.

Technically, I'm probably not supposed to blog about work. But I'm going to cheat a little bit here and tell you something about what I've been doing.

The State Department has a program called the Professional Associates program. In a nutshell, when a post is understaffed, they can apply to Washington to hire a qualified spouse instead of finding another foreign service officer to fill the gap. Interested spouses have to take a business writing test, and fill out all sorts of forms, and sit through an interview or two, and if you're selected, Washington will hire you into the job and treat you like a regular FSO. It's a great gig if you can get it (there aren't a lot of them). It's probably the best paying job you can get at the Embassy, and it's a "real" job - not typing, filing, shredding, or escorting visitors around the building. It's really, really hard for a spouse to find a real job at most Embassies, so when you get a chance, you have to jump on it.

I applied, and I was selected to work in the public diplomacy section. Which, if you don't know, is sort of the public face of the Embassy. In public diplomacy, the officers talk to the press, and maintain the website, and monitor the Embassy's social media programs, and bring in guest speakers, and organize cultural events, and manage the English language programs, and translate American books into Arabic, and arrange web chats with prominent writers, and, and, and. So: the public diplomacy section sells America.

Now I'm in public diplomacy. My first week there, I invited myself along with a new colleague who was managing a visit, just to see how it all works. She had arranged to have a well-known graphic novelist, Craig Thompson, come from the States to tour Jordan and teach technique to students and professional graphic artists alike.

The day I joined the tour, Craig was at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in Salt, Jordan, where he was running a seminar to teach cartooning and story telling to the deaf students there, who ranged in age from about 5-15.

It was really so cool to watch the kids interact with him, and to see their focus as they created their stories and then told those stories using sign language. And it was awesome that this well-respected, award-winning artist took the time to teach these kids what he knows. The kids really responded to him, and they were all so excited to show him what they could do.

Watching the whole thing unfold made me glad I'd chosen to take on this new job.

The author with some of his students.

working...





Each group of two took turns drawing their story on the board and then signing their story.



The author with the man who runs the school.

This kid loved seeing his own picture.

I snapped a photo of these guys....

... and they insisted upon taking one of me.

I loved this little girl...

This one, too.




After we finished the class, we took a tour of the workshop, where the older kids learn skills like needlework and pottery so they can make a living in the future.
Making carpets in the workshop.



Needlework.





Sunday, September 16, 2012

In Amman Last Friday


...and we're the calm country in the region. My heart goes out to Four Globetrotters, who had to say goodbye to her kids when her post was sent to authorized departure.

More from me later. It was a long weekend, though, and not an entirely happy one. For now, thanks for the good wishes that have been coming my way via email and Facebook. It's all good here.




Thursday, September 13, 2012

Here in Jordan

There was a time, way back at the beginning of my husband's career, when he got into a bit of a scary situation. They train for these things, and they know what to do, but it doesn't make it any easier when you're sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring.

It was wintertime in Moscow, and the entire Embassy was locked down, and all I knew was that the Marine who pounded on my door had shouted something about a possible terrorist threat, telling me to lock the doors and stay away from the windows. I remember it was around dinner time. There was snow on the ground, but the Marine at my door was only wearing gym shorts under his gear. I locked the doors, and I closed the curtains, but I'll admit I peeked every so often, and through my window I could see armed Marines, moving in formation, armed to the teeth and wearing whatever clothes they'd had on when the alarm was sounded.

I knew my husband was with them. But I had absolutely no idea what was going on.

And so I waited. It didn't occur to me to turn on the television, or call a friend. I just sat and waited. And waited. And waited.

A few hours went by before the phone rang. It was one of Bart's coworkers.

"Bart's okay," he said. "He'll call you later." And he hung up.

Another hour went by. Another call. Another coworker.

"Listen," she said. "Bart is okay. He's fine. He can't come home for awhile, but don't worry." And she hung up.

Don't worry? What else was there to do? So I sat, and I waited, and I worried. Of course I worried. I was hugely pregnant with my first baby, and I rubbed my belly and worried.

He didn't come home until around 2 in the morning. He grabbed some peanut butter, told me briefly what was happening, told me to pack the suitcases and disappeared into the night, leaving me to continue my vigil.

It was a scary, scary night, followed by many sad and scary days after the incident was over. It ended with blood spilled, and cars crashed, and magazines emptied. It ended with us being evacuated from post, not sure if we'd ever be allowed back. It ended with me finally truly understanding what kind of life we were living, when everything can change without a moment's notice, when the people you love are out there, somewhere, doing things you can only imagine, to stop the bad guys from hurting the good guys. It ended with me realizing that my husband could have died, could still, at any time, die, because of the work he does, because he chooses to run into situations from which other people run away.

I don't know what to say about the attack in Libya, about the murders that took place at the consulate. But I do know that those four people died because they were doing their job. They knew the risk, but still they chose to serve their country. Our country.

It's a small community, this foreign service town of ours. There aren't a lot of us, and so of course many of my friends know the victims, and have served with them in the past. Hannah, Matt, Michelle, and the rest of you - thank you for sharing the stories of your colleagues. Because people don't know - and they need to know - that there are heroic people out there, doing what they can to make our country stronger. They don't wear uniforms. They don't do much to advertise their work. You might see only a government bureaucrat, a cog in the wheel. But these people are doing things every day, in ways both big and small, in safe places and dangerous ones, to make our country stronger, and safer, and better.

I have friends in Libya, and I have friends in Egypt. I have friends in Jerusalem and Baghdad and Tunis. In Saudi and Bahrain. In Pakistan and Afghanistan. My friends are serving all over this region, knowing as they do the risks, because their work is important and because they believe the risk is worth the potential cost to them. Their families are with them when possible, because the families also believe this work is important. Sometimes, their families are not with them - the families stay back when it is too dangerous to join - but those families willingly give up birthdays and holidays and weekends and bedtime routines, because they know the work is important. The work is necessary.

There are four families out there who lost loved ones in the attack in Libya. There are many, many more families - Heather's, for example, and Matt's - who are sitting at home in the U.S., watching events unfold in Cairo, knowing that their loved ones are in the center of that particular storm. Jill and Jen and Mary are all back home in the States, single parenting their kids, having sent their husbands to Baghdad and Afghanistan.

Here in Jordan we're in the eye of this hurricane, surrounded as we are by all of these countries. But, you know, we have a pretty decent RSO, and he's keeping an eye on things. So I'm feeling good about Jordan, for now. Things turn on a dime - I learned that all those years ago, on a snowy Moscow night. But for now, I'm feeling okay about where I am, where my family is.

My prayers are with all of those families who lost their loved ones this week, in such a senseless, awful way, simply because their loved ones chose to serve something so much bigger than themselves. They gave their lives, and they gave them for you. Remember that.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Tale of Two Parties

Last night the Ambassador invited us to his house for a Country Team dinner.

Country Team, for those of you who aren't foreign service types, is basically the senior leadership of the Embassy. So the head of each section was invited, along with spouses (that'd be me).

Do you know? I had a really good time. I wasn't sure what to expect, because I was basically surrounded by the brain trust of the Embassy, just trying to keep up. But I got to meet a few new people and talk to some old ones whom I don't see all that often. And we do have some really good people running the show at this Embassy, covering issues as diverse as the Syrian crisis, Internet piracy, middle east peace - you know, just the little stuff.

The only established rule was that we weren't allowed to sit at the same table as our spouses once dinner was served. So I found myself at a small table with one of my oldest Embassy friends to my right and one of my newest to my left, which made for very fun dinner chatter.

I spent a lot of time talking to a senior law enforcement official and the senior military guy at post, both of whom happened to sit at the same table. Good guys both, but normally when I pass them in the hallway, they are serious and all-business, so I just toss out a wave and scoot quickly past. It was interesting to see them in a different atmosphere. Both are seriously funny and not quite-so-scary as you'd imagine.

All in all, a nice evening, and one that made me look at my colleagues in a slightly different light. Which is, I imagine, what the Ambassador was hoping would happen when he called us all together.

After the dinner, I stopped by the Marine House with a couple of girlfriends. They were having a party of an entirely different sort there, making for an interesting contrast. I'm pretty sure I was the oldest person there. I stayed up waaay past my bedtime, so I'm going to pay for that today. When it was time to leave, I ended up getting accidentally locked inside the Embassy with the friend who was driving me home. Seriously. Does this kind of thing happen to other people? Because I've never heard anyone else utter the phrase "So there I was locked out by the mag door, trying to call the Marines to come rescue me" in the course of a normal conversation. Looking back, though, it was actually pretty funny - and made for an interesting end to an interesting night.

On the list for today: shopping and cooking for the week ahead. Not as interesting, perhaps, as yesterday. But necessary nonetheless.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Another Crazy Week

What a week this is turning out to be. Lots to say; no time to say it.

I have been Busy. Super busy. Crazy busy. But you know? It's all good. Mostly all good anyway.

We got Sunday off - Labor Day and all - but the kids had school. The best kind of day! While they were in school, I went with a friend to get a pedicure, and then we met up with our respective husbands and one other couple for lunch. The food was substandard, but it made for lots of laughs, and I'll never look at angel hair pasta the same way again.

The next day, I managed to sneak out for a quick lunch with some other friends, both Embassy and non-Embassy. It was our first time together since school let out last June, and we spent the time laughing and catching up. So fun.

Then, because I apparently have too much of a social life this week, I met another group of friends for lunch yesterday. And yes - if anyone from my office is reading this, I clocked out! Swear I did!

Last night was the first school board meeting of the year, so I was out late dealing with school stuff. I was kind of dreading it - I really just wanted to go put on my pjs and crawl into bed - but it turned out to be a good meeting. We covered a lot of ground over two hours. So I think I'm feeling energized and ready to get back into that.

Today I was remarkably busy at work. But I still managed to participate in "Omelet-palooza" (long story). And then somehow I ended up in the middle of a hysterical email exchange amongst a group of friends. There's no way to explain just why it was so funny - inside jokes and all - but I sat at my desk and laughed until I cried, literally. Thankfully no one caught me there in my office acting all crazy.

I needed that laugh.

So yes, life is crazy and I am overwhelmed and there is all sorts of absolutely unbloggable nonsense going on in my life right now. I wish I had someone to talk to about it all. The downside of living overseas, in a small community, is that you can't really take your problems on the road. So the things that are going on in my head have to stay in my head, and there isn't really an outlet for the stuff that is bothering me right now. But the upside is that I have all of these crazy friends who absolutely get this crazy lifestyle, because they are living it right alongside me, and so there is always someone around who can make me smile when I need it the most.

All in all: a good week so far. And tomorrow is Thursday - the last day of the workweek, the light at the end of the tunnel. I think I'm gonna make it through Work Week 2. Just 50 more to go. I can do this thing! I can. I can! Can't I?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

One Last Look At Vacation

I have a few last shots of R&R to put up. Bear with me folks - the grandparents love it, even if the rest of you are bored to tears.

We took a skazillion photos, but somehow I didn't get a single shot with my sis. None with J&B either. How did I screw that up so badly?

Oh, well. Here's what I've got:


Super hot husband. Super cute baby.


...still digging in the dirt.

See this driver-less boat out in the water?

Why is the lifeguard boat there?

And the tow truck? What's he doing?

Turns out the boat is attached to a truck, which somehow went in the water instead of towing the boat out.

Oops.

My beautiful niece.

And my beautiful baby.

...with nana and pop.


Petting stingrays and sharks at the aquarium.

...starfish, too.

Everyone was sad - it was our last day in the states.


Not sure what was going on here, but it looks like fun.
And that's it. We got so much done in the two weeks we were there, and had so much fun. I'm still taking some of the best parts and reliving them inside my head, all these weeks later. I suspect I'll be doing that for awhile.
Please. Write your own stuff.