Ah, R&R. Good ole Rest and Recuperation. Or Rest and Relaxation. That time when the State Department pays for you and your family to get out of dodge, er post, on holiday.
The Foreign Affairs Handbook (3 FAH-1 H-3721.2) defines the need for R&R as Conditions of life at the post present distinct and significant difficulties of sufficient severity to justify temporary relief for an employee and employee’s eligible family members during a period of assignment.
That sounds pretty dull actually. I searched and searched for something in the FAH that had a bit more pizzazz but to no avail. Some might not think Shanghai is the kind of place that would justify temporary relief. I will be the first to tell you that we have things pretty good here. Our apartment and apartment complex is amazing. The city is full of great things to see and do. The supermarkets usually have a good selection of fresh produce and restaurants are plentiful. However the poor air quality, the internet restrictions, the crowds, the language, the pace of work can get to a person. I will tell you I feel a palpable sense of lightening when I am outside of China.
This was actually my first R&R with the State Department. Yeah, that is right; Ciudad Juarez had no R&R because well, it was literally five miles from the US. None of the Mexican border posts had R&R although interior Mexican posts did. I will refrain from my personal opinion on this but suffice to say that some of my colleagues were not too pleased that the dusty desert border city with 15% danger pay was a no but culturally rich and exciting Mexico City was a yes.
I am just grateful to have an R&R, even if I have to work on the resting and recuperating.
Part One: Virginia
We landed at 5:40 am at Dulles International Airport. My father loaned me one of his cars for the duration of our time in Virginia, so I drove him home (my parents live only ten minutes from the airport) and then to the hotel. The hotel management was really awesome to let us check in at 7 am. All the luggage into the room, a shower, and then we were off to our first activity.
My daughter loves horses. I mean LOVES horses. At 4 she is a bit young for horse riding lessons but there is a wonderful stable in Aldie, Virginia called Stonelea Farm that has a Hello Pony program for kids ages 2-5. They get to groom a horse, ride it twice several times around an arena, feed the horse snacks and receive a horse shoe souvenir. The program is only on Saturdays and we only had the one in Virginia…so fresh off a plane, jet lagged and all I took my little girl to see a horse. Afterwards we headed to a restaurant to meet my parents, my aunt, and my sister, brother in law, niece and nephew for lunch. We made it to 5pm before falling asleep.
On our second day we met a friend of mine who had recently relocated from New York to DC. And we went to PetSmart because we like an entire store dedicated to animals where people bring their pets to shop. And then we went to Target because I love that store with a special kind of love from deep within my core. You never know what things mean to you until they are gone. Target is my happy place when I come back to the US.
We spent the third day in historic Manassas, Virginia. It being a Monday the museum was unfortunately closed and we did not have the time to visit the battlefield, but we did enjoy a stroll around the historic section. After lunch we drove to the home of an A-100 colleague. A-100 is the 6 week course that all new Foreign Service Officers take. Your A-100 class is like a freshman dorm or hall – it is your identifying mark, your built in network. Although this colleague has left the Service she still remains in touch and had offered my daughter an opportunity to meet her beautiful horse and I was finally taking advantage.
On Tuesday I went into “Main State,” the Department of State’s headquarters on C Street in Washington, DC. Why pray tell did I use up a day of my vacation to do that? Believe you me; the day before and morning of I too was wondering the same thing. Later this year I will go through the mid-level bidding process for the first time. “Bidding is a wonderful experience,” said no one ever. From what I understand bidding appears to be a special long-drawn out form of torture we put Foreign Service Officers through again and again and again. We may have a career but we need to make a huge effort to get each job.
With this in mind my mentor had suggested I consider taking part of my R&R in or around Washington and make my way through the halls of the Harry S Truman (HST) building to meet with people. I embraced this idea wholeheartedly and managed to score four meetings with desk officers working in countries where I have a strong interest in serving (and which at this time are projected to have a vacancy in a political job at the time I transfer from Shanghai) and also a meeting with my mid-level Career Development Officer. I had lunch with two friends who are currently desk officers.
Yet that morning I really was feeling resentful. This was my vacation. I wanted to be vacationing, not networking. Once inside the building though I felt different. First, I was immensely pleased that I managed to get from the front door to the cafeteria to buy a snack and to my first appointment on time. I may have been lost for only 20 minutes. For me, Main State is akin to the Winchester Mystery House. I have actually not been to the haunted home in San Jose, California, but I read about it in a ghost book when in elementary school. I was fascinated with the idea of a crazy house with stairs that lead to the ceiling, doors that open to nowhere, and secret passageways. HST has corridors cut in half, stairways that lead to doors outside but will take you nowhere else in the building, and hallways that are labeled the same number but are not connected. Second, I felt connected to the greater work of the State Department in a way I do not feel at post doing visas. Visas are a big part of Consular Affairs but there is so much more going on. It seems obvious but it felt like a revelation nonetheless. My meetings went well; I have no idea if it will help in any way come bidding time, but I learned a lot.
Phase Two: Kentucky
The first day was for my daughter and me to get out on the town. It was just 10 days before the Derby so it felt essential to start our visit at the Kentucky Derby Museum at the famous Churchill Downs. The museum has the right mix of the modern and historic, and exhibits for adults and children. The admission price included a tour of the racecourse, and we were there at an early enough time in the morning to see several horses being put through their paces. It is hard to say which my daughter loved more—the real horses on the track or the pretend Derby race in the museum. I really hope someday to take her to see the real thing.
The following day we met her dad and his new wife for lunch and then the two of them drove off with C to the zoo. (Just for clarification I was never the old wife. Someday I might address our particular situation, or not. But suffice to say we get along and he loves C).
What to do with myself though? Now that I was on the town on a Friday night without my child? With the half marathon the following day? Well, the weather was predicted to be less than ideal, with the rain set to begin around 2 am. And my training had not been particularly inspiring. Once again, I just wanted to get out on the road and run. So, I went to the Jim Beam Stillhouse. Because bourbon was the best thing I could think of.
The next day I was up early. The rain had not started in the early am. Even at 5 am the skies were cloudy but dry. A little before 7 I walked over to the start line. Just before the race was to start at 7:30 my heel began to hurt. So, that was a great sign. At the one mile mark my chest started to tighten and I began to wheeze. It felt like the start of asthma. It had stopped bothering me by the 3rd mile. I stopped at a port-a-potty at mile 5 but the line didn’t move after five minutes so I just started running again. Around mile 5.5 it began to rain, lightly but steadily. At 6 I stopped to put on the one-time-use rain jacket I had bought at Target the day before. (See? Target.) At mile 8 we entered Churchill Downs. There are no spectators allowed inside, but I had heard on the TV that morning a reporter say she would be there and to stop at her tent, covered from the rain, to say hello. So I did. We chatted. We did an interview. I told her my goal was a personal worst and I looked to be on track. The rain became harder. I was getting tired. But I kept going. I’ll tell you it was not easy to clinch that slowest time. Even with all those stops and the bourbon I barely beat my next slowest time. I really had fun though. What a great course Good support throughout. I celebrated with lunch at the Hard Rock and a visit to the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse for some more tastings on 4th Street Live.
The following day I took a drove to pick up my daughter. Her face was glowing. She had had a really wonderful time. She had so much to tell me. Her favorite thing about her dad? His wife! Given how happy she made my kid she gets super high marks in my book too.
Part Three: Virginia, again
This time we landed around 4 pm. The jet lag had nearly worn off anyway. We drove out to Winchester, Virginia to stay with my aunt. We spent two nights at her home there and one at her cabin at Stone Mountain, West Virginia. I had visited the cabin with her before. Heck, my sister got married there. C had even been there before for a July 4th celebration. But something about this time felt like it was where I was meant to be on R&R. That perhaps this is where, if I were really after rest and recuperation, I should have spent the whole vacation. There is no television. Internet service is extremely weak, mostly non-existent. The cabin is a studio with a loft. When it rains the pitter-patter on the corrugated roof is about the only sound you hear. The activities? Setting and up swinging in the hammock. Sitting on the porch and looking out at the field. A walk down to the river. Maybe a conversation with a neighbor that stops by to tell you of a rare orchid he finds in the woods. Then a search through the woods for said orchid. A hike up Stone Mountain. More conversation.
We departed my aunt’s on Thursday late morning. There was another day and a half left. We spent some more time at Target, of course, another meal with a friend, a pizza and movie night at my sister’s house. Then it was time to return to Shanghai.