The Home Leave honeymoon is over.
And now I am in purgatory.
Just kidding! Well, sort of. Leaving Shanghai was An End. And when we depart the US to move to Malawi that represents A Beginning. The majority of Home Leave was a lovely interlude, a chance to see friends and family, have quality mother-daughter time, re-charge after the previous months of frenzied departure preparations, and see more of our incredible country. But now we are in the DC area and it feels like neither a beginning nor an end. It is an interregnum, an interim, an intermission.
We are in the in-between.
I have struggled with writing this blog post because I have struggled to define how I feel. There are just so many things all wrapped up in being back here temporarily at this time.
Nostalgic in the Moment
A few weeks after we moved into the temporary apartment in Arlington, we set out for a stroll to a nearby much-lauded playground. I enjoyed the walk and C very much enjoyed the playground. C also enjoyed a Spongebob Squarepants creamsicle from the Ice Cream Truck. I felt transported back to the summers of my childhood when the familiar musical chimes of the truck in my neighborhood had me scurrying back to home to beg my mother for ice cream — and the change to buy it. I usually went for a Push-Up, an orange creamsicle concoction in a cylinder that you pushed up the tube as you ate, or a red, white, and blue American rocket popsicle. These days the Ice Cream Man has much more selection and accepts credit cards yet he seemed no less the symbol of a suburban Americana summer.
On the walk home, in the fading summer light, along tree-lined sidewalks, some brick-laid, past the chic residences, restaurants, and stores that make up the mixed-use development area where we live, I suddenly felt sad. I thought, “I miss this.” And the thing is I did not think I will miss it, but that I already felt a wistful yearning for what was right there in front of me. And it is a sensation that has cropped up again and again.
We are in the DC area for a total of twelve weeks (ten weeks of training and the two final weeks of my Home Leave). While it is the shortest amount of time I have been in the DC area since joining the State Department, it is not an insignificant amount of time. As an actual chunk of time it is neither short nor long. Or maybe it is both? I have not been able to decide. I have swung from feeling that the time is nowhere near long enough to do everything I need/want to do and then to feeling as if the days are far too many. A few weeks back my daughter summed it up pretty well when she announced Mom, we have been in this apartment hotel TOO long! It is keeping us from getting to Malawi!
In part due to that sense of nostalgia–the feeling of needing to cram in as much Americana as possible, to enjoy the things that were we in the US longer we might come to take for granted (like sidewalks, world class museums, the DC metro)–I have tried to squeeze in as much fun for us as I can. Despite that we are moving to Africa where safaris abound, I took C to the National Zoo. It is free and it is amazing and it has animals from all over the world. C loved it. We visited the Natural History Museum, a place I visited often as a child on school trips or with my mom and siblings. Just like me, C wanted to seek out the dinosaurs, Egyptian mummies, and insects. She still, out of the blue, remarks how the largest and most beautiful of butterflies, the Blue Morpho, landed on her arm in the butterfly exhibit. My intrepid 5 year old bravely faced the tree-top climbing and zip line courses at the Adventure Park at Sandy Springs. During my training in West Virginia, C spent the week with her two cousins. At the end of the week we all met up for a drive-in movie theater experience in Stephens City, Virginia. My sister and brother-in-law are drive-in movie buffs but it was both C’s and my first time. Americana. After I posted a video of C dancing to her newest Shimmer and Shine DVD, a friend mentioned that the following weekend, just days away, AwesomeCom, DC’s answer to ComicCom would be in town and Shimmer and Shine, the twin genies in training that have captured my daughter’s heart, would be there. I bought us tickets and a few days later we stood in a giant hall in the convention center surrounded by costumed enthusiasts. Next time, C told me, we will also dress up. We attended a baseball game at Nationals Stadium and spent the evening of July 4th watching fireworks over the Washington Mall from the Iwo Jima Memorial in Virginia. We had dinner with a long time friend of mine at Medieval Times – eating chicken and bread and corn with our hands while watching knights jousting. Sure knights and princesses are more a European thing, but watching them in this day and age as dining entertainment has got to be Americana, right? C and I also braved some wall climbing at the very unique Climbzone in Laurel, Maryland. Despite being one of the smallest climbers, C again tried an impressive number of climbs. We also enjoyed one of the Cinema in the Park experiences that abound in the DC/VA/MD area in summer. Before the movie, Moana, C had the opportunity to learn hula dancing and get her picture with the Polynesian princess herself. Each one of these experiences have been priceless.
I have also tried to pack in time with friends and family. We had a special half-birthday for C. Though I started the tradition several years ago given either our lifestyle or C’s January birthday might make it difficult to celebrate on her actual birthday, the half birthday has thus far been a low-key affair. A cupcake with mom and a single present. This year we celebrated the half-birthday big time with a specially ordered cake and a party with her maternal grandparents, grand auntie and grand uncle, two aunts, an uncle, and two cousins. It isn’t often we can celebrate with family. With friends I have had lunches and brunches and dinners, and when those are not possible, squeezed in conversations in the halls of the Foreign Service Institute or phone calls while we are in the same time zone for once. One of the best parts of being back at FSI is seeing all the familiar faces – former teachers and classmates as well as colleagues from Juarez and Shanghai. And I am incredibly grateful to a group of fit and friendly women from the Sunday morning step aerobics class at the local YMCA who invited me & C to their weekly after-exercise Starbucks gathering. Moving around as much as we do it is rare for me to find a group and much less to be so invited and welcomed.
Killing Me Softly with Bureaucracy
The majority of my time here is spent in training at FSI. Unlike in the past I have no language training; it is all functional training in courses spanning from a single day to 3 weeks. Some of my training has been amazing. Some of it felt as if it were purposely designed around my greatest weaknesses. Though some could have been better, I certainly have learned a lot and am better prepared for my next assignment than I was when I began in June. But in all of my training I wish I had had more time to focus on the training itself and less on what I often refer to as my part time job: Moving.
Preparations for our second intercontinental move of the year has involved all manner of things from scheduling vaccinations, having my travel orders amended to accommodate new training, getting passport photos required by the Embassy in Malawi, and organizing our flights, which includes the cats. International pet travel is no joke. None of these things is particularly difficult in its own right – well except getting the cats to Malawi – but in true bureaucratic fashion none were made easy either.
For instance let me tell you about renewing my Department identification. I work for the State Department. I have a current badge. I am in the system. One might think obtaining a new badge would be straight forward. But it is not. One cannot just walk in with a current badge, have someone check in the system that you are in fact an employee in good standing, and then voilà! a new badge. Our bureaucracy laughs at this naiveté. Instead we need a form signed by someone in HR. I obtained the form and headed to the badging office in Arlington. But I was unsuccessful. Why? Because the form had been signed electronically and not with a pen. I could not get my badge the following week because I started training at FSI – and at the time there was no badging at FSI. I could not return to the Arlington office or go to DC because the offices are open 9-4 and my training at FSI was 9-5. Also according to one paper the form signature remained valid for five days, while another form indicated it would be valid for 30, but the badging office told me both were incorrect – it would be valid for ten days. In the end with a mixture of perseverance and luck I did obtain a new badge, but the ordeal to do so is indicative of how many of my necessary tasks went down. Do not even get me started on what I went through to get my cats reservations on our flights. I shutter to recall.
I absolutely know I am not alone in this. I have stated it before and I will state it again – every single Foreign Service Officer puts a huge amount of effort into getting them and their things, and, if they have them, their family and pets, from Point A to Point B.
In addition to soaking up America, training like a ninja, and working my tail off to get us to our third country of the year, I spent a lot of time, effort, and money in another endeavor: shopping til I dropped!
Your order of Skywalker Trampoline and 47 other items has shipped
That is an actual recent email I received. It would be impressive in and of itself, but it is more so given it was followed in quick succession by: Your order of Tide Pods Laundry and 48 other items has shipped and Your Body Track Glider and 49 other items have shipped. You might wonder what possessed me? Why am I buying out all the things from Amazon? No, I did not suddenly come into an inheritance. One, Malawi is a Consumables Post, where local conditions make it difficult to obtain the usual consumable items an employee and family would use. “Consumables” are items that are used up rather than worn out. Consumables are items like food stuffs, household maintenance supplies such as laundry detergent, and personal care items such as shampoo or bubble bath for the kiddo. It can also include items for our furry companions. Two, I had not maxed out our HHE (Household Effects) and given we are moving from Shanghai, where we had a smallish 19th floor apartment, to Malawi where we will have a large home and yard…Well, I wanted to take advantage of our time in the US to purchase a few items, such as a bicycle and trampoline for C (often listed among the top things to bring to African posts) and a rowing machine and FOUR spare tires for myself and our “new to me” car from Japan.
At Consumable Posts employees are authorized up to an astounding 2,500 pounds that can be divided into two shipments, provided they both are shipped within a year of arrival in the country. I have no doubt that some larger families can meet this amount easily. For just the two of us it felt like a challenge. I would find myself in Target or a supermarket pondering questions such as “how much salsa DO I eat in a year?” At first it was kind of fun, but overtime those kinds of decisions grew exasperating. C lost all interest in going to the store with me. I get it; small children have a hard time delaying gratification. These are things we are not only NOT using this summer but would instead only receive 2-3 months after arriving at our new home. That is a long time to wait. But C even began to beg me to get her a babysitter so she would not have to go with me. Believe you me — I did not want to go shopping anymore either. And I think it is due to this shopping fatigue that I failed in my pursuit. Somehow I only managed 555 pounds.
Time to Say Goodbye, or Rather, Hello
We are now just days away from departure. The to-do list is basically done. We are no longer shopping. What we have now has to fit into our suitcases. We are no longer trying to fill hours seeing friends and family or trying out a new activity. I do not have the bandwidth for it. We are instead eating out at our favorite places or eating up the last of our supplies at home. I am having last-while-in-the-US calls and chats with friends and family.
Last Saturday we took another stroll down to that playground. On the way home, in the twilight of another beautiful Northern Virginia summer evening, I came to the realization that we are both now ready to leave. I will of course still miss so much about this part of the US, just about being in the US, but the feeling of nostalgia had been replaced. What I miss most now is working (instead of training), of being settled, of having a home. There is a sense of excitement (and nervousness) about what is next. I think back to a few weeks ago when I heard my daughter singing an original song in our temporary living room: Goodbye America! Goodbye America! I really love to live here but I really need to leave.
It’s time. No more in-between. Time for yet another new start.