Here we are already halfway through the eleven months we have in the U.S. between our Malawi and Guinea tours. I have been wrestling with what to write about – having already covered home leave and trying to adjust, what to say about being sort of, at least temporarily, adjusted? When overseas, especially in the often less traveled places where I have tendency to live and work, or while on once in a lifetime vacations, the stories are easier to write. Sitting in a nondescript apartment in Northern Virginia as I telework feels far more conventional, even if in a global pandemic. I have lived a little more than half my adult life outside of the United States and the other half often working toward those times. I sometimes long for something more conventional, but honestly, I don’t know how to do conventional. And even this, being paid to learn a language by the Department of State in order to assist with my upcoming assignment in West Africa, frankly, isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill either.
Language Learning in a Pandemic
This is my third go at learning a language through the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). I took Spanish ahead of my assignment to Ciudad Juarez and Mandarin before Shanghai, but in both cases I had the advantage of having studied the language before in high school, college, or another setting (or a combination of). This time I am learning French and have no background whatsoever in it. Though, honestly, that is a wee bit untrue. I mean, English speakers have been exposed to at least some of the language through cognates or popular culture. It is not like I am taking up Turkmen. Yet, I have no formal training and I feel the difference keenly.
I will not beat around the bush: I am not a fan of FSI’s language training method. I do not think I can describe it adequately if you have never been through it or a similar program. To me, the first few months are a bombardment of vocabulary and grammar. Often we will cover a grammatical point for one hour of the day and the teacher will say something like, “now that we have learned gender of nouns or the conditional tense, we can now move forward with another topic” and I balk because I might have understood some, but I definitely have not “learned” the concept in such a short timeframe. Imagine this happening every hour, five hours a day, five days a week for some eight weeks before your first assessment? Homework certainly reinforces concepts as does the daily build on — but I can feel myself fighting it day after day. (This is not to say I don’t have fun — I laugh every single day in class!) After this, the class then pivots to regularly putting students on the spot with impromptu discussions and then short speeches on societal topics such as gender equality, climate change, or vaccination mandates. I didn’t like this method when I studied Spanish or Chinese and I do not like it now. And I was no spring chicken when I started the Foreign Service (see my complaints about being too old for language training from 7 years ago). And yet, at the end of the day, despite the method and my resistance (and it almost galls me to admit), I get to a good level of language acquisition.
Doing all the training online has taken some getting used to. I sometimes miss the camaraderie of the halls of FSI, the running into friends and colleagues from A100 (our onboarding course), past posts, or past training, and getting to know new folks as we all muddle our way through new languages. Also, since so many people – thousands – are there at any given time pursing language or functional training, the Department offers other services such as passport or badge renewals, research for next posts at the Overseas Briefing Center, a clinic to get vaccinations, a child care center (for those lucky enough to get one of the very coveted spots), a gym, and more. All of this set on some really lovely grounds. FSI is a base sorts for those that often have none, a place someone can come back to again and again where you find yourself among others who get the quirks of the job and lifestyle.
Yet, I do love my 20 second commute to my desk, the wearing of comfy pants and no shoes, and rummaging around in my kitchen for snacks during breaks. And though there are some technical challenges at times (for some reason my microphone has worked only 50% of the time in class the past week and a half) I have not felt much difference in the quality of training from my previous two times at the Institute. I have 19 weeks of my 30 weeks of training left to go, so we shall see when it comes round to testing time how well I actually do.
Milking America for All Its Worth (in a Pandemic)
Despite the intense pressure to abandon all in favor of only activities that further my French and a continuing pandemic that makes the decision to get out and about sometimes difficult, I am still trying to make the most of our time in the United States. For my daughter who has spent the majority of her life overseas and our young nanny who has not had many such opportunities, I want to introduce them to a variety of activities we could not do in Malawi and won’t be able to in Guinea.
One of our first sightseeing trips was down into the heart of iconic Washington, DC. Just riding the metro was a treat as there had been nothing like that in Malawi. We walked past the Washington Memorial, visited the World War II Memorial, and then strolled along the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. We then rented some scooters and zipped back toward the Capitol, stopping to eat from several of the food trucks lining the streets. We also popped into the National Air and Space Museum.
As the weather cooled, I took us to Mount Vernon, for a tour of the house and walks around the grounds. There is a lot of history to learn and confront at the home of our first President and we lucked out with a glorious day to do it. I also scored tickets for the Disney on Ice show — I waited until the last minute, you know, just in case there was some COVID issue. We all loved the show but I think JMC loved it the most. Her whoops of delight at every major stunt were infectious. We met my sister and her family and a family friend at Liberty Mills Farm in central Virginia to take our chances in the country’s largest corn maze. We took the trail with no map and got happily lost (and then somewhat desperately), then, once free, picked out some pumpkins and scarfed down some farm-inspired desserts. I don’t know what says fall in Virginia more than heading to a farm for a pumpkin. And I took us to a Halloween inspired light show at a nearby zoo — one I used to go to when I was a kid. Afterwards we all tried some fried Oreo. Ah, Americana.
I found myself pretty excited that Halloween would be in-person. With the Delta wave still causing havoc through the fall, I really had not been sure it would happen and it made me a bit sad for my daughter. She had not had much experience with Halloween in the U.S.: In 2014 when she was 2 1/2 and we lived for five months in a Staybridge Suites hotel and trick-or-treated briefly in the adjacent townhouse community and in 2015 when we were in the U.S. for an unexpected medevac and I was recovering from an intense procedure. I had had maybe an hour of energy to take C trick-or-treating through our temporary apartment housing. And trick or treating in our past posts was different, especially last year. At three months shy of 10, this is the perfect age for my daughter to trick-or-treat. If we return to the U.S. for training after our next assignment, she will be 13. So, I decided to forego the likely sad trick-or-treating to be found in our apartment building and took us to the most celebrated Halloween street in Arlington for some big-time candy demanding.
For Thanksgiving, I opted for the typical non-typical American activity of dinner at a Chinese restaurant and a movie – only our second movie in a theater since returning to the U.S., the first being in Jacksonville, FL on Home Leave. That weekend though we drove down to King’s Dominion to meet up with one of my best friends CZ and her son Little CZ for the amusement park’s Winter Fest. As the weather grew colder we went ice skating at the National Sculpture Garden (the first time for C and JMC and the first time in a looooong time for me), strolled by the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House, and attended a breathtaking performance of the Nutcracker performed by the Washington Ballet company. The Nutcracker was one of the highest priorities on my “while in the U.S. bucket list” as it was the kind of performance we could not see in Malawi and will likely be limited or unavailable in Guinea. I know we have had the opportunity to see many amazing places and cultural activities in every place we have been, but I really am trying to boost our Americana while we have the chance and C is at this age. And introducing all of this to our nanny JMC is so fun as she approaches each and every activity with a positive attitude. At King’s Dominion she rode the scariest of rides and even though afterwards she said she was sure she felt her soul floating out of her body, she did not regret riding; and when a character from the parade invited her to join him in dancing she did so with great enthusiasm while C hid behind me shaking her head.
We had a more typical Christmas at my sister’s place, a little over an hour’s drive from us, where we could also see my parents. Then C flew to see her dad and stepmom in Kentucky, the first time she had seen them in two years. One reason I had opted to bid on a language-designated position for my next tour was the opportunity to have C see her dad a bit more. We had initially planned on a visit in August but scrapped it with COVID on the rise. Things were still dicey in December, but it was too important to skip.
And now, we are in the final five months of our U.S. interlude. It will be punctuated with increasing bouts of panic on my part as my language test and our departure to Guinea grows closer. While I will still seek out special activities for us all, my to-do list has to start accommodating things like dentist and doctor visits, obtaining visas, vaccinations, plane tickets and working out the intricate requirements for international cat travel while cramming more and more French into my skull.
Here’s to the second half.