Travel to and Arrival in Malawi: On Bugs, Hyenas, Darkness, and Home

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Our new home! A view of our backyard our very first morning in Malawi

We made it to Malawi!

And when I say “we” I mean myself, my daughter, our two cats, and all our luggage.  There were more than a few times I thought this day would not come.

Departure Comes at Last.

Those last few weeks before departure are madness. I find myself questioning my choices regarding packing — I seem to have kept back way too much clothing for the final two weeks, and odd choices at that.  We eat out more because the food supplies at home are dwindling.  And the procedures for another international cat transport move into high gear.

Oh boy, the cats.  I love them.  But nothing tests that love more than when it comes to crunch time before the move.  To get the cats to Malawi I need to first have reservations on the flight.  That was hugely challenging because the Ethiopian Airlines call center appears to have no idea what I want.  It took a month of emails and phone calls to finally get the cats a reservation.  A little more than two weeks out, in desperation, I call Ethiopian Airlines at Dulles Airport where someone in baggage answers.  This person gives me the same number I have been calling repeatedly with no result for weeks.  When I lament this turn of events he says, “What if I gave you the direct number of some international ticketing supervisors?”  I, sir, would nominate you for Man of the Year.  Two of the three supervisors lines when direct to voice mail, but the third, a hero in my book, not only answered her phone but had corrected my problem within 24 hours.  But then the fun really began.

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The money is going to take some getting used to.  I needed this stack to open up my Internet.

In order to transport the cats internationally, I must have a USDA-APHIS certified vet conduct an examination certifying they are healthy enough for travel.  For Malawi, this must be conducted no more than 10 days before the flight.  Those examinations and paperwork, to the tune of $210, must then be scanned and emailed to Malawi where a Ministry will issue me an import certificate.  That takes a few days.  And then those docs are mailed back to me.  I receive them three days before departure.  Stress nearing critical mass.

Also three days before departure I am notified that the housing we had originally been assigned is now unavailable due to necessary upgrades.  The housing I had the pictures of since April.  The housing I had purchased items for since May.  Nothing to be done about it.  Oh, and I also receive an email informing me my car – bought and shipped from Japan – has a flat tire, a dead battery, and no gas.  I must take a deep breath.  Several. Its time to be Foreign Service Flexible again.  As always.

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A restaurant around the corner from my Malawi home.  I am highly likely to become a regular

Finally, it is the eve of departure.  I am in training until 4 PM.  I pick up C from her final day of international preschool, we ride the shuttle home, and the final packing begins in earnest.  As I fill suitcases to the brim I take them to the car.  C — trying to be helpful as we catch the cats to put in their carriers — somehow locks the bathroom door.  I then have to go to the front desk to see if their is still a locksmith available after 5 PM.  Luckily there is.  Packing the car proves troublesome.  I had a Honda Civic — a loan from my father.  There is the car seat in the back.  And two large cat carriers.  And four suitcases – two small, one medium, one large.  And a stroller.  And two backpacks.  I pack one of the two apartment keys somewhere…thus incurring a US$50 fine in our last hour at the apartment.  We had arranged dinner with my family at 6:30 PM near Dulles Airport, near the hotel where we would stay, 45 minutes away from our apartment.  We finally depart at 6:45.  We miss dinner with the family though they buy us food and meet us at the hotel.

Departure day: 11 AM flight.  We have to check in around 7:30 AM with the cats.  We are up at 5:30.  Around 6:30 AM my brother drops off my dad, who will take us to the airport in his car.  We determined the night before we cannot go in one car, so my aunt loads the cats in hers and we caravan to the airport.

And then suddenly it is happening.  Cats’ flight fees paid.  Cats’ examination by TSA and then they are whisked away.  We check in.  Security.  And off we are to Addis Ababa.  There I ask to see the cats, as we had been told at Dulles we could see them in transit.  We are told no.  Boarding in Addis is hectic and confusing.  But when I ask a flight attendant on our Malawi flight about the cats, she confirms with ground staff they are on board.  I make her confirm they are also ALIVE.  Four hours later we are landing in Lilongwe.  As the plan descends, I can see no proof from the air that a city is anywhere nearby.  But there is an airport.  Blurry-eyed we deplane.  We are met by P from the Embassy.  I have been in contact with him for months.  It is so good to see a friendly face.  He helps whisk us through customs and immigration.  He helps at the baggage carousel, where I am surprised to see two large pet carriers with mewing cats come along.  They made it!  Our social sponsor and daughter met us outside to whisk us to our new home.

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Sterilizing fruit

First impressions and challenges.

I have traveled to approximately 100 countries around the world, but the vast majority of those have been in Asia and Europe.  Next would probably be Central America and the Caribbean.  On the African continent I have visited only Tunisia, Egypt, and South Africa, for 10 days as a tourist in 2010.  I am not sure anything compares to Lilongwe.

The moving process is never easy.  No matter how many times I have done this, arriving at a new home, filled with Embassy-provided furniture, and a welcome kit of pots and pans, bland towels and sheets, but devoid of anything personal, never seems to get easier.  Our social sponsor had filled our fridge with food essentials, drinks, and prepared meals.  Yet this is the first time I have arrived somewhere I could not just go out on my own to shop on day one.  I felt very out of sorts.

Buggy Friends

Our place in Lilongwe is about as different from Shanghai as can be.  We traded in a small, but swank high-rise apartment, on one of Old Shanghai’s oldest, and happening, streets, where we are surrounded by luxury stores and international supermarkets, to a large single ranch style home on approximately a half acre of land, which though located in one residential nucleus of the new city, there are few buildings over two stories in the city.  We went from the largest city in the world with a population of over 24 million people, to a city of approximately one million.  In Shanghai we had little interaction with bugs.  I am sure there are plenty of insects in the city, but rarely did we encounter them.  Never before had I received this email: We have been notified there is a swarm of bees at your house and we are sending someone. Or this phone call: Ma’am, your guard informed us there is a swarm of wasps at your house; we are sending someone. Nor did I have to submit a housing work order like this: There is a termite nest on my property; please send someone to take care of it.  In our four weeks, we have also had ants, crickets, beetles, and cockroaches attempt to make our acquaintance.  The last, unfortunately, has been a source of glee for C, who after seeing the Disney movie Wall-e believes roaches to be pet material.  She named the first one, no kidding, “Dead.”  And I agreed it was a fitting name.

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Seems romantic but our nets are a necessity

There are of course also mosquitoes.  Though we encountered these in both Juarez and Shanghai, this is the first place I have lived that is critical for malaria.  C and I take malaria prophylaxis daily and we sleep under nets.  Our arrival coincided with the cool season so we have not yet had many mosquito sightings, but as the hot and wet season comes, this will change.

These however have been the extent of our bonding with nature’s creatures thus far.  Well except also for a few lizards.  I do not mind them at all.  It is the snakes that I worry about.  And the hyenas.  Lilongwe is one of, if not the, only African capital where hyenas roam.  One colleague pointed out a corner where hyenas like to congregate, not far from the US Embassy.  Another told me of a recent evening when he came across an injured hyena, who had been struck by a car.  I have yet to hear their high-pitched sounds at night, but I expect it to be only a matter of time.

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Believe it or not but this is a main thoroughfare in the capital.  The streetlights though are for show.  They do not come on.

A Place for Early Risers

I am a night owl.  My daughter is a night owl.  Malawi is probably more a place for early birds.  The sun rises around 5:45 AM and sets 12 hours later, before 6 PM.  C’s school begins at 7:15 AM and her bus picks her up around 6:30.  I wake her up at 5:30, before the sun has risen.  I wake up 15 to 30 minutes before.  Embassy hours begin at 7:30.  We wake up and go to sleep in darkness.  And it gets very, very dark here.  I appreciate the lack of light pollution.  In Shanghai night was never truly dark.  From our window there were hundreds of thousands of lights visible throughout the night.  Here, it is pitch black by 6:30 PM, with little light to pierce it.

We once walked from our home to a nearby Italian restaurant, located around the corner, at 5:30 PM.  Many restaurants and businesses operate out of people’s homes and are located in residential areas.  I generally would say 5:30 is early for dinner, but of course 15 minutes later the sun went down, and by the time we began our walk home an hour later it was like deep night.  Though we live just around the corner, less than five minutes walk, we stumbled blindly back.  There are few streetlights, and the only light that cut through the darkness were the security lights from my own property, projecting just a little over the high wall of my property.

Security

Embassies take security of their personnel seriously.  I am used to living with bars on my windows and concertina wire around a property.  I am used to regular tests of our Embassy-provided radios to ensure we know how to operate them to contact and be contacted by Post One, usually the Marines but sometimes the Regional Security Officer, in the event of an emergency.  We take part in drills.  It is par the course as a Foreign Service Officer and their family members.  Shanghai though was different.  Living in a leased apartment in a high rise, we were without the window bars, without the radios, without the concertina wire.  Now we are back to that and more.  As this is my first time to live in this kind of housing, it takes some getting used to having a guard on the property 24/7.  To have the floodlights scattered around the yard.  And to have so many, many locks.   All told I have something to the tune of 43 locks: 16 door bolts, 12 doors with keys, and 15 locks on closets and cabinets.  This does not count the locks for the garden gate, the garden sheds, the garage.  We are certainly security conscious.

Just the beginning

It is a little hard to believe we have already been in Malawi a month. I struggle daily with not knowing things– not knowing how to drive to places, not knowing where to buy things, not knowing so many aspects of my job, not knowing many things about the city and the country where we now live.  Yet with each day I know more than I did the day before.  And there are so many more adventures to be had.

 

 

 

 

 

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The DC / NoVA In-Between 2017

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

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C’s first time buying from the Ice Cream Man – so MUCH more selection than when I was a kid!

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!

Bucketlisting

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The unstoppable C makes her way across a wood and cable obstacle at the Adventure Park

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.

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It might have been cloudy and there was a large tree in the way – but still the view…America!

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.

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A picture from our Medieval Times dinner.  Just a little jousting.  It is not about bureaucracy.  Or is it??

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.

Shopalooza

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

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The consumable stockpiling.  Will 850 freezer pops really be enough? Inquiring minds want to know.

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.

The 2nd Home Leave Part 2

For whatever reason I have found it difficult to write this blog post.  And yet I knew I had to write it for if there were a Part 1 there had to be at least a Part 2, or in this case if there is a beginning to the Home Leave there then needed, eventually, to be an end.  Perhaps it is because this second part of the trip felt so much longer than the first?  From Charleston, SC we continued on with our trip – traveling from SC to Orlando, Florida, on to Lexington, Kentucky,  then to Salamanca, New York, and returning to northern Virginia – all told some 2,500 miles by car.  Or maybe because all of these miles driven have provided me ample opportunity to think on so many, many topics ranging from career trajectory, life choices, the meaning of family, an appreciation for things in the US often taken for granted (such as our incredible highway system or our extensive candy selections)?  Or because we have wandered through so many states, and different climates, and interacted with so many people?

Following Charleston, SC I drove us south to Orlando, FL.  It was time for more mother-daughter time.  Although I had of course made sure to include C-friendly activities in Charleston (the aquarium, the children’s museum, the horse carriage ride), it was on the itinerary more for me than her.  So I booked six (yes SIX!) days at a very kid-centric Waterpark Resort hotel.  Our room included a small kid’s room with bunk beds, bean bag chair and even a TV where C could watch Disney Jr–and I could actually watch my very own shows and news in the other room.  Be still my heart.  As C watched the giant bucket fill with water spill over the massive water slide center she jumped up and down and hugged me.  I had done good.

Our days there were filled with sleeping in and staying up late, playing games in the arcade, frolicking in the pool, playing a round or two of miniature golf, and challenging one another to races to the bottom of water slides.  We only left the resort twice — once so I could attend a timeshare presentation (oh indeed, I got suckered in, again!) and then the second time to SeaWorld to use those free tickets I had earned fending off the timeshare professionals.  It rained once briefly but afterwards C breathed deeply and declared the air even fresher and more beautiful than before.  The joys of not having to check the Air Quality Index!  We even had wildlife encounters with C delighting in spotting the anhinga (waterfowl) and turtles and fish that made their home on the resort’s pond.  Together we found a baby orange ringneck snake near the pool and a raccoon crossed our path one night as we walked the resort grounds.

I did realize one glaring mistake – the lack of child care!  I was sure when I booked this family friendly place that it included parent-friendly child care.  It did not.  As a single parent it meant I was “on” all the time.  C swims well but is still too young to swim or hang out in an hotel arcade unattended.  I thought back to the glorious resort we had stayed at in Thailand where C was finally old enough to play at the Kids Club without me.  I had all that free time to myself.  I was envious of the dual parents who could split child minding time.

From the waterpark resort we drove just a few miles down the road to the Art of Animation Disney hotel for more Florida fun.  My long-time (nearly a quarter of a century) friend CZ and her son met us there for single mom and kid fun at Disney.  It was at times hectic.  Despite us being two adults with two children it still sometimes felt we were outnumbered.  And yet we were able to tag-team parent in ways we on our own are unable.  One could get lunch while the other watched the children.  One could take the kids on a kiddy ride while the other could sneak off to enjoy a ride where the height restrictions were over 48 inches tall.  During a very brief moment both children were wiped out asleep in strollers and we grabbed a drink together at a poolside bar – my one drink of the year.

After five days we said farewell to CZ and son and we turned back north.  After an incredibly long and frustrating drive we stopped in Suwanee, GA to stay the night with my friend SG, who had been one of my roommates in Singapore where we had both been graduate students over a decade before.  This was not initially on our itinerary but SG had reached out to see if we would be passing by and when I checked our route I found it worked.  I struggle to describe how extraordinary social media can be to maintain linkages with friends from across one’s life.  But the ability to see someone in person and meet their family, even if for a short time, is unparalleled.

Our destination after Florida though was Kentucky, just south of Lexington, where C’s father lives.  C would spend four days and nights with him and his wife.  C was so incredibly excited, chanting “daddy! daddy!” the last few miles in the car and bouncing from one foot to the other as she stood on his front step after knocking on the door.  For me it was a little bittersweet.  Four days is the longest C and I have been apart, yet I know it is important for her to have the connection with her father.  After thirty minutes of catching up C desperately wanted me to leave so she could have her dad to herself.  I drove to a nearby hotel lobby to figure out what in the world to do with all of my free time.

Over the course of the next few days I visited the Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park and Mammoth Cave National Park.  At the latter I took a two hour very non-5-year-old-friendly historic cave tour and 45 minute surface walk and talk.  I watched a non-animated film at a movie theater.  I went to a spa for a facial.  I toured Ashland, the Henry Clay estate.  I stayed in a historic hotel.  I listened to NPR in the car as I drove around and did not once have to hear how my backseat driver was tired of listening to all that talk, talk, talk.  I watched adult television shows without hearing a complaint about how boring it all was and could we now switch to kid TV?  On Facebook I took pictures of myself for a change and my friends noted I looked refreshed. I missed my chatterbox and caught myself numerous times pointing out cows and horses alongside the road to an empty backseat, but I also savored the quiet.  As an introvert I can say one of the things I miss most as a single mom is silence.

After picking C up at her dad’s we headed for Ohio.  We were on our way to New York but I had discovered in looking at our route we would pass by my cousin Lucky’s place.  I had messaged her and she was glad to have us stay with her for a night.  Lucky and her husband are accomplished artists and extraordinary people.  Their home, for lack of a better description, gives off an aura of happiness and positivity.  We enjoyed dinner out and breakfast in, and an impromptu art session on the living room coffee table.

Our next stop was upstate New York where C’s paternal family lives.  I again struggle for the right words to articulate how fortunate we are that they embrace us as they do.  Her father and I were never married, our pre-C relationship rocky and short-lived.  But his family welcomes us–they welcome me–openly.  We met with her grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin, whom we had met before, but also met another aunt and cousin for the first time.  Her grandmother’s brother stopped by to see “the girl” he had yet to meet.

From New York we returned to Virginia, to my aunt’s home for a few more days.  We collected the rest of our things and the cats and then moved into an apartment in Arlington to stay in through the end of my training.

I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to take a journey like this – to have both the time and the means.  All the gushing about Home Leave in the beginning piece is very much how I feel.  Not to say that somewhere around 2.5 weeks into this I had just about had enough.  I did, at times, find the driving monotonous.  I tired of hauling around our suitcases from one hotel or home to another and longed for some semblance of continuity and routine.  Yet for every thought about how nice it would be to just get some place and stay more than a few days there were ten or twenty thoughts about how I wish we had more time to see more of the country, to spend an extra day or two or three with a friend or relative.  Home Leave is the closest I get these days to my former backpacking self, who would spend weeks on end traveling around a country or from country to country, moving every day or two, sometimes deciding the next destination on a whim.

Still this home leave did feel more difficult than my first in the summer of 2012 for three reasons: child care, the timing, and politics.

In 2012 I, smart cookie that I was, arranged child care for then-2.5 year old C at most of our locations.  This included taking C daily to the Sheraton Waikiki daycare while we were in Hawaii, to the incredible drop in child care center in New Bern, NC, a community gym with child care in Pigeon Forge, TN, and friends and family who minded C so I could run in San Francisco, South Dakota and New York.  For some reason I neglected to work out anything this trip except when C was with her father or the one night she spent at her grandparents in NY.  This was a mistake.  I needed more downtime.

My first Home Leave lasted an amazing eight weeks after which I started 19 weeks of language training, then a week of consultations/pack-out/administrative tasks, to prepare for heading to Shanghai, where I would continue visa adjudications as I had in Juarez.  This time I had seven weeks of home leave, five of which I spent traveling, two I am spending in the DC area, before either seven to nine weeks of functional training, and then head to Malawi to take up a completely new position.  During the course of my home leave I fielded emails regarding the maritime shipment of my newly acquired car from Japan to South Africa then on to Malawi, the air delivery of my UAB (Unaccompanied Baggage) from Shanghai to Virginia, and reviewing advertisements, contacting references, and interviewing for child care in Malawi, among other things.  Truth be told I sometimes felt resentful these things encroached on my Home Leave.

Finally, this time the political climate is also different.  At this point I will remind the reader that my blog comes with a caveat – that the viewpoints expressed here are mine and mine alone and do not represent the State Department or any office of the Federal Government.  My blog is not political; I have strong opinions on things but I rarely state my views on social media.  Yet it would be disingenuous to say the current state of affairs does not directly and indirectly affect me–it does.  I have never been so attuned to political news in my life as I am now.   During my Home Leave I have consumed news and political commentary at an alarming rate.  It has been stressful.  And also strange because I am not currently at work.  But what I did do was to introduce myself and what I do to people I met along the way.  Not out of the blue mind you, but when asked “where do you live?” I answered honestly: That is not such a straightforward question.  I am a US Foreign Service Officer and currently between assignments.  I just returned from Asia and will soon be moving to Africa.  I am on my Congressionally-mandated Home Leave traveling around the US with my daughter.  And this opened the door to some incredible conversations.  Some did not know what a diplomat is or what they do.  Some thanked me for my service.  Some asked how they could become one themselves.  Outside a restaurant in Charleston I met a young man, waiting for a table with his wife, mother, and infant child.  His dream is to become a diplomat.  I gave him, a couple from New York I met at the Disney hotel pool, and a waitress at a pizza place in Bowling Green, KY my contact information.  At each National Park I thanked the Park Rangers for their service.  At Mammoth Cave I discovered one, a former Army Officer, also spoke Chinese.

It was an extraordinary five weeks.  Stressful.  Fun.  Tiring.  Eye-opening.  So many things come to mind.  Having now written out the trip I think the biggest thing I feel is gratitude.

The 2nd Home Leave Begins

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C at the USS Yorktown at Patriot Point in Charleston, SC

After months of planning my second Home Leave finally is here.   Okay, really, after saving for, daydreaming about, and plotting my Home Leave from my arrival in Shanghai (and only finalizing after securing my onward assignment), the Home Leave arrived!  Well, before it could begin I would have to clear one more hurdle: the PCS trip.

PCS=Permanent Change of Station, i.e. the trip that moves you from one assignment to another or to the US for home leave or training at the end of a tour.  It sounds fairly simple I guess.  Well it is and it isn’t

Now I want to be clear here.  I know there are people facing far more difficult challenges in their lives than the government paying to fly them from Point A to Point B.  I might not be a complete news junkie but in my particular line of work I am, of course, aware of news and world events.  And no one made me have a child, get two cats, or pick this career.  That was all me. But now here I am and, with all things being relative, I do not want to forget the stress and discomfort experienced with this move.

So just try to imagine yourself embarking on an international flight that will consume approximately 24 hours of your life door to door and take you across 12 time zones.  Sure, no problem, you are an experienced traveler.  But add in your 2 checked bags and 1 carry on suitcase.  And a good-sized carry on backpack.  Still with me?  Add in a 5 year old child.  A good one who is also experienced at flying, but nonetheless is still 5.  And gets a checked bag and carry on allowance but who claims her 10 pound miniature backpack is making it hard for her to walk more than fifty feet.  SHE IS SO TIRED!  Also the car seat — you can check that too, for free, but you still need to bring it as you will need it as soon as you arrive at your destination.  Oh, and a stroller.  It folds up and you can check it at the airplane door.  But wait, I am not done.  You are also carrying two cat carriers because, why not?  They will fly in-cabin, under the seat in front of you.  So your 5 year old does not really get to sit in the stroller — the cats do.

There is no way to get to the check in counter, to the gate, or board the plane and look anything close to a suave, experienced flyer, diplomat.  Nope.  The flight attendants see me moseying up to the plane with the grace of a drunk penguin, hair askew, a cat cage on each shoulder and they peg me as the first time flyer I have GOT to be.  “Ma’am, can we help you find your seat?” they ask me slowly, enunciating each word.  I want to tell them that I am pretty sure I can figure out that row 25 comes after row 24 but I just smile.  A strained, crazy smile.

So the crazy parts:

1. I fly this particular airline quite a lot and my profile has me always in a window seat.  Yet for some reason we are booked for a middle and aisle seat.  And also for two in-cabin pets.  Every single aisle seat has a weird box taking up half of the space under the seat in front of me.  Where a cat needs to go.  I alert the flight attendant.  After surveying the situation she suggests I move one row back.  To a middle and aisle seat.  Yes, the exact same seats one row back.  I look at her quizzically.  Is she kidding?  She isn’t.  I point out that will not solve the problem.  She says one of us can just take the window seat and surely that passenger will switch.  I am extremely skeptical.  In fact said person has just arrived and is adamant that will not happen.  He says he doesn’t want to be a jerk, but… I say no problem, I get it.  He figures out two cat carriers will fit under the middle seat.  Problem solved.  Passenger ingenuity.

2. I spent a lot of time previously deciding between the midnight flight with on-demand entertainment on in-seat TVs and the noon flight that had personal device and way-overhead no-choice-of-movie movie.  I went with option 2 and downloaded the app to my daughter’s Kindle (you have to download before the flight or use the expensive wi-fi on board to do so in flight).  The app had not downloaded properly.  I could not access wi-fi for three hours due to Chinese airspace.  Then I purchase the overpriced wi-fi for one hour. But the personal device entertainment system malfunctioned.  As did the “no-choice-screens-from-overhead” entertainment — it was stuck on the welcome screen.

3. Flying from the US to China even with one stop was easier.  Returning, not so much.  Think customs and immigration at the first point of entry, picking up all checked bags, then re-check bags and then go through security again.  Scroll back to my list of stuff I traveled with and my travel companions.  FYI – pets need to be taken out of their carriers to go through security.  Yes.  Think about it.  Oh yes it was just about as much fun as you can imagine.

4. I am SO glad I did not opt to take the 2 checked-bags each we were allotted per government PCS travel regulations or the 3 checked-bags per my airline status.  For some reason the luggage carts located in the baggage claim area, before customs, seemed ridiculously small.  Remember the list of stuff we were traveling with?  It just would not fit.  Even with all my experience playing Tetris.  C pushed the stroller with one cat and her backpack through customs to re-check.  She is 5.  If she had been 3, the age she was when we PCS’d to China I would have been SOL.  She really stepped up.  Thank goodness.

But it was only 24 hours.  And honestly the worst parts were maybe 2-3 hours of my life.  The getting through security with the cats (in Shanghai I used pillow cases to bring one cat through at a time, which inexplicably caused my daughter to cry; in the US after some confusion by TSA, we were led to a private room where the cats were removed from their carriers so those could go through security and one cat might have hidden behind some boxes in that room in an attempt to escape, which might have made my daughter laugh hysterically and me expect I made the TSA agents’ weirdest passenger of the day list).  The boarding and disembarking.  The whole immigration and customs and re-checking of luggage.  Other than that it was just fine.

And THEN my home leave could begin!

Within 24 hours of landing I was in attendance at one of my best friend’s wedding.  As a Foreign Service Officer, often overseas, I miss so many life events.  Had her wedding been a week or even a day before or a week or a day after I could not have attended.  Newly arrived and jet lagged, with my parents watching my daughter, I headed in to Washington, DC to witness this beautiful event.  And during the reception I was seated next to a married couple with ties to Africa who had a friend moving to Malawi in six weeks.  Kismet!

The following morning I drove to my aunt’s home.  It was Easter.  My daughter had her first real egg hunt on the lawn — though without competition of course.  But oh was she happy.  For such a simple thing.  I was happy too.  American traditions re-created overseas are important (and often very creative and so necessary to our community) but naturally cannot quite be the real thing.

Two days later we drove — well I drove, 5 year olds are terrible drivers — to Charleston, SC to begin the first phase of our Home Leave holiday.  I had decided early on I wanted to spend some time in South Carolina on this trip, having only previously driven through the state on my way to college outside of Atlanta many, many years ago.  I hemmed and hawed about where.  Hilton Head?  Greenville/Columbia?  But settled on Charleston.  I know I made the right decision.  The purpose of Home Leave is for employees serving overseas for extended periods of time to reorient and reconnect to the US.  I see it as a time to see more and learn more about my country.  Charleston is beautiful and it has strong ties to just about every major historical period in our nation from the colonial period, early Republic, to the civil war and present day.  So it has plenty for a history and museum oriented mom and also children’s activities for fun-loving 5 year old C.

We visited the Children’s Museum of the Low Country and the South Carolina Aquarium. C enjoyed them both.  I think she was particularly struck by the aquarium’s bald eagle named Liberty as she kept asking me for the name later so she could use it during her imaginative play.  We also took one of the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriage tours.  C loves horses and has talked about it for days.  A visit to the Charleston Museum was also in order.  I was not sure if C would like it but she was struck by the giant whale skeleton (from the late 1880s), the dress up hoop skirts, some silver spoons shaped like shells, and the Egyptian mummy, purchased by one of the city’s early prominent men.  Purchased no less from one of the US’ first Vice Consuls to Egypt.  (I am in no position to purchase priceless artifacts at this time).  In addition, one could visit two period homes belonging to the museum, which we did along with strolls through the historic district.  We took a ferry out to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War rang out and visited the USS Yorktown located at Patriot Point.  At Magnolia Plantation, founded in 1676, C liked the train ride, petting zoo and mini horses and tolerated our garden walk.  A friend of mine and her family drove down from another part of South Carolina to lunch with us and visit Charles Towne Landing, the original site of the first permanent settlement in the Carolinas.

So we have seen and done quite a few things.  But what is it really like to be on Home Leave?  Honestly?  Well, this is only the first two weeks (we are required to take a minimum of four) and it feels very much like a vacation.  It also feels surreal – a jet-lag-fog fueled holiday, except one in which I know at the end of we do not return to our home in Shanghai.  It is no longer our home.  It feels wonderful to have this time to spend with friends and family in the US and the ability to travel around to wherever we would like in our country during this time. But it is also feels a little weird.

It isn’t cheap.  I know cost is one of the biggest complaints about Home Leave.  And that is true.  But I start my Home Leave savings account as soon as I arrive to my overseas post.  And this Home Leave I am lucky that my father loaned me a car for the 3.5 months we will be in the US and my aunt is watching my two cats for the five weeks we are traveling.  That saved me a bundle in rental car and kennels/hotel pet fees.  It does not mean I do not feel a little twinge of panic as the hotel, food, gas and entertainment bills roll in, but the time I get to spend with my daughter together in our country is priceless.

C is taking some time adjusting.  For these first two weeks she could not stop breathing deeply whenever we stepped outside.  As soon as we stepped out of the airport she took a gulp of air and declared it was “so fresh and smelled good!”  Yet whenever we are in a public place and need to use the restroom she says “I hope they don’t have the squatty potties!”  After Shanghai she is not used to such fresh air and all sit down commodes.  It is such a novelty.  Oh and the candy aisles.  They are presenting a bit of a challenge.  It has been a year since we have been in the US and she does not recall such a dizzying array of sweets.  She also often says “I miss Shanghai!” though when I ask her if she is sad it she says no, she is looking forward to our new home.  That seems a surprisingly mature answer for five but I will take it because the alternative would come with a side helping of mommy-guilt.

I too am taking time to adjust.  I have difficulty completely relaxing.  I have received emails about upcoming training with tasks that need to be completed and emails regarding the vehicle I have purchased from Japan and am shipping to my next post.  I think through all the things that still need to be completed before we take the next steps for our move to Africa: plane tickets, shopping for consumables, arranging pet travel to post, finding a nanny, and more.

Despite this I am so grateful for this time.  And just might already taking part in some preliminary plotting about the next Home Leave.  There are so many places to visit in our beautiful country, it is so hard to decide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suddenly Suzhou

I am packed out!

I thought I was so ready.  I had prepared one whole room that would all be Household Effects (HHE: the items that are shipped via land and sea) and I had set aside a corner of stuff for Unaccompanied Baggage (UAB: the items that are shipped via email).

[Note: the maximum for HHE is 7,200 pounds and will be shipped directly from Shanghai to Malawi.  I expect to see our things again in 5 to 7 months.  The maximum for UAB depends on the number of family members.  C and I get a total of 450 pounds and we will have one UAB shipment to the US and then later another to Malawi.  So we should see the UAB again in 7 weeks.]

Pack out (12)

Just one of the many lies to myself: I am ready (I called this ready?!?!)

And then on the fated day, at exactly at 9 AM, five packers showed up and suddenly packing was happening left and right and all around.  I had been told that the UAB would be packed first, weighed, and if there were extra room I would be able to put in more.  But the five packers fanned out – one in C’s room packing the UAB, one in the kitchen, one in the guestroom, and two in the living room.  I was so NOT ready.

I found myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom next to a pile of paperwork that had accumulated over two plus years.  And in ten minutes I made short work of it.  It had sat there for two years…. Then in the midst of my dealing-with-papers moment I gasped and jumped up — I had not cleaned out the desk in the guestroom! And sure enough my checkbook had been packed.  Luckily it had just happened and the packer expertly sliced open a nearby box and released the item in question.

[For some of you out there you might be scratching your heads.  A checkbook? you ask.  Hello?  It is 2017.  What are you doing with a checkbook?  I write one at least once a week to the Consulate cashier to get cash.  No joke.  Welcome to life in the Foreign Service.]

Around 2:45 in the afternoon I lay like a wet potato sack on the floor of my bedroom.  My poor little introverted heart just wanted to be alone.  The head mover popped his head in my room and asked me to take a look around to see if there was anything else.  I squashed my first instinct to simply tell him I guessed they did a great job and could they just now leave, and instead took a look around.  I found TEN drawers that were still full of things!

Pack out (8)

95 boxes (91 for HHE and 4 for UAB) later

As the packers began to pack up those nearly-left-behind things I started to wonder about my cat.  I have two.  One, Kucing, hates to be held but loves to be near people.  She had been quietly observing the chaos, taking it all in.  When a mover got too close she retreated and after a decent interval returned for observation.  Tikus however had made herself scarce.  An hour or so before I had found her wedged inside the underside frame of the love seat.  However, when I went there to look for her later she was not there.  I could not find her anywhere.  I did find one of the packers had cracked open the window in the guest bedroom.  The window where Tikus, on the few occasions she is allowed in that room (or sneaks in), likes to sun herself.  I found myself wondering if she had climbed out in her terror…  I will remind you we live on the 19th floor.

Pack out (7)

One freaked out cat wedged inside a love seat frame.  Good thing the furniture was not packed! (it belongs to the apartment)

The movers helped me lift up the bed in the guestroom and guess what we found?  No, not the cat.  But, we did find several more things that needed to be packed — long, slender, carved wood fabric hangers from Indonesia and Thailand.  One is about 5 feet long; there was no way it would fit in my luggage.  While some movers got to packing those items the others helped me lift up the master bed where wedged back against the wall was my hiding cat.  Whew!

In all the movers packed 91 boxes of HHE–  a net weight of 3,250 pounds (my stuff) but a gross weight of 4,100 pounds (including the packing materials) for HHE.   I cannot wait to open the boxes on the other side and find my treasures — things like the Pizza Express menu I know was inadvertently packed.   That will surely come in handy.

Afterwards we were left with a very quiet, very sparse and soulless apartment.  With a four day weekend ahead I  made a spur of the moment decision to book us train tickets and two nights in Suzhou.

I had thought about heading back to Hangzhou as our first trip had not been all I had hoped for.  However, I had been waiting to see if a schedule would be released for the lakeside water play created by famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou (I love his movies).  At last the website announced the play would resume in May…too late for us.  I was interested in a visit to the tea museum but it was not enough draw for me.  Friends had recently traveled to Suzhou and one had suggested I go there.  Initially I said no.  I had visited way back in 2002 and I felt fairly certain that a bunch of hundreds of years old gardens were not going to hold much interest for C.  Yet the more I thought about it the more keen I was to go.  I drag C to all kinds of things after all.

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The view across Jinji Lake from our hotel

As I hustled C in the stroller and a suitcase to the train station and on the train I had my doubts, but once we arrived in Suzhou I knew I had made the right decision.  The weather was perfect — warm and sunny with blue skies, something that can be quite rare in China but especially during the rains that bring spring blossoms and Suzhou was bustling and alive with the holiday crowds.  From the train station we headed directly to our hotel, checked in, and then headed right back into the historic part of town for lunch.  Next stop was the I.M. Pei designed Suzhou Museum.  I loved it.  The beautiful museum focuses on the art and artifacts of the Wu Culture, of which ancient Suzhou was the capital.  The museum was small enough and with enough interesting things to keep 5-year-old C entertained (the courtyard with traditional zigzag bridge over a pond with carp certainly helped) and plenty of superb pieces to make my little-museum-lover-heart sing.

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My favorite at the Suzhou Museum (C asked if I would buy this for my bedroom — HA!)

From the museum we visit the Prince Zhong Mansion, then took a break to snacked on some dumplings and then headed to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the largest and most famous of the UNESCO World Heritage classical gardens of Suzhou.  This is where the joy of the holiday crowds diminished as hundreds (maybe thousands) of Chinese crawled over every corner of the not-really-that-humble garden.  It was a struggle to push the stroller over the garden walkways (whether C was in it or not).  The garden is huge! Luckily C likes flowers and ducks and Chinese gazebos and there were these in spades in the garden.  We then visited the Lion Forest Garden.  Yes, another very large rock and foliage and Chinese feature garden, with a 5 year old.  And she loved it!!  The Lion Forest Garden has a large stone maze-like area.  I did not want to climb all over the rocks but C did.  She begged me to run through it.  And so, in an unexpected moment of trust parenting I said she could all by herself for five minutes and come right back.  And she did — so full of accomplishment of her adventure.

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C enjoys the view while pretending it is warmer than it is

But then we were done with gardens.  Well, C was.  I wanted to see more.  And it was here when I really began to feel keenly our departure from China.  I was nearly done with my Shanghai bucket list but had hardly scratched the surface of the China bucket list.  Suzhou alone deserved a week so I could visit all the gardens (there are nine primary ones though over 50 in total) and pagodas and temples and more.  I wished we had longer; wished we could back a following weekend.

But we did not have that kind of time (or energy) so instead we headed back for some mommy-daughter time at the hotel pool.

For the second day I figured we could visit one of the old city gates, visit one or two maybe three gardens, see the twin pagodas and maybe head to the Tiger Hill area.  Clearly WAY too ambitious and an indication that I still struggle with our sightseeing limitations.  The Pan Gate scenic area did not appear that large on the map, but that was very deceiving.  There was a pagoda and a small lake full of carp and gardens and bridges and finally, in the back, the gate itself connected to the old city wall.  We were there over two hours!  It might have been three.  We had to climb the pagoda, take pictures by the small lake, take pictures with the scenery, buy fish food to feed the carp, have some ice cream, buy more fish food to feed more carp, move to another location to feed more carp some food we were saving, take a picture on a bridge, take a picture of C practicing Tai Chi (this is what she said she was doing; I had my doubts) and finally make our way to the Pan Gate.  I imagined what it would be like living in Suzhou and coming here during different seasons. C, clearly in awe of the historic and architectural significance of the gate, turned to me and said, “Can I have a hot dog now? I saw a human eating one over there.” (to 5 year old C human=grown up)

Pan Gate scenic area montage

Pan Gate Scenic Area — just about all the wonderful things of Suzhou in one place

I thought to walk from the Pan Gate scenic area to the Master of the Nets garden and then lunch, but was too overcome by hunger and C’s increasing frustration about her lack of a “hot dog” (its really a Chinese sausage on a stick) to stop for any length of time at a garden.  So we pushed on (or well I did, literally, C sat in her stroller) to the pedestrian walking street of Guanqian Jie, in the very center of old Suzhou, where literally (well, really my own rough estimate) about a million Chinese had descended for the three day holiday weekend.  Yet despite being a street for thriving modern day shopping and dining there also stood century old shops and an even older Taoist temple.  C made it clear that if there were no hot dogs to be had then she wanted some of the dumplings she had the day before and under no certain terms were we to go into any temple.

My once (and future?) backpacking heart crumpled just a little bit but my mommy heart won out.  I searched high and low for dumplings with no success but did find us some delicious crab-apples covered in what appeared to be donut glaze to tide us over.  Yum!  Then I found us a bicycle rickshaw to take us back to the pedestrian street in front of the Suzhou Museum.  After some bartering he agreed to give me the Chinese price instead of foreigner price (or so he said), and I happily folded up the stroller and hopped aboard. C and I sang songs about cats while riding the streets of old Suzhou.  We found the dumplings and then a taxi back to the hotel for more swim time.

Suzhou snacks

Sugar coated crab apples and C’s prized chocolate and red bean dumplings

The following morning we took the train back to Shanghai.  It was bittersweet — for me at least.  Our tour here is coming to an end.

Single Parent in the FS: DC Childcare Trials

In September 2011 I placed my 17 week old fetus on the Foreign Service Institute Child Care Center waitlist.  Yeah, you read that right.  Only a handful of people even knew I was pregnant – my sister, my aunt, a few friends, my doctor, my A-100 coordinators, two other pregnant FSOs in my A-100 class, my Career Development Officer…it was an interesting time.  So as weird as it was it also sort of made sense to find myself filling out a child care form for my yet-unknown-gender Baby C.

Arranging child care in America is hard.  If you do not have a child or know someone with a child or have never seen a news story on this topic, then crawl out from under your rock and Google it.  Finding child care in the Washington, DC area is notoriously difficult.  Summer is especially hard as kids are out of school.  Try finding short term child care in the Northern Virginia area in the summer as a single parent while living half a world away…  It is like buying a book of Sudoku puzzles and skipping right to the Expert Samurai level at the back of the book.

I never got off the waitlist once the Belly Moocher, as I lovingly called my fetus before she made her debut.  When I signed up we were number 17 on the waitlist, when I checked in December, at 31 weeks, I felt hopeful when I saw were were number 5.  That is until they told me there was no chance that would change; the next openings were in May, several months after my due date.   Other places in the area wanted non-refundable deposits of between $100 and $250 to place my unborn child on their waitlists.  Just to be on a waitlist, no guarantee.  These same ones also wanted to schedule meet and greets and I wondered how that worked for kids still in the womb.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I had other things going on in my life besides trying to find a child care provider.  I had a job (learning Spanish for my upcoming assignment).   I had homework.  I had friends.  I met up with my family.  I was pregnant.  Yet the child care problem hung over me until I could find a solution.  My mother started to talk about retiring.  I mentioned I might have a little something for her transition.  I lucked out.

Fast forward two years later.  It is January.  I am preparing for my departure from Mexico six months later and training at FSI to begin nine months later.  Once again I am put on the waitlist for FSI.  I am not particularly hopeful.  I call FOUR additional child care centers in the vicinity of the housing unit I am likely to be placed.  ALL of them tell me that unfortunately they have no space.  Nine months before I even arrive they all already know there will be no space in their two-year-old class.  I opt to move further out and deal with a 50-minute one way commute so I can put my daughter in a place that has space and again, luckily, near my parents.

So once again I recently found myself returning to FSI for seven weeks of training.  The first three and last three will be at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia but the fourth week will be in West Virginia.  I start looking online for in-hotel babysitting services or a company that will send sitters to hotels in that city in West Virginia.  Nothing.  After days of this I reach out to my sister and she agrees to have my daughter over for an extended play date/sleep over with her kids for five days and five nights.  Right after returning home from her ten year anniversary trip in Jamaica.  I lucked out.  My sister and brother in law are saints.  I felt so relieved having found a solution for what I thought was the hardest part.  I was wrong.  Once again in January I began making the dreaded calls and emails.   But third time is supposed to be the charm, right?

I call the first place.  It is located only 5 minutes walk from where we will live.  The website is great.  They receive high ratings.  Sounds amazing!  I call and am told right off the bat they have space.  I am over the moon!  Wow, right out of the gate.  I tell them I will hand over my left kidney if I can receive the registration papers now.  They say ok.  But then I ask how much it costs per week.  They tell me they do not have a weekly rate but the monthly tuition is $1770.  That works out to be $442.50 a week.  For two weeks my daughter will not even be there.  Not loving it.

I call the second place.  It is also within walking distance, maybe 15 minutes.  I talk to a very nice gentleman for 20 minutes.  There may be space but they are reserved first for Arlington County workers.  I am asked to sign up for a waitlist, and I do (it’s FREE!) but I never hear from them again.

I call the third place.  This place is cheaper than the first two ($385 a week) AND charges by the week.  It is further away, but only two metro stops and a short walk or a quick drive.  I have a really great conversation with one of the directors and am told they do have space and we can register soon.  I am SO happy.  It took a bit of research and I had to stay up a couple of nights to make the call (thirteen hours time difference – during daylight savings – folks!) but only the third call and I have found the place.  Hooray.

I email them right away.  The next day they respond.  FYI, they casually mention, we are not actually enrolling any children after May 31 because we are moving locations soon and we do not yet know where.  <sound of record playing stopping>  Wait, what?  I most certainly mentioned dates — first thing — the evening before.  It was if I were being punked.  Except I wasn’t.

Some friends suggested I sign my daughter up for summer camps.  That sounded like a great idea.  Except as it has been a long time since I have had the summer off from school and my daughter is not yet old enough, I do not really have a concept of summer.  And it turned out the summer camps begin June 19.  My training begins June 5.

So I call another place and they tell me their five-year-old class is currently full but the can take my name and contact me after Memorial Day.  Right, after Memorial Day.  May 29.  My training begins June 5.  That is not. going. to. work.

I call several more places and sign myself for the FSI child care center waitlist yet again.  I also contact the WorkLife4You number — it is a resource and referral service for State Department families.  They can assist with medical, financial, attorney referrals, school information, and even to help with finding child care centers with openings.  Getting close to my wit’s end I call.  The woman I speak with for about 30 minutes makes me feel like she really,  really cares and she is going to do everything in her power to help.  She tells me she will contact me in about two days with the information — however after a few days I instead received an email saying she was still working on a solution and it would take several more business days… Even the professionals were stumped.

After lots of thinking I decide to sign my daughter up for four weeks of summer camp with the before and after camp extended hours option.  I found the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer who does occasional babysitting willing to watch my daughter for two whole weeks.  The first week I would pay out of pocket and the second week I would utilize our five days of annual emergency back-up care (a State Department benefit), filing for reimbursement.  So it would look like the following:

Week 1: At babysitter’s house (out of pocket)

Week 2: At babysitter’s house (for reimbursement)

Week 3: Summer camp 1 with extended hours

Week 4: My sister’s house

Week 5: Summer camp 2 with extended hours

Week 6: Summer camp 3 with extended hours

Week 7: Summer camp 3 (continued!) with extended hours

Sure it was complicated.  Sure, I would have to keep reminding myself where I should be driving my daughter and picking her up.  But I had found child care for all seven weeks!

Then I received an email from the FSI Child Care Center.  My daughter was being offered a spot!  I read it, and re-read it.  It was like my kid just got into Harvard.

The email said I needed to call the next day, which given I live 12 hours in the future meant I needed to call that night.  I could hardly wait.  I was so excited.  OK.  Maybe I should dial it back.  I wasn’t that excited.  I totally have other things going on in my life.  Really.

So I call.  I am again informed my daughter has a spot.  I say I want it, but I have a few questions.  I was being offered a slot starting in May, two weeks before my training even begins.  That seems off.  I explain I would technically still be on Home Leave at the time but ask if I could still get a spot.  And the pause came…. Um, wait, your training doesn’t begin in March?  Um, no, it begins in June.  Oh, I see….Hmmmm…..I must have written down your information incorrectly….let me see….could you hold…. And I held for what seemed an eternity. I felt my child care dreams slipping away.  It was okay, I told myself, I had that other ten step plan ready for execution.  No problem.  She came back.  Hello?  This is Laura*, right?  (*name changed to protect me from Laura*).  Ummmmm…..no.  Oh, I see…. Another pause.  I wrung my hands.  I could feel the “I’m sorry, but….” coming.  I braced for it.  And then, “well, I already offered you the space, so it is yours if you want it and send in the deposit.  We will make it work.” (Sorry Laura*)

I will lose the camp deposit on all three camps and must pay for the week my daughter is at my sister’s.  There are somewhere around 100 forms to fill out and turn in (Ok, maybe only seven….).  No worries. We have a spot in the best place possible.  My daughter and I can ride the shuttle to FSI together; I can visit at lunch.  My DC child care trials appear to be resolved this year.*  Next up: finding child care at the next post!

*Disclaimer: I knocked on wood, threw salt over my shoulder, crossed my fingers and my toes, and waited until I had the confirmation email of receipt of my deposit before posting.

 

 

 

Less Than a Month To Go (Shanghai)

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My favorite puppet at the Shanghai Puppet Exhibition

Why is it when you have arrived in a new place and survive the first month you feel like that month is a big chunk of time but when it is time to move yet again and you have a month left it is like you have no time at all?

I guess it is not rocket science.  When you first arrive in a place everything is new and exciting.  You explore the simple things like your new home, your neighborhood, figure out the new job routines and if you have kids get them adjusted to the new school or child care.

Now I am just sort of waiting to go.  I am counting down the days.  I am rather dreading when they pack up our things and I have still have time left in an apartment devoid of our personality.  And most importantly in an apartment without much to entertain my daughter.  I have tried to prepare her, she talks about it, but I will not know if she gets it until that day is here. I feel I  have one foot already in Africa and at least an arm and a good part of my torso in the US on home leave and training.  My head however is all over the place – it is here, it is in the US, it is in Malawi.  I am thinking ahead – to the vacation, to seeing friends and family, to the things I still need to prepare for the next phase of my career.  Yet I find myself often fretting over the things still to be done here.

Rav4 car picture

Well look at that, I bought myself a brand new (to me) car.  Now I am going to Disneyland!

A few weeks back I was really struggling.  I stayed up late most nights to try to tackle various aspects of my impending departure.  For about a week I had only 5 hours a sleep a night.  Then I crashed.  And suddenly things began to work themselves out.  I picked out the Japanese car I wanted to buy for shipment to Malawi, worked out the details, and then when my pay advance hit my bank account I bought the car.  After weeks of sweating the details of child care for my daughter during my DC training, and then cobbling together a complicated, but workable, plan, an email came out of the blue with a simple solution.  I wrote my personal statement for my annual evaluation in a day and a half  and my boss and my boss’ boss wrote their portions in record time.  All of the above still have little details to be worked out but the major issues are past me.  It’s Miller Time (well if I drank it would be Miller Time.  Since I do not drink it is Overindulge in Cheese and Get Some Much Needed Sleep Time).

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C jumps for the stars at the Shanghai Children’s Museum

The Bucketlisting in Earnest continues.  I had no idea I had so much ground still to cover but items continue to be added last minute.  For example, at the beginning of March our Consulate newsletter advertised a puppet show of Little Red Riding Hood in Mandarin at a apparently well-known puppet show venue.  The Shanghai Puppet Theater, founded in 1960, is actually located on the same street where I live, only a 25 minutes walk away.  I had no idea but decided to add a trip to the theater and puppet exhibition to our t0-do list.  The show, all in Mandarin, was enjoyable enough and the kids, including C, got into it.  I really enjoyed the exhibit of all different types of puppets from shadow to leather to marionette and more.   On another day we made a pilgrimage out to the newly re-opened Shanghai Children’s Museum.  A year and a half before we had attempted to visit only to find it shut with a typed sign in Chinese taped to the front door informing visitors it was closed for renovations.  Given the sign said it would take a year to renovate yet the building across from mine has been under some form of construction since our arrival over two years ago, I was not holding my breath we would ever see the inside of that place.  Then lo and behold I happened across an article saying it had just re-opened at the beginning of March and off we went.

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Even the building for the Yuan Dynasty Watergate Museum was cool

I took advantage of having a bit of leave and took half a day to visit the Shanghai Yuan Dynasty Watergate Museum while C stayed with the nanny.   As you can guess from the name the museum is pretty specialized — it is specifically about a watergate (sluice or lock) discovered a few decades ago during road expansion in Shanghai.  Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the story is that the road construction crews stopped their work when they hit the solid rock of the historic watergate AND the Shanghai government called in experts to examine the find AND they preserved the site and built a pretty great free museum to educate the public about it.  I will be honest here — I spent all of 25 minutes at the museum — but with its multimedia displays in English and Chinese I was impressed and I am glad I did not skip seeing it though I am glad I left C behind.  On another rainy day I made a solo visit to the very excellent Shanghai Film Museum.  I may not have known most of the celebrities, directors, or films, but I can certainly appreciate a well-designed museum.

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A view of the Astor House Hotel (left side red roof) and the Russian Consulate (center with flag) and the Garden Bridge across Suzhou Creek

This time of year is rainy season in Shanghai — many days have been cold, overcast, and drizzling.  This poses a problem when it comes to Bucketlisting in Earnest.  I cannot really plan what I will see or rather when I will see it.  I have a list — if it is a rainy day and I have time it is indoor museum time and if the weather is suddenly glorious then plans shift to the outdoors.  When the forecast all week called for rain on a Saturday but instead the sun shone I bustled C out the door for our Walk Along the Historic Bund.  We started at the Astor House Hotel, which was fitting as it was the first place I visited — in fact stayed — when I arrived in Shanghai for the first time in 2002. We then walked (well I walked and C enjoyed a ride in the stroller) to the historic Rockbund area where there stand several heritage buildings, including the former British Consulate.  On to the 1930s-era Art Deco building that houses the Rockbund Art Museum, another of Shanghai’s growing contemporary art venues.  Really cool building with a collection that again confirmed my dislike for modern art.  (An exhibit on the first floor of old crackers and sugar wafers confused C — she said she could barely concentrate because all she smelled were cookies.  Well, who are we kidding?  It confused me too).  Then a walk along the riverside pedestrian walkway for obligatory photos of C with the skyscraper skyline of Pudong across the Huangpu River.  We finished with a look at the Telecommunications Museum, where we could learn about the history of telecommunications in Shanghai and look at displays of old phones and phone books.  This might sound really boring but I found it interesting and must have made an impression on C who mentioned the old phone booths and books a few days later.

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When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Everest he replied “Because it’s there.”  That’s my excuse for yet another trip to Shanghai Disney

We rounded out our recent Bucketlisting excursions with yet another trip to Shanghai Disney then joined friends to see the movie Beauty and the Beast.  We soon will head off to Malawi where there are no movie theaters and the closest Disney park (Paris) is 4,700 miles away.  We lucked out with one of the Disney-inspired metro trains on our way out to the park and C was just tall enough to finally ride the Jet Packs and just brave enough to take on the Pirates of the Caribbean.

It has been wonderful to get out of the house and see more places in Shanghai as part of my farewell, but also because back at the homestead all I see are our things and all I think about is the looming pack out.  Every item I lay eyes on — when I open my closet, walk into a room, open a cupboard — seems to ask me to determine its fate: in the suitcase? In the air shipment to the US?  In the boat shipment to Malawi?  Or is it time to say part ways?  It is maddening.  At work I find myself alternating between the extremes — in a four hour interview shift I may swing from irritation at how many times I have asked these same questions to feeling a soppy sentimentality about the applicants.  Just yesterday I thought again how often I see Chinese family members traveling together — not just couples and their children, but new couples on honeymoons with their parents, sister-in-laws taking trips together, retired sibling couples, grandparents and their grandchildren, and extended families of six or eight all on a group tour with one another.   And I start thinking of all the aspects of Shanghai I will miss.

Only 10 more work days to go–seven more interview days, two more fingerprinting days, and one clean my desk and say goodbye day.  Plus three weekends, a pack-out prep day, pack out day, Consulate check-out day, two days of leave and one holiday.  T-minus 24 days.