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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

45 1/2 Days and Counting (Shanghai)

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Time for spring cleaning and spring moving. (Blossoms in bloom in Century Park, Feb 2017)

The food (in my cabinets) is no longer interesting.

I have zero interest in my clothes.

Retail therapy cannot help me anymore as I have stopped making purchases.

I am not 100% sure, but I might want to never, ever, EVER move again.

Welcome to that time when the move is soon, but not really all that soon.

I am not a fan of this time; it makes me uncomfortable.  I do not feel like I have free time — because all the time I think I should be doing something to prepare.  I feel as though my life is divided into segments:  work (yes, I have to keep doing my job but also wrapping up work-related projects), preparing the logistics of the move, sorting through our things for the physical move, hitting the bucket list hard, and sleep.  The last is the hardest to do because if I am not doing one of the other things then I am thinking about doing them.

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Moving is fun!

In the last 45 days or so I have made real headway on some big and some small projects.  I made several hotel reservations for during home leave and purchased our tickets to Disney World.  I completed two really large personal projects — finally moved the last of my photos to a file hosting site in The Cloud and put together a photo book for C’s 4th year.  If you have ever made a photo book in your life then right now you are shaking your head in wonder at my incredible ingenuity completing it in just a few weeks.  Seriously. I am amazing.  My taxes are done.  So is a huge nine page document I prepared for my supervisor on my work accomplishments over the past year.  I scheduled my pre-pack out survey and pack out, requested a pay advance, filled in two departure related surveys for different Consulate offices, reserved our plane tickets as well as transport for our two cats, and wrote a recommendation letter for our wonderful nanny.  And perhaps THE MOST FUN was taking my two cats to the Shanghai Shenpu Pet Hospital to get their required-for-export vaccinations.

I wish I could tell you that I am done and for now on it is smooth sailing.

But that would be a lie.

There still is so much to do.  From completing my annual evaluation report to buying a car from Japan and shipping it to Malawi.  There is more fun with pets and export authorities still to come.  I also still need to organize childcare for when I am in training in the US and later in Malawi. And organize all our things for the actual moving day.

I am obsessed with the organization of stuff aspect.  There are the things to keep and the things not to keep.  Seems pretty simple.  But it isn’t.  Of the Things Not to Keep there are the Things to Use Up, the Things to Throw Away, the Things to Give Away and the Things to Try to Sell.  Of the Things to Keep there are the Things that Go in the Household Effects (the “HHE” i.e. the things that will go from Shanghai to Malawi and we will not see again for many moons), the Things that Go in the Unaccompanied Baggage (the “UAB” which we will see again in the US after several weeks of home leave), and the Things that Go in the Luggage (the items that I will try to stuff into our two pieces each checked suitcases).  BTW – these phrases are all official moving terminology.

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C’s vision of Malawi?  Disney hyenas and gifts?

Every. Single. Day I try to make a decision about some item.  I use things up — the mound of foodstuffs featured previously is mostly gone. Sometimes I put an item into a suitcase and add it to the suitcase list, which is a piece of paper where I write the contents of said suitcase (I am brilliant at naming things, my cat’s name is “Cat” just in another language).  I toss things out, and, it is a bit embarrassing to admit this, I have a list for that too.  This is not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, particularly for a child of Pack Rats.  My parents saved nearly everything.  I do not want to, but I agonize over possessions anyway.  Now it is not only my things but also my daughter’s.  Try convincing a 5 year old she does not need every drawing she ever drew or every picture she ever colored or every stuffed animal ever given to her.  I believe I have at least been successful in telling her we will buy no more here in Shanghai.  It is part of my The Best of Moving to Malawi Mix-Tape in which I regal her with all the benefits and wonders of moving to our new home.  She will go to school full time!!  (this works wonders because she is a half day student here in Shanghai and she wants more than anything to go to school FULL DAY)  She gets to decide on the theme of her new room!! (Moana.  No, horses.  No, I changed my mind, definitely Moana) We get to live where there are hyenas (Mom, do not let the cats out of the house in Malawi or the hyenas will eat them).  We will have a yard in Malawi (and she can kick the soccer ball in the house and not worry about downstairs neighbors.  She is right on not bothering neighbors, wrong on soccer in the house).  And the best of all is that there will be toys, toys, and more TOYS to be had in Malawi!  She seems to have confused Malawi with Christmas, but if it helps her to focus on our new home and not feel too sad about leaving, then I am willing to let the illusion stand for awhile.

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Shanghai’s three giants at night (from left to right: SWFC, Shanghai Tower, Jin Mao tower)

Meanwhile I am also Shanghai bucket-listing like crazy.  Yes, I just made bucket list a verb.  Two weekends ago I reserved one night at the Grand Hyatt hotel in the Jin Mao Tower in Pudong.  The Jin Mao building is one of the tallest in the world and the third tallest in Shanghai and the Grand Hyatt is one of the highest hotels in the world occupying floors 53 to 87.  We had a river view on the 66th floor.  Wow!  The weather was pretty great with sunshine, low air quality index readings, and blue sky.  We visited the huge Century Park, strolling through blooming orchards and enjoying kiddie rides at the amusement park.  We also went to the top of both Jin Mao tower (on the 88th floor) and the Shanghai World Financial Center Tower observation deck on the 100th floor.  We went up the latter in the evening to get the bird’s eye view of Shanghai at night — C fell asleep thus enjoying one of the highest napping areas in the world.

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My ticket to the fascinating world of Shanghai policing – past and present

On President’s Day I visited the Shanghai Public Security Museum, reportedly the country’s first museum dedicated to policing and one of the few small museums in Shanghai open on Mondays.  This somewhat out of the way museum also appears on numerous “museums to visit in Shanghai” lists and as such made the bucket list.  It occupies the second, third, and fourth floors of what what appears to be a police building.  A uniformed policeman asked me to sign in and handed over my free ticket.  Although there was only a little English signage other than that introducing the content of each room (traffic policing, criminal investigations, domestic and international police cooperation) it was actually rather interesting.  I realize that people may call foul and say I do have the language, and you would be right, to an extent.  My Chinese long ago boiled down to little more than “why do you want to go to America?” and I have practically given up on reading.  I certainly do not have the vocabulary to read up on police procedures.  And yet, the graphic photos of a Black Dahlia-like case, a stuffed police dog, and fish sewn up with drugs inside were fairly self explanatory.

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C enjoys the rooftop cafe and viewing area at the Power Station of Art

I took advantage of another beautiful weekend day in Shanghai to drag C to the Power Station of Art, a contemporary art museum housed in the digs of a former power station on the west bank of the Huangpu River.  Although I am not a fan of modern art by a long shot, the museum had its highlights.  The use of the building architecture would be a plus.  I love re-purposing buildings and retaining a lot of the old structure to create a new space.   People watching too kept me busy — the museum was packed with a line out front, something I had not expected at all — and some of the hippest, most fashionable people of Shanghai were out in force.  I even found several pieces that I liked!  And yet the art installations of a block of 40-some black standing electric fans and the one of half empty paint cans, paint stained rags, and a half finished painted area had me scratching my head and wondering if I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in the supply cabinet.

On yet another day (I told you I was bucket listing — talk about action verb!) while C was in the care of the nanny I visited the Shanghai Railway Museum, the Duolun Cultural Street and the Lu Xun Memorial Park including the Lu Xun Museum and Mausoleum. I could hardly believe my luck with the weather — Shanghai wants me to see all of its places in the best way possible.

There is still more to see and still more to do before we leave.  And there is still a bit more time to do it in.  Just about 45 1/2 days, give or take a 1/2 day.

No G20 For Me (and Other Stories of Single Parenthood in the Foreign Service)

It has been a year and a half since I was approached to write an essay on being a single parent in the Foreign Service.  That essay was a revelation for me.  It made me reflect on, for the first time, what it meant to be both in the Foreign Service and a single parent.  It also connected me with other single parents serving in the US government overseas as I sought out advice and other viewpoints for the essay.

About a year after the publication of the first essay I was again approached to write on the topic for another book.  I had the option of just reprinting the original essay or updating.  Initially I thought, not much has changed—I am still in the same location and my daughter had yet to start school—so what more could I write about?  But then I thought about it and I realized I did not have to think all that hard to come up with more material.

keep-calm-and-single-mom-onOne of the first new challenges came early in fall 2015 when I had to make the difficult choice to be medically evacuated to Singapore for several days without my then-3 year old daughter.   I know, I know.  I am still trying to come to terms with how that particular scenario came to pass.  There was certainly pressure on me to leave her behind because it would be “easier” to do so, though easier for whom I never really understood.   I initially fought to take her.  I insisted that she would be included on my travel orders and I was successful.   I then tried to find child care, which is what proved impossible.  There was a high likelihood I would be hospitalized, though the time frame—maybe a few hours, maybe overnight, maybe a second night—was uncertain.    Although there were several hotels in Singapore listed to have babysitting services, not only were they all the most expensive in the city-state and well above the government reimbursable rates, and while I would be hospitalized the hotel would not be covered anyway, but how do you arrange a sitter for an indeterminate amount of time?   So instead her nanny stayed with her overnight three nights and two other single Foreign Service parents served as Power of Attorney, checking in on her and emailing me daily.  It was not easy – I thought a lot about the fact I was separated from my young daughter not only for several days but also by international boundaries at least a five hour flight away.  Now, I am not 100% sure of the right way through what happened but I know I will be a better advocate for us both should it happen again.

By the following summer I was presented with yet another challenge.  The G-20 was coming to Hangzhou, China, within our Consular coverage area.  Oh, how I wanted to volunteer to assist in any way I could.  As a Foreign Service officer, assisting with such multi-national organizational meetings is part of what we do.  As a political officer, particularly one who has yet to serve in a political position, it would mean so much more.  And yet I had to be realistic.

In my original essay I had said something along the lines of it not being necessary for the single parent to put his or her hand up for every volunteer opportunity because their colleagues are not.  I was wrong.  Some of my colleagues were and are.  Some of them seem to have inexhaustible reserves of time and energy.  Many of those doing so are single without dependents, but not all of them.  Many are also married and some have children.  I cannot compete.  But honestly I do not have to.  I will not say it has been easy to come to terms with these limitations and to be strategic in what I volunteer for; it has not.  But I stand by my original advice to be realistic with oneself, to set expectations, and to have a straightforward conversation with your supervisor.   I may have missed out on the temporary duty opportunities to Hangzhou and India and Haiti and Ecuador and around China, but I found other meaningful and equally important ways to support our mission.  And although I did not get a picture of myself with the US President, I did walk my daughter to preschool on her first day, something I would have missed if I had been at the G-20.

working-parent-aheadPreschool, that was my next test.  My first experience with the preschool came in the form of the email requesting payment of tuition.  The entire 17,000 RMB (US$2474) tuition and 1000 RMB (US$145) registration fee were to be paid in cash on one of two days between the hours of 9 and 9:30 AM.   Although the letter noted that should someone be unable to pay the tuition on the stated days and times then one could notify the committee and they will try to make alternative arrangements.  “Try” seemed the operative word – implying the parents who were unable to pay on those dates and times were inconveniencing the committee and it would be at the discretion of the committee to be accommodating.  Wow.

Recently the preschool teacher sent out a message to all the parents to ask for volunteers to teach a cultural class each day for a week.  The message went out on a Monday for classes two weeks later, after the Chinese New Year.   I would have loved to have participated. Unfortunately, my job required me to submit my requested leave dates for the August 2016-February 2017 time period last June!  It is not impossible to change, but it can be denied.  This very issue nearly derailed my attempt to attend the preschool Christmas pageant when the date was abruptly changed two weeks beforehand despite being on the calendar the previous three and a half months.

I had expected to feel some pangs of jealousy missing out on a few school activities, but I have had other unexpected negative feelings.  The very narrow and specific times to pay the tuition and the sudden rescheduling of the Christmas pageant (seemingly to accommodate the travel schedule of one parent on the preschool committee at the expense of others) felt at best just inflexible, based on some kind of outmoded idea of family.  At worst…well, maybe I will leave that to your imagination? I am still working out how I feel, but one thing I did realize is that my experience in this area is not unique to single parenting, but is part of a broader challenge to working parents.

In all of this my daughter C and her friends are becoming more aware of differences in family structures.  While trick-or-treating I overheard one of C’s school friends ask “How come you don’t have a dad?” And C, not yet 5 years old, responded matter-of-factly “I have a dad but he doesn’t live with us.  He lives in Kentucky.”   Although I will say that particular moment warmed my heart, I was feeling much less confident when just before the Christmas pageant she burst out crying because it would be the nanny and I attending not her father and I.  The outburst came out of nowhere and hit me like a cast iron pan to the head.   In these issues too I am not alone.

support-just-aheadNow I am in the middle of preparing to move us – myself, my daughter, our two cats, and our stuff – across three continents in a matter of four months, I am reminded again of the Herculean effort Foreign Service Officers put in to move themselves from Point A to Point B.  That is not to say we have no help, but we do a surprising amount on our own.  I am not going to say it is harder as a single parent – every FSO whether single, married, with children or some other permutation, has equal but different challenges.

Here though is where I circle around and mention again the connections I have made that have helped make single parenting in the Foreign Service easier (not easy, just easier).  The affinity group myself and a colleague started has in just two years grown from a handful of members to over 80.  That may not seem like much but it makes a difference to me and our members to know we are not single parenting in this career alone.  Beyond a support group I have also found allies and advocates.  These may be former single parents, those raised by single parents, or just plain awesome people who acknowledge my situation, support me, and lift me up.  I have been extremely fortunate at my current post where I not only serve with other single parents but also have received friendship and encouragement from two former single parents and seven, yes, SEVEN colleagues who came forward to tell me they were raised by single parents.   And they became diplomats!

Of course there is more to come!  Childcare while I am training in DC remains a challenge without resolution.   And soon enough we will arrive in a new country where I will start a new job, need to find a new nanny, and C starts kindergarten.   Whew.  At least so far, so good.

 

 

100 Days and Counting (Shanghai)

100 Days and Counting (Shanghai)

100-days-and-countingFirst, a little something about the title.  It is actually now less than 100 days until I depart Shanghai but I thought the title Less Than 100 Days was nowhere near as catchy.  And if the title were 90 Days and Counting* then I would not be able to use this cool graphic I found.  Besides I thought of the title 100 Days and Counting just before it was actually 100 days, liked it, and am therefore am sticking with it.

Regardless of the title, the fact is clear:  OH MY GOODNESS I HAVE LESS THAN 100 DAYS LEFT IN SHANGHAI!!  Um, excuse me.  I panicked for a little bit there.  <throat clearing>  I mean <in my most diplomatic voice> I have precious little time to do the host of things necessary before I depart this post. It is just that it caught me off guard.  I received the handshake for my next post (Malawi) in early November.  In mid November I began looking at the training I need.  In late November my HR Assignment Officer contacted me to confirm the months of my departure from Shanghai and arrival in Malawi and suggest probable training.  Improbably, just a few days later in early December I was approved (“paneled”) for the position and received the official cable notifying me of my transfer.  I reached out to the incumbent to learn of his projected departure date.  I reached out to my next post to lay out some options for my arrival.  Then went on vacation to Mauritius.

Then suddenly it is January 2017 and it hits me: this year is going to be one crazy roller coaster.  Three and a half months in Shanghai.  Then three and a half months in the US divided between home leave and training.  Two intercontinental travel days in which time is suspended.  And five months in Malawi.  Yep, one crazy roller coaster and I am already strapped into the car rolling out of the station.

Roller Coaster Track

Wait, I want to get off!

First is the Shanghai portion, the 100 days.  And in that time all I have to do is organize getting myself, my daughter, our two pets and all our stuff from Post A (Shanghai) to Post B (Lilongwe) via home leave and training at the Foreign Service Institute.  Oh, if only it were so easy.  Naturally it is on top of my regular full time work.  It is as if I have acquired a second, part time job.

I am by no means alone in this; I know my situation is not unique.  There are Foreign Service Officers all over the world preparing to transfer this summer.  While it is comforting that the majority of us will get it done, it does not make this process any easier.  I often find myself lying awake at night fervently hoping that I will love living and working in Malawi so that I can extend and put off this next time I take part in this fabulous migration activity.  Geez, if I just kinda like my job I will do what I can to prolong my tour and postpone the next PCS (Permanent Change of Station).  I daydream about what it must be like to have an adult EFM (eligible family member) to be my partner in move preparation. (Applications currently available.  No deadline.  Rolling acceptance.   Open until filled)

Just this week I did the following: Completed and submitted my proposed travel itinerary from Shanghai to Malawi and in-between.  Filled out and emailed registration forms for my daughter’s school in Malawi.  Filled out the paperwork to renew my daughter’s medical clearance.  Scheduled a doctor’s appointment for my daughter in relation to her 5 year old well appointment.  Contacted the State Department lodging office regarding housing during my training and secured a reservation.  Completed and submitted the housing and community questionnaire for Malawi.  Secured child care for my daughter for the week that I am in training in West Virginia.  Firmed up my reservations with a friend at Walt Disney World for during our home leave.  A great start, but it barely scratches the surface.

There are vaccinations.  Plane tickets.  Check-ups and exit paperwork and plane reservations for the cats.  Figuring out the buying of a car in Japan and getting it to Malawi and financing that whole shebang.  Child care for during the rest of my training in Arlington.   More home leave planning.  Organizing our stuff into what we leave behind, what we give away, what we put in the suitcases, and the UAB (unaccompanied air baggage) that will be delivered during training, and the HHE (household effects) that we will not see again until Malawi.

You know.  Just a few things.

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Do you know what you are eating for the next 90 days? I do. And this is not even all of it because all of it would be even more embarrassing.

And I mentioned this before this is of course on top of my regular job and all the other regular life kind of things.  Like filing my taxes.  Completing my one year work evaluation- due April 15 just like the taxes. And organizing my daughter’s 5th birthday party this month.  And sleeping.  I have had a bit of trouble with that last one of late so I think it important to remind myself it is something I should be doing.

I think the biggest shock to my system regarding how much time we have left was when I opened my cabinets at the very beginning of the month.  From the huge amount of food items I saw staring back at me I knew I had been in denial for awhile.  Why in the world did I buy myself another box of cereal and more of my breakfast smoothie mix just before Mauritius when the other packages were nearly done?  Seriously?  I already had 20 packs of instant oatmeal too.  And peanut butter.  I seem to have A LOT of peanut butter (not pictured because you do not need to see that kind of thing).  Guess what the kids at C’s birthday party are going to be eating?  PB&J sandwiches for everyone! (eat up kids and take the extras home)

Finally, I have to prepare to say goodbye to Shanghai, our home for the past two plus years.  This is where C went from being a 3 year old, a newly minted “preschooler” to a 5 year old ready to begin Kindergarten at our next post.  She has gone from saying “hello” and “watermelon” in Chinese to having full on Mandarin conversations with the nanny.  I too have grown a lot in these two years at work and as a mom.  We have lived here and Shanghai is a part of us.  Also, I still have things left on the bucket list because are just too many things to see and do in this city!  Ok, Shanghai, just stop being so chock full of activities already.  I cannot keep up.

And all of it has to be done in this first quarter of the year. Whew.

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The late afternoon view from my apartment yesterday.  How am I to say goodbye to this?

*In reality there there are only 88 days and counting as of today. It took me 12 days to get my sh*t together to write this.  And I was committed to this title I tell you.

 

 

The Joy of Bidding – The Game of “Where Do I Go Next?”

‘Tis the season.  I do not mean the fall season, or entering the holidays.  I mean it is the time of the year when Foreign Service Officers seeking their next assignment begin bidding on potential jobs.

Well, that is not exactly right.  The official bidding season began on Monday, September 19 with the release of the “Bid List” (a database of all available jobs) and was scheduled to end on Monday, October 31, the first day that official offers or “handshakes” can be extended.  Six long weeks.  But that belies how much work actually goes into this process.

I feel as if I have been bidding since I arrived in Shanghai, over 20 months ago.  I feel that way because I sort of have.  A few weeks after my arrival I started looking at the projected vacancy list, a list of the jobs likely to be available for me to bid on.  Only eight jobs appeared to meet my timing and criteria and two of them were on the US-Mexican border.  Ciudad Juarez was a good place for us to be before, but I was not keen to return to the border.

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Will I go here?  Or here? Or maybe there?  That is the question.

Since I arrived in January 2015, my departure date would be approximately two years later in the winter of 2017.  We have two bid cycles a year – one in the summer and one in the winter.  I was a winter bidder.  Additionally, I looked at jobs that were listed as fulfilling a “Political” job.  We have five “cones” or career tracks as a Foreign Service Officer (also called a Foreign Service Generalist; there are also Foreign Service Specialists who have other career tracks:  https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer).  The five cones are: Consular, Economic, Management, Political, and Public Diplomacy.  With the limited list generated from my search of Political-coned jobs available for winter 2017, I decided to look into an extension.  Although unusual for an Entry Level Officer (ELO=an officer in their first or second tour), on May 1, 2015 I had been granted my extension to April 2017, placing me in the summer bid cycle.

And I let that stand for a little less than a year.

Then I revisited the Projected Vacancy List.  I poured over it.  I printed out the capsule descriptions, the single paragraph summary statements about each position.  I made lists.  I researched pet importation restrictions (for the two cats).  I read reviews of many places on Real Post Reports (http://www.talesmag.com/real-post-reports/all), where real people who have lived in the cities and countries highlighted can anonymously respond to a survey answering questions on commutes, housing, whether you need a car and what type to bring, security and health concerns, schools and more.  I made more lists.  Then I whittled my lists of top posts down to about a dozen.

In late April of this year I took the time during my R&R to go into the State Department to meet with the desk officers covering several of the countries from my Shortlist Dozen.

Back in Shanghai I started to reach out to some of the incumbents serving in posts on my Shortlist Dozen to find out a day/week in the life of their position, what he/she found were the top reporting issues and top responsibilities, and get the skinny on work/life balance.  By August I had reached out to someone in all of my Shortlist Dozen spots.  In places where the incumbent had recently left and the new one had yet to arrive, I reached out to the heads of political sections.  Before I left for my Australian vacation on September 9 I had identified a firm ten jobs that would make up my bid list (because this year the maximum we could bid was ten).  I felt fairly confident that although each and every place would take me and my daughter in a different direction, they would all meet carefully researched personal and professional goals. I was ready.

Then the official bid list came out.

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And the game is on!  Everyone hopes when the music stops they have a job.

On Monday, September 19, Washington, DC time, the State Department released the Bid List.  Since I essentially live 12 hours in the future, I did not feel concerned returning to Shanghai on Tuesday.  Yet when I nervously checked the list on Wednesday, my first day back in the office, I already felt behind.  Luckily though, having reached out to many offices prior to the official bidding season, I secured three interviews within a week.  The first, with my third choice, went alright.  I think it went better than I had expected, yet at the end of the call I had some doubts this is where I wanted to be.  My other two interviews though went quite well.  Alright.  This might not be so bad.

Then two positions high on my list, both in the same country, were gone from the list.  The incumbent had extended.  Then another slipped off the list for the same reason.  Then another. I searched for replacements, found one, reached out to the office, and then learned it too would no longer be available.

How is it that jobs listed as available become no longer so?  In the case of the jobs I had looked at, they were all two year jobs with one year of training and over 20% post differential.  As I am bidding on Summer 2017 jobs, I would then enter one year of training and arrive to post in Summer 2018, then serve two years in the position.  The incumbents had only arrived at post in late Summer 2016 after their year of training.  Incumbents in countries with 20% or higher differential may extend a third year.  I can imagine it is not easy to arrive to a new position in country and within weeks be expected to decide if you will stay two years or three.  Having now been through the wrenching bidding process, I am not surprised that many opted to extend.  I expect I might do the same.  Still, I will use an un-diplomatic phrase here, it sucked.

Then a fifth job made itself unavailable.  Originally a position with a start date of Summer 2018, that included a year of training (mostly language) became a Summer 2017 position.  The incumbent who had initially agreed to stay a third year under a special “service needs” designation, decided instead to leave after the second year.  Though the language designation remained, the timing would mean no year of training.  It had been the language training that had made it so attractive.  I removed it from my list.

My strong list of ten had quickly been reduced to five, the minimum.

I had two more interviews; I thought they went fairly well.  But I needed more bids to feel comfortable.

My original ten bids had featured four jobs in three countries of the East Asia Pacific (EAP) bureau, three jobs in two countries in the South Central Asia (SCA) bureau, two jobs in two countries in the Africa (AF) bureau, and a single job in the Western Hemisphere (WHA) bureau.  The European (EUR) bureau uses another bidding tool from the other bureaus – too complicated to go into here and make an already complex narrative more so — which is why I then added three Near East (NEA) in two countries into my mix.  I reached out to incumbents.  I had another interview.

I cannot imagine this is very exciting to read for the uninitiated and perhaps too cryptic for those in the know.  For those actually living it though, it is exciting and scary and stressful at the same time.  These bids can begin to feel terribly weighty.  Each bid after all represents a different job in a different city in a different country.  Each place will alter not only my professional and personal trajectory, but also that of my daughter.  If we go to X country in southern Africa I imagine her on the swim team.  She likes swimming.  Swimming seems like the most popular sport referenced on the international school pages.  Yes, there is a swim team with try-outs for five year olds.  Yet if we go to Y country in Central Asia, she will likely not swim.  I cannot find mention of a pool on any of the school websites.  But horseback riding seems a likely possibility.  My daughter likes horses.

I play this game in my head frequently.   Too frequently.  I have to stop when I start to psych myself out of a job.   Many bidders receive a message from their Career Development Officer reminding them to be realistic about their options, to not bid on jobs that are a reach, are too heavily bid (within the bidding tool we can see the number of bidders on any given job), or are above our pay grade.  The email tells us that last year two-thirds of bidders received an offer on or in the days that follow Handshake Day.  The unspoken, but glaringly obvious information is that a full one-third of bidders did not.  I falter.  I feel very unsure again.  I cannot afford to persuade myself now that a job may not be the right path.  If I have an offer, I should take it.  The email says so.

Bidding can be a lonely sport.  Sharing with friends and family who are not in the Foreign Service can be difficult.  People are disappointed and confused to learn I have not bid on a single European post.  When I have mentioned the places on my list I then receive “votes” on a particular place.  “You should go to X because the weather is better” or “My vote is for Y because then I would see you more” or “They all sound nice but I prefer Z because [insert any kind of random fact the person might know about Z].”  I know these are well meaning.  I do.  But unfortunately I do not really get to choose.  I can make a list, but ultimately the choice is on the other side.

So basically in a nut shell: the Bid List is released, bidders pour over the bid list and submit bids (and also their lobbying documents like their resume and references and employee profile) to Posts of interest, *if* post is interested they will contact the bidder for an interview, Posts make their own short lists and send to DC, bidders submit their final bids, i.e. a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 10 bids.  Then bidders wait.  Ten excruciatingly long days til Handshake Day. I try to relax.  I try to focus on my work; I have plenty to keep me busy but I feel a little unmotivated, distracted.  I liken it to when you are working on your computer and a program that you have no control over is running in the background.  For me Bidding 2.0 is constantly running in my brain.

I submitted bids for eight positions in seven countries.  I had interviews with six.  I heard I made the short list, but was not the number one choice, for five places.  I suspected I was on the bid list at a sixth place as I was the only bidder on that job (though as is so many things in the State Department, that is certainly not a guarantee).  By all accounts I was in a good position.  Then Handshake Day arrived…and passed with no handshake for me.

speed-dating-robots

I bid eight jobs.  I only need one to love me in return.  Just one.

So how to best to describe this process?  It is rather like the dating game.  Imagine you are at a high school and the Homecoming Dance is coming up.  Everyone would like to get asked to the dance.  Cindy likes John.  John likes Cindy but is a bit more into Jessica.  He would like to ask Jessica to the dance, but if Jessica says no then he will ask Cindy.  Rajiv likes Cindy too.  He thinks he will ask her to the dance.  But he heard that John might ask her if Jessica says no.  So Rajiv is also thinking about asking Kaori or Naomi.  Kaori likes Rajiv but also Blake, but does not think she has a shot, but is hopeful anyway.  She heard from a friend who knows someone who knows Blake though that he knows she is interested, so maybe she will wait it out.  Aaron though is the star quarterback of the football team and if he asks Cindy, Kaori, or Naomi, they will say yes.  Claudia is a cheerleader and if she asks Blake, John or Connor they will say yes.

Confused?  So am I.  But picture instead of hormonally charged teenagers these are bidders and cities where positions are available.  A very strong candidate might get two or three handshakes on Handshake Day, but can obviously only take one job.  The candidate though has 24 hours to consider the offers and respond.  When that candidate takes one of those jobs, the two losing Posts must now go down their Shortlist to their number two.  Number two though may have been number one on another list and has already accepted a handshake.  Perhaps number three on the list though is still waiting and will accept Post’s offer.  Yet, this can go on for days.  And as the days pass bidders become increasingly hopeful to get an offer from someplace, any place they bid.  At the end of the day, as everyone and anyone who knows you are bidding but did not receive an offer on Handshake Day will tell you, everyone gets a job.  So after the dust settles there are always jobs that either did not have bidders or for whom their bidders took other jobs.

But on day three of the process I got an offer.  Thank goodness the stress of bidding is over.  I should take a few days to….Oops, too late, now I am freaking out about all I need to prepare to get there…

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Our next post will be Malawi!

Sydney Getaway

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Kites of all kinds, Bondi Beach.  Look at that blue sky!  No need for an air quality monitor here.

After months (it felt like years) since my previous vacation, through the hard slog of a busy Shanghai visa summer, then into a strange low visa-demand month that was challenging nonetheless with the whole “half the staff is gone for 1-3 weeks in Hangzhou to support the G-20” thing, I was so ready for a vacation.  I would especially need it as my trip was sandwiched between the summer/G-20 season and my first foray into mid-level bidding, which is State Department speak for “virtual cage fighting for your next job.”

So off to Oz we went with stops in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

We flew Shanghai to Singapore and then overnight to Sydney.  (I love that my four year old asks before we travel how many planes we will take.)  My friend K and her family picked us up at the airport — K used to work at the US Consulate in Shanghai as a locally-employed staff (a local hire) but she relocated to Sydney with her husband’s job and now she works for the US Consulate in Sydney — and then whisked us off to Bondi Beach for the annual kite flying festival.  It did not have nearly the number of kites we expected and K’s husband could not find a parking space so he just drove around and around the area until we had our fill of beach and kites, but to be honest I didn’t care because it was just great to catch up with K, and her son KZ and C, who are the exact same age, really bonded.  After Bondi we headed for a quick lunch on our way to the wonderful Featherdale Wildlife Park in the northwest suburbs of Sydney.  The wildlife center is all about native Australian birds and animals, so it is a great place to see cockatoos, kookaburas, emus, cassowaries, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, quokkas, echidnas, Tasmanian devils and the like.  KZ and C pet a koala — one of the few places where you can do so complimentary with your entrance ticket — and some wallabies.  We finished up with ice cream.  Then we headed back to K’s house and while her husband prepared dinner K and I took a stroll in a nearby park while KZ and C zoomed around on a scooter and a bicycle.  And while this might sound like your average day out with friends — meet up, have lunch, drive to a kid friendly place, dinner at home, and a walk in the park — I have not had a single day like that in Shanghai.

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Only 45 minutes on the train and I get this look

The following morning, a Monday, K headed out early to work and her husband drove C and I to the nearby Blacktown train station to catch the 7:57 am train to Katoomba.  Initially my plan had been more complicated and involved renting a car.  But the logistics and cost and dragging C’s car-to-booster-conversion seat for a short drive to and from Katoomba was outweighed by the simplicity of taking the train.  Me–I was incredibly impressed with myself for packing one large backpack I could put on my back, a smaller backpack I could wear on my chest, thereby leaving my hands free to push C in the stroller.  I felt I was almost, sort of, kinda, not really, really, but as close as I have been in awhile, close to my old backpacker self.  C was less impressed.  For some reason she found the idea of a relaxing 1 hour 22 minute ride on the train seemed incredibly boring.  In true 4 year old style she asked at every station if that was our station.  I only had to endure her asking 16 times before on it finally coming true.  But she is 4 and she would have asked every five minutes if we were there yet had I been driving.

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Great location, historic charm: the Carrington

We arrived at 9:22 am and headed straight for our hotel, the historic Carrington located just half a block from the Katoomba train station.  The restored historic hotel is the oldest hotel in town having opened in 1883.  I opted for us to stay in the “traditional rooms,” which are billed as “budget” accommodation that channels the original rooms of the hotel, i.e. they share bathrooms down the hall as the hotel would have had prior to 1927.  Again, to me it was a tip to my backpacking/hosteling days and I was curious as to how C would take to it. Her assessment at the end of our stay: “I liked the room, I liked the bed, I liked the TV, but I did not like the bathrooms outside.”

It was a gorgeous day.  It was warm (in the upper 70s), the sky was a brilliant blue.  There was no time to dawdle.  We were at the hotel WAY too early to check in.  I left our bags with the front desk and whisked C in the stroller off to see the sights.  I decided to walk from the hotel to Echo Point, the location to see the Three Sisters, the three iconic pillar rock formations that are the most recognizable symbol of the Blue Mountains.  I had hoped the walk to Echo Point would be interesting, but it was not.  We simply walked down a sidewalk that started in the commercial center of Katoomba and passed through a nondescript residential neighborhood.  There were no views until the end when suddenly you find yourself at Echo Point 30 minutes later.  And here the Jamison Valley opens before you.  It is the Grand Canyon of Australia and it is awesome.  C agreed that it was worth the trip only because I gave her some ice cream.  Whatever.  (I want to be upfront about travel with a four year old; C is a very good traveler but she is four.  Ice cream ranks higher than amazing natural wonders right now).

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The Three Sisters and Jamison Valley view

We were beat though.  We had flown through the night to arrive in Australia.  Been whisked around on a wonderful whirlwind first day right from the airport.  Then we woke up very early for the train to the Blue Mountains.  Despite the stunning views and great weather we needed lunch and a rest.  We lunched at Echo Point watching a kookabura sitting in an old gum tree (get it?) and then road the hop on hop off bus back to the first stop, across from the hotel.  We bought fruit and sandwich fixings from the local grocery store and were in for the night.  (I want to be upfront about travel with a tired thirty, ok forty-something, mom with a young child.  Sometimes a nap ranks higher than natural wonders.)

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Are you sure there is a contraption of any kind on those cables?  The Skyway disappears into the fog…

The following day I was kicking myself.  It was cooler.  The fog was thick.  Sigh.  This is the day we would go to Scenic World, a privately run wonderland of activities in the Blue Mountains.  The activities include riding the steepest incline railway in the world, riding the steepest aerial cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, ride the skyway tram that crosses a chasm 270 meters above the valley floor, and enjoying various walks on elevated boardwalks through the forest.  I was not sure how great it would be in thick fog. It is called scenic world, but it might be a bit hard to see…  At AUS$70 for the two of us it seemed to be a bit pricey to look at the inside of a cloud.  The upside is the fog had no affect whatsoever on the thrilling ride on the scenic railway.  You whizz down what seems a near vertical track, you pass through a tunnel, and then some trees.  C and I screamed.  Then C laughed while I continued to scream.  At the bottom of the railway we enjoyed a 30 minute walk through the forest with stops to ride the bronze statue of a pony in front of an old mine, swung on a tree limb outside an old minters cabin, and just enjoyed the fresh air.  With the fog we had almost no wait for the cable car back up.  And while the Skyway is supposed to afford riders incredible views, the fog gave the ride an otherworldly feel.

We had spent several hours at Scenic World and then an hour in the town of Leura before once again calling it a day.  With most sightseeing buses stopping at 5 and the sun beginning to set around 5:30 PM, this is not as crazy as it sounds.

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I could have put a normal beautiful day at Scenic World photo but while there I accidentally discovered my camera has this awesome setting. 

The weather for Wednesday, our last day in the Blue Mountains, was supposed to be pretty bad — rainy all day.  Imagine my surprise when we woke up to blue skies!  I made the decision to head back to Scenic World.  Imagine my surprise and sense of wonder when at the ticket counter the cashier let us in for free!  He had asked, “Have you ever been to Scenic World before?” and I had answered “Yes! We were here yesterday but we could see very little with the fog so I thought we would come back.  My daughter loved the railway and cannot stop talking about riding it again.  Here is a picture I took of the fog around the Skyway.  Isn’t it great?”  He told me he would give me a discount, but when I handed him my credit card he declined it and told us to have a great time.  Customer service is not dead.

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This trail is rated perfect for 4 year olds by gift store employees

We rode the railway twice more (once down and once up) at C’s request.  Then I decided we would ride the Skyway one-way with the stroller and walk along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Echo Point.  It was only 30 minutes and a woman in the Scenic World gift shop assured me it was stroller friendly.  She must have never, ever, ever been anywhere near that cliff walk because it was not stroller friendly in any possible interpretation unless you mean carrying your stroller the entire time as you fumble along several hundred dirt steps while praying your adventurous preschooler does not walk off the edge of the trail.  My favorite part was the 9 or 10 rung metal step ladder affixed to a rock in the middle of the trail.  Super kid friendly (not).  But we survived the walk and luckily arrived at Echo Point before the skies darkened and poured.

The following day we took the train from Katoomba back to Sydney.  As C found the 1 hour and 22 minute ride up boring she was even less impressed with the 2 hour trip to Sydney Central.  And even more disgruntled to learn that we would transfer trains to ride to Circular Quay where we would find our hotel.  But once again I was massively astonished at my travel-with-small-child prowess.  We checked into our hotel located in a historic building in “the Rocks,” the location of the oldest European settlement of Sydney and headed off to Darling Harbour.  There we got more animal time in at both the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and the Wild Life Sydney Zoo.  At the latter C pet a snake, got up close and personal with a sugar glider, and rubbed the belly of a spotted quoll.  All fine and well except she noted I had yet to produce a platypus.

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C feeds a giraffe.  This is NOT the AUS$29.95 professional photo.  That one, which makes me look like the Hulk in blue and is taken from an angle that looks directly up my nose, will never be seen online.  Ever. 

What I did produce were partial views of the Sydney Opera House from our hotel room.  This is what we were here in Sydney to see.  The Opera House (which of course is featured in the Disney movie Finding Nemo), kangaroos, koalas, and the duck-billed platypus.  I was beginning to fulfill my promises.  Our second day in Sydney we rode the ferry across to the Taronga Zoo where I could at long last produce a platypus and make good on the promise to have C feed a carrot to a giraffe.  It only cost me AUS$29.95 for the privilege though we got to take home one of the worst “professional” photos I have ever paid money for proving C and I were near a giraffe with vegetables.  C loves it though and that is what matters.  The highlight of the zoo though was the hour we spent on the kids playground adjacent the lemur enclosure where C made fast friends with Sarah, an equally adventurous and outgoing Australian-Korean girl.

We also made a trip to the Sydney Tower Eye for views of the city just before sunset.  It sounded nice and I already had tickets given I bought a 4-sites-in-one ticket that included the tower, but the views, while nice, are not as great as one might suppose.  The two most iconic structures — the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge — are obscured by large and unimpressive buildings.  I also had to contend with C’s deep displeasure at visiting the tower.  If I have not mentioned it before, she is not yet into taking in the views.  Not even “look mommy has already taken you to four animal venues and now it is time for something mommy wants to see” swayed her.  Luckily she fell asleep in the stroller and I enjoyed the views in peace.  And the next day I took her to Manly Beach to our fifth and final animal adventure, the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary.  There she had her face painted and balance was restored to her world.

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Yes, I arranged our trip to Sydney at this time of year so I could run across the bridge (on a night stroll across the street from our hotel)

Then of course on Sunday morning, if you have been following my adventures with any sort of regularity you may have guessed it — I participated in a run.  Originally I had signed up for the Sydney Running Festival half marathon, but a last training run a week before departure made it very clear a half was probably a bad idea.  Luckily there was still time to contact organizers and downgrade to the 9K Bridge Run.  I just wanted to be able to run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a few thousand strangers.  The “flat and fast” course was neither flat nor fast and seemed to me to be much longer than 9K, but I finished.  And before the rain.  Despite rain predicted for most days of our vacation, only the one day was blustery and rainy with both the wind and rain holding off til the end of the running events.  We celebrated with lunch and a walk at Darling Harbour with K and her family.

The day after the run was another beautiful, glorious day.  Unfortunately it was our last (half) day in Australia.  We strolled along Circular Quay to the Opera House and through the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens (it is a wonder that such prime Sydney real estate is set aside for a large, public park).  I did not want to leave.  Although I usually find 9 days away is very restorative, this time I still felt it was just too short.  But it was time to return to Shanghai and get ready for bidding on my next assignment.