Halfway Through Our U.S. Sojourn 2021-2022

Here we are already halfway through the eleven months we have in the U.S. between our Malawi and Guinea tours. I have been wrestling with what to write about – having already covered home leave and trying to adjust, what to say about being sort of, at least temporarily, adjusted? When overseas, especially in the often less traveled places where I have tendency to live and work, or while on once in a lifetime vacations, the stories are easier to write. Sitting in a nondescript apartment in Northern Virginia as I telework feels far more conventional, even if in a global pandemic. I have lived a little more than half my adult life outside of the United States and the other half often working toward those times. I sometimes long for something more conventional, but honestly, I don’t know how to do conventional. And even this, being paid to learn a language by the Department of State in order to assist with my upcoming assignment in West Africa, frankly, isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill either.

Language Learning in a Pandemic

This is my third go at learning a language through the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). I took Spanish ahead of my assignment to Ciudad Juarez and Mandarin before Shanghai, but in both cases I had the advantage of having studied the language before in high school, college, or another setting (or a combination of). This time I am learning French and have no background whatsoever in it. Though, honestly, that is a wee bit untrue. I mean, English speakers have been exposed to at least some of the language through cognates or popular culture. It is not like I am taking up Turkmen. Yet, I have no formal training and I feel the difference keenly.

I will not beat around the bush: I am not a fan of FSI’s language training method. I do not think I can describe it adequately if you have never been through it or a similar program. To me, the first few months are a bombardment of vocabulary and grammar. Often we will cover a grammatical point for one hour of the day and the teacher will say something like, “now that we have learned gender of nouns or the conditional tense, we can now move forward with another topic” and I balk because I might have understood some, but I definitely have not “learned” the concept in such a short timeframe. Imagine this happening every hour, five hours a day, five days a week for some eight weeks before your first assessment? Homework certainly reinforces concepts as does the daily build on — but I can feel myself fighting it day after day. (This is not to say I don’t have fun — I laugh every single day in class!) After this, the class then pivots to regularly putting students on the spot with impromptu discussions and then short speeches on societal topics such as gender equality, climate change, or vaccination mandates. I didn’t like this method when I studied Spanish or Chinese and I do not like it now. And I was no spring chicken when I started the Foreign Service (see my complaints about being too old for language training from 7 years ago). And yet, at the end of the day, despite the method and my resistance (and it almost galls me to admit), I get to a good level of language acquisition.

Doing all the training online has taken some getting used to. I sometimes miss the camaraderie of the halls of FSI, the running into friends and colleagues from A100 (our onboarding course), past posts, or past training, and getting to know new folks as we all muddle our way through new languages. Also, since so many people – thousands – are there at any given time pursing language or functional training, the Department offers other services such as passport or badge renewals, research for next posts at the Overseas Briefing Center, a clinic to get vaccinations, a child care center (for those lucky enough to get one of the very coveted spots), a gym, and more. All of this set on some really lovely grounds. FSI is a base sorts for those that often have none, a place someone can come back to again and again where you find yourself among others who get the quirks of the job and lifestyle.

Yet, I do love my 20 second commute to my desk, the wearing of comfy pants and no shoes, and rummaging around in my kitchen for snacks during breaks. And though there are some technical challenges at times (for some reason my microphone has worked only 50% of the time in class the past week and a half) I have not felt much difference in the quality of training from my previous two times at the Institute. I have 19 weeks of my 30 weeks of training left to go, so we shall see when it comes round to testing time how well I actually do.

Milking America for All Its Worth (in a Pandemic)

Despite the intense pressure to abandon all in favor of only activities that further my French and a continuing pandemic that makes the decision to get out and about sometimes difficult, I am still trying to make the most of our time in the United States. For my daughter who has spent the majority of her life overseas and our young nanny who has not had many such opportunities, I want to introduce them to a variety of activities we could not do in Malawi and won’t be able to in Guinea.

One of our first sightseeing trips was down into the heart of iconic Washington, DC. Just riding the metro was a treat as there had been nothing like that in Malawi. We walked past the Washington Memorial, visited the World War II Memorial, and then strolled along the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. We then rented some scooters and zipped back toward the Capitol, stopping to eat from several of the food trucks lining the streets. We also popped into the National Air and Space Museum.

As the weather cooled, I took us to Mount Vernon, for a tour of the house and walks around the grounds. There is a lot of history to learn and confront at the home of our first President and we lucked out with a glorious day to do it. I also scored tickets for the Disney on Ice show — I waited until the last minute, you know, just in case there was some COVID issue. We all loved the show but I think JMC loved it the most. Her whoops of delight at every major stunt were infectious. We met my sister and her family and a family friend at Liberty Mills Farm in central Virginia to take our chances in the country’s largest corn maze. We took the trail with no map and got happily lost (and then somewhat desperately), then, once free, picked out some pumpkins and scarfed down some farm-inspired desserts. I don’t know what says fall in Virginia more than heading to a farm for a pumpkin. And I took us to a Halloween inspired light show at a nearby zoo — one I used to go to when I was a kid. Afterwards we all tried some fried Oreo. Ah, Americana.

I found myself pretty excited that Halloween would be in-person. With the Delta wave still causing havoc through the fall, I really had not been sure it would happen and it made me a bit sad for my daughter. She had not had much experience with Halloween in the U.S.: In 2014 when she was 2 1/2 and we lived for five months in a Staybridge Suites hotel and trick-or-treated briefly in the adjacent townhouse community and in 2015 when we were in the U.S. for an unexpected medevac and I was recovering from an intense procedure. I had had maybe an hour of energy to take C trick-or-treating through our temporary apartment housing. And trick or treating in our past posts was different, especially last year. At three months shy of 10, this is the perfect age for my daughter to trick-or-treat. If we return to the U.S. for training after our next assignment, she will be 13. So, I decided to forego the likely sad trick-or-treating to be found in our apartment building and took us to the most celebrated Halloween street in Arlington for some big-time candy demanding.

For Thanksgiving, I opted for the typical non-typical American activity of dinner at a Chinese restaurant and a movie – only our second movie in a theater since returning to the U.S., the first being in Jacksonville, FL on Home Leave. That weekend though we drove down to King’s Dominion to meet up with one of my best friends CZ and her son Little CZ for the amusement park’s Winter Fest. As the weather grew colder we went ice skating at the National Sculpture Garden (the first time for C and JMC and the first time in a looooong time for me), strolled by the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House, and attended a breathtaking performance of the Nutcracker performed by the Washington Ballet company. The Nutcracker was one of the highest priorities on my “while in the U.S. bucket list” as it was the kind of performance we could not see in Malawi and will likely be limited or unavailable in Guinea. I know we have had the opportunity to see many amazing places and cultural activities in every place we have been, but I really am trying to boost our Americana while we have the chance and C is at this age. And introducing all of this to our nanny JMC is so fun as she approaches each and every activity with a positive attitude. At King’s Dominion she rode the scariest of rides and even though afterwards she said she was sure she felt her soul floating out of her body, she did not regret riding; and when a character from the parade invited her to join him in dancing she did so with great enthusiasm while C hid behind me shaking her head.

We had a more typical Christmas at my sister’s place, a little over an hour’s drive from us, where we could also see my parents. Then C flew to see her dad and stepmom in Kentucky, the first time she had seen them in two years. One reason I had opted to bid on a language-designated position for my next tour was the opportunity to have C see her dad a bit more. We had initially planned on a visit in August but scrapped it with COVID on the rise. Things were still dicey in December, but it was too important to skip.

And now, we are in the final five months of our U.S. interlude. It will be punctuated with increasing bouts of panic on my part as my language test and our departure to Guinea grows closer. While I will still seek out special activities for us all, my to-do list has to start accommodating things like dentist and doctor visits, obtaining visas, vaccinations, plane tickets and working out the intricate requirements for international cat travel while cramming more and more French into my skull.

Here’s to the second half.

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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.  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.