Happy New Year

I’ve not dropped off the face of the planet… just recovering from shoulder surgery which makes typing blog posts an adventure.

Wanted to drop in, though and wish everyone a very happy 2013… may all your goals be met, your resolutions stuck-to, and your year full of joy.

See you in a few weeks when I once again have use of my left hand.


Language and the Trailing Spouse

One of the hardest things about being a trailing spouse in the Foreign Service is the language.  As an EFM, we are eligible for language training at FSI, but many of us, for whatever reason, cannot or choose not to learn the language of the host country.

In my case, I had a little Spanish from college when we were posted to the Dominican Republic and I chose to go through language training.  It helped me immensely, as there is little English spoken in the D.R. outside of the Embassy community.  My motivation to learn the language, however, was only so-so, and after a couple of personality-conflict episodes in my class, I ended up dropping out of the classroom setting after about 4 months.

Indonesian training was a disaster for me from the start, as my motivation was at an all-time low and Indonesian is just so vastly different from English.  After three weeks of being beaten over the head with Indonesian, I was miserable, and decided to go the self-study route.  As of this moment, I think I’ve maybe picked up ten words and looked at my textbooks once or twice.  I will be at a severe disadvantage at post, as few Surabayans speak English.  This, in turn, will culturally isolate me and make navigating everyday life incredibly difficult.

In my Indonesian class, I was that guy, you know, the one who didn’t study at all and made mistakes left and right on things that we had just been taught.  I wanted to learn the language, honestly, but I also had other things to do.  For my wife, it’s different, as it’s part of her job and she’s getting paid to do it.  Also, for the Diplomat, failure in learning the language is not an option.  She argues that I’m getting all this free language training so I should look at it that way, and while I somewhat agree, it doesn’t work that way for me.

One of the hardest parts of language training for the spouse (for me, at least) is finding the time and motivation to study at home.  As the trailing spouse, one needs to keep up with all the domestic BS (cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, bills/finances, and, if applicable, childcare) while supposedly also finding the time to put in 4-5 hours of homework and study time in order to acquire a new language.  By the time you get home from a 6-hour day of intensive classes, you’re exhausted.  But you still have to get dinner ready, entertain the kid so your spouse can have some study time, do some laundry, and pick up the toys strewn all over the house.  As I write this, I’m waiting for the dryer to buzz so I can change the laundry over (and listening to salsa – great for staying motivated to do housework).  Once I’m done with the laundry, I’ll probably go for a quick workout, then start planning dinner while trying to distract the child away from Mama.  See?  Where do I fit in studying at night unless I stay up until 1 a.m.?

Basically, I’m screwed.  I’m going to start looking at the (literally) thousands of flash cards my wife has, try to interpret her sometimes-sloppy handwriting, and drag out the self-study materials.  But I’m going to struggle mightily with the language, and have to rely on my wife for much of the communication over there (difficult when you’re the one tasked with supervising and instructing the domestic staff who will most likely not speak any English).  Unfortunately, there will not be an option for a FAST course until late February, so even if I enrolled in it, I’d only get about 3-4 weeks of the course under my belt before we departed for post.

I think this is a huge issue for a lot of spouses.  Whether it’s lack of childcare (the waitlist at FSI Daycare is almost a year long and it’s expensive), lack of time, or lack of motivation, many spouses struggle with the language learning process.  For me, it’s a combination of the two latter components, but I’m starting to see how important learning the language is.  Hopefully I can overcome the lack of motivation and start hitting the books.  Otherwise I will be miserable for our two years at post.


We’re down a car! (And I need surgery)

Good news on the car front finally… we ended up selling one of our cars on Craigslist, to an FSO by complete chance.  Thank god… the whole FS fraternity thing can be totally awesome sometimes.  I really believe there is a feeling of mutual respect and trust when you deal with other FS families in business transactions.

We ended up selling our 2002 Volvo wagon, the one I least wanted to sell.  It was a great car that had been in my family since 2004 or so.  My folks gifted it to us when we came back from the D.R., as they had given it to my sister’s family to be a train car (those of you from the NYC area know what that is).  It was kind of fortuitous, as my dad was buying a new car and was going to give his old one to my sister to replace the Volvo, which my niece would then get as her car (she turned 16 in May).  Since my B.I.L. gets a company car, I finagled my way into the Volvo instead of the Saab.  While the Volvo was older, the Saab was a sedan—and with a kid and two dogs, sedans suck.

Recently the Volvo started having some small issues (like any car with 103K on it), and then the Check Engine Light came on.  It was going to be a $500 repair, plus a couple big-ticket items were coming up, so I decided it was best to sell it.  I was completely up-front about the issues, made a few concessions on price, and had it sold in a matter of days.  Now we’re back to a normal, two-car family.  Hooray!

Speaking of cars, I have mostly fixed the Saab after all the issues we’ve had with it.  There was a idling/hesitation problem that I had Googled and narrowed it down to a couple of things.  When we had it in the shop, I asked the mechanic what he thought, he pointed at a part in the engine and said that it was usually the culprit.  He said it was a $300 part, and a couple hours’ labor.  I smelled bullshit, searched for an engine schematic online, identified the part, and found it online for $50.  Took about 6 minutes to install the part (with only one or two expletives), and the car runs 1,000 times better.

And now on to the surgery….

I apparently need shoulder surgery due to a torn labrum in my left shoulder.  This is an ages-old injury that has gotten worse with time.  My shoulder frequently slips out of socket randomly, and I’m left with a week of excruciating pain and limited motion each time.  This happens roughly monthly, going on 17 or so years now.  I’m done.  I’m at the point where I can afford the surgery, am getting back into shape and would like to start swimming and surfing again, and am just plain sick of it.  It hurts when it happens, reduces my quality of life, and I find myself avoiding certain activities or motions which have a high likelihood of injuring my shoulder again.

All in all, it’s an arthroscopic procedure which should only incapacitate me for a week or two, and it’s not my dominant arm.  I’m planning on scheduling it before the holidays, so I plan on spending Christmas in a sling.  However, navigating the bureaucratic bullshit of the U.S. healthcare system is probably going to kill me before any surgeon has the chance to in the O.R.  The steps and cross-references and phone calls necessary to just get a simple M.R.I. to confirm the diagnosis pre-approved are ridiculous, and I’ve already lost one appointment due to how shitty the FSBP is here in the U.S. (they use Coventry here, which is really a new definition of frustration), and am considering just doing the damn surgery overseas so I can pay for it out-of-pocket and be reimbursed rather than navigating the waters of PPO hell anymore.

With a holiday week next week, expect some radio silence from me… I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving.  I’ll be posting some of my favorite Turkey Day hacks, tricks, and recipes on my other blog over the weekend.

Mahalo and gobble-gobble, y’all.

Wake me when it’s over…

Today is Nov. 2, and there are 5 more days of the presidential election cycle.  That’s 5 more days of being bombarded by political ads everywhere I look.  5 more days of having my Facebook and RSS feeds clogged with political drivel.  5 more days of having to listen to every news organization breathlessly report on the latest 0.0001% shift for whichever candidate in Ohio, Virginia, or North Carolina.

I can’t stand it anymore.  I wish I could go to sleep and wake up on the 7th (with my candidate having won, natch), or better yet, be overseas again where the elections in the U.S. get marginal coverage and the real events of the world (Syria, Mali, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iran, and the Eurozone crisis) actually get air time.  Because, let’s face it folks: the events happening outside of our borders and messed-up political system are the ones that really matter.  What happens elsewhere in the world will have a huge effect on the United States and our economy, despite our head-in-the-sand attempts to ignore it.

Yes, I care who wins.  No, I will not tell you who that is—though if you know me you already know.  Yes, I think that one candidate is better for my wife’s job security and our personal security while serving overseas.  Will I lose sleep over the results of the election?  Probably, but we do indeed serve at the pleasure of the President (whoever that turns out to be).

I have tried to keep my political musings out of this blog and my Facebook feed, admittedly with less success on Facebook.  However, my Facebook feed has been blowing up with political rants and propaganda from friends near and far.  I have judiciously hidden some of the lesser offenders and de-friended some of the worst.  I have also noticed that, except for a select few, my friends share my political leanings.  It’s really interesting how we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals rather than seek out opposing views for some welcome contrast.

Also, if you’ve never lived in a swing state, you should count yourself as one of the Lucky Ones.  Here in Virginia 60–70% of all TV ads over the past month-plus have been political.  Seriously.  It’s getting old.  I had taken to watching TV on the internet (Hulu, Comedy Central, etc.), but the political ads have infiltrated teh interwebz as well.  Gah!  Get me out of here!

Regardless, it all ends Tuesday evening.  Wednesday morning I’ll either be beaming with happiness or crying into my Cheerios.  But at least the political ads will be over, and that is the most important thing in our election cycle: the end of the goddamn ads.

What the hell am I doing with three cars?

Yes, dear readers… I have three cars at the moment.  For two licensed drivers.  Ugh.

Here’s the deal – Before we left the DR (under the assumption that we’d be selling the FJ at post… may I add that that was the single dumbest assumption I’ve ever made?  By assuming, you make an ASS out of U and ME, and all that…), we decided to beg my parents/sister for the old Volvo wagon that was kicking around the family in order to have a lock on a car when we got back to the States.  Luckily (or unluckily, as it turns out), they acquiesced, and we were the proud owners of a 2002 Volvo V70.  Hooray!  Well, around that time, Wife decided that she would like to re-learn how to drive (I was of the habit of doing ALL THE DRIVING in the DR), and had her heart set upon a car made by the now-defunct Saab mark.  More or less the same one that saved her life many years ago in a head-on collision on the highway, so, really, who’s going to argue that one?  Well, she found a 2002 9-3 Turbo with the necessary specs, and we put a deposit down on it sight-unseen.  Yes, dumb-da-dumb-dumb-dumb.

Fast forward to picking the Saab up…  I drive into a part of Providence, RI that I’ve never been to before (for good reason… and I’ve been in some shady parts of Provvy), and pull into a “dealer”‘s lot.  There are a lot of cars there, in various states of repair.  OK, I say to myself, let’s get this done.  I conduct the whole rest of the transaction in Spanish (feeling good about myself after two years in the DR) with the Bolivian owner: take the car for a test drive on the mean streets of Providence; look over the car; gain assurances that the promised work has been done; and finally pay the remaining money to take ownership.  OK, I think, this car’s alright for the next 6 months.

I get the car back to my parents’ house, and my father and I drive up to the Cape.  He’s driving the Saab, and I’m in the Volvo.  After the drive he complains of a slight shimmy in the steering wheel (a problem which the dealer promised to fix) and an intermittent loss of power when maintaining highway speed (shit, Googled this and it’s probably something to do with the waste-gate clip on the turbo… who knows how much).  I decide to kind of forget about the problems until I’m back in CT, and my Dad drives it back several days later noting the same issues.

I finally get back to CT after a few more days, and I take the car to get new tires ($600) and an oil change ($100 – the oil change another thing the dealer promised me that wasn’t done), and on the way back from getting the tires, I’m accelerating onto the highway when the car almost completely loses power and the “exclamation point” light comes on on the dash.  Those of you whom have owned Saabs know that this isn’t good.  In fact, there is rarely a time in life where an exclamation point warning light is a good sign.

Well, I get the car home, and turn it off.  I quickly Google the issue, and see a whole bunch of articles pertaining to the alternator.  Great.  I go back out to the car and try to start it.  Nada.  Battery’s dead.  That confirms the alternator.  I jump it, pop the hood, and look down to the alternator.  It’s not turning with the serpentine belt.  S-W-E-E-T.  I call the local European-specialist garage and tell them to expect me.  I hop in the car and try to drive the 2 miles there, but if you’ve ever dealt with a dead alternator before, you know how far I got.  Mind you, THIS IS ALL THE DAY BEFORE I’M LEAVING FOR MAINE FOR MY 1 MONTH OF HOME LEAVE.  I’m also counting on having 2 cars to drive up there……

Fast forward to after having the car towed the rest of the way to the shop… I ask the guys to fix the alternator and take a look at the rest of the car.  Tell them I’m going back on vacation, and I’ll deal with it when I get back… they can call me with the estimate, etc.  Leave for Maine (450 miles away) and wait for the call.  Arrange with my parents to pick the car up when it’s done.

About 3 days later, I get the call from the shop, and they tell me of the blown alternator ($750… duh) and the front and rear brakes that have 5% life left ($550 front, $500 rear, ugh), and the “small” leak in the exhaust just behind the manifold ($350).  I say, “Sure!  Fix it, except for the exhaust… I’ll deal with that later.”  I enjoy the rest of my vacation, come back to CT on the way to DC and pick up the car.  My wife drives it to DC, and there aren’t any other problems to speak of.  So, silly me, I start to think I’m out of the shit when….

….My wife comes home today and asks me to check the power steering fluid on the Saab, because it’s “become difficult to turn the wheel when stopped.”  Great.  Couple this with the suspension issue on the Volvo right now and the fact that I’m trying to sell the FJ which we had to ship back to the U.S. (and is in GREAT condition, and currently for sale), and I’m wondering WTF is it with me and cars right now?  I’ve done nothing but care for all of my previous cars, and my car-ma (sorry) sucks right now.  If I had only one car to deal with this would all be moot.  But having three, and two of which are having problems, this really is just too much.

Now I need to reconsider my priorities, get two older cars in for-sale-shape (probably for another several hundred dollars), and hope for the best.  Ideally, I can sell the Saab and the Volvo and recoup my expenses (i.e. the ~$2,400 EXTRA I paid for the Saab on top of the $3,000 just to take ownership of that nightmare) and hang on to the FJ until we leave for post.  But what if I can’t sell the FJ?  WTF do I do then?  Sell it at an obscenely low price, low-ball myself and not get a decent car at post as a trade-off?  Hold on to the FJ and pay ~$250 a month to store it on top of the car payment?  Beg State to put it in emergency storage since we’re moving to a RHD country in which POVs regularly need ~1 year to clear customs/get registered?

Anyone?  Bueller?

Tragedy, Americana, and Consumerism

First off, the FS Blog community has discussed the events over the past week-and-a-half rather thoroughly and much more eloquently than I’m capable of.  I’ll defer to them on the subject of the violence in the Middle East and the murders of our colleagues.  However, being at FSI during all of this was rather surreal.  It’s kind of awesome when an entire cafeteria full of FSOs and spouses falls silent and stares at the TV to watch/read (closed captioning FTW) the President’s remarks about the 4 American diplomats killed while serving our country.

I try to leave politics out of this blog as much as possible (check my Facebook wall if you’d like to see my political filters dropped), since we serve “at the pleasure of the administration”.  However, Gov. Romney’s remarks at his presser on 9/12 were absolutely some of the most garish and gauche things I’ve ever heard.  How dare he politicize the deaths of 4 diplomats to scare up some votes?  I’m glad that he’s been taking such heavy flack from both sides about this foot-in-mouth moment.  At least some people have morals.

On to happier, or at least different subjects…

This week, I had the pleasure of meeting two, that’s right TWO FS bloggers IRL.  Sadie and Jen attended an AAFSW happy hour and I was totally psyched to get to speak with them for a bit.  Actually meeting (face-to-face, no less) others in this crazy, disparate community makes connections a little more real, and makes the world we live in a little smaller.  So, Sadie and Jen: It was an absolute pleasure to meet you.

Today, I had the pleasure of walking around the D.C. Zoo with Wife and Son.  While parking was a nightmare, being able to walk the streets and the paths, and really, just NOT WORRY about our safety was amazing.  It’s crazy what you take for granted while you’re living the the U.S.  Even knowing I was at the D.C. Zoo, surrounded by cops and Secret Service, I still found myself looking over my shoulder and grasping the knife in my pocket (a nasty habit I picked up in the D.R.) on occasion.  When you live in a crime-ridden country, you find yourself being extremely paranoid in situations that don’t warrant it…

Last week, I had a lovely experience at the VA DMV trying to register our car that was shipped back to D.C. from the D.R.  I spent several days combing the DMV Web site looking for information about our situation (VA-purchased car, shipped abroad, brought back), and thought I stumbled on the right info (scroll almost to the bottom).  I got all my paperwork together, headed to Tysons Corner, waited almost 2 hours, and was told I needed numerous additional pieces of paperwork I didn’t have (the towing company didn’t give me the EPA forms, HS7, and customs paperwork, etc.).  I was SOL and pissed.  Thank god for Livelines, however, as I had several pieces of advice within minutes, including the email of a high-ranking official in DMV, and my problem was solved.  I love the FS community, seriously.  Now my car is happily registered and on the market.  Anyone need a car for post?

Being back in the U.S. after 2 years abroad is mostly a never-ending source of joy for me, however.  I fully admit I’m a consumer.  I like to consume many things: food, drink, electronics, media, tap water, clean air, etc.  The D.C. area is awesome for this.  Amazon deliveries in 2 days or fewer, excellent grocery stores, the Virginia ABC and their selection of small-batch bourbons, niche and specialty butcher shops and groceries, direct flights to just about any point worth visiting in the U.S.  I’m definitely going to do what I can to consume what I can before traveling to the other side of the world to live for 2 years.

I’m trying to wrap my head around this fact.  Indonesia.  Man, that’s far.  There are going to be so many challenges to maintain even a modicum of “Americana” over there, but that’s my goal.  Everywhere we live during our FS career, I’d like to be able to recreate certain aspects of the U.S. so as to maintain some level of sameness.  Number one for me is food.  See, I’m open to trying new things… in fact, as a burgeoning chef, I kind of thrive on it.  But there are certain things that I become a whining Prima donna over if I can’t find them.  Good beef is one of them.  Sage come Thanksgiving is another.  Cheese is a third.  You can call me crazy if you like, but I can’t live without good food.  My family (i.e. Mom & Dad and sister) all think I’m crazy, as they all see food as solely a source of nutrients, and don’t understand my obsession over flavor, texture, preparation, and presentation.  This probably has a lot to do with the fact that my Mom is Irish and English, and my Dad is Polish (or Austrian, none of us know), and none of these cuisines are really groundbreaking in what they do.  I’m kind of the anomaly in the family.

See, in Surabaya I plan to attend culinary school.  It’s been too long that I’ve gone without formal education in the culinary arts.  I’ve been cooking and learning about food since I was about 13 when my sister’s college roommate fed me her grandmother’s red sauce.  Turning point in my life, for realsies.  I grew up on Ragu (it’s NOT Italian) and Perdue “Done It” chicken cutlets.  Enough said.  I’m of the mindset that cooking is one of those fully-transferable skill-sets: who doesn’t like food (well, except for my Mom)?

The least I can do as I follow my wife around the globe in her amazing career is to make sure our family is well-fed.  I’ve kind of resigned myself to the fact that working in the Mission ain’t my bag, and unless I can get a steady gig as the Ambassador’s Chef, I may as well cook at home for the small audience of my family and possibly a broader audience of American expats in the Mission.  Hell, after my wife retires, I fully plan on opening a private chef service and/or a small farm-to-table concept cafe (i.e. 3-4 covers a night), and use the culinary influences I’ve gained over 20+ years of traveling the globe and learning the cuisine to make some seriously world-class food.

Well, enough of my dreams for tonight.  I’m still trying to get my other blog together (a totally food-related one) and dedicate some time to it.  Maybe now that formal Indonesian training is shelved for the time being, I’ll have more time to develop the concept and actually produce some content.

Until next time, Mahalo.

Language, tornadoes, and knives

Come on… how many other blogs are you reading that can boast all three of these topics in one post?

We’re back at Oakwood, gettin’ our learn on, and things are just as we left 2 years ago when we departed for post.  The Oakwood Foreign Service Ghetto remains the premier family destination for FSOs to pass their time at NFATC, and it’s good to be “home”, since this is about as close to a home as we have in the FS.

Language training is in full swing for the hundreds of students currently filling the corridors at FSI, and a new A-100 even started today.  Congratulations to the incoming whatever number class… may Flag Day not reduce you to a puddle of tears.

We started Indonesian training a week ago, and man-oh-man it’s not what I expected.  I’m really not sure how I feel about it… I know it’s useful and helpful to know the target language of your posted country, but the FSI thing doesn’t jibe with my personality.  I find myself sitting in class counting the minutes until dismissal just about every day, and really can’t remember what I’m being taught.  Indonesian is going to require a hell of a lot of effort, and I’m just not sure I’m willing to invest that much in it.  Spanish was a different beast altogether (I already spoke some, and it’s a Romance language), and even with a background, the FSI classes broke me, and I ended up switching up my schedule/commitment level about 4 months into it.

See, I learn by doing.  The pedagogy at FSI isn’t really suited to my learning style.  I know this, FSI knows this, but yet there’s really not much I can do about it.  The Indonesian department is 6 people, and there’s really not a whole lot of room for variety or tailoring the course to my needs.  Thus, I remain miserable.  It’s hard to learn a language when you dread even going to class.  I’m going to try to stick it out for a little while longer, but thus far it’s been excruciating.

Changing the subject, on Saturday we had quite the scare.  Strong thunderstorms were predicted in the afternoon after a particularly hot and sultry 5 days in DC.  Around 4:30 the sky clouded up, and luckily we were inside.  Within minutes, severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings had been issued for Falls Church, and Wife and Son headed for the bathtub (Wife is from Tornado Alley, after all).  I was still staring out the window at the clouds when I saw the wind drop (something my wife tells me is bad), and then I saw the trees across the cemetery start to bend.  And bend.  And bend.  The wall of wind and rain hit our building with significant force, snapping several tree branches outside our window, and blowing rain sideways.  I hastily retreated to the kitchen and squatted down behind the counter and kept an eye on the scene out the window.  There was definite rotation to the wind, and if it wasn’t actually a funnel cloud that passed over us, it was damn close.  After about 10 more minutes, everything calmed down, and a light rain continued.  The whole thing was scary.  I’d never seen anything like that out of a thunderstorm before.

To top off my weekend, last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I heard a crash come from the kitchen.  I knew exactly what it was, and rushed out to inspect the damage.  My magnetic knife rack had fallen off the wall, and my santoku and three chef’s knives were strewn across the floor.  I went to pick them up, and I noticed that the tip of my totally awesome Global 8-inch chef’s knife had snapped off.  About 3/4 of an inch or so.  Then I noticed that my 10-inch chef’s knife was missing about a half inch.  Then I noticed my beloved santoku, a knife which I’ve had for about 14 years… more more trustworthy and faithful to me than a good number of ex-girlfriends.  The tip was seriously bent to the left.  Ruined.  Even the el-cheapo Tramontina 12-inch chef’s knife hadn’t escaped trauma: its tip, too, is bent to the left a little.  On this sad note, I went to bed.

Today I decided that I will gradually replace all of the damaged knives, starting with the santoku.  I have my eye on this little darling, and am going to Williams-Sonoma tomorrow to test-drive some knives.  Seriously, folks…. if you’re going to drop significant coin on cutlery, please do yourself the favor of trying before buying.  If it doesn’t feel comfortable in your hand, don’t buy it.

That’s about it for now… language awaits in the morning.