Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Three down.

I haven't updated this blog in a few weeks because I'm starting to make myself busy. When I'm not busy, I get restless and I think of things I want to tell people about. When I am busy, I forget that I have a blog at all.

I've been offered a job working with students at the university here, assisting with their English writing and speaking skills. I have several things that I need to acquire, official paperwork and clearances and such, some of which have to be mailed over on the slow boat, but when those come in I'll be able to start work. It won't pay very well, but it will be enough, and it won't be the world's greatest job, but it will be engaging. It will certainly give me an opportunity to hone my editing skills, and another thing to list on my resume that still lacks any sort of teaching certification.

I've been doing a lot of reading and writing of my own. It's much easier to get books here than video games and card games, due to our Kindle account, so I've started tracking down some things that are below the normally high bar I set for what kinds of books I'm willing to read. I knocked out one book in a week, and I've got another ready to go. I may end up reading after I'm done with this post, but I may also catch up with some other blogs I've been following.

I'm beginning to experiment with videos and audio podcasting, which could end up being a lot of fun. I've also been outlining and writing chapters and short-stories that I'm going to piece together in a novel. That's my hope anyway. Even if that doesn't work out, I will have something to keep myself busy. It's surprising to me how productive I can feel without having any responsibilities. Maybe a lack of responsibilities is what I needed.

We've spent a lot of our free time with friends here, mostly just watching movies or eating dinner. Kazakhstan is a remarkably boring place, due to the isolation and weather, so we don't really get out a lot. There isn't much to do. There certainly isn't anywhere to go. I don't really care for what I've seen of it. It will be nice next year when we are able to get out of here for a while and visit people in person. And maybe have some tacos.

That's where I am right now. Winter has fallen heavily on Astana, with a foot or more of snow covering anything they can't reach with a snow-shovel. The snow sucks. It's certainly not an environment conducive to learning to drive a manual transmission car. But we've made it about three months now. That's one eighth of the way through. At some point next year we'll start to find out where Susie will be posted next. That will change things significantly.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Don't speak Russian? Bring carrots.

Susie and I live in a large and expanding collection of apartments known as Highvill. According to the plans, Highvill will eventually take up somewhere around two blocks of city space, and include restaurants, grocery stores, offices, gyms, and whatever else you can imagine. Right now, though, it's less than half finished, so I would imagine it's pretty tough to get stores to commit. There are a couple of extremely expensive restaurants (although I'm starting to think what I view as "expensive" and what the Kazakhs view as "expensive" in a restaurant is completely different), and currently there is only one small grocery store. There isn't a whole lot else. I think I've seen some offices, but it's pretty empty. A lot of this part of town is.

We live fairly close to Novella, the grocery store, so it's convenient for us. Especially so, since we can actually not have to leave the building to get to it. The apartments are build above and around interior parking decks, because leaving your car out in the intense cold during the winter is asking for problems. And luckily for us, this means that when the weather is inauspicious, we can take the elevator down and walk through the heated, covered, and insulated deck and go into the back entrance of the store. It's open from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, so almost any time we realize we need something basic, like milk, eggs, bread, cheese, or drinks, we can run down and get it. They don't have the selection of a full grocery store, and they suffer from the same supply issues that most stores around here do, but they tend to keep most things in stock.

The staff recognizes us at this point and speaks very little Russian with a lot of gestures in case we need something. There are three or four clerks in the store at any given time, running around doing whatever it is people do at a very slow grocery store. There are also people I've come to designate as managers or owners. They do not have the smock-like uniform of the clerks. In fact, they are almost always dressed quite nicely, much nicer than American store managers. It's unsettling, to be honest. They were black or pinstripe suits and stand like guardians over the whole place (when they aren't sequestered in the hole in the wall office that is wedged near the back entrance. They never smile and sometimes have rapid, fierce conversations with the clerks about what they should be doing. Which, it seems, is sometimes nothing at all.

A week ago, we needed some smaller items, and after I managed to lock myself out of the apartment and walk to the embassy to borrow Susie's key, I made my way (back) to the store. We were planning on having salad, I think, but I wanted to pick up other stuff since you never know what they might have. I had my headphones in, listening to some podcast, since the walk to and from the embassy is boring without something to distract from the featureless, muddy stretch of roadside between Highvill and there. I grabbed a cart with one hand, and headed for the stand of sketchy fresh fruits and vegetables they had. Most of them were dirty; they don't really wash produce here, which is problematic because their local produce is inevitably covered in filthy water and pesticides. We have to take care to wash them with warm water and soap. It's especially bad with carrots, which they pull out of the ground and drop straight on the shelves.

Because of the dire state of the fresh produce whenever we've seen it, we have up to that point in our time here avoided it, sticking to canned and frozen. But a salad calls for fresh! So I was there to get carrots. I was there to try, anyway. I didn't imagine it to be much different from the U.S. Having done it now, it's not much different. But in foreign countries, small differences are amplified. Especially when you do something stupid.

I rounded the corner to the produce aisle, and at the other end of the shelves stood one of the Novella mafia. We made eye contact and we nodded to each other, neither of us caring to try to speak in the other's language. I took one of the plastic bags from the roll that had been unceremoniously dumped on the onions and started eyeballing the carrots to figure out which of them I wanted. My mistake was that my hands were too full, bag in one, and the other hand that should have been available was weighed down by the basket that I had hung at the crook of my elbow. I grabbed for a carrot and got the first one in the bag. It was trickier than I had expected, because of my hand situation, but I managed.

I was highly aware of the guy standing there, watching the foreigner try to juggle carrots. That made what happened next all the more embarrassing. The second carrot I grabbed dislodged one of the ones above it, and it began to fall. Bag, carrot and basket were unwieldy enough that I couldn't grab it, so I did the only logical thing and tried to catch it with my foot. Looking back, of course that wasn't logical. I realized it wasn't as soon as I did it. I can't catch much of anything with my foot, let alone a rogue carrot. So, instead of catching it, I kicked it hard into the shelf and it bounced to the floor.

I looked over at the manager, and he just kept staring, not giving any hint of what he thought I should do. So I picked up the carrot, and seeing that it was dirty anyway, just like the rest of the precarious stack, I put it back. I thought, "It might even be cleaner now."

With the two carrots I intended to buy in my little vegetable bag, I tried to move on to the next section of the store. But I was stopped by the dark-suited man. I felt the panic rising in my soul. I kicked his carrot to the floor and then put it back. I defiled his produce and his store... I'll be banned for life if I'm lucky. He pointing at the carrots I held and in the direction of the rest of the carrots. My headphones were in, but I didn't any of the podcast I had been listening to. I yanked the buds out of my ears, trying as hard as I could to look like I had no idea what was happening. It's unsurprisingly easy to do when you actually have no idea what is happening.

I had no idea what he said, but he took the carrots and walked over to where he had been pointing. And then past it. To the scale that you use to weigh fruits and vegetables and get a price sticker for the clerks to ring up your purchase. He punched a few buttons and it didn't work, so he called over another worker and they put in the appropriate information. Then he handed the carrot bag, complete with price stuck to the outside, and smiled, gesturing that I could be on my way.

Weird experiences are the norm when you aren't in your home country. Well, that's not exactly right. It's more like this: weird experiences are the norm everywhere, but in your hometown, you know what to expect. You've had the experiences and they don't surprise you. Even going to another city can upset your mental sense of balance, and suddenly something that you would be easily able to manage becomes complicated, and your natural impulses just make it worse. At least in this case, I learned something very useful about Astana: if you throw around their root vegetables, they will kindly treat you like an idiot and do things for you. What I need is a sack of carrots to carry around, so that whenever I get lost or need assistance, I can kick one to get someone's attention. That's the lesson, right?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Three banquets a day -- our favorite diet!

I have mentioned before that people over-prepared us with regards to how difficult it is to find familiar foods in Astana. It seemed to make sense; good and affordable produce, recognizable cuts of meat, American brands... we're fairly isolated from other countries and the harsh climate significantly limits what is produced in the borders of Kazakhstan. Despite this, we haven't had nearly as much trouble as we first thought.

There are lots of different kinds of fruits and vegetables, fresh and frozen. Some of it isn't as cleaned and processed as the stuff we get in the U.S., but we've found carrots, peppers, lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, beans, corn, tomatoes, bananas, apples, pears, peaches... the list is far more extensive than what we were able to get easily in Japan. Right now there are fresh produce open markets in the city that have locally grown foods at fairly cheap (and negotiable) prices, plenty of imports from closer to the Mediterranean, and there is a weird variety of frozen vegetables that tend to heat up pretty well. They are a bit unpredictable; one week there will be big bags of frozen mushrooms, a bag with a variety of sliced peppers, and green beans, and the next week (when all of that has been purchased) we will have cauliflower, mixed carrots and broccoli, and brussel sprouts.

I imagine that once the Winter season sets in, these things will become more difficult to find and the price will rise, but I've talked to some people here who have said that they never entirely go away. This is a country of meat and potato meals, but in the stores and at the Embassy, where I eat on a nearly daily basis, there has been a pretty good spread of vegetable and fruit options.

Meat is a bit stranger. Maybe it's my untrained eye, but I don't really know how to tell the difference between good and bad meat, and even with the help of some talented Russian speakers who have been here for a while, it can be a little hit or miss. The best meat here is tougher than U.S. meat, be it beef or chicken (even pork or turkey), and the worst meat is... really quite bad. We tried cooking up some ground beef about a week into our time here and were so disgusted with the bits of bone, connective tissue, and gristle we found in it that we tossed it out half-cooked and tried other things that evening. We have had some good success with chicken breasts and steaks, and we've ordered a meat grinder to make our on ground meats. We also make do with some frozen meat. We found turkey "meatball" patties in the frozen section of the grocery downstairs, and there are a very popular meat dumpling that are easy to find and cook.

Although it's difficult to find sandwich bread, there wouldn't be much of a point because there aren't really any sandwich meats. There are some sausages and salamis, but I'm not really sure how well they would supplant roast beef and cold cuts. Regardless, we were warned that fresh bread is hard to get a hold of here, and that turns out to have been a misrepresentation as well. Every grocery has a fresh baked section with many kinds of bread, including pre-sliced varieties, and we are discovering some of the local styles such as a large flat bread (almost like naan) and tiny pieces of sweet bread (a little like biscuit dough), among others.

Thankfully, our meals are not all things that we have to cook ourselves. Many are, many more than we were used to in the U.S., mainly because we don't have an easy way to get around in the city yet. As I mentioned, though, I eat at the embassy about once a day because the food in the little cafeteria there is good and cheap. They have a mixture of Kazakh traditional foods (dumplings, pilaf, borscht), interpretations of American food (chicken sandwich, french fries), and international dishes (teriyaki beef, "Mexican"chicken, curry). They also make bread, cake, and other deserts. It's nice being so close I can walk over for lunch, and very rarely am I disappointed.

The first night we were here, we went out with a bunch of people to a restaurant called Line Brew. I think they brew a beer on site, thus the name. The food was pretty good, if a little expensive, but that tends to be the standard here. Susie and I had fantastic steaks, and even had a chance to try the Kazakh "horse meat cooked on a hot stone." They bring a stone that has been in the fire to the table with raw horse and you cook it yourself. It was nice. I haven't had any since, but I would eat it again. Outside of that, there is a mall with a sizable food court and there you can find the city's only Hardee's! It's basically like American Hardee's with a menu that is more limited in scope. You can get cheeseburgers, jalapeño burgers, curly fries, etc. Across the court from there is a KFC which mostly serves fried chicken sandwiches and wraps, but it tastes like KFC.

Yesterday Susie and I tried a new place that people recommended, in no small part because of the English menus (I forget the name). There were several kinds of sandwich and salads, and we both really enjoyed the meal. The sandwiches were huge, packed with stuff, and for around $20 we both had a more than enough food. It is nice to be able to do that, to find places that we are comfortable ordering and eating. Living abroad is stressful, wandering around cities without speaking much of the language is frustrating, and having a significant variety of food and restaurants is a major comfort that we did not have in Japan. I know there will be places we end up that are tougher than this, but hopefully we get more experience and better skill with adjusting.

On a final note, there are a couple of different chain burger restaurants to eat at in Astana. I mentioned Hardee's, but there are also some Kazakh-based chains. What you won't find is a McDonald's. Apparently, glorious leader Nazarbayev doesn't like them and doesn't allow them. So, that's something.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Irons in the Fire

What am I good at? Since it's a rhetorical question, I'll specify: What am I good enough at to do professionally? I grew up around teachers; my parents and their friends tended to fall into that category. Since I graduated from the University of Georgia, the only job I've had is to teach. I taught English formally and informally in Japan. I tutored college-level math at Indiana University before snagging an Associate Instructorship that let me teach Japanese. While I finished up my thesis, I was teaching Japanese part-time at a local high school, which I suppose helped propel me to a full-time job teaching it at a middle school in Atlanta. I'm good at teaching, being a teacher. I've spent more of my life in classrooms than almost anywhere else, and now, temporarily unemployed, I'm looking for opportunities around Astana, Kazakhstan to use the skills I've honed over the past seven years.

Of course, there are aspects of teaching that I'm not happy with, things I don't like or don't want to do. I don't like having to be a disciplinarian. To give an obvious example, middle school is absolutely not on the menu. I did not get along with middle school students while I was teaching full-time, and I did not get along with them while I was substitute teaching. Even the best kids on the best day were still soaked through with hormones, optimistically cruel toddlers in oversized bodies. Actually, "cruel" is probably too much... they wish to be cruel, but they aren't smart enough to do so effectively. Regardless, we do not get along, middle schoolers and I... not when I am their teacher, at least. Some people find teaching middle school great. One of my friends and mentors while at the middle school was amazing. She related to the kids and had fun with them, inspired them, made them interested. She ended up teacher of the year the year after I left, and she deserves it. I did not, and would not.

On the other hand, when I am in a classroom with high schoolers or college students, it's an entirely different situation. I know how to engage them, they know how to behave without being strapped to their chairs and made into little wind-up citrines, and we both can communicate with each other without one side compelling the other to shriek. I loved every day of teaching at high school. The kids were better, the speed was better, the responsibilities I could give them were better. Even subbing was fairly good, with the occasional speed bump of some kid deciding to succumb to his ex-girlfriend provocation and get in a fist fight with her, or make Thursday into "Don't Do What The Sub Says and Instead Disrupt All Of The Other Students" Day. I almost never felt like the students genuinely disliked me though, they just sometimes felt indignant that a sub wanted them to do anything at all. As a side note, that always turned out humorously for me, because as a sub, I don't honestly care if you decide not to do the work you were left, mess around in class, or call me names. Just don't make it personal. I have recourse with the administration and the teacher I am subbing for (imagine their pants-wetting terror they faced when I called the teacher on the number they left and put it on speaker phone), and 99% of the time I know the kid's name even if they think I don't. It inevitably turned out worse for them, and there was never a larger grin on my face than when some kid I hardly recognized passed by the door to whatever room I was in that day, stopped and said "Hey, you got me in trouble!" Not me, man. You got you in trouble.

I like the part of school where I get to explain and discuss and open up entirely new avenues of thinking and looking at the world. I know that for some people, especially those who aren't teachers, that sounds corny. I'm happy being corny as long as I get to do that stuff. Which leads me back to the general idea of this post... I want to be a teacher. I'm good at it and I like it, which isn't something that everyone can say about their job. Even when I'm not teaching, I'm thinking about what kinds of cool stuff I could do if I were. I read articles about great teachers, I look at blog posts where people talk about cool projects and teachers. If it weren't a job, it would be a hobby.

Only a few things stand in the way here. The first is that I'm not a certified teacher anywhere, so I always imagine that people look a little askance when I talk to them about working at their school or in their program. I know in a lot of ways that doesn't make a difference, but if it prevents my hiring, it prevents my hiring. It has been the only thing standing between me and a career for a couple of years now, and with our living outside of the United States, it's much trickier to figure out how to get that certification. The second thing is that the opportunities here are much smaller in number than in the United States. There are a small number of international schools with a small number of openings in each year, and at any given post, there might simply be no opportunities. I've gotten in touch with four schools so far, and it's looking mostly grim.

All hope is not lost, though. There are a couple of partial positives on the teaching job front that might lead to more (but not quickly... nothing here seems to move quickly). I've run into a couple of people who have volunteer opportunities that might be used as stepping stones to further work. I'm also in touch with a couple of universities with online programs that could potentially help me to get certification, which would probably be worth the effort and further student debt. I'm doing what I can.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Buildings and Monuments Everywhere: It's like a capital city in Civilization!

We've been here in Astana for a little over a week now, and that has given us a chance to walk around (a lot) and see our area of the city. Astana isn't exactly a large city, positively tiny compared to the sprawl of Atlanta, but it's large enough that walking isn't exactly a feasible way to get around the city; with our apartment on the southeast edge of the city, if we want to go anywhere or do anything, we have to walk a couple of miles minimum. It will be even tougher in the winter when temperatures get down to -30 and below, but so far we have a lot of people who've offered to drive us to the different stores, and since the weather isn't bad yet, walking is still a possibility.

Our apartment is basically on the equivalent of the National Mall in Washington. From our balcony, you can see the presidential palace right across the river.

It's that massive white one with the blue dome on the left. Past that (to the right) are two gigantic mustard bottles, right out of The Phantom Menace, and a bit further is the Bayterek (the tower with a large golden ball at the top). I'll get to some better pictures later on.

Before I do, though, I want to point out some things about the above picture and most of the rest you'll see from me in this country. Astana is a very, very young city at only 14 years since it was made the capital of Kazakhstan. The president wants it to be huge, beautiful, and built before he dies (and at 72 years young, you never know when that might happen). Because of this, there is construction work going on every hour of every day. Here's the view from the back of our apartment:

Everywhere you look, there are massive cranes being used to put together massive, amazing buildings. It is undeniable that they look great, inside and out. What is a bit more questionable is whether they are actually great. Everything is done with speed and beauty primary, so what gets left behind sometimes is quality. We were told a story about a building that absolutely had to be finished, so they slapped it together, opened it up officially with all of it's amazing looks, and then they spent the next couple of months taking the facade of the building, putting the insulation in, and replacing the facade. The maintenance guys at the embassy can't stop complaining about how everything looks nice to cover up weird pipes, sketchy wiring, poor fittings, and any other of a number quality issues.

That being said, we haven't experienced any significant problems, so much like some of the other things we've been told about Astana, it might be a bit overstated.

Back to the point of this post: cool buildings and monuments! Right outside of our apartment is the back half of the national mall, and there are some really cool things over here:

This is the Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation. Apparently there is a 1,500 seat opera hall, a restaurant, and conference rooms aplenty inside, but I don't know that I really want to go in there. We saw a couple of wedding parties going in and out of it this past Saturday, so it does get used. It is surrounded by a huge park with trees and flowers stretching out in all directions, apparently forming a giant bird if seen from above. Keep an eye on that tall, white monument with a bird on it in the background.

Flowers! Everywhere. We're right at the end of these guys' lifespan, but apparently in the warmer parts of the year, they spread them on even thicker, especially out near the Bayterek and in front of the presidential palace. (Notice the cranes in the distance. There were about 10 we could see from this spot.)

Speaking of, this is a view from the foot of the pyramid towards the palace. If you look closely, you can see those big golden mustard bottle buildings. Way past it is the rest of the mall and the Bayterek. To the right of where I was standing is our apartment:


This is the pyramid again. That pathway is large enough to drive a couple of cars down side by side, for reference. Also, keep those two little white spires on the left of the picture in your mind.

On the other side of the pyramid, there is a big arrangement of fountains on the ground. The water kind of goes everywhere, but it looks very nice. There's that bird on a stick again!

This is a legendary legend of what I think was a phoenix that laid the gigantic egg that is precariously balanced on top of the Bayterek, and on either side of it are MORE oddly shaped buildings. The left one is a concert hall shaped like a dog bowl. The right one is... something... shaped like a bread basket.

Remember those two white spires? They belong to the largest mosque in all of Eurasia. It's pretty big. I haven't been inside... I don't know what the rules for that are. See that tiny black speck on the dome of the place? That's a guy. I don't know what he was doing up there, but he's got a rope and he's dangling from the crescent moon. To the left of this picture is where the U.S. Embassy is, but I didn't want to take pictures of it. There is a menacing Kazakh guard at the front gate covered with body armor and carrying some sort of assault rifle. I don't want to upset him.

Lastly, if you walk about 30 or 40 minutes from our apartment, you can get to the actual "in-the-city" part of the national mall. Here's a shot of the presidential palace from the OTHER end of the mall:

I walked out there one day early on, apparently for the only two hours it rained that week, so the pictures are a bit (or extremely) fuzzy and gray. You can see all of the flowers and the mustard bottles for location reference, though.

And right behind me is this guy:

The Bayterek. You can go up there and take pictures, and we probably will some time. It only gets busy on Saturdays. The last thing I will point out is the big egg-shaped thing on the left of this photo. I don't know what it is, but just behind it is a pretty nice mall with lots of stores and a huge food court with a Hardee's and KFC. We may have been there a couple of times already...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Although we have only been here a few days, I think that we were fairly well prepared for Astana, Kazakhstan. Susie and I have even discussed that we might have been a bit over-prepared. Of course, it is our first post in the Foreign Service, and like any place, things are going to be different. You need to know about the weather, availability of food and other products, cultural norms and customs... and it’s been fairly easy to find out whatever we have wanted to know. But you have to keep in mind who is telling you the information and what their experiences are, despite the difficulty in doing that when you haven’t met them. Every bit of information comes from someone who has different experiences from you and no matter how similar they might be, they won’t know exactly how you think.

When we were finding out information about living in Astana, it was emphasized again and again that the supply management of stores, especially grocery stores, was haphazard and prices for things (especially imports) were very different from what we were accustomed to in the U.S. In a given store, they might have a big shelf of sauces from America one week then the next week it has been replaced and you won’t see those same products for a month or more. Fresh foods like vegetables are even more unpredictable. They just buy what they can when they can, and “seasonal” takes on an entirely new meaning. The entire place is run like a closeout store.

That said, Susie and I lived in rural Japan for two years. I know that our experiences don’t apply one for one, but we know what it is like to be in a place where you never know what you can get. People here pine over peanut butter like it was as rare as gold (and not without reason, because it’s priced like gold when you can find it). But even in large cities in Japan you can’t find peanut butter. People complain of sticker shock when it comes to American foods and fresh vegetables, but so far, our experience in Japan was tougher. At least here you would recognize the vegetables they have. We sometimes wandered through the produce section of our Hok Food Market without seeing anything that seemed familiar. Worse, we would look up some things in our dictionaries, thinking that they might just be unusual in the U.S., only to find out that the translation didn’t help at all. We will never forget the almost entirely uninformative “Devil’s Tongue” entry in our dictionary.

We’ve been able to get apples, bananas, frankfurters, beef, bacon, eggs, sliced bread, carrots, lettuce, coke (of course!), frozen vegetable mixes, frozen pizza, and apparently in town there is a KFC and a Hardee’s. Some of it isn’t exactly the same as what we are used to, but even the things that are a little off are available, which is more than you could say for the middle of nowhere, Japan.

Our feeling of preparedness does come with one significant caveat, though. We are living in what is unquestionably the coldest capital city in the world. I know we have mentioned this to our families, but for anyone who doesn’t know, Astana holds the world record of forty degrees below zero in the winter. The marines in the embassy have shirts that call it the coldest post in the world, and when an eagle scout and U.S. marine with years of outdoor survival experience tells you it’s uncomfortably cold, you get a sense of how serious this is. We were made aware of the weather possibilities before we came out here, thankfully. We bought some intense cold weather gear in Washington. (On a side note, we got it extremely cheap. Down jackets go on clearance in 100+ degree summers.) We have boots and polypropylene long underwear on its way. We’re going to find fur-lined hats and gloves shortly. But we are still intimidated by the weather. Astana cold is overwhelming, soul-crushing and dry. We need to buy lotions and vaseline, balaclavas and goggles... it’s not going to be easy. 

The only consolations are that we’ve lived in some very cold places before, so we have that experience, and people here agree that past a certain point, your body just doesn’t register the temperature being any colder. We won’t have to spend much time outside, but we just don’t know how bad it will really be, and it has got me worried. I suppose that making it through this will be good, though. They literally can’t post us anywhere that will be colder! We will have hit the limit, so any other place we go will be warmer.

At least I have these Mega Bacon potato chips to comfort me while I await the coming Winter.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What's a good word for "scary, exciting, and overwhelming"?

I've had the experience before of being about one week out from moving abroad, and it can be a bit distressing. The last time, I was moving to Japan with basically no idea what I was going to encounter. This time, it's a bit better, because I have talked to a few different people in Astana and been able to ask lots of questions, but as our departure time draws closer, nervous energy starts to wind its way through everything I do.

We're almost as prepared as we could possibly be. In the past couple of weeks, we have put so many orders in to Amazon for clothes, shoes, electronic accessories, chargers and guitar strings that I would imagine the folks at the warehouse take periodic swims in the money they've made. We've sorted our pack out, done rough calculations of what consumables (e.g. hot sauce and mouthwash) we will need, made and worked through extensive to-do lists, and Google Streetview-ed our new town... but I just can't shake the feeling that there is more we could do.

I know there is, actually. That much has been made clear. A few weeks ago, I went to a spouse seminar at the Foreign Service Institute just days after the Generalist class (the other group that Susie is not a part of) had their Flag Day and found out where they were posted. The spouses were abuzz; they hadn't even had a chance to initiate contact with their post, and suddenly they realized how much they had to do before they left. Most of what we talked about that day was what everyone needed to do before they left. But first, as is done with so many seminars, we went through the class one person at a time, stood up, said where we were going and what we were looking forward to. We also said when we were scheduled to leave. After the first half-dozen or so people had done their introductions and explained that they were worried they wouldn't have enough time, they were leaving in July... I could sympathize, but I realized that it was August, and that they meant July of next year.

The air got sucked out of the room when I told them "We're leaving next month on the 13th." I was one of two or three other Specialist spouses, and we all were surprised by how much time the other people were getting, and how little our time seemed in comparison. They were panicking that they would only have 12 months to get ready, and I hadn't even begun to worry about how little time we got. It just seemed like "Not a lot of time, but plenty to do everything we need in."

Well, now that it's down to just over a week of time before we leave, I'm beginning to feel the pressure. Not really of needing to get things done. There are things we will surely miss, mistakes that we'll make, games and clothes we'll pack in the wrong boxes, but I know we've got most of it under control... it's more of an intense feeling of impending change.

When I moved to Japan, it didn't hit me until the night before I flew out. It hit me hard: I would be away from my family for the first time ever. I would be away from Susie. I didn't know anyone where I was going, I didn't know how I would get around, what my job would be, and I had never really spoken Japanese to anyone without knowing that they could speak English with me if I failed. It was intimidating, to say the least.

This one isn't going to be nearly as rough, but last night the same sort of unease began to creep upon me. I'm not going to be here anymore. I'm going to be there. Not on vacation... living there.

It's staggering.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

I have BEEN to the warehouse!

When we got packed out, they took basically everything we own (except for what we could carry in a few suitcases), packed it into a truck, and drove away with it. Some of that was stuff that we would want here in D.C., like clothes and such, but a lot of it was sent to deep storage. We don't need our furniture here, for example, so they kept that in a huge storage facility in an undisclosed location (a.k.a Hagerstown, Maryland).

Today we went to sort through what of the stored items we want shipped to us in Kazakhstan, and due to our circumstances, we took some of the stuff out of storage to be air shipped to us, instead of ground shipped super-slowly (taking upwards to three months, and possibly more).

Here's what the warehouse looked like:

For reference, since there isn't one, those crates are at least 9 feet tall. When opened, you could easily walk inside without crouching. It took two to hold every thing that Susie and I own, except for our couch and easy chair. One of our friends had three crates. Another of our friends had at least 8, somewhere in the range of 14,000 pounds. The warehouse guy was a little overwhelmed by that one.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Susie and I went on a night-time trolley tour of the larger D.C. monuments last weekend. That's the best way to do it, in my opinion, especially in the summer. Walking around to try and see them all makes you hot, sweaty, tired, and irritable, even if you are wearing some sort of moisture wicking under-layer. I grabbed some pictures while we were near the National Mall and on the tour.

The most patriotic of Washington Monuments:

View from the Trolley:

The Legislative Branch:


Washington, reflecting in what is currently, due to construction, the Reflecting Drainage Ditch:

Big Lincoln:

Vietnam Memorial:

Korean War Memorial:

Civil War Memorial:

The only non-president/non-military memorial (and gosh is it a big one):

You know, these guys:

We haven't done a lot of sightseeing in Washington because it's such a pain to get to the tourist parts of the area without a car. We sometimes get out to the town on weekends, but most of the time we have to stay around here by necessity. During the day, the shuttle to the nearest metro stops running from 9:00 until 3:00, so if I want to get anywhere, I have to walk. But we have finally been able to get some good photos and interesting trivia. If you come to Washington, you should definitely do a trolley tour. They do all of the difficult stuff for you: drive you around, explain everything you see, and point out where the trustworthy bathrooms and refreshment stands are.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Language Learning, Part 2: Curse of the Mummy's Granodiorite Stele

In the last post, I talked about some of my experience with learning languages outside of the State Department. I thought I would break my thoughts up into do posts, because this one will be more interesting to the people who don't care about what I've done in the past. Here's what we can do now:

The State Department has access to the full complement of Rosetta Stone, and from the Rosetta Stone company, you will never here the end of it. "The U.S. State Department uses our product!" It's a little deceptive, though. When the State Department wants to train someone in a language, they use a classroom with an amazing teacher to student ratio (something like 1:5). The students spend six or more hours each day practicing in class with native speakers, and supplement with homework assignments, projects, and presentations. This training goes on for months, and never during that period does Rosetta Stone get used. They can't always offer that kind of training to their employees, but when they do, it is as ideal as it can get.

If they can't offer you that (and, based on Susie's job and other various issues, they can't offer us classroom Russian training), they have tutoring and distance learning classes, and sometimes classes are available at the consulate or embassy post. Again, these don't use Rosetta Stone. From what I can tell, these involve studying your way through a text book, working on assignments through the internet, and a periodic phone tutoring session. Plus, because the students are (or soon will be) living in a country where the language is spoken, you have the perfect degree of language immersion to dramatically improve your skills.

So, where is Rosetta Stone in all of this? Well, I have access to it online, to do with what I want. I can run through all the levels of Rosetta Stone Russian in whatever way I see fit. But it is entirely separate from what the State Department wants and makes available. Why? Because Rosetta Stone is uniformly, undeniably, and laughably bad for learning a language. If any of you have tried to learn through Rosetta Stone, I'm sorry. It's awful and won't be much help (if any) when you have to actually speak to someone in the target language.

Most people can't afford $300 or more dollars for a computer program, so here's the rundown as I have experienced it. Rosetta Stone tries to teach everyone like a child who is learning their first language, which is, linguistically speaking, absolutely nuts. No one who uses Rosetta Stone is using it to learn their first language, which means that, unlike babies, we have access to a never ending supply of life examples, vocabulary, minute distinctions, and logical understanding. We do not learn like children, and it's absurd to think we should. The program is language independent, so it relies on repetition of pictures and the target language to try and imprint the language on you. This could be alright... but if you have a question or don't understand what is happening, you are out of luck. The things you are "taught" are piecemeal and random, starting with things like "boy" and "run" (anyone ever see a "Dick and Jane" book?), and wholly irrelevant to what stuff I will need to be able to say when I get to Kazakhstan. I need to be able to direct a taxi, order food in restaurants, understand prices and products in a grocery store, and any number of other things that have nothing to do with me explaining in broken Russian that a boy runs or a girl eats or a man reads. My experiences, and yours, are greater than those of a child, and adults need to be able to speak differently than children do.

Rosetta Stone does not teach you how to speak. It centers around flashing words, pictures, and sounds and having the user match them in a multiple choice fashion. You do not learn to communicate and you do not learn how to create or expand you knowledge. You learn to match words to things that can be pictured and vice versa. There is next to no feedback about your abilities with matching words and pictures, and you never get to practice in context, just repetition, repetition, repetition. It's a glorified and very expensive set of flash cards.

I spent about an hour using Rosetta Stone before I became so frustrated that I stopped, and I will not be picking it up again. Should you ever think about learning a language, let me recommend against it. This is coming from a linguist, a language educator, and someone who has studied four foreign languages and who will study many more in his lifetime: Rosetta Stone is bad, and the people who promote it should feel bad. I am an expert in this! If you have ever used Rosetta Stone software, or are currently using it to try to learn a language, I would strongly recommend trying other things. Rosetta Stone is useless and possibly worse than useless.

If you want to learn a language, of course the best way is to immerse yourself. For people in the Foreign Service, this is forced upon you. For people who aren't, hopefully there is a way. Eventually, I would recommend it to anyone who is learning any language. If you learn Spanish in a classroom, from a tutor, or just by studying by yourself, take an extended trip to Spain or Mexico. Find a way to spend several weeks or months surrounded by the sounds of the language, having to use it for anything you want to do. Put the television on in the background whenever you are doing anything. It's amazing the difference even a little bit of time makes. I know it's not possible for everyone, and let me be completely clear that immersion is not, in and of itself, a way to learn a language. You will still have to study and practice, it's just that being in an environment where you must study and practice to do even the most basic of things is better than sitting at home or in a classroom.

I've been tracking down websites and books for learning Russian, finding online message boards and groups that I might be able to practice with, downloading apps to practice vocabulary and spelling. The best part about these resources is that they are free, or next to it. I understand that software like Rosetta Stone is a major undertaking, especially with new features like voice recognition, but it is massively expensive for what users get out of it. So many people want to provide language learning tools and assistance without breaking your bank, and we have the internet to thank for their ability to do so easily.

Learning a language is a major effort, but the only way to get the most out of it is to prepare and get a solid footing before we begin. With the internet connecting so many people all over the world, there are more resources available than five years ago. More available than even one year ago. I'm hoping that these resources will make it work for Susie and me (and you). You just have to track some down. Luckily, there are even people who have already done that for us!

Language Learning, Part 1

We're moving to Kazakhstan, where the official language used for business and most interaction is Russian. There is a Kazakh language, but when Soviet Russia took over, that got mashed down and everyone had to speak Russian. Most everyone does now, and my impression from the little bit of info on the internet is that the younger folks in Kazakhstan prefer it while the older folks prefer Kazakh.

I took a half-semester of Russian in college. I was majoring in linguistics, and studying Japanese at the time. There was a bizarre requirement for linguistics majors for which I had to have four semesters of a main language (which could be anything) and two semesters of a non-Indo-European language, i.e. a language that was not really related to English ancestrally. The point of that requirement was to open the horizons of people studying languages. If you only studied Spanish or French, which have a lot of phonetics, vocabulary, and syntactic structures in common with English, then you would never really understand how much variety there is in human language. I applaud that aspect of the requirement, and to be honest, I think it should probably be a requirement of everyone...

The point, however, the reason why I call the requirement bizarre, is that I was already taking Japanese as my main language. Japanese is as non-English as you can get. The basic sentence order is different, the writing system is entirely unlike English, there are very few words in common, and the ones that are in common have been new additions in the past 60 years or so. Japanese is a perfect example of the kind of non-Indo-European language that the requirement was supposed to force people to learn about. But the fact that it was my main language meant that it didn't meet the requirement for the two semesters of a non-IE language. The requirement should have been four semesters of one language, two semesters of another, and at least one should be non-IE. Instead, I ended up going for Korean, which is as similar to Japanese as any two languages can be.

I wasn't getting much experience outside of that realm, though, which missed the entire point of the requirements while fitting snugly in the bureaucratic "letter of the law" side of things. The grammar was remarkably similar, lots of similar words (both languages having lots of imported words from Chinese), and even pronunciation was similar. I did enjoy learning both, but I felt like there was more I could do. I had a couple of friends who were taking Russian at the time, and I (foolishly) thought, "That sounds interesting." I got in touch with the professor and asked if I could be a late add to the class. I was already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, having subconsciously absorbed it by working with so many transliterated newspapers in the library periodicals department, so I figured starting a week or so late wouldn't be too much trouble. He said it would be fine.

It turns out that it wasn't much trouble at first. By this time I had a pretty solid technique to memorize words, verb forms, noun forms, and the like. But as time went on, I had more and more trouble. I was in my third year of Japanese, so things were beginning to become fairly complicated and daunting, and with Korean in there as well, I was having to work in three different writing systems, memorize three different words for everything, and avoid trying to jumble it all up on tests. I clearly had taken on too much, and it was unpleasant. Some people might say "That's obvious, studying three languages at once is dumb." My only response is that studying three languages at once like that is entirely possible although difficult, and I just didn't want to work that hard for something that I didn't need to do. It's not a lack of ability that did me in, but a lack of dedication. I wore down and eventually dropped the class.

Now, having lived in Japan, the Japanese paid off somewhat. You never realize how much of a language you can't use until you are dropped off in the country and have to make you way around. The Japanese I was able to use got me around, and the two years living there ramped up my fluency in ways that years of studying both before and after did not. I never did go to Korea, though, and I doubt that I ever will, although with Susie's job, you never know. I have forgotten basically everything I learned about Korean, too (Go, go, university requirements!). The same goes for Russian, which I studied less than any language I have ever studied. Forgotten!

I wish I had been able to do more, especially now that I am headed to a Russian speaking country. I'm re-familiarizing myself with the alphabet and getting some basic vocabulary going. I've ordered a couple of books from Amazon that should help, and Susie is finding what options the Foreign Service can offer. We're hoping to get a general grasp of some useful stuff before we go, and get some training in the language when we get to Kazakhstan. We'll be there for two years, and lots of other places use Russian. If Susie can pass a proficiency test with the right level, it makes her more likely to get those posts, and raises her pay when she gets them.

Learning Russian will be an enjoyable experience, I'm sure. Learning languages in general is one of the most exciting parts of the Foreign Service for me. I'm already having anxious dreams about getting out into Astana and having to interact with people and use what little language I have to get along. But it's not just that it will be an adventure, it will also give me a new skill. If I don't come back from Kazakhstan speaking Russian, I will have no one to blame but myself. And if I do come back speaking Russian, how awesome will that be? Where will we be going next, and what will I learn to speak there?

In the next post, I explain what our options for learning languages are, both good and bad.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What Am I Doing?

Every morning, Susie gets up and heads off to her professional training where she learns all about her job, living overseas, maintaining security and whatever other double-secret information the State Department deems is necessary, whereas I have no professional responsibilities and no real schedule. Susie zips back and forth between the Foreign Services Institute, which is more or less a very well guarded college campus, and Main State, the official government headquarters of the State Department, sitting through seminars, preparing for her job in Kazakhstan, emailing important people and making lengthy lists of what we have to do in the next six weeks. And yesterday, I didn't leave the apartment.

I don't always stay inside the entire day, so that was meant more as an extreme contrast rather than an accurate summary of what my life has become since moving to Washington, but the fact remains that I do not have nearly as much to do as she does, and what things I do have don't carry nearly as much weight, difficulty, or stress as hers. This isn't likely to change much when we get out to Kazakhstan (or any other country that we will be going to in the future). I may be able to find work, especially with my background in language learning and education, but I may also not be able to. I'm perfectly fine with this, although I know that there are a lot of other spouse/family members who aren't, and other people out there in the world who even thinking about not having a job makes them crazy.

I've been told that there is some opportunity for American teachers in Kazakhstan, but being able to get and hold jobs is reliant upon being able to speak Russian, which, of course, I cannot do (yet). There might be a way to tutor English or do some odd work at the consulate, but those are both reliant upon being at the post and happening upon the jobs. It may end up that I don't have anything to do in terms of work, but worry not! Susie's salary is plenty for the both of us, and who knows what opportunities we might encounter.

Because of this unsure state of being, I've been thinking a lot about how to fill my time. This isn't the first time where I've had months to sit at home while Susie is off working. When I was at Indiana University and when I was teaching, Summer meant not working, filling my time with studying, practicing guitar/ukulele, working on long term projects like my Master's thesis, or goofing off online. I tried to make sure I had a reason every day to leave the apartment, especially as time went on, because it can become grating to sit around all day. Those experiences showed me that it is important to hold yourself to a schedule and try to be productive. That's not to say that I did or do hold myself to a schedule, nor is it to say that I try to be productive... just that I do feel like it is important to do so.

Unlike those previous periods of time where I wasn't working, though, this one is different. The biggest difference for me is that those were temporary, and this one could last a while. Again, I'm not upset by this eventuality, and neither is Susie. But we do both feel like it's important that I find things to do on a regular basis. One of my plans is to blog our experiences, which will be happening here. Hopefully it becomes more interesting. I've also begun working on a novel, something small and punchy, the kind of thing I would want to read. I'm going to go into full on language learning mode with Russian (the business language of Kazakhstan), because there is no better way to learn a language than be immersed. And every time I see someone doing something on television or in a movie (cook, ride a horse, run, play music, etc) I think, "Maybe I could learn to do that."

What would you do, if you had all day to work on it, and no pressure to do anything else?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Loads of Made Up Numbers

When you join the Foreign Service, there are somewhere in the range of a half to three-quarters of a million questions that people want to ask you. The most common question from anyone (friends, family, and even other new hires) is, in my experience, "Do you know where you are going?" and immediately following the negative answer, "Well... where do you want to go?" On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable question. Anyone with even the smallest knowledge of the Foreign Service knows it involves being placed in embassies and consulates around the globe, and it is clear that people who apply to the Foreign Service are excited about living abroad, so without much other information, the impulse is to ask "Where?" However, it is not a particularly good question, and I say that knowing how many of you asked Susie and me that very question when we initially talked about her acceptance into the service. I don't mean a personal insult by saying it's a bad question, but there are only so many times you can be asked the same simple question with a complicated answer before you have to take off  your shoes and your socks and then walk around barefoot and make fists with your toes.

It's not a very good question, because the only real answer is "anywhere," and that much should be obvious. The State Department picks, and that's where you go. There are hundreds of places you might end up as a Foreign Service employee*, so it doesn't even make sense to guess, let alone speculate on which might be your most or least favorites. Going into the process of bidding for posts with a single place that you want to go, a single place that you are excited about, or even one place that you just don't want to end up, will almost always be a frustrating exercise. You have to manage your expectations. They have told us countless times, you have to manage your expectations. You might think a place will be great, but you should keep the drawbacks in mind. You might think a place will be terrible, but you should keep the perks in mind. Every impulse and thought about your potential post has to be tempered toward an unemotional, sludgy middle ground, because it will not serve you well to be excited or disgusted with a place before you know where they put you.

Even if you do keep a mental and emotional balance about the posts that could become available, only a tiny fraction will be available when it becomes your turn to bid. Let's say there are 400 worldwide posts, with embassy and consulate jobs ranging from nurse practitioner to diplomat, from air-conditioner repairman to ambassador. If your specialist class has 2 people, then two posts are open, less than 99.5% of the possibilities stripped away. Susie's OMS class had 20 people, which gives plenty of choice, but the chance of any given place that we want being on our list of 20 open positions was only slightly better than putting all of your money on a single number in roulette. That is to say, if you could guess two of the countries on our list, you should probably make a large withdrawal from your savings account and head to Las Vegas.

Even further narrowing down the playing field are the restrictions and needs of individual posts. Some require that you speak and read a language with moderate proficiency. Some are unaccompanied, so people with families are rarely sent. Some posts have good access to schools, so families are more likely to be sent. There is an array of attributes that each location and job carry with them, and it changes the nature of the list for each person that will be bidding. I would say our list probably shrank from 20 posts to about 15 or 16 that were feasible. A post that required French, for example, was right out. Neither of us has the first clue about French, and other people in the class do. And there are a large variety of family situations that the Foreign Service does take into account when placing people in posts, which meant that we were pretty sure some other places weren't ours to be had, despite being on the list in front of us.

All of that is to say, we had literally no guess as to where we might be sent or where we wanted to go until two weeks ago. And this week, we know where we are going. They move quickly on this process, thankfully, because the tension is rough. As I said, from the very first moment you get accepted into the foreign service, people will ask you "Do you know where you are going?" And there is never a point where you can loosen up until you make it all the way to Flag Day, months if not years after your initial acceptance. But even now, knowing where we are assigned, we haven't reduced our tension much. That's not really the point for us, though. Now that we know, we can at least make plans.

The bidding process itself was, in a way, hilarious. The specialists got their list in the middle of the day, so whatever they were supposed to be learning or focusing on for the rest of the day was ignored. Actually, whatever they were supposed to be learning or focusing on the rest of the week was ignored. This, as much as anything else about the foreign service so far, wrapped it's enticing tendrils around the whole OMS class. It's hard not to swing from manic to terrified about the list. Immediately upon seeing it, there were posts that seemed like they would be amazing paradises... and posts that seemed like they were straight out of your nightmares, except REAL. OoOoOH! What really struck me though, besides the obsessive and endless guessing about how the posts would be matched with the people, was how everyone seemed to think different posts were the paradises/nightmares. Be it location, pay differential, safety, travel options, dengue fever, or having to bleach the "human fertilizer" off your vegetables, everyone had different desires that made each place seem good or bad.

During the week and a half or so that we had the list, our responsibility was to find out as much as possible about the posts on the bid list so that we could make informed decisions about how we ranked them. With 20 places, we were supposed to rank seven "high," seven "medium," and six "low." But, again, we were told to really think about the possibilities, find out everything we could, and keep our emotions tempered about the whole list. The posts would not be assigned randomly, but we could still theoretically end up at any of them. The state department offers plenty of resources to find the good and bad about each post to help in your decision, and the endless chatter between classmates adds an extra layer of consideration to the process. There was even a day where we could go in and talk directly to the people who were going to make the decision about where we would be placed to tell them what we were looking for and what our concerns were. Eventually, though, we had to submit our rankings with a short sentence or two about why we ranked the places what we did... and then more tense waiting while the assignments were put together.

Susie and I were pretty much on the same page for most of the posts. We wanted to go somewhere that we had access to stable internet, a place where I could possibly work, where we could save money, and where we could experience the location without too much restriction. On the other hand, we did not want to go somewhere that we would need to take malaria pills (or some face some other analogous medical danger), be too far out of the way to travel easily, or be highly restricted in what we could do... there was at least one post on our list where you can go to the consulate or your hotel compound by armored car, and that's it. The danger there would be bad enough, but being stuck in an apartment whenever you weren't at work would be extra rough.

Flag Day is what they call the little, semi-informal presentation where everyone is publicly given their assignments. They call it that because everyone is given a tiny flag from the country of their post as a cutesy way to signify true passage into the foreign service. The specialists and their invited guests (mostly family) gathered in a room that was reminiscent of the stadium-style classrooms at my university, complete with tiny desktops that rotated up and folded down over your lap. At the front of the room was a massive screen with "Welcome to Flag Day" projected onto it, later to be replaced by a blown-up replica of the token flag each of the specialists would be given. After a couple of speeches that mostly consisted of wry observations about how everyone in the room was waiting for the speeches to be over so that we could find out where everyone had been assigned, the started calling out the post name and then the name of the person who was going to work there. Each person walked up, took their flag and a folder with info about the position, got their picture taken and then sat down. Some people got exactly the place that they wanted... at least one person got exactly the place that she had wanted since even before the bid list was given to her, probably before she had been hired on. However, some people did not get any of their top seven. Some didn't even get any of their middle seven. We all basically knew everyone else's lists by heart, so that was tough. Susie used the word "Devastating." It was especially difficult because you feel like you are part of the reason; we pleaded so hard not to go there that we don't have to... but someone still does.

There was a little reception at a nearby restaurant with some appetizers so that family and friends could now hound their Foreign Service pal about the post, hassle them about whether it was a place they wanted and tell them how scary it must be. Susie and I got their too late for the appetizers, but not too late to talk to some of her more "devastated" friends about their posts. It turns out, after the initial shock of not getting a place you want, it's not so bad. Now you know where you are going, you can find the good in it, talk to other people who are there or who have been there. Now you have purpose and direction! Everyone will eventually have to go somewhere that will not be their favorite place, but neither Susie nor I have talked to anyone who didn't love wherever they were posted once they had settled into it.

And now that you've read all of that, I'll talk a little about where we were assigned (in case you are one of the people who doesn't know by this point, or you didn't skip ahead just to see). Several of the places on the list were in the Russia/Former Soviet Bloc, and most of those looked like really nice places. We put Astana, Kazakhstan as our second choice and that is where we were assigned. We never would have thought it would be a place we would want to go, but every time we did more research, it looked better and better. You should go find some information about it, because it seems like a very modern, up-and-coming city and country. We are excited about it, and now that one pressure is off in the form waiting to figure out where we are going, a different kind of pressure is on as we get our visas, prep for the trip, purchase pallets of consumables, and get in touch with our post to find out whatever we can. We leave in mid-September. It's going to be a very busy six weeks.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Since We Arrived

Susie and I have moved a lot in the past few years. We've gone from Athens to Japan, Japan to Bloomington, once while in Bloomington, Bloomington to Atlanta, and once while in Atlanta. All of that has happened since 2005, and certainly part of why we are excited about the Foreign Service is because you get to move to new places every two or three years. We just tend to get bored and want to see new things, be in a new place. The difficulty is that the longer we have been married, the more stuff we have accumulated, and thus, the harder it is to move. But here we have the first perk of being in the Foreign Service: they pack and move your things for you. In fact, you aren't allowed to pack or move anything yourself. Over the course of a few hours, the professional movers paid for by your precious tax dollars took everything in our apartment, wrapped it in packing paper, packed it into boxes, and carried it away.

Well, not everything. We would still need some clothes long before any of the stuff was able to get to Washington, D.C. And we definitely weren't going to leave our computers to get crushed or mangled or hacked, so we carried those with us as well. We ended up bringing quite a lot of stuff with us. Luckily, travel orders from the U.S. government make most airlines excited to show their patriotism by comping extra baggage fees, so we were able to get our 5 suitcases worth of clothes, shoes, important files, and, of course, my tempurpedic pillow here without having to dig deep into our relatively shallow savings.

The first thing we did upon arriving in D.C. was meet some of the other new specialists coming in. Susie had planned ahead with several of the folks who would be living in the same temporary housing that we were placed in, and with everyone buzzing with excitement about the life changes that were soon to happen, it was clearly a welcome release to sit down with other people in the same situation and just talk about it. It was interesting.

On a side note, I tend not to like to use the word interesting to describe things, because it is a word that doesn't really mean much of anything. If you ask a high schooler (and often, a college student) to write a description of a movie or a book, it is inevitable that they will use the word "interesting" because it doesn't require a commitment to a particular stance on the movie or book. I hated teaching the word おもしろい in my Japanese classes, because without fail, any time you ask a Japanese language student to describe something, the first word that will sputter from their mealy mouths is おもしろい. Most of the time, it's simply a way to cop-out from describing things.

That being said, it was interesting to meet the other new people. We are all different ages, with different backgrounds and experiences, some married, some with kids, some with no family at all. Everyone had a different outlook on becoming a specialist in the Foreign Service, and everyone had a different place they wanted to go to. There was a lot of discussion about where people wanted to go to. A bit too much, really. At this point, there was no way to know what posts would be available. But living overseas is such a big draw for people who join this sub-branch of a sub-branch of the government, it is inevitably going to be brought up.

What was really "interesting," though, was the meta-level of interaction. I know that sounds a bit goofy to say, like I'm some sort of xeno-sociologist trying to figure out why alien birds build their nests with one kind of moon straw and not another, but bear with me. Every single one of the people in the room managed to explain how great and suited for the job they were without actually coming out and saying "I'm great for this job." They would slip bits into the conversation about how they lived in some country in Africa, or how their bosses always praised them, or how they had really found their calling in alphabetizing things, bolstering their appearance in front of their peers. I don't think anyone was doing it on purpose, exactly, but I think everyone had been in "job interview" mode for the foreign service for so long that it was simply the first thing that came to anyone's mind. The process to become a specialist takes no less than 8 months, and that's quick. It can take multiple years of  tests, interviews, assessments, background checks, and waiting. It's rough, and it consumes you. Every moment in your life ends up feeling like a potential test of your suitability, including meeting other people who have been hired into the same position.

The next day was a far too large meet-and-greet at a nearby brewery/restaurant that was organized by someone from the previous class. They crammed the officers, specialists, generalists and their families into a small bar in the back of the place, and it was basically a mess. I ended up talking to several people I will probably never see again, and that's when I learned the first of several hundred three letter acronyms that are used in the Foreign Service: EFM. I think it means "eligible family member," but I'm remarkably bad at remembering what any of the acronyms are... there isn't really any pattern or structure to them, and sometimes it's just three letters that just don't mean anything at all. It basically means "spouse or child." So, I'm an EFM; I am on Susie's travel orders, and I go with her to basically any post (even dangerous ones). 

Some of the specialists felt out of place at the brewery. The previous class of officers and specialists were there, and they had already spent months training and becoming accustomed to the entire situation, but the new specialists (and I suppose to some degree the new generalists) were uninformed and unknown. There were so many people that it was hard to really talk to anyone for more than two or three minutes, and most of the conversations consisted of shouting "What?" and turning your ear towards the person who was trying to explain that they didn't want to talk to you because they have a friend over there. Oh yeah, cool. By the end, the same half dozen or so specialists from the previous night were sitting outside on the patio to escape the overly loud and studiously inattentive individuals inside the bar.

Most of what happened for the next couple of weeks is an atonal montage. Susie and her classmates have been going off to train at the Foreign Service Institute (which looks like an absolutely adorable college campus surrounded by military grade security) or to the actual State Department building in downtown D.C. Several days ago we actually got our bid list, which isn't classified, but isn't something that should be randomly posted in someone's blog. Everyone has been tearing their clothes and gnashing their teeth, wearing sack cloth and otherwise having minor stressful moments trying to rank the posts on the list from "I want to go here" to "Please... please, no." Those bid lists are submitted now, and we will find out on Tuesday, Flag Day.

The place we're staying is great for families with cars, but not quite so good for singles or young couples without them, so it's a bit rough to get around. That said, I signed up for a Zipcar account, which lets me rent an onsite vehicle at an hourly rate, so when we do need to get out we can. And there is a shuttle to the metro station, but it runs on a spotty and illogical schedule that I'm sure is entirely defensible by the staff. We've had lots of small gatherings, but also lots of time to sit and decompress. It's weird, though, because all of this is very temporary. Within weeks we could be heading off to [REDACTED] and this time around none of the people we met will be going to the same place. So it's nice that we have been able to find people to hang out with for the time being, but because we're going to have to do this again at post, it feels like a simulation.

Today is Friday, the start of the weekend, and that will give us some time to actually get out to D.C. We went last weekend, found a game store, watched The Dark Knight Rises, and had a nice dinner (with complimentary fried donut holes with caramel for dipping as a dessert). We would like to be able to go to the museums or monuments or restaurants more often, but the location of our temporary housing is, as I mentioned, inconvenient. We're doing what we can!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

I know you can't drive to Guam.

I'm sitting in a hotel (of sorts) in Falls Church, Virginia right now. Almost two weeks ago I was in Athens, Georgia, and two weeks before that, Atlanta. In a couple of months, I could be almost anywhere in the world. Almost anywhere. Probably not Guam.

Last year around this time, I was ecstatic (in a relaxed way, which might seem improbable, but truly isn't). I had just finished a year of teaching Japanese language to a bunch of ungrateful middle schoolers, and because I was not able to become certified to teach long-term in the state of Georgia, suddenly a burden was lifted from my shoulders. Many people would be stressed out about suddenly becoming unemployed and not really having any idea what they would be doing. That year was so stressful and tense that I was simply pleased for it to be over. I hope that none of you ever have to go through a year of knowing that success means having to do what you hate for the rest of your life. I would rather live on a substitute teacher's salary than be responsible for a passel of Beiber-loving/hating tweens ever again.

Because things were a bit up in the air, my wife Susan and I began looking for new opportunities. Although we didn't really know what all might be available, we had both lived in Japan for two years and we had been back in the U.S. for long enough that going back abroad seemed like it would be nice. Susie at this time was gainfully employed, and she knew how terrible the preceding year had been on my confidence and love for teaching, so we both began looking for things that we could do to go back to Japan... or really anywhere that wasn't the United States. It's surprising how many options there are, but one we both kept coming back to was the Foreign Service, a section of the U.S. State Department that handles all kinds of international relations.

Throughout the next year, we worked our way through the slow and marvelously in-depth application process to work for the American government. A good friend of ours had joined while I was getting my Master's degree, and we leaned heavily on her during these months, especially while she was back in the U.S. for some R&R and language training. Although neither Susie nor I were able to successfully pass all of the necessary poking and prodding assessments of our intellect, self-confidence, and ability to send emails that is required for Foreign Service Generalist positions, Susie did pass through the equally arduous process that allowed her to become an FS Specialist.

So here I am. Most of what we own is in storage certainly feet from where the Ark of the Covenant is hidden while we wait to find out where the U.S. government will need her specific specialized specificities, and Susie is out daily, learning what not to tell people, what not to write down and what fork not to use on desserts while being hosted at an event. But I am seven stories in the air with little more than a laptop, and when it's not too hot, I am wandering around the truly despicable roads of the Virginia/DC area trying not to get too bored with the tension of a never-ending wait.

Whatever we end up doing, wherever we end up going, I want to try and keep a synchronous record of it. I want family and friends to know what we are doing and how we are doing it, but I don't want to have to answer the same dozen questions every time I see someone online or call them on the phone for $0.10 a minute (thanks 1-800-COLLECT). And lastly, while we were trying to figure out whatever we could about the Foreign Service during the application process, we found a lot through blogs. While we are trying to anticipate all of the things we will face as Susie's career progresses (especially through its beginning phases), we are finding the stories of past State Department employees invaluable. Here is one more that will go on the list, I suppose. I will keep track of our life so anyone who is doing the same thing can know how it worked for us.