Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What Happens After Flag Day

I know some of you out there are just dying to know, What happens after Flag Day? Turns out you're in luck, folks, because I'm going to break it down for you. Because I'm awesome like that.

First and foremost, you lose your mind. No? That's just me? Well, it's my blog, so you'll just have to listen to my version of things. Anyway, after a weekend full of hysterical crying, your FSO goes back to A-100 for a week. One week after Flag Day, the official swearing-in ceremony takes place. If you're me, your husband tells you to go ahead and bring the two-year-old, because lots of other people will be doing it and it's bound to be a toddler-friendly venue. This is me telling you NOT to bring your small child to the swearing-in ceremony, unless you're a masochist, in which case you'll probably have a swell time.

I can't tell you much about what happened at the swearing-in ceremony, since I had to remove a screaming Jack from the room about five minutes in. We took a lovely tour of the bathroom and fortunately managed to pop our heads back in the auditorium just as the FSOs were taking their oath. We clapped for Daddy, and then attempted to take a family photo of the happy occasion. Since my mother-in-law only succeeded in taking a photo of the carpet, and John's aunt only managed to get video, this is as good as it got:

Happy as a clam now that the ceremony is OVER!!!
Fortunately, Grandma and Aunt Pat took the demon home for the evening and John and I headed over to the post-ceremony reception. It was extremely crowded and the only food being served was (I'm told) very stale tortilla chips. John and I were literally the last people to be served drinks - Diet Coke and water - so we went out with some of John's classmates and I finally got a much-needed glass of wine.

On the Monday following the swearing-in (ie yesterday), John (and many of his classmates) started language training. John, having already tested as a 0+/1 in Russian, started in a group (and by group I mean there are two other students besides John, and an instructor) that had been meeting since late October, so he came home feeling a little freaked out yesterday. I saw his syllabus and I can't say I blame him. John didn't have any say in his schedule - he was put in a class that meets from 7:30 am to 2:30 pm. Not ideal for someone who was already miserable starting work at 8:30. It looks like he's going to have a lot of homework and studying to do. I can't speak for other classes, but John's schedule is three hours of speaking, followed by lab (which I think is like independent study?) and lunch, then two hours of reading. He checked in earlier and said he's keeping up with the class, so that's a good sign.

For the next five months, Russian will be John's life. He has some other training in August and then as far as we know we leave at the end of the month. Still no word on housing, or anything else for that matter. So if you're wondering if you'll get all that info as soon as you find out where you're going - you won't. Maybe if there's a Community Liaison Officer (CLO) you can bug at your post, but since we don't have one, there really isn't much we can do at this point.

One thing I will say - John has some pretty awesome classmates. I guess that's probably standard for one of the most selective organizations around, but seriously, these people are impressive. I was the only person at our table at dinner (besides John) who didn't speak three (or more) languages. Ugh. Maybe it's time to learn Elvish or something. Amin n'rangwa edanea...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Off the Grid

The other day, my grandmother called to thank me for some photos of Jack I'd sent to her. I figured my mom, who speaks to her more frequently than I do, had already told my grandma what post we'd been assigned to, but she hadn't.  That meant I had the pleasure of trying to explain to an 88-year-old woman how the whole process works. Let me tell you, just spelling the word "Yekaterinburg" was taxing.

Unfortunately, my grandma doesn't use the Internet. At all. I'm not sure she's ever even tried. She can't read my blog; she can't even look Yekaterinburg up online. I try to imagine what life must be like when you're completely disconnected from the digital world. She has a cell phone that she rarely uses. I think there's a TV in her house, but I doubt it gets watched very often. She spends her time gardening, cleaning her already immaculate house, and occasionally going out to eat with her partner, Orin. I think that's pretty much it.

On the one hand, it sounds kind of nice. No feeling like you absolutely must check your email every fifteen minutes (every three when you're waiting to hear back from agents). No feeling like you need to update your Facebook status (I've kind of gotten over that one), or write a new blog post, or check your blogroll eight times a day to make sure you haven't missed a writing contest.

On the other hand, I simply cannot imagine what the Foreign Service experience would be like without the Internet. As you know, one of my main requirements for our post was decent Internet. I need to be able to email my friends and family members, to write (and research), to Skype, to be CONNECTED at all times. Sure, those aren't really needs - they're wants, in all honesty. I could technically survive without them. But the thought is too horrible to contemplate. Have you ever forgotten your phone at home for a day? I swear it causes withdrawals.

Thirty years ago, Foreign Service spouses didn't have access to any of those things. I don't even know if they were able to research their post, beyond looking something up in a book (the horror!). Imagine what it must have been like to only be able to communicate with your family through letters or the occasional phone call, to not be able to order whatever you needed off the Internet, to not even see a photo of a loved one for two or three years at a time. Now that, my friends, is hard core.

I know this lifestyle is going to be difficult. I know there will be times when I'll be lonely, or angry, or bored out of my mind. But it's reassuring to know that I won't be completely off the grid wherever I go. I think I can hack it, as long as I can stay connected to the people I love. Even if it is through a computer screen.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

You Can Keep Punxsutawney Phil...

... because Yekaterinburg has Pugovka, the long-eared hedgehog. Makes me love the city a little bit already (even if it is a total crap weather prediction).

Flag Day - A Closer Look

On Flag Day itself, it was all I could do to take a photo of our flag and write a very short post for those of you who didn't already know where we were headed (I realized John had scooped me via Facebook when I started to get "congratulations!" texts from friends). But I know that I didn't really give you all a very good impression of what Flag Day is actually like. So here goes:

First of all, if you find yourself heading to Flag Day in the future, make sure your FSO gives you really good directions. By the time I dropped Jack off with a friend, picked Sarah up at the metro, got lost, and finally found the bloody building, we had about ten minutes until our 3:30 start time. At that point we still had to go through an X-ray machine and check in with our IDs, then walk to the building where Flag Day is held, so by the time Sarah and I arrived, it was standing-room only. Fortunately, we managed to grab an empty chair sitting randomly in the corner and a friend offered to scoot over so we could snag another chair, and Sarah and I sat down just as the ceremony began. I was amazed by how many people were there. The FSOs all sat at the front of the room, and then all of the friends and family members were gathered in the back. It was an impressively large crowd.

That's the screen where they show each flag, for about ten seconds.
We talked for a few minutes to our friends, who were hiding their nerves a lot better than I was. They also seemed far better prepared, with pictures of all the flags and a neatly printed out copy of the bid list with countries included (I'd scribbled in the countries by hand earlier that morning, and then proceeded to zip the damn list into my purse, so it was all moth-eaten and torn when I took it out; actually, it was a pretty good metaphor for my mental state at that particular moment).

After some brief comments, they started calling off the posts one by one. It went amazingly fast. Sarah pronounced it the most stressful experience of her life, so you can imagine how I was feeling. John was called probably somewhere around number twenty (after our friends sitting next to us received their news; they got one of my top two choices, and the other had already been called, so I had to contain my disappointment and just keep praying that we got somewhere decent). After John's post was called, I stopped crossing off countries and just tried to absorb the news. It didn't take long for them to finish calling off the posts, and everyone SEEMED really happy when they walked up and received their painfully uninformative folder (from what I've heard since then, not everyone was as happy as they let on; everyone did a wonderful job of masking it, though). Aside from giving us a rough time-line of John's language training schedule, the packet was pretty useless. We can only infer we'll be moving some time in late August. Of course, I didn't have the folder, so I had to wait until I finally tracked John down - he was busy chatting with friends, a huge grin plastered to his face - and pried it from his hands.

Russia! Yay!
We talked to a few people, one of whom thought it would be super helpful to rattle off all the negative aspects of the post, and that's when I started to lose it. Everyone went to happy hour afterward, but I probably would have been better off sitting in the car by myself. Fortunately, once we picked up Jack from our friends' house and had a little wine, I started to feel better.

It's hard to know how they determine who goes where. Families got some of the crappiest posts even though there were singles who bid them high. I suspect that even if we hadn't bid Yekat high, John would have gotten it because it's in his cone and he had enough Russian to get to a 2/2 by August (not enough time if you were starting from scratch). There were quite a few people who got one of their top choices, and a lot of people like my friends (and me) who got something they bid high but didn't necessarily consider their number one. I'm not sure how much having a bidding strategy matters. They obviously have their own way of doing things, and the rest of us can only guess at how the process works. I still maintain it would be a lot better for everyone if they just emailed you your assigned post and called it a day, but John (and I suspect a lot of FSOs, who clearly enjoy learning their fate in the most stressful manner possible) likes the tradition of it. It was certainly a day I'll never forget!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

On the Bright Side

I admit it, I'm having a rough time adjusting to the fact that we're moving to Russia in six months. I shouldn't be; I knew John wanted to go to Russia, and he has a funny way of getting whatever he wants. But the realities of all of this have finally hit - as I knew they would. I'm terrified of a five-month winter with temperatures averaging around zero degrees. I'm terrified of going to a post that according to one report has had one family with a preschool-aged child in thirteen years (this was a few years ago, so hopefully that's changed). There are no international schools in Yekat, so it's not a post that many families even consider. I'm angry with myself for not figuring this stuff out BEFORE we bid Yekaterinburg high. And I'm terrified of living somewhere I don't speak the language and can't even rely on my four years of Spanish to help decipher a few rudimentary things.

I know there are worse posts, of course. We'll be living in a modern city with many conveniences that families at some posts can't even dream of. We'll have a nice apartment (hopefully with an extra bedroom or two!) and a car to take us to a Target-esque store, from what I've read. I haven't found any information about English-speaking preschools, so most likely I'll be spending a lot of time with Jack, but we will probably be able to afford at least part-time help. The Internet is fast, apparently. They have Zara and Mango (hurrah!) and movie theaters (although one site said all the English movies are dubbed in Russian; I'm praying that's not true). If anyone out there has been to Yekat or is there now, please give me some good news in the comments! I'm having no problem dwelling on the negatives at the moment, as you can see, so you can kindly leave that out.

On the bright side, however, there are a few family-friendly sites, including a water park (can't imagine I'll ever be warm enough there to go to a water park, but maybe I'll acclimate) and an amusement park. And then, of course, there is the Yekaterinburg zoo. Whether or not the zoo is actually worth visiting remains to be seen. However, their website is certainly worth a visit. Thanks to my mom for finding this particular gem. And here are a few enticing points you might want to keep in mind when you're deciding if you'd like to visit us in Russia next year; they just might help sway you in our direction:

"It is so pleasant indeed to go to the Zoo when the Sun is shining and the day is bright. We are not going to discuss animal numbers and variety that you can see there. Zoo was not meant for statistics fans. One should go there for positive emotions that you get from communicating, exactly communicating with animals. Amicable raccoon is always happy to make a pause in his household activities and laundering, and come up to shake your hand."

This just looks like a bad idea...

"The elephant, despite its 'diminutiveness' has evidently always been thinking to be a ballerina. That is why it is non stop singing something to itself and dancing. It’s amusing to see it, as if it is listening to a walkman and moving according the rhythm of that music all the time."

"We recognize ourselves in animals, there is no point to confirm or disprove Darwin’s theory. There are things speaking for themselves. So many characters so many ways of life… diversity surprises and makes us smile sometimes."

So many characters, so many ways of life...  Not just true of the zoo. And hey, at least the raccoons seem friendly.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Flag Day - And the Winner Is...

Yekaterinburg, Russia!

That's our actual flag from Flag Day, aka the Scariest Day of My Life. More info to come once I've digested a bit, but let's just say John is absolutely thrilled, and I'm still, well, digesting. I was actually doing pretty good until some jerko said, "Now when people tell you they've lived in the middle of nowhere, you can say, 'No, I REALLY lived in the middle of nowhere.'" Joy! I'm guessing not too many of you will be flying out to BFE to visit us, but maybe you'll meet us in Eastern Europe??

Спокойной ночи! (Good night!)

Um, Cyrillic. Yeah...