Friday, March 29, 2013

What a Difference an Embassy Makes

For the past two weeks, we've been staying on the Embassy Compound in Moscow as part of a job swap John did with a coworker. It's been a wonderful opportunity for all parties involved - John is getting to experience the work of an entry level political/economic officer at a large embassy, his colleague is getting to see the ups and downs of life as THE pol/econ officer at a small consulate, and Jack is getting to spend a few weeks in an excellent daycare with American kids!

Oh, and I get to work in the Community Liaison Office here too, attempting to help one of the CLOs who has WAY more experience than me and hardly needs my help. Fortunately, they are short a newsletter editor (yes, that's actually a separate job at large posts), and I'm getting to help out with that. Plus we can take care of a few things we simply can't do in Yekat, like visiting the med unit, and dry cleaning.

One of the real perks of being at the Embassy is getting face time with your supervisors, from your direct supervisor all the way up to the head honcho. We have been lucky enough to go to Spaso House, the Ambassador's residence, twice since we've been here. For entry level officers at an embassy, there are many opportunities to volunteer to work at events, but we don't have that advantage. Fortunately, the Deputy Chief of Mission has been great to those of us at the consulates in Russia and really watches out for us. She's made sure John and I are included in things we wouldn't normally be included in. I particularly appreciate it since EFMs have even fewer opportunities than officers. Here are a few photos from Spaso House over the past two weeks.

Amb. McFaul and his wife dancing (rt) at Spaso House to the Quebe Sisters.


Amb. McFaul speaking at a Town Hall meeting for American citizens.
Me in front of Spaso House, located in the heart of Moscow.
It's been nice having access to the commissary, to being part of a much larger social circle than exists in Yekaterinburg, and feeling like a part of a real community. On the downside, John is already working longer hours here than he does in Yekat. I wouldn't even have a CLO job if I weren't at a small post most likely (although maybe that newsletter job would have worked out...), and it's a little claustrophobic always being around your colleagues, even outside of work (most Moscow employees do not live on compound, but for those who do, it's kind of like living on a military base). Just today I found myself sitting in the med unit waiting room with someone VERY senior to me - I imagine it could be hard to keep your personal life personal at a place like this.

So far, I've gotten to experience the Foreign Service on two extreme scales - a teeny tiny post in the middle of nowhere, and one of the world's largest posts in one of the world's largest cities. I feel a little like Goldilocks, waiting to discover a nice mid-size post that fits just right. Preferably one in a place that's not too hot, not too cold, and where there's a really good dry cleaner.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Niet

Confession: I wrote this post for my other blog, Scribble Babble, but I think it counts as a Foreign Service post, so I'm reposting it here. Plus I'm too tired to write another one. You'll see why in just a moment.

This post doesn't have one of my usual peppy alliterative titles because frankly, I don't even know what day it is anymore. I feel like I haven't been in one place for more than a week or two ever since 2013 started, probably because I haven't. I feel like all the spunk has been beaten out of me. In other words, I feel like the wolf. The bear is my life.

Life: Take THAT! Me: Okay
Actually, we're in Moscow. This statue is somewhere near Red Square and depicts some fairy tale or other. I don't even know. We arrived Sunday afternoon with Kim and Sarah in tow, and while the two of them still seem enamored with Russia in winter ("I could live here," Sarah says cheerfully. "Me too!" Kim agrees chipperly), I've had enough. ENOUGH I say. Yesterday we wanted to take Jack to the zoo in the afternoon. A simple thing, really. So we slogged through the snow to what any normal human would think was the zoo entrance (big wide gates, animal statuary, etc.) only to discover a sign saying "vhod niet"- no entry. And just to rub salt in my wounds, the difference between the words exit and entrance is a teeny tiny sound that doesn't exist in English: выход (exit) vs вход (entrance).

So we decided to go around to the other gate. Just a block or two, we thought. But Moscow, being a mega-city, doesn't have normal blocks. It has mega-blocks, if you will. Every now and then you'll encounter an alley that seems to take you on a shortcut to where you want to go. But no, it's a dead end, which means you have now added even more time to your walk. Finally, an hour and a half later, we found the other entrance. (In between we found a random open gate and went through it, only to have the guard yelling at us in Russian and crossing his arms like an X, the universal sign for "get the f*ck out.") When we got to the main entrance of the zoo, it also appeared closed. But then we saw a woman, a child, and a dog walk in, so we decided to follow suit. A moment later, another guard appeared, and Kim was rather rudely removed from the zoo premises, along with the dog. We all stood looking mournfully at the zoo for a moment before going our separate ways.

After carrying a 35-pound sack of whiny potatoes (did I mention we didn't have a stroller?) for nearly two hours, we collapsed in a heap inside our apartment on the Embassy compound. I managed to find enough strength in my wobbly arms to flip through our little Moscow handbook. And there it was. "Zoo: closed on Mondays."

I feel like Russia has been telling me "niet" for about seven months now. I try to speak in Russian and I get blank stares. I go into a department store and I get followed like I'm a common criminal. I try to win people over with my charming American smile, but I get nothing in return. It's utterly exhausting. Which is why we've been traveling so much, but that takes its toll too. Life, they say, is a bitch. And this one wears a babushka and has an affinity for pickled fish.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Life in the Foreign Service

I realize the title of this post is kind of vague, or maybe a little too big of a topic to cover in one post. But in the past few weeks, I've experienced many of the highs and lows of this lifestyle. It's been a roller coaster, and frankly, I'm pretty sure that's just the way life in the Foreign Service is. It's a bizarre, sometimes surreal existence, to the point where I often refer to everything else as "the real world." Because whatever this is, it sure as hell doesn't feel like normal.

A few weeks ago, we were in Paris on vacation for the second time since moving to Russia. That was definitely one of the highs. It's funny, because we're not exactly close to Paris here (we could fly direct to Paris from DC in less time than it takes to get there from Yekaterinburg), but there's this sense when you're living abroad that you're supposed to travel. You also get a lot of vacation time in the FS, and getting local and American holidays adds up to even more time off. One of the perks of hardship posts is that you get paid more, too, so it's easier to travel internationally. Which is a good thing during a long Siberian winter.

Unfortunately, my trip to Paris was under a shadow, because my grandma got really sick the night before we were scheduled to leave. I didn't talk to my mom until our layover in Frankfurt, when my luggage was already checked through to Paris. Even worse, I couldn't get a good connection on Skype from the airport lounge, and it took about seven phone calls to find out if my grandma was even still alive at that point. I debated going home, but between being sick myself, Jack being sick, the fact that I'd have to get to L.A. and back within our time in Paris, the amount of time spent traveling, and the amount of money it was going to cost, it didn't seem practical. I was lucky to get to talk to my grandma on the phone a couple of times while I was there, but the entire trip I felt completely torn and horribly guilty. There I was, enjoying my time in Paris, when I knew there was a very distinct possibility I would never see my grandma again. She told me not to come home. My mom told me not to come home. I told myself it was okay not to go home. I still don't know if I made the right decision.

By the end of my trip, my grandma seemed to be improving a little. I thought about going home then, but I had work training in Istanbul the following week, then a friend coming to visit, then my sister and another friend coming to visit, followed by going to Moscow for three weeks. I hoped if my grandma could hold on for a few more weeks, I could go home from Moscow and see her then. But two days ago, I woke up to a text from my sister saying my grandma had gotten worse and was back in the hospital. By the time I spoke to my mom that morning, she had already passed away.

My grandma was a wonderful person who deserves a post of her own (which she will get when I can gather my thoughts enough to do her justice). For now, suffice it to say I miss her very, very much. I don't have any regrets about our relationship - I know she knew how much I loved her. I called and wrote about once a month, I sent her photographs of Jack and kept her up to speed on his latest milestones and mischief. I regret not having the chance to say goodbye, but I'm also glad my last memories of her won't be in a hospital room. Most importantly, I regret not being there for my family when they need me. Personally, that's the single hardest part of living abroad, especially in as remote a place as we live. It was bad enough when we lived in D.C. and most of our family was on the west coast. Now, it's a logistical nightmare.

Don't get me wrong - this is an amazing way of life and in the end, I do think it's worth the sacrifices. But there ARE sacrifices. We found out recently that my grandpa has a brain tumor. My mom and uncle are in the process of moving him up to Oregon, where my uncle lives, so he can be close to family. I'm once again in the position of having to decide when (and if) I'm going to be able to see him. Once again, I have no idea what to do.

But amidst all the sad news, there have been wonderful things, too. Jack is starting to speak Russian. I made some amazing friends during my training in Istanbul. My good friend and I just had a fabulous time catching up in Yekaterinburg, and tomorrow night my twin sister and one of my best friends will be here. Next week we're going to explore Moscow together, and Jack will get to spend a few weeks going to daycare with other American kids. France was lovely despite worrying about my grandma, and we just booked a flight to Spain in early May. None of these things would have happened without the Foreign Service, and I'm grateful for each and every one of them.

For right now, all I can do is hope I'm making the right decisions, no matter how difficult they may be. And I guess in the end that's all any of us can do, whether we're in the real world or not.