Friday, June 28, 2013

Unveiling the Truth: The Diplomatic Pouch

So that's a rather dramatic title for something relatively mundane, but the truth is, before we got to post, I had no idea what the so-called "diplomatic pouch" was. I mean, was it actually a pouch? Or some kind of crate? How big was this pouch, and how did it work?

Well, I'm gonna tell you.

The pouch is actually more of a bag, about the size of Santa's sack from a rented Christmas costume. It's made of some kind of heavy canvas-like material (I've never really gotten up close and personal with the pouch, because it's not my job and it's also really, really dirty). Inside said pouch are all the boxes of crap we order online. For John, that generally includes bizarre food-stuffs he can't find here. For me, it's usually clothing or odds and ends from Amazon (toys for Jack, sink filters, etc.).

Yekaterinburg is a non-consumables post, meaning we don't get a separate shipment of food and paper goods and toiletries and whatever, like you do in many African posts where those things aren't readily available on the local market. Unfortunately, just because you can buy toilet paper in bulk here doesn't mean it's up to Western standards. Not to mention that the prices of typical Western brands are hugely inflated because of import costs. On the bright side, our weight limit for what we can bring in our regular houshold effects shipment is high enough that we can bring a lot of consumables with us. Of course, we didn't really figure out what we needed until we got here, but that's another story.

At any rate, the pouch, being literally a bag of mail, has size restrictions. So that train table I ordered for Jack for Christmas? Rejected by the pouch. Lesson learned. We can't order liquids beyond 16 ounces total, anything with batteries (although batteries for things like cell phones have recently been allowed I think), anything flammable or potentially hazardous, etc. It's limiting, but it's still a lot better than having to rely solely on what's available here. The pouch makes it to Yekat roughly every two-three weeks, which is annoying in an Amazon Prime, free-two-day-shipping world, but certainly tolerable. When the pouch comes, it really is like Christmas. You've forgotten what you ordered by that time and it's kind of a fun surprise. And for the most part, the mail arrives in one piece.

Of course, there is always an exception. Like the other day when I went into the mail room to pick up my packages and saw that our box of crap from Amazon had been smashed to smithereens. It's contents had been moved into another box by one of our local Russian staff. When I saw a tampon sticking out of the box, I just about died. See, the box of tampons within the Amazon box had also gotten smooshed. It was like an explosion of tampons. They were everywhere. I wanted to crawl under a rock and die, because the poor guy had clearly been tasked with moving every last tampon from the smooshed box to the new box and well, it was a large box of tampons. I'm not sure who was more embarrassed, him or me. Probably me. I think.

I probably shouldn't be surprised, especially not after seeing this video that my friend Emily showed me.

Such is the privelege of the diplomatic pouch.

Friday, June 21, 2013

There's No Place Like Home

I realized something just now, as I'm sitting here in my office and an American coworker flashed me the peace sign because he's leaving for a month. Coincidentally, John left this morning for Western States and will be gone for thirteen days. All of the Americans here look forward to leaving, to "getting out of Russia." And I worry sometimes that our Russian colleagues and friends think it's because we don't like it here or that we think there's something inherently wrong with the place.

I'm not gonna lie - Russia isn't my favorite place in the world. But the crux of the matter is that Russia simply isn't home. I don't think it would matter where in the world I was - John's gone, and aside from Jack, he's the person I spend 100% of my weekend and evening time with. I don't speak the language, I'm too afraid to drive, and my one female colleague who generally takes pity on me when John is away is also on vacation. During the week I'm distracted with work, but on the weekends, without John, I just don't really have much of a life. If I was at home, I'd hang out with friends, have a playdate with Jack perhaps, maybe even hire a babysitter and go out with Sarah. I would drive to Target and Starbucks and walk to the neighborhood park.

But those simply aren't options here, and even if they were, I'm not comfortable here on my own. It's partly language, partly cultural, and partly I think a feeling that it's not home and never will be, so what's the use of trying. If we were going to be living in Russia indefinitely, I'd have to make more of an effort to make friends and learn the language and get comfortable, but in the Foreign Service, where you know you'll be leaving in two years (and especially at this point where I'm almost halfway through and have managed to get by okay so far), it's hard to get motivated. If you're from here, if this is "home," then your every day experiences are going to be entirely different from that of a temporary transplant. If you dropped a Russian in the middle of the U.S., they'd probably feel the same way, despite the fact that we have Target and Starbucks.

They say home is where your heart is. For me, a person who no longer has a physical home even in the United States, home is with the people I love, wherever in the world they may be. Here's hoping that my better half does awesomely at Western States and gets back to Russia safe and sound, so this place can feel just a little more like home.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Some Thoughts on Second Tour Bidding

This is a post I've been meaning to write since last month but haven't gotten around to. I wanted to describe the process of second tour bidding in a little more detail, because for some reason I thought it was going to be relatively easy, and it was, in fact, a pain in the arse.

When you bid on your first tour in the Foreign Service, you get a list of x amount of posts depending on the number of people in your class. One job per person. Some posts are added last minute and some fall off, but for the most part, you have two weeks to put those jobs into three groups: high, medium, and low. We had 64 jobs to rank, and you can have as many in each category as you want, so I think we had something like 7 highs, 30-something mediums, and the rest lows. Our priorities were: 1) job in cone 2) language 3) safety 4) Internet (Really. I need my Internet).

For second tour bidding, you have a much larger list, but you only rank your top 30, in order from highest preference to lowest. So we got 400 jobs to sift through, which is a lot. For the record, we had not a single DC job on our list, which I think is unusual. There are people who go back to DC for their second tour (there are actually people who do their first tour in DC, although John didn't have any in his A-100 class either). 

Everyone (other than my coworker K, who literally will go anywhere in the world) has some sort of preference when it comes to second tour bidding. Either you have a language focus, or a region you want to get to, or you've done consular the first round and want an in-cone job, or you already worked in your cone and now you have to do consular, or your spouse has special job requirements, or your kid has special needs, or you've just lived through your first Siberian winter and have decided you absolutely must live somewhere warm next. Whatever the case, you're going to have criteria when you bid. The trick is figuring out your strategy.

Of course, strategy is worthless until you get the actual list (I mean, have a basic plan, but don't start dreaming about posts just yet because odds are they won't be on there. Not like I did that with Spain or anything. I'm just saying.). Once you get your list, depending on your tranche (first tranche is 20% hardship and higher; second is 15% and below), you have two weeks to figure your stuff out, send it to your Career Development Officer (CDO) to make sure you're on the right track, revise, and get in your final list. Then you usually hear back within two weeks (don't quote me on any of this, btw; I'm not an FSO and I'm human - i.e., I err).

You get a list of instructions, of course, which are pretty detailed. Too detailed for me to go into here, because this is getting kind of ridiculous (but if you have questions - ASK!). Also, for reasons no one seems to understand, the list that gets sent out isn't sortable in Excel. Huge pain in the butt that someone who actually knows how to use Excel needs to sort out one of these days. Someone from John's A-100 class actually made their list sortable, but it didn't work from Spain for some reason. So maybe you'll get lucky and have someone in your group who'll make a list. If not, it's a lot of cutting and pasting that you'll just have to deal with.

We had to sort out only the consular jobs first, because John did in-cone first tour and the CDO basically told us he wouldn't get a rotational job (one year of consular followed by a year of in-cone). That left us with probably two-thirds to three-quarters of the list, because there are a lot of consular jobs. Then we had to figure out the timing, which is a big pain in the butt because it depends on language training, and different languages have different lengths of training. So we knew, for example, that a job in London that started next June wouldn't work, since John has to be here until August. And a job in London that started next December wouldn't work, because consular training is six weeks, and home leave is six weeks, and you can only fudge things by a month either direction (a whole other can of worms; only eight bids of your thirty can be "imperfect" - meaning you'd have to take extra leave to make up time or leave post early, and apparently that doesn't happen very often). Add in a post that requires language training, and you can see how things get complicated. Then we went through every single job and decided if it was a top contender, a definite no, or a maybe.

Ugh, are you getting as sick of reading about this as I am of writing about it? Either way, I think you're getting the idea by now that this is a complicated process, one best done when NOT on vacation. Anyway, after you figure out the timing, you can start looking at your actual priorities. For us, these were 1) a world language (so we weren't stuck going between English-speaking and Russian-speaking posts for the rest of our lives, even though London or Dublin would have been awesome) 2) quality of life (something a certain someone may have overlooked a little last time) 3) schools (now that Jack will be in school, this is obviously important) 4) cost of living (you get paid more to live in crappier places, which is why some people hop from one awful post to the next; we're not looking to get rich off this, but if you can find one of those rare gem "non-hardship hardship" posts, you can get paid well to live somewhere awesome, and who doesn't want that?).

For the record, our top choices ended up being Lima, Peru; San Jose, Costa Rica; Bogota, Columbia; Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lisbon, Portugal. I think. We had a few Limas and Bogotas so I can't remember the exact numbers. And San Jose and Lima were battling it out until the very end. We ended up putting Lima first for a few reasons: 1) It's supposed to be a great up and coming city with an amazing culinary scene and awesome travel opportunities 2) It's safe and apparently relatively easy to live in, despite the fact that it's 15% hardship (so yay, we get paid more, and also, we fulfill the Senior Foreign Service requirement of at least two 15% or higher hardship posts) 3) The housing is awesome - singles and couples without children generally live in the super-nice part of town in highrise apartments, while families have large homes with yards near the embassy. We loved the idea of living near the embassy to avoid a long commute (apparently traffic is pretty bad; it's a city of 10 million people, after all), and... 4) The embassy is close to the school, which is supposed to be wonderful. 5) It's a good sized post - large but not insanely large (San Jose was a little smaller than we were looking for, and we were told the city wasn't as dynamic). Lots of families with kids, which we are obviously sorely lacking here.

There are a ton of other reasons - the people are supposed to be friendly, the fresh produce is to die for, the weather is mild year-round, you are literally right between the ocean and the mountains, great parks and museums, coffee and chocolate, baby alpacas, etc. Any of our other top ten would have been awesome too, and I'm so excited to learn Spanish AND be only one hour behind DC (!!!). We wanted an adventure, and I think we're going to get one.

And at the very least, we don't have to think about third tour bidding for another couple of years...