Friday, July 26, 2013

Life at a Small Post

In the Foreign Service, posts come in all sizes, everything from little one-man American presence posts in the middle of nowhere, to tiny Consulates like ours, to massive embassies that employ close to 1000 people. It's part of the reason no two FS careers are ever alike, and I think it can have a major impact on morale and really color your overall impression of this lifestyle.

For example, some people hate the giant missions where you're just lost in the crowd, where you feel disconnected from the community and too overwhelmed to find a niche. Then there are the posts like Yekaterinburg, which currently boasts half a dozen officers and three family members. You don't have the luxury of niches in a post this small. Every person here is his own niche. And that can be both good and bad.

For one thing, I miss my girlfriends like crazy. I've never been someone who has tons of friends, but between my book club girls, my mommy friends, and Sarah's city friends, I always had someone to hang out with (Sarah first and foremost, of course). As I've said before, it's difficult being the only mom at post. My experience here is different from everyone else's, partly because even though I work at the Consulate and feel like one of the gang most of the time, I'm not an officer or a specialist. I'm an EFM (Eligible Family Member) and this is not my career. I'm here to support my husband and to have an adventure, but my interests don't always line up with my coworkers'.

And one thing I've really learned in my first (almost) year in Russia is that that's okay. In the "real world," I probably wouldn't be friends with people I had so little in common with, but I'm grateful to have gotten to know each and every one of them. They feel like my family in a way, because the one thing we all do have in common is that we're here. We face many of the same challenges even though we deal with them in different ways. We are all strangers in a strange land. We're all American. In the U.S., that might not count for much, but here, the similarities outweigh the differences.

It's also part of the reason we get so excited when a "new" American shows up, whether it's someone here at the Consulate or someone in town who reaches out to us, a la "Beeeel," our new golf pro friend I mentioned on Monday. Bill, as it turns out, has a fabulous blog, and I think it will give you an entirely different perspective on Yekat. Even the name - In Russia, Blog Write You - is hilarious.

Looking ahead, I am super excited to be at a large post with a huge expat community - I'll be able to make friends in the embassy community but also outside of it. Heck, I'm already part of a "women and wine" group and I won't be there for two years! There's an international women's group with a book club, and Jack will be starting school, which means I'll have the entire mommy population to sift through. I suppose I'll experience for myself what the drawbacks of a large post are when the time comes.

But after two years at a small post, I think I'll be more than ready for the challenge.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Almost Famous (But Not Really)

As an American living in Yekaterinburg, there are a lot of outreach opportunities, partly because we're such a small community, and partly because our Public Affairs Officer works hard to make sure we all have the opportunities. Sometimes whether we want them or not.

When Krisi mentioned that a local news station was doing a story on foreigners in Yekaterinburg and asked if I'd like to participate, she sold it as something small and informal. This is Krisi. I should have known better. It was actually a three hour interview, wherein I went to four different sites in the city and spoke with a reporter (whom I had met before when Sarah was here - she's lovely and speaks English perfectly, so I knew I was in good hands). After my horrendous reality television experience a couple of years ago, I'm well aware that I a) can't act and b) get hideously self conscious on camera. At least this time nothing was too staged (a few things here or there, but I didn't have to do them over and over like we did with the reality TV thing).

Anastasia, the reporter, said she'd like to interview me in my favorite place in the city, and that at least was easy. I told her about Wine and Chocolate, my fave writing spot, and that's where we finished the interview. Poor Pasha, my adorable little English-speaking waiter, got roped into the whole thing. Hopefully he doesn't hate me TOO much (cuz I need my cappuccinos and chocolate!).

Before that, however, we visited three different sites in the city. First up was a cultural museum that had an exhibit on Tsar Nicholas II. Sadly, nothing was in English, but Anastasia translated a few things for me and I was able to hopefully come up with a couple of semi-intelligent comments. I actually am fascinated with the history of this region so at least I didn't have to fake anything.

Next up was an open-air "library" in the big amusement park. Apparently 80 years ago, there was a little library set up in the park, where people could check out a book and sit by a pond and read. They decided to bring this quaint tradition back this year, and they even brought in a few English books for yours truly. I picked up an old copy of Sense and Sensibility that smelled vaguely of cat pee and "read" in a bean bag chair for a little while. It actually would have been very pleasant if I really had been reading.

And then we visited one of Yekat's main tourist attractions - a completely random statue of Michael Jackson. Russians seems to think that Americans are obsessed with MJ. I think the fact that I hadn't seen the statue after living here a year proves I am not, in fact, obsessed, but it was still kind of fun (and sort of embarrassing walking around with a reporter and a cameraman like I was a celebrity or something).

MJ and me

There was a part of me that really wanted to strike a Michael pose for this photo. But there's something about knowing your lameness is going to air on television that tends to keep the lameness in check. The show is schedule to air some time in August. I may or may not post a link - depending on how lame I actually look.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Independence Day Abroad

I didn't know it up until recently, but the 4th of July is a big deal around the world, at least as far as the State Department is concerned. Every post does something for the 4th, sometimes more than one something. For example, many embassies have the "official" 4th of July event, usually a formal affair in the evening, as well as an "unofficial" event that is more traditional, like an outdoor picnic or barbecue. Here in Yekaterinburg, we only have the official event, which was held last night at the Hyatt.

There are a lot of interesting things about being an American abroad, but there was something special about last night, where being an American actually felt like a good thing for a change (it always feels like a good thing to me; I'm talking about the feeling I get from other people). As John said, it's the one night of the year where you don't have to feel bad about not speaking Russian. Everyone who was there, Russian and American alike, was there to celebrate our country. That's a pretty great feeling when you're a bazillion miles from home.

What our former Consul General would call "showing the flag." Big time.

Krisi, our amazing Public Affairs Officer, coordinated the event and made sure there was plenty of American food on hand. Hot dogs and hamburgers, deviled eggs, and my favorite: cupcakes. I had a pistachio one AND some of the American flag cake. It would have been unpatriotic not to, right? Actually, I had to muscle my way in there to make sure I got some, and I probably should have left it for the Russians. Etiquette schmetiquette. It was worth it.

There weren't any fireworks, and let's face it, it's just not the same as celebrating at home, but it was nice to recognize such an important and quintessentially American holiday. I'm wearing my red, white, and blue today to make up for the fact that I wore a cocktail dress last night. I've always been a patriot, but nothing makes you appreciate America more than not being in it.

I'm a day late, but I'm saying it anyway: Happy Independence Day!