Sunday, September 25, 2016

Housing in the Foreign Service

Foreign Service housing is one of the most talked-about benefits in this lifestyle. Complain about any aspect of FS living and someone will likely remind you about the "free housing." And the truth is, it's pretty awesome. When we live overseas, housing is one thing that we really don't have to worry about, at least as far as expenses are concerned. The rent, the utilities, and any upkeep are all paid for. Anyone who lives in the DC area knows how much money that's worth. It's one of the reasons we hope to stay overseas for our next post. Housing in DC is insane and diplomats are on a government salary, after all.

But for every FS perk there's usually a downside. And to me, the hardest part about having your housing provided is that you have no control. I don't just mean in choosing the house (I'll get to the housing survey in a minute). I mean that if you're given a house with zero bathroom storage, for example, you can't hire a carpenter and have some built. If you have a washer and dryer located outside, exposed to all the elements and pigeon poop, there's not much you can do about it. If something breaks, you can't just buy what you need and fix it yourself. What you *can* do is put in a work order.

Our laundry area for the past 1.5 years (not pictured, cockroaches)

Every embassy and consulate has a staff responsible for facilities. So, when your water cooler starts leaking all over, or your oven stops working, you enter a work order online. The process is a little tedious but not a big deal. Generally, if it's an emergency like an overflowing toilet, someone comes quickly. Your oven or water cooler will probably get fixed that day or the next. This is awesome, because it's free! The local facilities guys have always been pretty great (except for the guy who hung our pictures, another thing we aren't allowed to do ourselves). But if it's, say, the bathroom storage or the exposed washer and dryer...well, they might never get fixed. Because now it isn't just the embassy involved. If it's something that costs money, the owner of the house (here in Lima all the housing is owned by local Peruvians as far as I know) has to approve it. And there is nothing that says they have to approve it.

I have yet to get that bathroom storage, despite two carpenters coming on two separate occasions and measuring for it (the quote was crazy and the owners said no). This is an annoyance, but one I can obviously live with. As for the covered laundry area, I asked for it the first week we moved in here, and last week, almost a year and a half later, they put in a cover. Huzzah! No more pigeon poop and puddles where we wash our clothing! But yeah, I like to think I'd have taken care of it a little sooner if it had been up to me.

Our recently-installed and much-appreciated cover.

As far as housing itself goes, we do get to have some input, generally. In Yekaterinburg, there was a tiny housing pool and only one apartment big enough for a family, so it wouldn't have mattered if we wanted to live in a house with a yard outside the city or a smaller apartment near the embassy. We simply didn't have a choice. Here in Lima, things are completely different. And if you take anything away from this blog post, hear this: RESEARCH. Don't take someone else's word for it. If at all possible, visit the post. If not, ask around until you find someone whose opinion you trust with your happiness for the next 2-3 years. Believe me, where you live can make all the difference.

The "housing survey" asks you to pick your preferences, without ever having been to the city (unless it's somewhere you've traveled on your own in the past). Questions have to do with things like having a yard or a pool, a house versus an apartment, proximity to school and embassy, etc. Imagine having to decide where you want to live without ever having visited a place. And keep in mind that wherever you pick, you will be assigned a house sight unseen (you get photos after your house has been chosen). There is always a worst house in the housing pool, and someone is going to get it. I have seen houses here that are enormous modern homes with pools and immaculate yards, and I've also seen cramped, older homes with spider infestations. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you don't.

There are three housing locations in Lima, for the most part: Miraflores, or the "touristy part" of Lima, on the coast; Surco, which is near the embassy and the American school, but isn't very pretty; and La Molina, or the suburbs. When we filled out our Lima housing survey, we asked for a house in La Molina. It was the advice we were given by multiple people (granted, not people we knew well) because it was supposedly close enough to the school and embassy, in a safe neighborhood, and we'd get a nice big house with a yard. To my infinite regret, when the survey folks came back to us and asked if we were sure we wouldn't like an apartment in Surco, we said no thanks (someone told me it wasn't a good area and the apartments weren't great. Having been in said apartments, I can now thoroughly disagree, but I didn't know this at the time).

Sadly, a lot of La Molina looks like this

One thing you can't appreciate from looking at a map is traffic. La Molina is a huge area, and we got housed on the very outskirts of it. We're one of the furthest houses from the embassy, in fact, in a neighborhood called "Sol de la Molina." Sol, because it IS sunny a lot. But unfortunately, it's also a cultural wasteland. We can't walk to anything (although they did build a grocery store on our street this summer which has helped immensely). My first three months here, before our car came, were really difficult. Cabbing with two small kids to get groceries sucks. And Jack gets picked up by the bus at 6:30 am for an 8:00 school start time. If I had it to do over again, I'd have chosen any other housing option. While we do have a beautiful house, we are so far from everything there is to do in Lima, and when you've only got two years somewhere, that's a real shame. It takes us an hour and a half or more to meet our friends in Miraflores for dinner. It's only ten miles away.  Ten miserable, trafficy, smoggy, dear-god-please-don't-let-us-die miles away. I knew the first week we were here I didn't want to live here, but that's where the whole "control" thing comes in. We couldn't move. Trust me, we asked. Even though our stuff wasn't here yet (and wouldn't be for quite a while), assigning housing is a very complicated process, and there wasn't a free apartment in Miraflores to move us to. Sigh.

The view from a friend's balcony in Miraflores

You live and you learn. From now on, if we go to a post with vast differences in housing options, we will either visit ahead of time if possible, or make sure we talk to a VERY trusted source for advice. I have learned that I'm a city person, especially in a foreign country where driving isn't always as civil as it is in America. I like to walk to cafes to write and meet my friends and not have to invest half a day just to get lunch with someone. It's a tiny knife to the heart every time I sit on one of my friend's balconies overlooking the ocean in Miraflores, where there are parks and restaurants and museums all within walking distance. But I've got a safe, lovely house, with plenty of room for guests - who generally don't want to stay way out in the boonies. But hey, it's free.

(John thought I should mention that the cycling and running are better out where we live. I think this really depends on the person. I would much prefer to run along the ocean than on the sidewalk-less streets in our neighborhood, but John is willing to put up with the dirt hills and wild dogs because he can ride for hours. He also bike commutes, but he's one of maybe two people at the embassy crazy enough to do so. He's been hit by cars three or four times now, and the hill he has to go over is insane. But it is possible, so there you go.)

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